Going Solar without Rooftop Panels (Renters Too!)

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, I am trying to convince at least ten friends to sign up for 100% renewable electricity if it’s available from their local utility [update: I got far more than that to sign up, but Trump was far worse for both the environment and American democracy than I could have imagined, so this is all the more urgent after four years of catastrophic rule (I can’t use the word “leadership” in this case)].

PG&E Solar Choice is the only option in my area. If you’re in the Bay Area, you often have a better option (links below). I expect that in the next year or so, these options will expand significantly throughout the United States.

How do I get solar energy without rooftop panels? I don’t even own the home I live in.

If you live in certain places, you may be served by a Community Choice Aggregator that lets you sign up for 100% solar energy.

Please know that just because you are part of one of these Community Choice Aggregators that does not mean that you are getting 100% solar electricity. That usually has an extra charge and you must sign up. Please do.

In my area, the only choice is PG&E Solar Choice.

Why do I care?

If we continue on the path we’re on, most models show the beginning of a breakdown of the world economic system around 2050 and with that mass immigration that will make today look like a period of stability.

If we compare the current state of the planet to that predicted by models 25 years ago, we see that the models have not been alarmist. Changes have been either in the mid-range of the predictions (temperature) or at the upper limit of the prediction range (sea-level rise).

Is It Urgent?

We are now faced with a president-elect who believes climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. If so, it’s an expensive hoax — the Chinese spent 103 billion dollars in 2015 on renewable investment. That 2.3 times as much as the US spent. [1] That is some hoax!

The Chinese know what Donald Trump denies: we have waited too long and we now have a very short window of opportunity, but it is not too late. If it were too late, would the Chinese spend hundreds of billions of dollars for nothing? If it were not urgent, would they spend a hundred billion dollars per year?

What can we do?

What can we do in the face of presidential hostility? So many things. If this choice is not your path, resolve to take some positive action, but please take a minute to at least skim the Q&A below.

One concrete action you can take is to source your electricity from renewable sources either through a Community Choice Aggregator (CCA) like Marin Energy or through PG&E Solar Choice, the only option available in my area.

On my October bill, a month when our rental was close to 100% full and we averaged over five adults in the house, this cost me $15 on a $102 bill. To me, this is dirt cheap compared to the long-term costs.

If that seems expensive, consider that Miami is spending $400,000,000 right now to raise their streets and install pumps because the streets now flood on sunny days because the ocean is rising. [2]

Are CCAs and Solar Choice just greenwashing?

CCAs and Solar Choice are encouraging building additional capacity. Here are the outlines as approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

  • Solar Choice electricity must come from small and medium-sized solar farms
  • it must be new capacity that is funded by the surcharge Solar Choice customers pay.

PG&E is required to have 33% renewable by 2020 anyway [4]. Am I just funding them to meet this mandate?

No. The capacity built to serve the Solar Choice program cannot be counted for meeting the requirements of the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and it must fund new capacity. The only exception to this is that if you withdraw from the program, the capacity that you bought goes back into the general pool. This only fair since one year of paying $100 obviously does not fund the capital improvements needed.

The CCAs all have similar or perhaps more stringent requirements.

If it’s “new” capacity, where did the initial capacity come from?

PG&E was allowed to withdraw some solar capacity from the Renewable Portfolio to seed the program to get it started. Again, this means that capacity is no longer part of their renewable portfolio and cannot count toward their state-mandated requirements. So in that sense it is still additional capacity.

In the case of CCAs, they typically were created from scratch with the express purpose of buying renewable power and greening the electricity portfolio of a community. There’s no guarantee that a CCA is green, but in most cases that is the reason it was created. Have a look if there is one in your area.

How much does it cost?

As I say, in my case, last month it cost me $15 on a $102 bill. PG&E has a rate calculator. https://www.pge.com/en_US/residential/solar-and-vehicles/options/solar/solar-choice/rate-calculator.page. I believe Marin Community Electric only charges an extra penny per kWh for 100% solar. For most people, this is not expensive.

Wouldn’t it be better to install rooftop solar?

Perhaps it would be better if each home generated its own power. And perhaps it would be better if every home grew all its own food. It would have been better if we had started working on this back in 1982 when Exxon scientists said that humans needed to cut back on carbon emissions in order to save the planet [5]. But we live in the world we have built as of 2016. It is not an ideal world.

Given the current state of the grid, rooftop solar is attractive mostly because of net metering, where households get to sell electricity at the same rate they buy it, which leaves nobody paying for the upgrades to the grid. Rooftop solar is great, but the fact is that right now we need utility-scale renewable energy until we have a smart grid and a smart storage system that can effectively use distributed energy production.

But this doesn’t change people’s behavior

Almost everyone in the climate movement recognizes today that changes in behavior will not get us where we need to go: a zero-carbon economy. As Bill McKibben says: first organize and then if you have time left over, change out your light bulbs [6].

Isn’t that backward? Actually, no. We simply have to pass legislation and develop utility-scale renewable production. Changes in behavior are not going to get us there unless we’re willing to get by without lights, heat, cars, and air travel. And, for the record, that is not going to happen.

Changing behavior is good, but this isn’t about a moral judgment. It is about real-world solutions that we can enact before it is too late. If we wait until behavior changes, we blow through our carbon budget long before we see viable solutions. It is akin to saying that we should not repeal Jim Crow laws, but should focus on getting people to change behavior.

Perhaps more importantly, moving money is changing behavior and will change behavior. Regulators have long known that charging more for cigarettes and alcohol tends to be a more effective policy than making them illegal. When the price incentives are there, behavior changes. The goal here is to use price incentives to encourage PG&E to change their behavior.

Don’t we need to focus on the social problems like racism and inequality first?

Climate disruption is a key social justice issue of our time. Its impacts are falling disproportionately on the poor and the underrepresented and that will only worsen over time. It is perhaps incorrect to separate climate issues from social issues at all. If we fix the climate and lose democracy, what good is that? If we save democracy at the cost of the planet, what good is that? That said, we can’t simply wait until we fix the social issues before we try to fix the climate. As Bill McKibben wrote in a New York Times op-ed [9],

This makes global warming unique: If you take away Obamacare, poor people will suffer until something replaces it — which would be bad, but that suffering would not make it harder to fix the problem later. Climate change, however, comes with a time limit, which is why senior scientists last week were saying that if Trump carries through with his wager, it might well be “game over.”

And who knows. Looking at this after the devastation that Trump has wrought on both the environment and American democracy, it may be that we will fail to save either.

PG&E is a big for-profit company. What do critics of Solar Choice say?

The Center for Climate Protection position paper argues that Community Choice Aggregators are preferable to Solar Choice because PG&E is a for-profit company and the profits from the sale of solar energy accrues to shareholders rather than staying in the community. I can’t disagree, but there are very few communities (all in the Bay Area currently) where you have an alternative way to purchase 100% renewable energy from a utility. If you live in the Marin Energy service area, by all means choose Marin Energy. I’m not partial to PG&E. It just happens to be the only program available to me and it is not a bad option. Even the Center for Climate Protection says: “PG&E Solar Choice program may be useful for customers who don’t have access to Community Choice Energy programs and who also can’t install solar on their own homes.” [10]

Solar Choice Basics


  1. Chinese investment:  http://www.publicfinanceinternational.org/news/2016/03/china-worlds-largest-investor-renewable-energy
  2. Miami spending 400 million dollars to raise streets: http://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/miami-beachs-400-million-sea-level-rise-plan-is-unprecedented-but-not-everyone-is-sold-8398989
  3. Burlington 100% renewable: http://www.triplepundit.com/2015/02/burlington-vermont-runs-100-renewable-energy/
  4. Renewable portfolio standards: http://www.energy.ca.gov/portfolio/
  5. Exxon scientists agreed on this in 1982: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/12/08/the-rockefeller-family-fund-vs-exxon/
  6. McKibben on Climate One, Oct 21, 2016. https://climateone.org/events/mckibben-and-tamminen-disruptive-climate-and-politics
  7. ACLU membership grows after Bush attack – http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/27/us/after-the-debate-aclu-reports-rise-in-membership-calls-in-wake-of-bush-s-attacks.html
  8. This is a long topic and many ways to approach it, but the simplest is the way the Australian government’s Climate Commission approached it in their 2011 document, “The Critical Decade.” You can think of the planet has having a carbon budget. Once we add another one trillion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere over and above 2000 levels, we will blow through the two-degree threshold and start to see full-scale collapse. Between 2000 and 2010 we spent 30% of that budget. If we had started reductions in 2011, we would need to peak at 3.7% reductions per year to meet our target. Since we have in fact increased carbon output, that isn’t going to happen. If we still haven’t turned the corner by 2020, we will then be faced with the need to reduce carbon output by a staggering 9% per year to stay within our budget. That’s going to be extremely difficult politically and technically, but scientists believe it can still be done. Another decade later, though, our budget is gone and we are headed toward a 4-degree rise and total global catastrophe. See the summary of the Australian report at http://www.skepticalscience.com/the-critical-decade-part-3-emissions-reductions.html
  9. McKibben on why climate is the pressing issue of this year – https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/donald-trump-is-betting-against-all-odds-on-climate-change/2016/11/17/8f7bf4ee-acf4-11e6-977a-1030f822fc35_story.html?utm_term=.269d63b10bc8
  10. CCP position paper: “PG&E’s Solar Choice Program from a Community Choice Perspective,” http://cleanpowerexchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/PGEs-Solar-Choice-Program-CCA-Perspective-March-2016-FINAL.pdf

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