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There's a fight brewing in California over incentives to go solar

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

There's a fight brewing in California over incentives to go solar. Here's the deal - power companies want to roll back homeowner subsidies so utilities can spend more to upgrade the grid. Environmental groups are split on this; some worry what this might mean for the state's ambitious climate goals. Raquel Maria Dillon from member station KQED reports.

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON, BYLINE: For Luverta Cooper, a retired accountant in Richmond, Calif., installing solar panels, a battery and a heat pump last year was a major investment.

LUVERTA COOPER: It costs - what? - about $43,000.

VERONICA YOUNG: Forty thousand.

COOPER: Forty thousand dollars - OK. So somewhere in there - more than we were expecting.

DILLON: That's her daughter, Veronica Young, chiming in.

YOUNG: We've always had crazy high electric and gas bills. So we used some of her retirement to essentially eliminate the worry about unpredictable energy bills.

DILLON: Utility bills used to run up to $500. Now that the home is all electric, it's $5 a month, and the Coopers are selling the power they generate back to the utility. That means the investment will pay off in about 11 years. But when the Coopers pay less for power, that means their neighbors pay more, says Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, a utility watchdog.

MARK TONEY: It's the other electrical customers who pay the subsidies. The subsidies do not come from the utility companies. It comes from utility customers.

DILLON: For once, TURN has found itself agreeing with the state's investor-owned utilities, but its argument is about equity. Toney says the people with the means to invest in rooftop solar don't look like most Californians.

TONEY: They are whiter and have higher incomes than the average California demographic.

DILLON: Toney says people with rooftop solar should pay their fair share. Meanwhile, utilities argue they need that extra money to maintain infrastructure, build new, greener power plants and bury power lines so they don't start wildfires. The debate has laid bare two competing visions for what solar power should look like. Utilities want large-scale arrays developed out in the desert and built by union labor. Solar installers want a distributed model, small arrays on rooftops across the state. That's the goal at A1 Sun, a family-owned solar installer in Berkeley. Project manager Ben Giustino believes the Public Utilities Commission isn't looking out for ratepayers because it's too close to the investor-owned utilities they regulate.

BEN GIUSTINO: The main gist behind what they're trying to do is to pull the rug out from under competition so they can maintain monopoly.

DILLON: Giustino says the proposed changes to subsidies would cost a dozen jobs here and thousands more statewide. Utilities say larger arrays would create thousands of union jobs. But Giustino worries fewer people will go solar if it doesn't pay off.

GIUSTINO: Your return on investment goes from five to 10 years to (laughter) up to 30 years.

DILLON: Attorney Katie Ramsey with the Sierra Club supports keeping the subsidies but tweaking them to help utilities upgrade the grid and shift to cleaner energy.

KATIE RAMSEY: It is going to be a tall order to build out all of the resources we need to hit our climate targets. California needs a thriving rooftop solar industry.

DILLON: Ramsey says, even if they need some changes now, the current subsidies got California's solar capacity to where it is today, a national model for greening the grid.

For NPR News, I'm Raquel Maria Dillon in Berkeley.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELIAS RIOTS' "SIERRA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Raquel Maria Dillon