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West Coast Legislators Are at a Solar Crossroad

November 28, 2019


The West Coast is in a transitional period for solar policy. Washington, Oregon and California statehouses are either fresh from altering or voting down solar policies or are approaching a pivotal date for mandates to take effect.

California’s Solar Bill of Rights is an entirely different piece of legislation than when it was proposed; Oregon’s Clean Energy Jobs Bill, or HB 2020, died on the Senate floor this summer; and Washington will soon enforce the nation’s first panel stewardship program. Pieces of HB 2020 and the Solar Bill of Rights are still floating around state forums, and the effectiveness of Washington’s SB 5939 will soon become apparent.

Solar Bill of Rights

The California Solar Bill of Rights (SB 288) was proposed in Feb. 2019 as a shield for solar and storage customers against discriminatory utility fees. It gave independent power producers, businesses and governments using distributed energy resources the chance to interconnect and sell excess or stored energy back to the grid.

“What’s behind the meter is the customer’s own business,” said Brad Heavner, policy director at California Solar & Storage Association. “If I want to generate and store my own power, you can’t force me to buy power from the utility.”

Upon proposal, the Solar Bill of Rights required the California Public Utilities Commission and Energy Commission to review both public- and investor-owned utilities’ interconnection performance annually and submit that data to state legislature.

During the first four months of its time in State Assembly, SB 288 proposed changes to interconnection rules for solar and/or storage projects. It would have required utilities to facilitate a streamlined process for reviewing interconnection requests for solar or solar-plus-storage customers, especially those outside the residential market.

“[The bill] was something we put forward last year just making sure that the tariffs and rules don’t get so bad that they effectively prevent customers from installing solar,” Heavner said.

However, SB 288 no longer resembles the utility-focused legislation that it was initially meant to be.

In its current state, SB 288 makes no mention of solar, storage, utilities or energy. It underwent major amendments in June 2019, appearing as an entirely new bill concerning who can and cannot serve on a Democratic county central committee in the state of California, according to California Legislative Information.

The originally proposed solar bill had documented support from more than 70 organizations, but utilities argued that eliminating fees for ratepayers with solar systems wasn’t fair to the rest of their customer base.

“Should there be a solar-only fee? That’s going to be the biggest battle,” Heavner said. “Utilities want that more than anything, and we don’t want that more than anything.”

Those fees are one key aspect of SB 288 still being discussed in state legislature, he said.

“The bill didn’t pass last year,” Heavner said. “The pieces of it floated around in various policy forums, so it will continue to be a live issue. The bill itself is not in play anymore, but the concepts are still out there.”

Clean Energy Jobs Bill

Oregon was positioned to pass a statewide cap-and-trade bill similar to California’s, which puts a price on carbon emissions and other pollutants. HB 2020 was intended to have state industries purchase allowances to determine how much pollution they’re afforded annually and reinvest that capital into the state.

“On California climate investments it’s the same idea for Oregon,” said Andy Wunder, western states advocate for Environmental Entrepreneurs. “Essentially, as companies buy allowances from the state to comply with the carbon cap and their compliance obligations, the state will then take that money and invest it in communities across the state, and a significant chunk of that investment will go into rebates and incentives for people to put solar on their rooftops.”

The bill mandated greenhouse gas emissions be cut 80% below the state’s 1990 levels by 2050. It would have established the climate-related committees and offices meant to track and curb emissions for Oregon’s citizens, industries and landscape, with a focus on those already affected by climate change.

“I think that lawmakers over the last few years have really started to see their constituents impacted by climate change,” Wunder said. “There’s a lot of tangible impacts that folks are starting to feel, and lawmakers want to take action and they understand that carbon pricing is a really critical tool in our longer-term strategy to bring emissions down to what the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and scientific community deem necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.”

HB 2020 made Oregon history as the first economy-wide carbon pricing program to ever pass through the House. But on the Senate floor, the bill was a point of controversy. It spurred republican senators to stage a nine-day walkout, keeping the Senate from meeting quorum. State police were even ordered to bring the senators back to session.

The Oregon Senate voted the bill down June 29, 2019.

“In the 2020 session, Oregon lawmakers have a critical opportunity to seize America’s clean energy leadership and become a national destination for millions of dollars in clean technology investment and thousands of new jobs,” Wunder said. “Cap-and-invest will create the right market structures and inject millions of dollars of investment from program revenue to drive solar forward in Oregon.”

Panel stewardship

Washington was the first state to pass legislation requiring module manufacturers or importers to have plans to recycle their modules if they are deployed in the state. Governor Jay Inslee signed SB 5939 on July 7, 2017, which also extended a renewables investment tax credit in the state. The bill offers an investment credit for participating solar system owners to receive a return on every kilowatt-hour generated by their system through 2021.

The panel stewardship portion of the bill goes into effect Jan. 1, 2021. SB 5939 requires that modules at the end of their operating lifetime be delivered to “takeback” (recycling) centers in or close to the state.

“My first work with a module manufacturer was 12 years ago, and one of my thoughts was, ‘How are we going to recycle this?’” said Dean Van Vleet, president of advocacy organization Solar Washington. “We were just making our first samples [of panels]. I felt guilty throwing those first samples in the garbage can. That’s not the right thing to do. We don’t want to keep continuously filling up landfills.”

However, Van Vleet was apprehensive with SB 5939. The task of establishing a statewide stewardship program should have been a single piece of legislation, separate from the tax credit, he said.

“That was a concern — that there wasn’t a solid stakeholder industry process for recycling, because we had an incentive program,” Van Vleet said. “But the scope of this recycling program is far beyond the scope of the incentive program.”

The bill mandates that manufacturers submit a plan to the state’s Department of Ecology to describe their stewardship programs before they can sell in the state. Those plans are due by Jan. 1, 2020, or within 30 days of a manufacturer’s first panel sale in Washington after the bill’s enactment the following year.

Van Vleet said a simpler, more panel-inclusive method would have been taking a note from European module recycler PV Cycle, which requires an upfront fee or sales tax based on the panel’s makeup. Since panels are created using different materials, manufacturers are required to describe plans to recycle each type of module they carry if they plan to sell in Washington.

Panel stewardship is still over a year away in Washington, and installers working in the state are primarily focused currently on the Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA). Passed in May, the CETA set a goal of an emissions-free electrical grid in Washington by 2045.

“People are soaking in the realities of how solar will fit into this,” Van Vleet said. “How can we capture that energy and gather to meet these requirements? I think that’s eating everyone’s bandwidth right now — setting the roadmap for compliance.”

California, Oregon and Washington stand at a crossroads for state solar policies. Whether enacting current or establishing new pro-solar policies, legislators have a lot of work ahead of them in upcoming sessions.

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