February 19, 2003

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Sweeping the debt away

IN THE LATEST attempt by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to stifle solar power, the utility is lobbying to impose millions of dollars in fees on clean energy. –A proposal pending before the California Public Utilities Commission would levy charges, known as "exit fees," on solar-powered electricity produced in homes and businesses, dramatically increasing the cost of using private solar panels and fuel cells.

Critics say the commission, which wants the fees to help cover debts from the energy crisis, has been influenced by utilities like PG&E, a longtime opponent of small consumers using alternative energy.

The fees would be set at a minimum of 2.7 per kilowatt hour, increasing the cost of electricity from solar panels and fuel cells by 20 to 30 percent, alternative energy advocates say. That could be enough of a price spike to stunt the market for clean power in California just as it begins to mature.

A new fee on solar power could hit San Francisco harder than any other city in the state, because two years ago voters approved funding for the largest city-funded solar energy network in the world, which will lead to the installation of solar panels on city and private buildings.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution Feb. 11 opposing exit fees on solar power and forwarded it to the CPUC.

Commissioner Carl Wood, who helped draft the proposed exit-fee policy and whose office has received hundreds of protest e-mails, said he now supports an alternate proposal by Commissioner Loretta Lynch that would exempt "clean and ultraclean" technologies from the charges.

"I came to the conclusion that we could design an exemption that would shelter these extremely clean technologies and allow for their full development while not placing a huge burden on other customers [to shoulder costs from the energy crisis alone]," he said.

But solar advocates aren't satisfied with the Lynch plan. They say it exempts only 200 megawatts of clean power from the fees, which isn't enough to accommodate future growth. And the plan may still force renewable-energy users to help bail out the debt of private utilities.

"It's a step in the right direction," said David Hochschild, director of Vote Solar, "but we clearly need a categorical exemption that will pave the way for clean power to grow significantly." (Josh Harkinson)