The cost of power in northern California 25 Jul 2021
opinion solar

From my perspective one of the most important steps to address climate change is investment in cleaner power generation. Imagine my displeasure when I started doing the math on some of my recent power bills. Where I live Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) is the predominant utility company but fortunately I am also able to purchase electricity from Sonoma Clean Power. Nevertheless, I still receive a bill from PG&E which is the owner/operator of most if not all of the transmission and generation capacity in the region. In Northern California there is no love lost for PG&E, which has been found responsible for negligence leading to numerous wildfires, gas pipeline leaks, and explosions. Much of this negligence has been due to postponing of forfeiting maintenance in order to recognize higher profits. To add insult to injury, it seems like they skim a healthy margin off of residential producers/consumers as well.

In 2019 I installed solar panels on my roof, and then waited for over six months for “permission to operate” because the transformer the house connects to was too old. That’s another story, but a common one among a long list of deferred upgrades by the company. Once we gained permission to operate, our rate plan switched over to “time of use” with Net Energy Metering. In essence, I pay a variable energy price depending on pre-set off-peak and peak energy rates, and my solar generation can offset the cost of non-solar power used.

This “time of use” type plan has rates defined for winter and summer periods. The current summer rates for me result in $0.35 per kilowatt/hour (kWh) off-peak, and $0.42 per kWh during the peak period from 4pm to 9pm.

It is quite obvious why peak power costs more, there’s a lot more demand in the summer afternoon for air-conditioners, etc. I would hazard a guess that the peak doesn’t start earlier because of a surplus of solar power as the sun is directly overhead from 12-2pm.

The power generation prices that I am paid however for generation are $0.07 for off-peak and $0.13 for peak generation per kWh. That means I have to generate three times more power during peak and five times more power during off-peak in order to break even.

I am a retail consumer of electricity but a wholesale producer.

In 2020 California’s largest production of electricity was from natural gas power plants according to a California Energy Commission report. photo-voltaic solar (panels) were the second largest class of electricity but only produced 1/3 as much energy. California imported almost as much from other states as our own natural gas facilities produced, 81gWh compared to our 92gWh.

In my opinion solar and wind production need to grow and the best way to encourage that behavior is with better rates for clean energy production and poorer rates for carbon-producing ones. The California Public Utilities Commission has the power to influence this behavior, but who knows whether they’re willing to step up.