US rooftop PV finds a voice

Rooftop PV system providers in the US – a fast growing and increasingly well funded group of companies – have formed a lobbying group to counter what they describe as resistance to their business model among traditional power utilities.

The newly launched Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) claims to represent “the majority” of companies servicing the US rooftop solar market, including big names like SolarCity, Sungevity, Sunrun and Verengo.

TASC’s initial focus will be defending net metering, a practice which allows PV system owners to “bank” the excess electricity they produce during sunny hours and draw it down later.

Depending on the size of their PV system and their electricity usage, consumers are able to significantly reduce or even eliminate their electricity bills via net metering.

For now at least, net metering, currently in place in 43 US states, is integral to the business case of companies like SolarCity.

But as PV installations soar across the US – up 76% to 3.3GW last year, according to GTM – net metering is coming to look like a serious threat to a number of powerful utilities. TASC points specifically to PG&E, Edison International and Sempra Energy as worrisome opponents of the practice.

“Without consumer choice and empowerment, the utilities will continue to increase their rates and profits,” says SolarCity chief executive Lyndon Rive.

Utilities argue that electricity customers on a net metering scheme still use the grid infrastructure to soak up their excess PV-generated power and at times when the sun is not shining, yet do not contribute their fair share to the grid’s maintenance via electricity bills.

The bill for grid upkeep, utilities claim, is instead shoved onto the shoulders of consumers without PV on their rooftops a similar argument that has been leveraged for years by utilities in PV-dense countries like Germany.

A report issued last year by the California Public Utilities Commission found that two-thirds of solar installations in the state are occurring in low and median income neighbourhoods.