Eight take-homes from the LA Times rooftop solar story

This week, the LA Times published a story about the fight over rooftop solar, followed up by a smaller article. Here’s eight take-homes from the story.

1) Everyone loves rooftop solar, including working and middle class people.

By featuring new solar user Marta Patricia Martinez, the LA Times illustrated an important fact: just under half of all new solar is going into working and middle class neighborhoods.

A recent poll confirmed a consistent finding from past public opinion research: Rooftop solar is incredibly popular. 80% of the public supports the state encouraging people to get rooftop solar.

It is a no-brainer. Almost everyone wants more tools to control their energy bills and avoid blackouts. Many people want to also do more to protect the environment. Solar on the roof and a battery in the garage checks all of these boxes.

2) Nonprofit organizations and community leaders support keeping rooftop solar growing.

Solar Rights Alliance is part of the Save California Solar coalition, which includes over 400 groups and community leaders. Check it out. It’s a big list, and growing every day. It includes heavy-hitter organizations and lots of local grassroots groups.

3) The state has big problems for which solar energy helps, namely wildfires and blackouts.

Quoting directly from the article:

“But even as the heat waves and wildfires of the climate crisis worsen — and as monopoly utility companies struggle to keep the lights on — Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration could soon make it harder for many families to go solar.”

4) Yet, the state is considering changes that would slow down the adoption of rooftop solar by making it twice as expensive.

We have very high levels of public support for rooftop solar. We see strong support for rooftop solar among nonprofit groups generally aligned with Gov. Newsom’s politics. Given that, you would think Newsom and other Democrats that run California would be tripping over themselves to help millions more people get rooftop solar. Right?

Not quite. All signals coming out of Newsom’s closest aides and Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) officials indicate sympathy with the utility arguments. They appear to be seriously considering changes that include penalty fees on solar users between $35 and $91 per month just for putting solar panels on the roof. They are also looking at making big cuts to the credit solar users get for sharing their extra energy with the community. Fact sheet about the utility proposal.

5) How is that possible? Because the utilities, who can’t win this fight on their own, have a small group of powerful organizations on their side. This lets the utilities confuse the debate, misleading many in the Sacramento bubble to believe there is a controversy over rooftop solar when none actually exists.

The LA Times story clarifies some of the facts behind the utility coalition, such as that the utilities gave money to two-thirds of the groups in the their coalition.  The article also looks at the heaviest hitters in the utility coalition, which include:

  • PG&E’s electrical workers union, one of the most powerful interest groups in California politics. This is not surprising. The union’s collective bargaining agreement with PG&E specifies that the union will work with PG&E to combat “competitive challenges” to PG&E (see page 7).
  • Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the environmental group. NRDC has a long history of using its environmental image to promote utility priorities, often at odds with most other environmental groups. For example, NRDC’s aggressive lobbying for the deregulation law of the 1990s that caused the Enron debacle. Or when NRDC lobbied for legislation to shield PG&E from liability from forest fires. Their pro-utility stance might be in their DNA: their co-founder was also CEO of SoCal Edison’s parent company.
  • The Utility Reform Network (TURN) and the Public Advocate’s Office (PAO), both ratepayer advocate organizations. TURN’s Board of Directors includes people affiliated with the electricians’ union noted above. The best way to explain the PAO is to look at the spreadsheet they provided to justify their claim that rooftop solar drives up rates for non-solar users. PAO’s spreadsheet is virtually identical to the utilities’ spreadsheet.

More reading: deep dive on the utilities and the above echo chamber.

6) The utility coalition is trying to confuse the conversation. But Gov. Newsom and the CPUC have little reason to be confused about where the people stand on rooftop solar.

Because the utility coalition is stacked with some of the most powerful insiders, they still hold the upper hand with many political insiders in Sacramento bubble. But there should be little reason for confusion at this point.

Gov. Newsom and the CPUC have seen the polling. Over 70,000 people have submitted a public comment. Dozens of people line up to verbally testify at the CPUC every other week. Hundreds of nonprofit organizations have sent letters. Well-regarded experts have shared research showing how rooftop solar reduces costs for everyone, even those without solar.

They have also likely seen the SOS message our coalition dug into the sands of Huntington Beach. The hordes of solar supporters protesting in front of PG&E and SoCal Edison‘s offices this week, or spreading the word at farmers’ markets across the state. Or any number of the videos we’ve been pushing out all over the internet.

Volunteers and sand artist Andres Amador carved a 300-foot long message in the sand of Huntington Beach as an SOS to Gov. Newsom about the grave threat to rooftop solar.

7) This is about whether working and middle class people should be encouraged or discouraged from putting solar panels on their rooftops. Our task: show Gov. Newsom that the public is watching, and expects him to oppose efforts to discourage everyday people from putting solar panels on their roofs. 

This may sound hollow to those who are weary of the relentless stories of corruption with respect to the PG&E and other utilities.

So please remember this: Rooftop solar is incredibly popular, even among those who don’t have solar yet. It is the best way to control skyrocketing energy bills. With a battery, it is also the best way avoid blackouts.

These are the kitchen table issues that can make or break a politician.

So make your voice heard – loudly and frequently!

8) Here’s what the expect, and how you can make your voice heard.

The CPUC will make a final decision early next year. Between now and then, we want to do a few things:

Deliver 100,000 public comments to Gov. Newsom and the CPUC on December 1st.

Get media attention on this issue.

Make sure lots of everyday people give verbal public comments at CPUC meetings.

Thank you!

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