Bay Area installers at odds over PG&E’s “Solar Choice” program

PG&E is the latest utility to offer customers the opportunity to purchase solar power from their electric provider.

The Bay Area utility encourages those who want to lower their environmental footprint and promote renewable energy generation to enroll in its Solar Choice program, in which, according to a press release, “For a modest monthly charge, residential and business customers can go solar by purchasing up to 100% of their electricity from solar-generated energy.”

In PG&E’s Solar Choice program, solar energy is purchased from a pool of solar projects in Northern and Central California.

“The genesis behind the program is making sure that all of our customers have clean energy options, whether it’s via rooftop solar or via the solar choice program,” said Ari Vanrenen, corporate relations for PG&E.

In 2014, PG&E was required to take steps to expand renewable energy access in the area under SB 43. The so-called “green tariff shared renewables program’s” purpose was to expand access to all eligible renewable energy resources to all ratepayers currently unable to access the benefits of onsite generation.

Mehyeddine Alayleh, president of San Jose’s Highlight Solar, thinks the Solar Choice program is nonsensical.

“Solar pricing these days is extremely attainable,” Alayleh said. “If you own a home [in the Bay Area], you can afford solar.”

So it’s peculiar to him that PG&E will charge people additional money on top of their regular bills indefinitely, when the panels PG&E install on solar farms will start to pay for themselves in four or five years. After being in the program for four years, you could find yourself paying twice for energy when it would be nearly free if you owned the system.

“So this whole formula is completely bogus. I mean, it’s only to service PG&E,” Alayleh said. “Where you could go buy it yourself, pay it off in four years, and never need PG&E.”

Vanrenen said PG&E supports customers who install rooftop solar. She said the Solar Choice program is there for anyone who wants to be a part of the solar movement but cannot install rooftop panels for whatever reason.

“Providing different options to a wide range of customers is kind of our objective here,” Vanrenen said.

Colin Swan, CEO of San Francisco-based SkyTech Solar, agrees that it makes more sense for customers to instead buy rooftop solar panels if they’re able.

“We still believe that financially, customers are better off purchasing their own system than buying clean energy directly from a utility provider,” Swan said.

However, Swan does think the program is a positive step toward lowering San Francisco’s carbon footprint.

“We actually think it’s a good thing because it’s always good to have clean energy, especially in San Francisco,” Swan said.

Like NV Energy, PG&E cites the difficulty of installing panels on your roof as an advantage of the Solar Choice option, and goes so far as to say, “almost half of residential and commercial rooftops are unsuitable for solar because of structural, shading or ownership issues.”

Swan said if you’ve ever been to San Francisco, you have probably noticed the tiny rooftops. “There are a lot of times where we cannot fit enough panels on a person’s roof to actually cover all the energy that they’re using,” Swan said.

PG&E’s program will allow customers to supplement the solar they’re producing with more solar produced by the utility’s solar farms.

But Alayleh said there are other solutions customers should pursue if customers can’t get the energy they want from rooftop solar.

“Then go get yourself a lithium battery stack, 10-kW, and then charge at night, use it during the day and wean yourself off PG&E,” Alayleh said. “Because PG&E is not in the business of really saving you a single penny. PG&E is in the business for themselves.”

PG&E comments added April 10, 2017

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