With over 150,000 solar customers, PG&E is now the largest solar utility company in America according to KFSN-TV in Fresno, California. Right now, the boom in solar installations means PG&E is connecting a new solar customer every 11 minutes.
Bill Hanner is the sales manager for one of the largest solar contractors in the Fresno area. He says solar finally makes financial sense for more families. “Everything has come down in price to where it’s acceptable and it’s an expense that most families can handle and it does offset an electrical bill that they’re going to pay anyway. In California, we’re going be looking at what’s called Net Zero Houses in 2020, which means all houses will have solar on them at one point or another.”
PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles says new solar customers include “homes, businesses and schools, and places like the Memorial District.” The Clovis Veterans Memorial District features a 20,200 square foot facility that includes a 350 seat auditorium. It estimates the solar panels it has installed on its parking lot and rooftop are saving more than $90,000 a year in energy costs.
Boyles says it’s a win-win-win situation: “It benefits the customers, obviously. It allows them to manage their energy costs better. It benefits the environment because it’s a source of electricity that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. It’s carbon free. It benefits us.”
While PG&E is happy to work with residential solar customers, it is also developing enormous solar energy facilities of its own, in line with a state mandate to generate 33% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. At present, the state gets only 5% of its power from such sources, so there is a long way to go.
A report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory says only about a quarter of rooftops are suitable for solar power installations due to structural, shading, or ownership issues. “Clearly, community options are needed to expand access to solar power for renters, those with shaded roofs, and those who choose not to install a residential system on their home for financial or other reasons,” the NREL report says.
PG&E is pioneering an innovative community solar program for customers who are not candidates for rooftop solar, particularly renters. The program, called Green Options, allows customers to choose renewable solar power for their residential needs. At present, that program adds 2 – 3 cents per kilowatt to electric bills, but that premium is expect to shrink over time as the cost of traditional electricity rises.
There are many utility companies in America that could learn a lesson from PG&E about how to adapt to changes in the industry.