Here’s how one of the nation’s greenest states is slowly paving the way for community solar.
California Leads On Solar
For decades, California environmental advocates and lawmakers have set the bar for what it means to write strong environmental policy in the US. In a national political climate where climate science is too often questioned, California leaders have shown a willingness and ability to fight for comprehensive climate mitigation solutions.
To help meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2045, California has turned to an array of policies that encourage more solar energy. It leads the US in total megawatts of solar deployed by an absolute landslide, with over 27,405MW installed to date, generating enough energy to power over 7,680,000 homes. That’s a TON of clean power. And it’s doubling down with a new mandate in effect in 2020 requiring almost all new homes to be built with solar as an energy source.
In short: they don’t call it the golden state without reason. While the nickname mostly originated from the state’s massive gold supply and its lovely prairie fields, it’s also turning golden sunshine into a massive renewable energy supply.
However, with all their success leading on total clean energy, California has fallen short in adopting policies and practices that promote equitable solar adoption. Research shows that a Californian’s decision to go solar closely correlates with underlying socioeconomic, health, environmental, and demographic indicators. And while the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has adopted several policies that allow households to receive energy from distributed generation solar projects, they have been met with varying degrees of success.
That includes California’s community solar program, which we’ll delve into deeper next.
What Is Community Solar?
Community Solar In California
I’ll be transparent to start: California has had less-than-stellar results in implementing community solar. There’s a reason we didn’t rank it highly on our list of the top community solar states–and a reason the Interstate Renewable Energy Council gave California a C and a D for its two methods of offering community solar in 2019.
But we’re not here to denigrate today; we’re here to learn! We’ll start with an overview of the programs California has implemented so far to expand solar access.
Green Tariff Shared Renewables Program
Crafted in 2013 by the CPUC, the Green Tariff Shared Renewables (GTSR) Program was intended to “expand access to all eligible renewable energy resources to all ratepayers who are currently unable to access the benefits of onsite generation.” The program allows ratepayers to opt to receive either 50% or 100% of their energy from a nearby solar farm.
While it’s hard to find fault in GTSR’s aim to expand access to solar, there is a reason why seven years later only 27% of the program’s available generation has been allocated and much less physically built. A combination of high administrative fees, low solar bill credits, and floating charges passed on to households have made it challenging for GTSR to scale. By not providing bill savings (households ultimately pay a premium to receive energy through GTSR), the program effectively eliminates any household unable to willingly increase its monthly bill payments–something evidence shows most Americans aren’t willing to do.
Enhanced Community Renewables Program
The CPUC’s Enhanced Communities Renewables (ECR) Program is structured similarly to GTSR, but differs in that it introduces a third party. If you opt in to this program, your household purchases its energy directly from a solar developer rather than your utility provider. To the homeowner, it’s more or less the same – and for similar reasons to GTSR, ECR has been ineffective in reaching many households. The program also faces the underlying combination of low bill credits and high administrative fees. To date, only 10MW of solar energy have been allocated through ECR, showing its slow uptake.
Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing
It’s not all doom and gloom for accessible solar in California! Other programs, such as Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH), have been met with more success. SOMAH provides financial incentives for installing solar, no cost technical assistance, and bill savings to residents living in affordable housing. First launched in July 2019, SOMAH recently received a new round of funding in order to allow future housing developments and tenants to access its benefits.
Through SOMAH, program Administrators hope to install 300 megawatts of solar within the next ten years. Still, despite its proven success, SOMAH does not provide an answer for people in single family homes that are unable to benefit from solar currently.
New Policies, New Opportunities For Equitable Solar
Recognizing that their existing programs generally fail to reach disadvantaged communities, the CPUC has launched several programs targeted at expanding access to low-to-moderate income households. The Disadvantaged Communities – Green-Tariff (DAC-GT) and Community Solar Green Tariff (CSGT) target and provide benefits to communities that need them most. While prior programs asked households to pay a premium to participate, these programs guarantee meaningful monthly electric bill savings.
In other words, California may finally be catching on to the value of allowing residents to access solar off of their own property at a savings.
Over the last few months, Solstice has engaged with California-based nonprofits and community organizations to explore actionable projects that can test these new programs. By exploring partnerships, providing technical assistance, and leveraging opportunities to enhance community empowerment, we expect to provide easy-to-access solar opportunities in California within the next year.
Did You Know?
California Has America’s Largest Solar Farm
While these new regulations have promising potential to expand access to community solar, we have yet to see how successful they become. Restrictive language around project siting may hinder the Community Solar Green Tariff’s ability to expand solar access broadly. These regulations can be tough to interpret in legal language, so we’ve done our best to summarize the challenges and some questions we’re thinking about below:
- Households that subscribe to a project must live within 5 miles of where the project is located. While this requirement could lead to communities having more control over local land use decisions, solar developers might be hard-pressed to fill their projects given geographic constraints.
- The program is run entirely by utilities. Because the program is run by California utilities (Pacific Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas and Electric, and Southern California Edison), there is little room for collaboration to improve its design. Because utilities have no true competitors in their service areas, there might not be enough market pressure to implement quick changes. The impact of this point will become clearer as time goes on.
- Is the 5-mile requirement fair to more rural communities? It is possible that, by requiring subscribers to live so close, the regulations do not provide equal access to all rural communities looking to participate in community solar. 5 miles in urban communities? No problem. 5 miles in other parts of the state? California will need a lot of community solar projects to properly spread opportunity there.
- Does this program give the California Public Utilities Commission a pass on making existing community solar programs work for all California residents? Because these new programs focused on expanding access to disadvantaged communities now exist, it might take the pressure off the Utilities Commission for a bit. We hope they continue to study and fight for solar for all.
As a whole, we’re excited by these new programs. They have the potential to greatly expand access to community solar in California. Like any regulatory framework, there will surely be challenges to come, and we will also be watching closely in months to come as the very first projects under the Community Solar Green Tariff are built.
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