Over a quarter of California renter households pay more than 50% of their income in rent. Families are struggling and being forced to choose between necessities, like paying the bills or buying groceries.

Now, California wants to take solar away from renters — a lifeline to keep electricity bills manageable.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is considering changes that would eliminate the financial feasibility for multi-family housing buildings to install solar. 

California’s Net Energy Metering (NEM) program helps make solar more affordable by allowing consumers to generate and use their electricity through on-site solar and get credited at fair market value for the excess solar energy they produce and share back with the grid.  

Less than a year ago, the CPUC slashed the value of solar credits for single-family homes under the NEM program by about 75%. Still, at the very least, it preserved the right for single-family homes or businesses with a single electric meter to generate and use their own solar power on-site. 

Currently, apartment buildings and farms can invest in one on-site solar system and share the energy produced with all the electric meters on the same property through Virtual Net Energy Metering (VNEM) or Net Energy Metering Aggregation (NEMA). These programs make it possible for a property with multiple meters to install and share one large solar system, saving considerable time and money for everyone. 

Now, the CPUC is considering removing the ability for VNEM and NEMA customers, like renters, schools and farmers, to use the solar energy they produce on-site. Instead, they would be forced to sell all of their solar power to the utility at very low rates and then repurchase it from the utility at full retail price. Doing so would remove any incentive for multi-family housing buildings to install solar because it would be cost-prohibitive, as any potential bill savings or benefits from installing solar would be eliminated.

As a working mom who rents in multifamily housing and an elected Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board commissioner, I know firsthand what it is like to be saddled with sky-high utility bills without solar. My neighbors are struggling to remain housed as it is; removing their access to solar will perpetuate the rising costs of living and further increase housing displacement.

Two in 3 California household renters have incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line, and Californians with lower incomes and of color are more likely to be renters.

At best, the CPUC’s proposed decision is cruel to tenants like myself and those I serve. At worst, this is structural racism and discrimination on full display.

A few weeks ago, I was joined by tenants, educators, and working families to ask the CPUC to reject this proposal. We urged them to keep local solar open as a lifeline for our most vulnerable communities and to put the public’s interest above big utilities’ profits. I reminded them that not only would the proposed decision deprive multifamily housing tenants and schools of any savings from installing solar, but there’s an overwhelming number of Black and brown people who live in multifamily homes, and this is a strategy of structural racism. 

There is nothing positive in the proposed changes for us; it only benefits PG&E and other for-profit utilities by allowing them to reach outside their domain and reap the benefits from solar installed and paid for by the people.

If the CPUC decides to move forward with the proposed changes, it will be at the expense of the most vulnerable communities, working families, schools and California’s clean energy progress.

Vanessa Marrero, Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board commissioner, representative of Regional Advisory Committee-WEST, executive director of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco

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