California Feed-in Tariff for Poor Communities Passes Assembly

By Paul Gipe

A bill to create a feed-in tariff (FiT) to make solar accessible to the poor and the disadvantaged passed the California Assembly on May 30.

The "Solar for All" bill (AB 1990) passed the House by a vote of 49-27 and was sent to the Senate.

This is the first time in North America that advocates for the poor and disadvantaged have called for equal opportunity to develop renewable energy through the use of feed-in tariffs.

The bill targets neighborhoods with high unemployment rates and those that "bear a disproportionate burden from air pollution, disease, and other impacts from the generation of electricity from the burning of fossil fuels," it says.

Introduced by Paul Fong (D-Cupertino), he says the legislation would create jobs and build "cleaner, safer, and healthier neighborhoods."

"Unfortunately, California’s most vulnerable communities – those that have suffered first and worst from pollution – have not benefited much from existing renewable energy policy," he says.

The bill would create feed-in tariffs for 375 megawatts (MW) of small-scale renewable generation in disadvantaged communities – about 1,000 small-scale projects – between 2014 and the end of 2020. 

Rooftop solar would go up on apartment complexes and commercial buildings, with each project limited to producing 500 kilowatts of power, about the size of a typical Costco roof. 

The bill is sponsored by the California Environmental Justice Alliance (CEJA).

CEJA’s bill has received support from some 70 non-profits that includes a who’s who of the California environmental and social justice community, including Sierra Club California, Union of Concerned Scientists, Natural Resources Defense Council, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and Environment California.

To determine which communities would meet the environmental justice criteria, the bill sponsors point to an environmental justice screening method developed by professors at UC Berkeley, the University of Southern California and Occidental College. This screening method weighs environmental health risk factors, like air quality, and social factors, like income and age. Neighborhoods in cities like National City, Richmond in the San Francisco Bay Area, Huntington Park in southeast Los Angeles and the Central Valley’s Tulare would qualify, says California Watch.

Though CEJA dubs the legislation "Solar for All", the bill calls for "clean energy contracts" from all "eligible renewable energy resources" in California.

  • Project size cap: 500 kW
  • Program cap: 375 MW by 2020 at a "regular annual pace"
  • Term: minimum of 20 years
  • Program launch: 2014
  • Tariffs: "sufficient to stimulate the market" in low-income communities, create a diverse range of project sizes and achieve environmental justice objectives
  • Reporting: annual
  • Administration and Rate Setting: Public Utility Commission (PUC) & local public utilities
  • Cost recovery: ratepayers
  • Cost cap: 0.375% of forecast retails sales in 2020
  • "Eligible" Technologies: Solar Thermal Electric, Photovoltaics, Landfill Gas, Wind, Biomass, Geothermal Electric, Municipal Solid Waste, Energy Storage, Anaerobic Digestion, Small Hydroelectric, Tidal Energy, Wave Energy, Ocean Thermal, Biodiesel, Fuel Cells using Renewable Fuels

It is not clear whether AB 1990 directs the PUC to set tariffs in two bands for those living in disadvantaged communities who can use federal tax subsidies and those who cannot. The bill only notes that the PUC is to take this into account during its deliberations.

AB 1990 contains a potentially onerous provision requiring that each renewable generator be "inspected" by a licensed contractor every two years.

Though utilities are obligated to provide "expedited interconnection," they are exempt from the act’s requirements if they claim the grid is "inadequate," that the generator doesn’t meet the utility’s interconnection requirement, or that the "aggregate of all small-scale renewable generating facilities on a distribution circuit would adversely impact utility operation and load restoration efforts of the distribution system."

Despite these limitations, the introduction alone of AB 1990 by CEJA should put to rest concerns that feed-in tariffs are a regressive form of taxation that penalize the poor. Rather, environmental justice organizers see feed-in tariffs as a more equitable policy tool than existing California programs for developing renewable energy.

Here’s the bill:

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