Californians fight to keep net metering

California PV customers, solar energy proponents and environmental groups have joined forces in urging the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to not change the rules on existing solar customers.

More than 50,000 people signed a petition demanding that the PUC allow customers to continue under current net metering rules for at least thirty years.

Net metering supporters say the system provides solar customers fair, full credit on their utility bills for the excess clean power they deliver to the grid for use nearby. In place in 43 states, the billing arrangement has become one of the most important state policies in clearing the way for individual investment in solar. In California, the program has supported the installation of nearly 200,000 solar energy systems on homes, schools, businesses and public buildings.

Legislation passed last year requires the PUC to consider new net metering rules for customers that install systems after July 2017. Existing customers expected to be able to use the current net metering rules as long as their panels produce electricity. Those customers will be able to keep using the current rules for a period of time that the PUC will soon determine.

Solar and environmental advocates are calling for 30 years or more, corresponding to the expected lifespan of solar energy systems. However, net metering has proved much less popular with big utilities, which are seeking to change the rules for customers in six to 12 years. The PUC has a March 31 deadline to make a decision.

Among a group of solar supporters who delivered the petition to the PUC on Wednesday was was Jim Happ, CEO of Labcon, a laboratory supplies and equipment manufacturer headquartered in the North Bay. An 800-kilowatt (kW) solar energy system Labcon installed in 2011 meets almost one-third of the company’s power needs.

"My business is one of thousands throughout California that have invested in solar in order to show clean energy leadership and to manage our utility bills," Happ said in a statement released by environmental group Environment California. "We made the decision to go solar based on state rules that we expected to remain consistent for the lifetime of our solar energy systems. I hope we can count on the Commission to uphold those rules."

Likewise on hand was David Levine, an East Bay resident who is in the process of going solar at his home. "The state created policies to encourage me to install solar panels on my home, and now they are talking about changing the rules,” said Levine. "I invested my own money in those panels and expect the investment to result in financial savings."

Susannah Churchill, West Coast Regional Director for Vote Solar, one of the groups that circulated the petition, said solar power enjoyed enormous public support in California, which was clearly evident in the messages delivered to the PUC. "The Commission should stand strong with solar customers and keep net metering rules consistent."

Other groups and companies that circulated the mass petition included CREDO Action, the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA), the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Sierra Club, Environment California and a number of solar companies.