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New state rules could deprive renters of reduced electricity bills: 'Fundamentally unfair'

"In addition to potentially raising a big red flag about civil rights, it also violates the law of physics."

“In addition to potentially raising a big red flag about civil rights, it also violates the law of physics."

Photo Credit: iStock

Solar panels can offset a home's electricity costs and even make the homeowner money. However, a new rule being considered by the California Public Utilities Commission could pull the rug out from under renters who hoped to save money using shared solar power setups, Canary Media reports.

What's happening?

One of the major benefits of installing solar is net metering, an arrangement that gives homeowners financial credit for the excess power they produce for the utility company. 

For solar owners in California, that deal became less attractive last year when the CPUC instituted new net metering rules, Canary Media explains. The new system offers the same credit as before for "self-consumption," meaning energy used by the same property that produced it. However, the credit for "exported" energy sold to the utility company was slashed by an average of 75%.

Now, the CPUC is considering another rule change specifically for multifamily dwellings, Canary Media reveals. The CPUC says that tracking usage across multiple meters is too difficult, and has proposed that self-consumption in multifamily dwellings should be completely ignored. Under the proposed system, all the power produced by these shared solar setups would be credited at the lower "exported" rate.

Why does the change matter?

The change proposed by the CPUC will cost residents of multifamily homes a lot of money. The properties will sell power to the utility company for a lower rate, then have individual families buy it back for a higher retail price. As Canary Media points out, this burden will fall primarily on the lower-income families who are most likely to rent apartments rather than owning or renting a single-family home.

Roger Lin, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Canary Media that the CPUC's argument didn't make sense. "In addition to potentially raising a big red flag about civil rights, it also violates the law of physics," he said.

A letter signed by 150 elected officials across the state called the arrangement "fundamentally unfair" because it would "force tenants, schools and farms to buy all of their power from the utility even when it is generated on their own rooftop or field."

The lower compensation also means installing solar will become much less rewarding for developers. According to Canary Media, the installation will be required in California starting next year, but it won't pay for itself nearly as quickly, if at all, and those costs would be passed to tenants.

What's being done about the costs?

According to Canary Media, individuals and organizations across the state have reached out to the CPUC and the Governor to protest the proposal. CPUC commissioners have not yet voted on the issue.

In September, a California appeals court judge permitted oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by the Protect Our Communities Foundation and two other environmental groups, alleging "legal errors" made in updating the net metering regulations. 

"To take such an important case indicates [the court] found that in at least the review of the material that was submitted, that it has some merit," said Bill Powers, board member of the foundation.

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