A bill in the California state senate would allow people to who own solar-powered homes and businesses to sell excess power back to utilities. KPBS Environment Reporter Ed Joyce tells us under current law utilities now get that power for free.

Under current law consumers with solar panels can reduce their utility bill to $0 through what is called “net metering.”

If the consumer generates a surplus amount of power at the end of the year that electricity goes to the utility for free.

Bernadette Del Chiaro with Environment California says that discourages conservation and energy efficiency.

“We found a lot of people that own solar systems that are generating this surplus on an annual basis,” Del Chiaro says. “They’re doing things like putting up more Christmas lights in the winter time or installing electric hot tubs, something that eats up the surplus electrons as opposed to feeding it back into the grid.”

Under the bill, utilities buying the surplus power would be able to count that electricity toward their renewable energy goals.

California’s renewable standard requires investor-owned utilities to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources such as solar and wind by the end of next year.

Del Chiaro says Southern California Edison supports the solar legislation but San Diego Gas and Electric hasn’t taken a stance on the bill.

California is currently considering two bills that would increase the state’s renewable energy standard from 20 percent by 2010 to 33 percent by 2020.

Congress is considering a similar renewable requirement for the nation’s utilities.

For KPBS audio feed, click here.

Related editorial from the Los Angeles Times on AB 920.
California’s solar push – A bill pushing rooftop solar panels deserves lawmaker support despite opposition by a union and utilities.

Homeowners typically don’t spend much time thinking about the real estate atop their roofs unless it’s time to clean the gutters. But that expanse of shingles could be saving them money — or, if a bill in the Legislature succeeds, become a way to make money while striking a blow against climate change.

Consumers who install solar panels get special meters that measure both the amount of excess electricity they send to their utility while the sun is shining and the amount they take from the utility when it isn’t. Most use more power than they generate, but because they get credit for their solar contribution, they pay very low energy bills. There are a few, though — especially people with big roofs in sunny Southern California — who generate more power than they use. Under California law, utilities aren’t required to pay them for it; at the end of the year, any credit for excess power is simply zeroed out. AB 920 would change that by ordering utilities to either pay consumers for their power or carry over their credit from year to year.

The bill, from Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), is intended to boost the Million Solar Roofs initiative. That package of rebates and other incentives aims to raise the number of solar homes in California from 25,000 in 2006 to 1 million in 2016. We’ve got a ways to go yet; there are now about 52,000 solar roofs in the state, according to an analysis by Environment California.

Utilities fought ferociously against Huffman’s bill last year, when it stalled in the state Senate, and are doing the same now. They argue that solar installations are already heavily subsidized, ultimately by other ratepayers; if consumers were also being paid for the solar power they generate, it would cost non-solar customers even more.

That sounds terribly egalitarian, but in truth utilities are worried that wide-scale residential solar power would cut into their income, and the union that covers utility workers fears that its members would lose ground if consumers were encouraged to install power plants that wouldn’t be built or maintained by the union.

What might be bad for utilities and electrical workers, though, is extremely good for consumers and the environment. Under the current system, people with solar homes have no incentive to use energy efficiently — in fact, some waste power toward the end of the year just to spite their utility. Huffman’s bill would encourage energy efficiency, relieve the grid when power demand peaks and help California reach its million-roof goal, which would heat up national efforts to encourage renewable power. The Legislature should pass it this time.


  1. solar by the sea on June 12, 2009 at 1:20 am

    AB920 is a good idea. The REC Solar system I just had installed (15 panels, 3 KW STC nominal) is producing above its specification. It was designed to meet 100% of our current bills. The State should encourage me to keep the system at maximum power by cleaning the panels and trimming adjacent shade trees, rather than disincentivizing me from doing that by capping the system payback. We are talking about a small percentage payback here, not anything like 30% or 50% of the system size.

  2. Solar Seeker on September 5, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    AB920 is a GREAT idea. Even though I’m not a California resident, I can see the incentive benefits in this happening. Not to mention, this surplus energy is being used by the Utility companies and redistributed, folks that have invested in the labor and materials to create this residual benefit should also reap the benefits of the energy that they’ve afforded that others are paying for.