Net Metering: Doubling California’s Solar Energy Goal

The California net metering battle has come to an end–til 2015 at least–and will raise California’s maximum roof-top solar capacity from the current 2,400 megawatts to about 5,200 megawatts.

The state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted on Thursday to make a technical tweak in the way it calculates how many electricity rate payers can participate in the net metering program. This tweak includes residential, commercial, and government buildings whose excess solar power gets sent back to the grid, giving the solar user a lower bill.

In the simplest terms, net metering enables solar users to get credit for the electricity generated by their solar system when their overall usage is low (i.e. when you’re not home during the day). This credit can then be used towards their bill when they’re using electricity but their solar is not generating (at night, when the sun’s not shining).

The daytime solar generation – nighttime usage = a lower bill.

Net metering gives solar owners an element of predictability. Based on the credits received for the solar contributed to the grid, a homeowner can project the savings they’ll incur over the life of their solar system (25+ years).

The net metering issue has been under scrutiny recently as the PUC was gearing up to vote on how to calculate a cap on net metering eligibility. Consumers and utilities opposed to net metering argued expanding the program would create unfair subsidies for wealthy people who can afford to install solar in the first place and shifting costs to non-solar customers who either can’t afford solar or don’t want it.

A 3-year-old PUC study estimated the amount paid by non-solar customers to be $140 million annually to cover the net metering program for their solar owning neighbors. But a more recent study done by Berkeley energy consultant, R. Thomas Beach, concludes that the benefits of using solar (decreasing fossil fuel dependence, decreased carbon dioxide emissions) outweigh the subsidy costs.

Net metering is a very important driver of residential solar adoption. As it is, California’s solar industry employs more then 25,000 workers and provides a clean, renewable source of energy to homes and businesses.

After the extension of the net metering program, PUC  President Michael Peevy announced, “Today’s decision ensures that the solar industry will continue to thrive for years to come, and we are fully committed to developing a long-term solution that secures the industry in California.”

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And How Should We Proceed? The Future of Solar in California

California has been pushing its solar industry. It’s not a secret. In pushing the solar industry came a flurry of jobs. Based on the “Solar Industry & Occupations: Distributed and Utility Scale Generation” report, California is currently home to 3,500 solar firms employing 25,000 people. Based on these trends, the state could add as many as 18,000 jobs in the solar industry by 2015.

This increase in jobs is of course, welcomed, however at present there may not be enough qualified people to fill them. Although California’s community colleges have done a good job of not only training, but fulfilling the market demand for solar installers, the future of solar in California will require different skill sets, many of which are not being taught in college programs.

The solar curriculum in California’s community colleges needs to be expanded to cover the basics of energy production, power plant management, and solar technologies the report recommends. This will be especially prudent in certain areas of California where the  solar industry is becoming more popular, but the market for installers is saturated. Class options need to be diversified in order to address other skills needed in the solar industry. By incorporating skill sets relevant to other aspects of solar aside from installation (manufacturing and distribution for instance), colleges might be able to better prepare graduates for their impending job searches.

There are 15,000 students enrolled in 300 different green job training programs. There will come a point in the near future where policy makers will need to catch up to educational institutes that are driving green jobs. If California’s community colleges succeed in diversifying classes in green jobs, will California’s green economy evolved enough for these graduates to find work in their fields? California won’t be able to realize the full economic potential of green jobs if this doesn’t equalize. If we train people in green jobs but there is no market for them it will all be for naught.

Do As The Michiganans Do

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Perhaps it’s time for California to take a leaf out of Michigan’s book when it comes to crawling out of the hole we like to call: the recession.

In an article in Capitol Weekly, they suggest just that the best solution won’t be fixing California’s problems one at a time, but tying them together, adhering public sector companies, private sector investments and university research.

This approach has been working in Michigan where the state established Centers of Energy Excellence to use the availability of raw materials to create lithium ion batteries, better battery technology and–perhaps most important–jobs…all at once. With a troubling budget crisis threatening to dismantle public education, almost 12% unemployment rate, and Occupy movements condemning growing economic disparities,  it’s arguable California can employ the same technique as Michigan but with solar energy.

California–the sunshine state–has a raw material of its very own…solar energy. Not only that, but solar energy is limitless, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. It could very well be a ray of hope for the California economy.

The state however, needs private investment in the solar energy field. Though the Bay Area already wields a number of solar energy companies, for this trifecta to work solar energy companies need to thrive state-wide. Though grants, tax credits and solar subsidies, California could entice more solar energy companies to set up forts throughout the state.

This funding won’t just go to any solar energy company, but specifically those who have secured the participation of California’s state schools. Involvement from state schools ensures continued solar energy research and growth. It also reiterates the importance of public education, educates tomorrow’s solar energy leaders, and validates the importance of funding public education whose budgets have all but run dry.

The intertwining of the public, private, and education sectors of the state might aid in California declaring solar energy standards for the future, and also help keep the state accountable for those goals as so many parties have a hand in these plans. These sectors are all struggling. Why not initiate a plan that can not only boost the economy, but stimulate environmentally safe and sustainable energy practices?

Hey, if Michigan can do it…