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Fight Over California Solar Power Incentives Playing Out on Airwaves

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- Years of work state energy regulators have put into revamping California's rooftop solar rules was supposed to culminate this week in vote at the CPUC on Thursday, Jan. 27th.

In his recent budget address, Governor Newsom said the plan to reform California's solar power incentives "needs work." Now the issue has been pulled from the agenda.

What was a debate over solar metering rates has become a political fistfight that is hard to escape. Dueling advertisements can be heard on drive-time radio.

"A major flaw in state policy is forcing Californians who can't afford rooftop solar energy to subsidize wealthier homeowners who can," said one ad.

"There's a new attack on solar energy in California. The California Public Utilities Commission is considering a new tax to penalize people who install solar," said another.

At issue was a package of reforms that would have slashed how much rooftop solar owners are credited for the energy they produce and impose a tax of about $60 per month to help pay for fixed costs of the electrical grid.

The plan would also reduce the time that solar owners could stay on their current net metering plan from 20 years to 15.

"Just taken together, this would make solar unaffordable for pretty much everybody, and it would be the highest solar tax in the US. Only Alabama charges a higher solar tax. So it's just completely the wrong direction for California," said Solar Rights Alliance Executive Director Dave Rosenfeld.

He and other solar advocates say the incentives have created one of the most successful green energy programs in the country and reducing them would stop that progress. But those pushing for the changes say the current system is shifting more and more of the costs on to people who don't own solar.

"And those who are left behind are disproportionally low-income people and renters. And so that's who's going to end up paying for the grid," said Prof. Severin Borenstein, Director of the Energy Institute of Haas Business School at UC Berkeley.

Borenstein says as the price of electricity increases, the deal just gets sweeter for those who can avoid it. If the current rules continue, eventually there won't be enough people paying to support the cost of the grid.

"lt's really time that we have to fix the problem," he said. "And letting it just fester would, I think, bring on a real crisis in the electricity system in California."

He said the delay -- coming after Governor Newsom's remarks -- indicates that major revisions to the plan are expected before it is passed by the PUC. That has left everyone on both sides of the argument wondering what may be coming.

Solar advocates like Rosenfeld are encouraged by the pause.

"The direction we ought to be going is to keep growing rooftop solar, not make it less affordable for people," Rosenfeld said.

Meanwhile, a group has registered an intent to qualify a ballot initiative that would lock in the current system. Prof. Borenstein said that could be disastrous since it would eliminate the ability to make necessary adjustments to the system in the future.

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