Protests in San Diego against utility rate changes that could adversely affect solar customers have escalated this week ahead of today's committee hearing on new legislation that could add a controversial fixed charge to customers' bills and weaken net energy metering incentives.

On Wednesday, campaigners picketed outside Sempra Energy, the headquarters of San Diego Gas & Electric, amid accusations that utility companies have targeted Latino legislators in Sacramento by claiming that poorer Hispanic communities are being asked to subsidise rooftop solar for wealthier customers.

Included in the proposals put forward by Assembly Bill 327 are measures to apply a $10 fixed monthly fee to utility bills, a proposal that is also being considered by the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) as part of rate design changes.

Evan Gillespie, director for the Sierra Club's My Generation clean energy campaign, said: "The bill enables rate changes that are currently impermissible under state law. If you live in a giant house with AC on all the time or you live in a very small apartment, everybody pays the same amount, $10 a month."

Currently only SCE has a fixed charge of $1 a month, while PG&E charges customers $4.50 a month distribution fee.

"That's the concern that over time we'll see new fees and fixed charges and we start to shift away from being charge for the energy you're using," he said. "It's like a cable bill where you pay a flat charge and you get to watch as much TV as possible. That harms solar and discourages energy efficiency."

Assembly member Henry Perea, who represents Fresno, a city in the Central Valley with a large Latino population, sponsored the legislation. If AB327 does not make it out of committee stage today, it will miss the deadline of 15 September when the legislative session ends.

“We know that the big utilities in California like Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, and San Diego Gas & Electric are heavily lobbying Latino leaders in the state legislature,” said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, a Latino pressure group. “The utilities are trying to get Latino leaders to support efforts to obstruct California’s rooftop solar growth. California Latino voters support rooftop solar by wide margins. Latino leaders in the state legislature should listen to Latino voters instead of siding with the big utilities.”  

Earlier this month, Presente.org released a satirical video lampooning SCE's attitude to solar. The utilty responded by issuing a cease and desist order to remove the content. You can watch the video here.

In an earnings call by the parent company earlier this month, Edison International, Ted Craver, chairman, president and chief executive officer, said:

"[It's] important to our ability to develop electric infrastructure while limiting rate impacts is rate design reform… Especially important is the ability to recover fixed costs through a charge carried by all residential customers.

"This is important because California policies encouraging residential rooftop solar are subsidising those who install rooftop solar and shifting fixed costs of those who do not. Assembly Bill 327 has bipartisan support and provides the CPUC the authority to reduce current subsidies between upper and lower tier residential rates, and allow over time for a more meaningful monthly fixed charge up to $10 per month."

"SDGE supports solar in fact we have about 126,000 solar customers with rooftop solar on their homes and businesses today," Stephanie Donovan SD&E spokeswoman told local media. "It's a good thing. But the way it is today without a change in the rate structure – it's not sustainable."

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