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

In response to growing community pressure on SMUD to both commit to closing their fossil fuel power plants, and stop attacking rooftop solar users, SMUD has defended their current actions. This post unpacks SMUD’s claims. 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 is working to make it harder for people to be a part of the solution by making and storing solar energy at home or at work.
  • This is backwards. Given SMUD’s past leadership with respect to clean energy, energy efficiency and low rates, we need SMUD to do better.

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 an accounting trick. In reality, SMUD’s plan will still operate five fossil fuel power plants in 2040 that will emit one million metric tons of CO2.
  • SMUD claims “net carbon zero” by counting all of the electric cars that will be on the road by 2040 as an “emissions reduction”.
  • SMUD does the community a disservice with this claim. The public is better off knowing the truth and working together to truly end the burning of fossil fuels – without accounting tricks.
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.
  • This is not the time for spin. Instead, it’s time for even bolder action to bring SMUD’s true global warming pollution emissions down to zero ASAP.
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: Actually, the best way 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.
  • This is how Oakland is shutting down a power plant; they are installing solar and batteries in neighborhoods near the power plant.
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 without price spikes. 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 and it shows that SMUD should be capable of figuring out how to close its power plants entirely in the next decade.
  • We are in a climate crisis and need to stop burning fossil fuels ASAP.
  • SMUD risks undermining all the good they are doing if SMUD still burning fossil fuels twenty years from now as currently planned.
SMUD Claim #6: 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: We are concerned that SMUD is uninformed about battery storage, which lets you store solar energy so it can be used any time of day. This is something we would love to educate SMUD more about.
  • Battery technology is here and the price is dropping fast. It will soon be standard with all solar.
  • Oakland shutting down 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 Claim #7: 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: This is false. Solar users do pay their fair share of the grid. Solar users also reduce the overall cost of running the grid, which lowers costs for all ratepayers.
  • Solar users pay the same $20/month fee that all other ratepayers pay to cover the costs of the grid.
  • It is cheaper to ship local rooftop solar than it is to ship energy from far away.
  • Solar reduces the cost of maintaining long-distance transmission costs. The state says that solar helped them save $2.6 billion in 2018 alone by reducing transmission line upgrades.
  • Rather than attacking solar with false claims, SMUD should partner with their customers to make and store more solar energy locally, which will reduce SMUD’s costs and make it easier to close those power plants.
SMUD Claim #8: 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: In fact, rooftop solar and large-scale renewables are similarly priced once you include several facts:
  • 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.
  • Rooftop solar systems are paid for with private dollars. Large-scale renewables are paid for with ratepayer dollars.
  • Rooftop solar reduces the need to build large-scale renewables in the future, saving ratepayers even more money.
  • 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.
  • 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 #9: SMUD believes in both large-scale solar and local solar and battery storage. We support you going solar.
Response: SMUD’s actions contradict their words. In just over a year, SMUD has attacked rooftop solar and storage in numerous damaging ways.
SMUD Claim #10: Solar is for rich people.
Response: False. 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).