Essay: The right solar power

SMUD received approval from state regulators for developers of new housing to use its offsite solar farms rather than rooftop solar panels. (Photo by Foon Rhee)

SMUD is on the wrong track on clean energy

By Lee Miller

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.

Lee Miller lives in south Sacramento and is a SMUD customer with 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.

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5 Comments on "Essay: The right solar power"

  1. We need solar panels on all new construction. Actually, we need them on any appropriate rooftop, new or old! SMUD’s Solar Shares project could lead to tamping down rooftop solar. Hopefully, Contractors and Consumers will see the disadvantages of Solar Shares. In the meantime, SMUD should be planning for clean energy sources that will allow them to shut down their fossil fuel burning plants. That time has come much the same way the time had come to close the nuclear plant years ago. We are in a Climate Emergency that requires rapid intervention.

  2. stacy kalstrom | March 21, 2020 at 10:53 am | Reply

    It is unbelievable that SMUD isn’t jumping and thanking people with rooftop solar as well as encouraging more people to get it. There are no costs to SMUD when a homeowner gets rooftop solar, and SMUD and all SMUD customers get the benefits. Isn’t SMUD owned by it’s customers? They should listen to their customers, we want to have rooftop solar to help with reducing fossil fuels as an energy source, we want to help SMUD achieve the 2045 goal of using all renewable energy. Come on SMUD. DO the right thing for your customers and the planet. Encourage more rooftop solar systems, the world needs you to be the leaders you once were.

  3. Off site land should be used and bought but rooftops need to be used as well.
    Usually SMUD is making great choices. Over decade ago policy forbid them not to spend a penny on a political campaign by most elected officials in yolo county to bring SMUD (Gov and top person making 200g) in and out PGE (For Profit company with top people making millions). SMUD lost. Those of us who walked door to door would go home to expensive flyers by PGE who spent millions in advertisement. Go figure, PGE won. Overall, they are usually cutting edge, well managed, treat employees well, have integrity, and is a golden child for a government agency. A jewel near the American River, a dream job place. They still rank an A+ but this is a decision they need to fix. Call or email and pressure them. Calif is a leader in the world for air pollution and laws. Other states send their workers to Calif for their trainings in many gov entities like ARB. This is not a good policy that other states look to calif lead. We effect the world.

  4. That is they still rank an A+ in my mind. But this decision needs to change

  5. I have to say I respectfully disagree with Ms. Miller and some of the commenters. Residents of our lower-income areas can’t pay for solar panels, or they are renters. They’re the ones paying extra on their bills so that Ms. Miller can sell her excess solar power for the retail rate everyone else is paying. There have to be costs! Ms. Miller admits that receiving this bonus from SMUD is how it “pencils out” for solar panels. I though SN&R considered all of our communities, not just wealthier ones.

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