California to Launch Next-Generation Feed-in Tariff for Solar Power

California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued a proposed decision to launch a new renewable incentive program designed to drive mid-sized renewable energy development. This next-generation feed-in tariff program will require investor-owned California utilities to purchase electricity from renewable energy systems between 1 and 20 MW in size.

Advocates at the Vote Solar Initiative and the Interstate Renewable Energy Counsel (IREC) applauded the CPUC for its innovative approach to helping California meet its renewable goals and build a strong new energy economy.

“California has robust policies for developing large, utility-scale solar power plants and for putting smaller systems on homes and businesses, but there is a clear gap in the middle. Yesterday’s CPUC proposal is designed to unlock that missing piece, providing an additional opportunity for solar market and job growth and for quickly bringing massive new amounts of clean energy to the state,” said Adam Browning, Executive Director of Vote Solar. “Although there are a few mechanics of the program still in need of clarification, this proposal largely draws on proven best practices for mid-sized renewable procurement. We look forward to working with the CPUC to finalize those details and get the program up and running.”

“Solar policy should provide the foundations for long-term market growth by providing a transparent process, a level playing field, and a reliable market opportunity,” said Kevin Fox, of the law firm Keyes & Fox LLP, which represents IREC. “This program achieves those larger policy goals through an innovative pricing mechanism that also protects California ratepayers and overcomes the legal challenges that have hindered widespread feed-in tariff development in the U.S.”

The CPUC proposal establishes a 1-gigawatt (GW) pilot program for power from eligible mid-sized renewable energy systems. The program requires California’s three largest investor owned utilities to hold biannual competitive auctions into which renewable developers can bid. Utilities must award contracts starting with the lowest cost viable project and moving up in price until the MW requirement is reached for that round.

The program will use standard terms and conditions to lower transactional costs and provide the contractual transparency needed for effective financing. Development security and relatively short project development timelines ensure project viability. The Commission can act to finalize and adopt the program in as soon as thirty days.

This Renewable Auction Mechanism (RAM) feed-in tariff model addresses many of the challenges facing wholesale renewable energy policy in California and around the world:

Mid-Sized Project Size Expedites Solar Development

CPUC analysis identifies transmission as the single most significant barrier to development of large-scale renewable projects that have been the focus of much utility solar activity to date. While the state works out its transmission solutions, this proposed program stimulates immediate activity by establishing a market for smaller (up to 20 MW) renewable projects that can be incorporated into existing utility distribution infrastructure. These smaller projects will also likely be easier to finance, another critical hurdle in the current economic climate.

Market-Based Pricing Delivers Long-Term Value in a Dynamic Market

Some governments have used fixed-price feed-in tariffs to incentivize renewable energy development. One point of difficulty has been getting the fixed pricing right. If the price is set too low, it does not stimulate the desired level of market activity. If the price is set too high, ratepayers pay unnecessary costs, suppliers throughout the value chain are not encouraged to reduce prices, and the program can lose political support. In contrast, the CPUC program uses competition to establish a price that is both sufficient for project development and protective of ratepayers.

By continuing to deliver maximum ratepayer value by driving down installed solar costs and capturing changes in market conditions, the bidding mechanism is also more likely to provide a long-term market for the growing solar industry.

Market-Based Pricing Overcomes Legal Hurdles

Last month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruled that states do not have the authority to establish wholesale electricity rates that exceed utility “avoided costs.” The CPUC program overcomes this jurisdictional challenge by instead requiring utilities to purchase a certain type of energy (e.g. from renewable energy systems under 20 MW in size with particular power characteristics) and letting market mechanisms determine the price.

Vote Solar is a non-profit grassroots organization working to fight climate change and foster economic opportunity by bringing solar energy into the mainstream. Since 2002 Vote Solar has engaged in state, local and federal advocacy campaigns to remove regulatory barriers and implement the key policies needed to bring solar to scale.

The Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) is a premier resource for current information, education, credentialing and best practices regarding renewable energy.