Solar panels glistening on the rooftop meant sustainability, independence, respect for the planet - and vastly lower electric bills.
But for rooftop solar owners trying to navigate Southern California Edison's new "time-of-use" plans, which make power most expensive at dinnertime, and other changes, it means more time before their sizable investments pencil out.
During the day, when renewable energy is at its peak from Edison's own solar farms, rooftop owners stand to earn less for the energy they pump into the grid for their neighbors to use.
And in the evening, when the sun goes down and fossil fuel plants fire up, they'll pay more for the energy they pull off the grid for their own use.
"I don't see how this will save us money or benefit us in any way," said Randy Bruno of Huntington Beach, who installed panels on his roof years ago. "The
governor wants to promote solar, and Edison is discouraging it."
Edison has about 420,000 solar customers, and the rate plan changes are expected to hurt some more than others, particularly those who don't have batteries to store their solar-generated electricity for nighttime use.
A senior from La Habra installed her solar system 10 years ago, and upgraded it halfway through. It cost about $40,000 total, she said. She was aghast to learn that her annual bill is expected to climb from about $400 per year to more than $1,100, according to the letter she got from Edison.
"At this rate, the new rate, it just won't pay off," she said. "I don't understand what they're trying to do. If you're trying to save the environment, that's not the way to do it."
Edison said some solar customers will be able to stay on their old plan - it depends on when their systems were installed - and an industry group said those rooftop panels will pay off in the long run.
"It's still a good deal to go solar under the new rates, even though it will extend the payback period for folks who went solar a few years ago," said Brad Heavner, policy director at the California Solar & Storage Association. "We pushed the Public Utilities Commission to grant more time for solar owners to stay on those older rates and they decided against it."
A battery to store solar electricity produced during the day for use at night will certainly help, he said. Heavner expects nearly every system will come with a battery in the not-too-distant future, but he doesn't believe a battery is necessary to make the numbers work.
On Nov. 1, Edison began transitioning 2.3 million residential customers to time-of-use rate plans.
That means what customers pay for electricity will depend on when they use it. During the day, when solar and other renewable sources are plentiful, it's cheaper. In the evening, when fossil fuel plants must fire up to meet demand, it's more expensive.
That's different from the old tiered-rate plan, which billed based on how much power was used, not when it was used.
Some folks, though, will get the option of keeping the old, pay-depending-on-how-much-you-use rates. Who? It depends on when Edison customers went solar.
Everyone who installed a system after July 1, 2017, was already required to be on a time-of-use rate plan. That's just under half of Edison's 420,000 residential solar customers. Of these folks, the majority will find that their plans are being discontinued because the old peak periods don't align with the new peak periods. They'll be transitioned to one of the three new time-of-use plans over the next six months or so.
Most of the remaining solar customers are being switched to time-of-use plans now or in the very near future. Those who installed solar before July 2017 have the option to keep their existing tiered rate plan for up to 20 years from the date they installed their solar systems. That means they'll pay not by when they use power, but by how much power they use.
That won't be automatic, though: They'll need to contact Edison to formally make that choice. They can return the business reply card that Edison sends them via mail, fill out a form online, or call the number on the letter Edison sent.
Supply and demand
To many rooftop solar owners, the lower credit they'll get for the energy they pour into the grid is even more galling than the rate plan switches.
"Utilities want to block competition from rooftop solar, monopolize energy to drive profits, and raise rates even faster, all while kicking clean energy and resilience goals down the road," says Save California Solar, a coalition that includes Solar Rights Alliance and scores of environmental groups, cities and others. Its petition asking the governor to protect rooftop solar and "stop the utility power grab" has gathered nearly 95,000 signatures.
Edison fired back. "That statement is false top to bottom," spokesman Ron Gales said. "TOU rates reflect simple supply and demand economics and are designed to encourage customers to use more renewable energy by offering lower rates at times of day when cleaner, less expensive energy is abundant on California's electric grid."
Edison has published several policy papers on how to hit California's greenhouse gas reduction goals, and projects that up to 50% of single-family homes will have customer-sited solar, he said.
In a brief explaining why adjustments to the credit rate are necessary, Edison and the other big California utility companies told the PUC that residential solar customers avoid overhead charges that aren't related to energy generation and "receive excess compensation for their exports. The utilities must collect from other customers the delta between what [rooftop solar] customers owe and what they actually pay." Adjusting the credits to more closely mirror costs is only fair, they argue.
The PUC is expected to make a decision on this issue early next year.
"In undertaking its deliberations in this proceeding, the Commission should pause for a moment and look back at the past 20 years and the policies they have crafted which have resulted in a vibrant rooftop solar market in the state," says a brief filed with the PUC by the Solar Energy Industries Association.
"It is time to take the next step in the evolution of this market. That step should be an advancement towards an industry in which the primarily product is solar + storage - a product which will maximize solar's contribution towards meeting California's peak grid needs, while advancing the state's critical climate goals. But that step must be a measured one. If the compensation for exported power is cut too quickly and too drastically, the industry will not be able to manage the transition."