Energy utilities have been perceived, by some, as proponents of conventional forms of energy such as natural gas, nuclear and coal, and less supportive of newer, renewable energy sources. However, one of the largest utility companies from the United States stands out as a “green” leader and strong proponent of renewable energy, more specifically, solar PV. By 2020, they are expecting that more than 10% of their generation mix will be in the form of solar energy.  Additionally, approximately 160,000 of its customers have solar systems on their roofs -- and this number is currently growing by about 50,000 customers per year.  Furthermore, it will soon be launching an option whereby all customers can go 100% solar through a new Community Solar program.

David Rubin - Director of Service Analysis, PG&E

David Rubin - Director of Service Analysis, PG&E

Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) is in a unique position as a proponent of renewable energy solutions. While some utilities view solar as a disruption, PG&E believes solar is a definite opportunity. According to Director David Rubin of PG&E, “We believe that solar is an integral part of our energy mix, and an important way for some of our customers to meet their energy needs directly through onsite generation.  Our new Community Solar program will further expand these opportunities to customers who may not have a roof suitable for solar.”

Just how did PG&E come to the realization that solar presents an opportunity rather than a predicament? Attests Mr. Rubin, “PG&E has conducted extensive customer research, including five studies since 2008, to gauge customer interest in a renewable energy option like the Community Solar program we will initiate in the coming months. The studies have consistently shown that there exists a strong interest within PG&E’s customer base for a renewable energy option.”

A study from 2012 of small and medium business (SMB) and residential “green-minded” customers revealed that 42 percent of residential respondents and 43 percent of SMB respondents rated their interest in the proposed green pricing program “high”, meaning that they had strong interests in renewable energy, but equivalently lower interests in paying higher costs.

After sifting through the data obtained from their research, PG&E was able to consider various green options, with the most viable being their Community Solar program, which will expand the universe of customers who can support new solar development. Asserts Mr. Rubin, “PG&E recognizes the three key elements that make our overall solar program unique. Firstly, PG&E procures a significant amount of solar energy to meet its customers’ energy needs. We expect that approximately 15% of our total electricity sales will come from solar power by 2020. Secondly, PG&E helps customers who wish to generate solar energy from their own rooftop systems to interconnect with PG&E’s grid safely and quickly. Currently, more than 160,000 (close to 3%) of PG&E’s electric customers have solar systems on their roofs. This represents about a quarter of all such systems within the US. Finally, PG&E is preparing to launch a Community Solar program that will allow customers who are not able or do not wish to install a system on their roof to support the development of new solar systems sited in local communities.”

How does this innovative ‘green option’ work?

•      PG&E will contract for energy from newly developed small and mid-sized solar projects located within its service area, preferentially located close to enrolling customers.  Customers may enroll for 50% or 100% of their electric usage.

•     Participants will receive a bill credit for avoided PG&E generation rates plus a solar value adjustment. The estimated premium is initially expected between 2-3 cents/kWh. It is likely to fall over time as solar costs decline relative to the cost of PG&E’s standard power.

•      The program will be open for enrollment until January 1, 2019, or until the cap of 272 MWs is reached, whichever comes first.  Of the 272 MWs, up to 42 MWs must come from projects located within disadvantaged communities, sized between 0.5 and 1 MW.

•      There will also be a separate program track, called “Enhanced Community Renewables”, where solar developers will work to attract at least 3 customers to a specific project that is originally located within a defined geographic distance from these customers.  Projects will initially be sized 0.5 to 3 MWs.  Any energy from these projects not subscribed by enrollees will get paid a lower price.

California users can look forward to taking advantage of PG&E’s community solar gardens, while the rest of the country must wait for other utilities to follow suit. In the meantime, however, solar enthusiasts and key market players from all over the world should join Mr. David Rubin on May 27, 2015 at The Solar Future NL in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, where Mr. Rubin will be presenting the PG&E approach and discussing what aspects of their green option can be applied to the various European solar markets going forward.