Regulators in California on Thursday voted for upholding the state's net metering policy – a system that compensates residential users of solar panels for their excess electricity – amid huge shifts in the power industry.

California is home to the most number of residential solar panel users across the United States, and the decision by the state's Public Utilities Commission maintained net metering by a vote of 3 to 2.

With it, residential users of solar panels are allowed to keep selling the excess electricity they generate back to the PUC at the full retail rate.

The commission's decision was closely watched by executives and energy officials from all over the country, who are dealing with changes in the power industry due to the spread of renewable energy.

"This decision creates certainty for consumers," said Director Sara Baldwin Auck of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. "It creates certainty for clean energy providers, it creates certainty for investors and it upholds California's strong tradition of clean energy leadership."

Although residential solar panel users applaud net metering because it also lowers their power bills, the policy has been slammed by utilities and ratepayer advocates. They say the policy rewards solar users while leaving others to shoulder the cost of maintaining the electricity grid.

This is the very heart of the issue: how to properly value electricity when it flows from customers to utilities, rather than the other way around. Auck said more than 20 states nationwide are now re-examining their own policies.

Installers and solar advocates argue that customers should receive the retail rate because the power they generate helps the power industry by lowering strain on the grid or helping lessen the need to buy power at expensive prices.

Still, ratepayers and the utilities, which lose out on power sales, insist that residential solar power users place an undue burden on nonsolar customers.

The PUC said it was difficult to balance its desire to support the growth of residential rooftop solar panels, while making sure customers still pay their fair share. In the end, PUC President Michael Picker, who voted in favor of the policy, says there is still a long way to go.

"I will be the first to say that I think we really have a ways to go before we have a really enduring rooftop strategy," added Picker.

Photo : Nicolás Boullosa | Flickr

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