Expanding Solar Access for Disadvantaged Communities

It was a good month for California consumers and for clean energy progress across the U.S., as other states watched a landmark vote by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that modifies but doesn’t undermine the state’s net energy metering program (NEM), and the value proposition of customer-generated distributed renewable energy.

Unfortunately, the CPUC postponed guidance on its policy to expand renewable energy access to residential customers located in “disadvantaged communities.”

Despite the tremendous growth of distributed solar and other renewable energy in California over the past few decades, many of the state’s disadvantaged communities face unique barriers and challenges that historically prevent them from accessing renewable energy programs. These barriers include lower rates of homeownership, higher likelihood of residing in multi-tenant buildings, lower credit scores, less expendable income, and competing economic priorities and cultural/language barriers, among others. Many of these communities are eager to be active participants in California’s clean energy economy, but targeted policies are needed to meaningfully address these barriers.

As an active participant throughout the California NEM proceeding, and with an eye to tackling barriers to increase customer participation in renewable energy in disadvantaged communities, the independent Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) urged the CPUC’s consideration of IREC’s CleanCARE proposal. CleanCARE would allow participants in the California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) program to use their CARE funds to purchase renewable generation from a third-party owned renewable energy facility located in a disadvantaged community.

Why is this more important than simply supporting sustainable energy?

In many cases, especially for high-consuming customers, CleanCARE could save participants more money than the traditional CARE rate discount.

The CARE program provides discounted electricity rates to over 3 million low-income Californians. These discounted rates are offered by the utilities and are paid for by ratepayers through line items on electricity bills. But the program also unintentionally creates a considerable barrier to the adoption of both energy efficiency and conservation measures, as well as renewable energy programs. Add on top of the aforementioned barriers, these customers are simply unable to take advantage of proven tools to help them take more control over their energy budgets, while also reaping additional benefits of locally generated clean energy.

CleanCARE would give CARE-eligible customers the option to choose to receive their statutorily required “bill reduction” via NEM bill credits associated with renewable energy funded by their share of CARE funds, instead of through the traditional rate discount.

In other words, existing CARE dollars could stretch farther to provide CARE customers with the same or greater energy bill savings, which would benefit all ratepayers. In addition to expanding access to renewables, our CleanCARE proposal also envisions providing opportunities to locate renewable energy facilities in disadvantaged communities, which may bring local economic development and job training programs.

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IREC’s CleanCARE proposal received broad support from a number of intervening parties in the California NEM docket, including the Greenlining Institute, the California Environmental Justice Alliance, GRID Alternatives, Sierra Club, the California Solar Energy Industries Association, Vote Solar, the Solar Energy Industries Association, The Alliance for Solar Choice, among others.

We remain eager to roll up our sleeves and develop some workable solutions, in coordination with the CPUC and many other involved stakeholders. We will continue to pursue CleanCARE in the next phase of the NEM proceeding, as well as in the CARE and Energy Savings Assistance (ESA) program docket, or as otherwise directed by the CPUC.

We look forward to continuing to work with the CPUC to examine with a critical eye the goals and impacts of all policies and programs targeting “disadvantaged communities” to ensure they indeed provide tangible, long-term benefits for the very consumers they’re intended to serve.

Equally important, we’ll be exploring the viability of the CleanCARE model in other states.

A forthcoming IREC report, expected to be published in February, will share policy guidelines and model provisions for shared renewable energy for low- to moderate-income customers.

 

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