Response to SMUD’s claims about their power plants and rooftop solar

Community support is growing for SMUD to commit to closing their fossil fuel power plants, and start partnering with their customers to make, store and share more clean energy. SMUD has responded to several of the requests from the community. This post unpacks SMUD’s responses. Contact if you have a question or comment.

The basic deal

  • We’re in a climate crisis. We must fully stop using fossil fuels and start using more clean energy – as quickly as possible
  • SMUD operates five fossil fuel power plants with no plans to close them down. That means by 2040, SMUD’s power plants will still emit over 1 million metric tons of global warming pollution.
  • Meanwhile, SMUD’s policies make it harder for people to be a part of the solution by making and storing solar energy at home or at work.
  • We think SMUD can do better, especially given their past leadership with respect to clean energy, energy efficiency and low rates.

More on the basics
Deeper dive on ways SMUD discourages rooftop solar

SMUD’s Claims (& the rebuttal)

SMUD Claim #1: SMUD will be net zero carbon by 2040, five years ahead of the state mandate.
Response: “Net carbon zero” is different than “true carbon zero”. SMUD’s plan will still operate five fossil fuel power plants in 2040 that will emit one million metric tons of CO2.
  • SMUD calculates “net carbon zero” by reducing their power plant operations by 80% (good) and then offsetting the remaining 20% by counting other efforts such as electric cars as an emissions reduction (not so good). By “not so good”, we mean the accounting method, not electric cars.
  • We disagree with this method of accounting. Because the bottom line for fighting climate change is ending all fossil fuel burning, institutions like SMUD need to be crystal clear about where their current efforts succeed and where they fall short. This, we believe, better empowers the community to rise to the occasion and help SMUD get all the way to true carbon zero.
SMUD Claim #2: SMUD is already doing a huge carbon reduction. Our power plants will be taken from the current operational capacity of 80% to 20% of their capacity by 2040.
Response: It’s a start, but that reduction still leaves SMUD emitting one million metric tons of CO2 by 2040. 
  • Given the seriousness of the climate crisis and the urgent need to cease burning of fossil fuels, it is better for SMUD to be clearer with the community exactly where their plan falls short.
SMUD Claim #3: We are trying to ramp down the power plants, but we can’t just shut them down. Otherwise we’ll have massive power outages. 
Response: No one is saying shut the power plants down this instant; even the City of Sacramento’s Emergency Climate Declaration calls for ending the burning of all fossil fuels by 2030. We are saying that rooftop solar and storage can help SMUD set a faster timeline to close the power plants while also making the electricity supply even more reliable than it is now.  
  • One of the best ways to help people avoid power outages is to help get more solar and battery storage in homes, apartments and businesses across the region.
  • More local solar and battery storage reduces the number of households the utility has to serve with power plant energy.
  • More local solar and storage also creates a steady supply of locally stored energy that can be used during times of peak demand or emergencies.
  • This is how Oakland is shutting down a power plant; they are installing solar and batteries in neighborhoods near the power plant. All that extra stored solar energy will make it increasingly unlikely that the power plant will need to be put into operation.
SMUD Claim #4: We already considered shutting down the power plants. We found that doing so would cause energy bills to increase by 300% or more.
Response: Others are figuring out how to stop burning fossil fuels. So can SMUD. We ask that SMUD share its math so the community can figure this out together.
  • Los Angeles has committed to closing their power plants. Oakland is already moving to close one power plant and replacing the energy with large and small-scale solar and battery storage.
  • We ask that SMUD share their calculations so the community can see how SMUD arrived at their conclusion and put forward alternatives.
SMUD Claim #5: SMUD is the most pro-green, pro-consumer utility out there. We’re building lots of solar and wind farms. We lead the way in helping customers become more energy efficient and switch to electric appliances and cars. Our energy rates are among the lowest in the state.
Response: That’s great, we are proud of SMUD for this, and believe it shows that SMUD is capable of figuring out how to set a timeline for closing its power plants.
  • We are in a climate crisis and need to stop burning fossil fuels ASAP.
  • SMUD risks undermining all the good they do if SMUD still burning fossil fuels twenty years from now as currently planned.
SMUD Claim #6: Most of the region’s global warming pollution comes from transportation, not our power plants. SMUD’s priority is to help people switch from gas to electric cars. Keeping the power plants open helps us do this relatively inexpensively. Isn’t that the smart way to go?
Response: The climate crisis requires us to walk and chew gum at the same time. Fortunately, ending the burning of fossil fuel power plants is not mutually exclusive with helping people switch to electric cars and appliances. As already noted, SMUD can continue to encourage electrification, while also helping increase the amount of clean energy the community makes and shares, especially rooftop solar.
SMUD Claim #7: More rooftop solar doesn’t help us shut down the power plants because the sun doesn’t shine all the time and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. We need these power plants to provide continuous, uninterrupted power until we can find better options.
Response: The answer is to store renewable energy in batteries, and use it when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Battery technology is mature, the price is dropping fast, and getting used increasingly across the state. Over the next few years, most new solar installations will be paired with batteries.
  • Oakland is phasing out a power plant by installing an industrial size battery that charges during off peak hours, and also also installing solar and batteries in the apartment buildings all around the power plant.
  • SMUD already has a small battery program, which needs some key changes and expansion to facilitate the existing trend towards solar and battery storage.
SMUD Claim #8: Solar users don’t pay their fair share of the grid, while also increasing the burden on the grid. This increases energy bills on non-solar users.
Response: Solar users do pay their fair share of the grid. They pay the same $20 per month infrastructure fee as other ratepayers, and also reduce the overall cost of running the grid, which lowers costs for all ratepayers.
SMUD Claim #9: Rooftop solar is inefficient. It’s much more efficient to build wind and solar farms at scale than subsidize itty bitty solar systems. SMUD pays rooftop solar customers $.15/kWh or more for their extra solar energy, as compared to $.05/kWh or less for all other energy sources. That’s a subsidy of $30 million dollars a year for solar users.
Response: It may be cheaper to lay down hundreds of solar panels in a big field, if that is all you’re counting. But rooftop solar and large-scale renewables become similarly priced once you include the factors below. Bottom line, we need both large-scale and rooftop clean energy, so it should not be an either/or thing.
  • Siting costs and environmental impact drive up the cost of large-scale renewables.
  • It’s cheaper to transport electricity locally rather than over long-distance power lines. Rooftop solar helped the state save $2.6 billion in 2018 alone by reducing the need to maintain power lines.
  • As battery storage becomes standard with solar over the next few years, the value of extra locally made solar energy will be even greater because it can be used anytime, not just when the sun is shining.
  • Rooftop solar reduces the need to build large-scale renewables in the future, saving ratepayers even more money.
  • Transitioning off fossil fuels to clean energy should not be an “either/or thing”. We need both large-scale renewables and local rooftop solar and storage.
SMUD Claim #10: SMUD believes in both large-scale solar and local solar and battery storage. We support you going solar.
Response: Here is a list of ways SMUD attacks rooftop solar and battery storage
SMUD Claim #11: Solar is for rich people.
Response: Not true. Most solar installations are in middle income neighborhoods and this trend is growing. 54% of SMUD solar owners are upper, middle and lower-income levels.

This first chart is statewide. (Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory).

This second chart is solar in the SMUD service area (source: consultant report).