Renters in California May Gain Access to More Renewable Energy

Proposed legislation would make renewable energy available to millions more Californians

Craig Miller/KQED

Most Californians can't install rooftop solar panels.

California’s big utilities are working toward the goal of generating 33% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, but some people want more renewable power, sooner. And there’s a solution to that: generate your own. But for most Californians — those who rent, who live in condos, whose property isn’t suitable for solar or wind installations or who just can’t afford it — that solution isn’t really an option.

Senator Lois Wolk, from Davis, has written legislation with a new solution. If Senate Bill 843 passes, customers of one of California’s big three investor-owned utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison or San Diego Gas and Electric, would be allowed to purchase renewable energy directly from small, independent producers. Those producers send energy into the grid, then customers get credits on their regular utility bills.

SB 843 Bill Summary, credit: Environmental Entrepreneurs

These offsite facilities could take a range of forms, solar arrays over parking lots, small wind installations or bio-gas facilities, but they can generate no more than 20 megawatts each (a typical nuclear plant puts out 50 times that much). And the total amount of energy generated in the state through the program can’t exceed two gigawatts, equivalent to about two nuclear plants. So in size and scale, they fall somewhere in between household-by-household rooftop solar and the giant installations being built in some parts of the state.

“They’re pooling the community resources in order to create an economy of scale, if you will, offsite,” Wolk said. “Schools or cities could do it, churches could do it, renters could do it. They could buy in to one of these facilities and receive a credit on their bill.”

The utilities aren’t united in their opinions on the program. Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric have opposed it. Denny Boyles from PG&E said a concern for his company is how the program would affect utility customers who don’t participate in it.

“In an effort to increase renewables, you could drive up the costs for everyone else,” he said.

For example, the cost of building and maintaining transmission lines. But backers of the bill emphasize that those costs are built into the program, and non-participants won’t shoulder any extra burden.

San Diego Gas and Electric not only supports the bill, but spokesman Erin Koch said it’s an idea the utility had already considered.

“San Diego Gas and Electric strongly supports the concept of community solar, and we think there’s a way to make this work,” he said.

The legislation passed out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Thursday, and now goes on to the Assembly floor. If it passes, the new program would go into effect January 1, 2013.

  • Kim Williams

    This is a GREAT idea – sign me up!