The right solar power

SMUD is on the wrong track on clean energy

Lee Miller lives in South Sacramento and is a SMUD customer with rooftop solar.

Lee Miller lives in South Sacramento and is a SMUD customer with rooftop solar.

I am surprised at the misinformation SMUD pumped out about its SolarShares program before state regulators voted last month to allow developers of new housing to use its offsite solar farms rather than rooftop solar panels starting next Jan. 1.

Here are some of the top things I heard, and the facts.

SMUD’s claim: SolarShares homeowners may add solar.

Fact: SMUD’s terms and conditions make it near impossible for most SolarShares homeowners to add solar. That’s because homeowners won’t receive “net metering” if they install their own solar. That’s the credit solar users receive for the extra solar energy they send back to the power grid. It’s how solar pencils out for most solar users.

Without net metering, most people would not choose solar. As a pro-solar state lawmaker told the California Energy Commission on Feb. 20: Solar without net metering is effectively a prohibition on solar.

SMUD’s claim: It’s more efficient to deliver clean energy through large-scale solar farms than rooftop solar.

Fact: It’s easy to slap down hundreds of panels in an open field, but ratepayers have to foot the entire bill, plus it’s expensive to buy the land and ship the energy over long-distance transmission lines. It’s actually cheaper to transmit energy that is made locally, on rooftops that are already built, and paid for by private individuals rather than ratepayers. In reality, we need both, and SMUD should stop trashing rooftop solar.

At the Sacramento Municipal Utility District board meeting on Feb. 20, one clever speaker got board President Rob Kerth to admit in front of everyone that when people choose rooftop solar, it means SMUD will build fewer solar farms.

On the one hand, Kerth’s response is good because it highlights that when people choose rooftop solar, it saves the overall electrical grid money because the utility doesn’t have to spend as many ratepayer dollars on expensive infrastructure—which makes it all the more ludicrous to discourage rooftop solar.

On the other hand, Kerth’s response reveals a small-ness in SMUD’s approach. With electricity use rising at the same time we also need to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, we need orders of magnitude more clean energy, both large-scale and rooftop. There should be almost zero competition between the two. But when pressed, SMUD’s leader indicated that it actually sees this as a zero-sum game, and also clear which type of energy they favor.

At some point, SMUD and other utilities will have to answer for the fact that California is planning to get 100% of its electricity from clean sources by 2045. That means the amount of clean energy will have to increase many times over what we have now. California can’t meet its clean energy goals simply from large-scale sources. There isn’t enough open space, and the cost and risk of doubling down on long-distance transmission lines is too great.

The bottom line is that the state needs its local governments and residents to choose solar and battery storage. That’s good because people want solar, whether because of the energy savings or because they want to do their part to reduce their burden on society.