California Energy Commission advances solar mandate for new commercial buildings

But state's climate policies on collision course with energy utilities’ bid to create barriers for solar

SAN FRANCISCO – The California Energy Commission on Wednesday voted for a measure to require all new commercial buildings, high-rise residential units, hotels, schools and other structures in the state to include solar panels and battery storage.

All five panel members voted for the plan. It now goes before the state’s Building Standards Commission, which will likely include the solar requirement in its revised building code due for release by the end of the year, according to the New York Times. If enacted, the plan to solarize commercial buildings would take effect in January 2023.

Last year, the state established similar requirements for all new homes built in California, requiring that they now include solar panels and batteries. Combined, homes and businesses use roughly 70 percent of the state’s electricity and generate almost a quarter of its greenhouse gas emissions, the Times reports.

But threats to solar’s growth in the state persist. The California Public Utilities Commission is considering a scheme by the big investor-owned utilities PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Power & Electric to crush the state’s residential rooftop solar program, which lets homeowners and businesses sell surplus energy back to the utilities.

The popular program was first initiated several years ago by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to reduce the state’s reliance on carbon dioxide-emitting power plants in order to help combat the climate crisis. And it helps mitigate the risks of fires caused by downed or damaged power lines, like the Dixie Fire currently raging in the state that PG&E admits it may have caused.

Protect Solar Energy in California!

Despite the runaway success of the novel solar program, the utilities are furious about having to pay their customers for the excess energy, and want it to end.

If the CPUC adopts all or much of the plan put forth by the three big utilities, it would dramatically diminish the incentive for homeowners and small business owners to adopt rooftop solar. And that would make it much harder to meet the state’s emissions reduction goals, conflicting with its emissions-reducing solar mandates for buildings.

“The idea that there could be two competing policies, with one on the solar accelerator and the other on the brake, will hobble California’s efforts to scale up renewable energy,” said EWG President and Bay Area resident Ken Cook. “If there was ever a moment when the impacts of the climate crisis were bearing down on the residents of California, it’s right now. Wildfires, blackouts, and an historic drought should be all the evidence needed for regulators and Governor Newsom to reject this plot to cripple one of the most successful climate and clean energy policies ever adopted.”

The potential collision course over California’s clean energy future could increase pressure on Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, who has made confronting the climate crisis a top priority. It’s at best uncertain whether the CPUC will reject the scheme by PG&E and the other utilities, given its history of backing the monopoly utilities over consumer and environmental advocates during commission proceedings.

“Governor Newsom can and should step in and use his authority to pressure regulators to protect rooftop solar from this profit grab by PG&E and the other utilities,” said Cook. “How many more infernos can the people of California handle? The only way to minimize the worst impacts of the climate emergency, including wildfires caused by utilities, is to go all in on a decentralized power system based on solar and energy storage. And rooftop solar is a critical part of that proposition.”

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