California Public Utilities Commission Votes to Approve Review of Solar Consumer Assistance Fund

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By Benjamin L. Sheinman

On May 19, 2021, Commissioner Guzman Aceves issued a proposed decision to establish a solar consumer assistance fund for Net Energy Metering customers.  This proposal was in response to a broader policy goal of “ensuring that customers experiencing inadequate solar installations receive assistance.”  On July 16, 2021, and concurrent with this rulemaking process,  Governor Newsom signed into law AB 137 (Committee on Budget) (Chapter 77, Statutes of 2021) which requires the California Contractors State License Board (CSLB) to administer a newly established Solar Energy System Restitution Program.  The California State Budget Act of 2021 appropriated $5 million to  CSLB “for the purpose of providing restitution to consumers who have suffered financial loss or injury due to the unlawful acts of a residential solar energy system contractor that has not been and will not be fully reimbursed from any other source.”

Commissioner Aceves subsequently modified her proposed decision to reflect the newly established fund to be administered by CSLB itself and eliminated from the proposal the CPUC fund for solar customers. The revised proposed decision requires Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) to host a workshop when the “Contractors State License Board publishes a notice that it has paid out fifty percent of the available Solar Energy System Restitution Program funds.”  The purpose of the workshop is to review the CSLB program and make broader recommendations to the CPUC.

The proposed decision concludes the “[p]rovision of financial assistance to customers who expended funds on inadequate solar energy systems directly supports the NEM program and the Commission’s statutory duty to support a sustainable distributed renewable generation market in the State.”  Additionally, the decision concludes that “[i]t is reasonable to establish a process to assess the need for a solar consumer assistance fund, based on the CSLB’s distribution of funds under the Solar Energy System Restitution Program.”  Hence, it appears that while the CPUC is deferring to CSLB for the solar fund, it will be monitoring its performance and the fund’s solvency and may not be entirely delegating the matter.

However, on September 23, 2021, the Commission approved the proposed decision of Commissioner Guzman Aceves by a vote of three to two. CPUC President Batjer and Commissioner Houck dissented from the commission’s decision. In her dissenting comments, President Batjer observed that the proposed decision seemed to imply that the Commission had the authority to establish a consumer assistance fund, which she found dubious, stating that such a fund was outside the Commission’s jurisdiction.  Additionally, President Batjer stated that it was not appropriate for the Commission to monitor the Contractors State License Board’s program—and viewed it as an infringement upon that board’s authority.

Subsequent to the Commission’s vote to approve the decision on September 23, 2021, the proceeding was closed.  Any future commission action with regard to a solar consumer assistance fund will now require the opening of a new proceeding.

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