California has long led the nation in rooftop and utility-scale solar installations. That’s great news if you’re a homeowner who can afford to put panels on your roof or a customer who is fortunate enough to have your utility invested in renewable energy generation. But what about access to solar energy for the nearly half of Californians who rent or have incomes too low to own their own systems?  

Last month, California put itself on a pathway to solve that problem and once again become a pioneer by bringing solar access to all residents. If regulated properly by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), California Assembly Bill (AB) 2316 will unleash community solar plus storage, expanding clean energy access while prioritizing low-income customer participation, cutting electric bills for millions of Californians, and strengthening the state’s power grid — a powerful trifecta to accomplish the state’s policy priorities.

AB 2316 charges the CPUC with two main responsibilities. First, the bill directs the CPUC to permit the construction, integration, and operation of locally-sited combined solar power generation and storage facilities in utility service areas. Secondly, the legislation requires that the CPUC evaluate existing programs, such as California’s incumbent community solar program, and report to the state legislature its justification for altering, retaining, or discontinuing them altogether.

“This new program can set a new standard for clean energy,” said Derek Chernow, Western Regional Director at the Coalition for Community Solar Access. “It will make affordable and reliable clean energy available to millions of Californians who have been unfairly left behind in the clean energy transition. By signing AB 2316, Governor Newsom cemented California’s role leading the next wave of clean energy growth across the country.”

The legislation comes at a time when communities and ratepayers in the Golden State are facing the challenges of a power system poorly suited to the mounting effects of climate change and the consequences of an inequitable energy transition. These challenges include power system disruptions that extreme weather events exacerbate — as the oppressive heat wave in early September showed. Consequently, the service reliability, human health, and financial advantages of clean energy technologies have often failed to benefit disadvantaged communities. According to proponents of AB 2316, the bill is designed to address these interrelated challenges. Once a community renewable energy program is established, the law states that a minimum of 51 percent of community solar subscribers must be low-income customers, ensuring that more access is granted to communities that often are left out of the renewable energy marketplace.

A recent industry analysis found that California could easily have 360MW of community solar plus storage in place by Summer 2024 and 800MW of community solar plus storage power online by Summer 2025 if rulemaking processes called for in AB 2316 were executed by the CPUC by the end of 2023. This would be a boom for union-wage clean energy jobs and broader clean energy access to boost California’s climate fight. It would also help fill California’s projected energy gap of 2,700MW for the Summer of 2024 if extreme events fueled by climate change create a demand surge and electricity supply shortage.

“Community solar is uniquely situated to not only come online quickly to address the state’s electricity reliability challenges, but to do so in a way that extends clean energy access to those historically left out of the clean energy economy,” said Brandon Smithwood, Senior Director of Policy for Dimension Renewable Energy. “If regulators, policymakers, and the industry align, we could see a rapid scaling of community solar that could exceed expectations.”

Additionally, the bill will require prevailing wages for workers and align with federal tax credits for storage installations and maximize access to federal funds recently created under the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The bill also intends to provide more support for meeting efficiency mandates in the complex California Building Standards Code, which include solar systems paired with storage in construction of multi-family housing and nonresidential construction in 2023. Lastly, to ensure costs don’t get shifted to non-participating customers, AB 2316 stipulates that both the price an offtaking utility company would pay for community solar-generated electricity and the amount which said utility company would rebate community solar subscribers would correspond with the market value of that power.

It’s no mystery why AB 2316 passed the California State Legislature by a broad, bipartisan majority with widespread support from not just solar developers, but also environmental justice organizations, consumer advocates, utility workers, and the industry at large. The law, if acted upon favorably by CPUC and done in a timely fashion, could be the glue to bringing together the various aspects of California’s clean energy transition while ensuring long-marginalized communities are provided equal access to community solar.