In a world of rooftop solar, power grids will be like mass transit: subsidized public infrastructure, rather than for-profit utilities.

The debate over who pays for the cost of running the electric grid in a world of more rooftop solar (Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez’s #AB1139) reminds me of the history of how privately run mass transit dealt with the rise of cars. It points to a future of public ownership.

Most mass transit in the US was built by private companies — often electric utilities, for which running trolleys was a big use of their product. As more people got cars, there were fewer riders left to cover the cost of running the system.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Key_Route_pier_and_trains_1907_postcard.jpg

By the mid 20th century, private companies had left the transit business, and public agencies stepped in with subsidized service to keep buses and trains running for downtowns that needed it and low income commuters who couldn’t afford cars.

Electric utilities now face a similar issue that private transit faced as people bought cars. As more rooftop solar gets installed, the fixed cost of running the grid means higher rates for those who don’t have solar panels.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Solar_Energy_Roof_Solar_Power_Generation_2666770_CC0.jpg

In another parallel, just like downtowns don’t have enough space for everyone to have a private car, a highrise doesn’t have enough roof space to power the whole building with solar panels. Right now, we have gas taxes and bridge tolls that help subsidize mass transit and discourage driving. But we want people to use more solar, not less.

#AB1139 would reduce reductions to the electric bill that people with solar get through net metering — a process where the meter runs backwards when the panels generate more than they use. While #AB1139 keeps the regulated utility business model’s steady electricity costs and steady profits, it does so at the cost of discouraging the use of renewable energy.

Angelsharum, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s not the best public policy, and if the debate over grid costs & rooftop solar feels hard, it’s easy compared to the later stages of building electrification when there will only be a few houses left using gas.

Just like private cars made it impossible to run a profitable transit system even though downtowns & low income people need it, solar will make it impossible to run a for-profit utility, but we’ll still need the grid. It’s time to begin the switch to public agencies. We do need to address the impact solar on those who rely only on grid power. But #AB1139’s band-aid on the private utility model isn’t the way. Instead, the future is a state owned grid, subsidized by the general fund — just like roads, schools, & firefighting.

I would like to thank Igor Tregub, RL Miller and the many others in the California Democratic Party Environmental Caucus that have brought attention to the concerns around #AB1139. I’m confident we can find a way that works for both low income Californians & the planet.

Artist and Designer in Berkeley, California

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