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Grid customers want 'more energy independence': Sunrun CEO

Sunrun CEO Mary Powell breaks down the push for rooftop solar panels during California's energy crisis, energy grid contributions, and energy price affordability.

Video Transcript

RACHELLE AKUFFO: California regulators are looking to reform its rooftop incentive program by raising fees on owners of rooftop solar systems. Well, joining us now to discuss the implications and the future of the state's power grid is Mary Powell, Sunrun CEO. Good to have you on, Mary. So you've called this proposed solar field that connects rooftop solar systems to California's power grid a perilous path. What concerns you most about this?

MARY POWELL: Well, I mean, everything concerns me about it. It's just we need to be working really hard now on creating the grid of the future, which is the grid that's cleaner, more affordable, and more accessible to all. And fundamentally, that is what we're doing by bringing the ability for customers to have greater energy independence and to be able to create their own energy, store it, and use it when it's most affordable and making sense for the grid.

And in fact, we really helped out in a significant way. Our 17,000 customers produced a gigawatt of energy for the California grid during the heat wave. So it's perilous in the sense that there's a huge lost opportunity by not leaning in harder to this amazing resource for the grid of the future.

But it's perilous also in the context of fundamentally because we see so many customers wanting to achieve greater energy independence. If the utilities got their way and doubled the price of solar for customers, they are naturally going to look for ways to defect from the grid. They're going to look at ways to just not be connected, produce their own energy, use it, and not provide it back to the grid when it's most affordable for the grid.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: So as we look at some of these companies, I mean, you have Southern California Edison, you have Pacific Gas and Electric, and San Diego Gas Electric. Now they're saying that this fee is about equity. They're saying that because of the incentives, the savings that solar customers get means that they're not paying their fair share when it comes to contributing to the grid. What are your thoughts on that?

MARY POWELL: Well, my thoughts are that fundamentally, it's inaccurate because fundamentally, this was all based on what is called a lookback study. So much of it was looking back at, candidly, how it was five years ago, how it was a number of years ago. You know, right now, across the country, the industry is providing solar to customers that are in those brackets that most need it. They most need affordability.

And Sunrun has been a leader in providing this alternative to multifamily housing to lower income customers all across the country and all across the state of California. So that's one area where looking back gave an erroneous data point. The other thing is, again, you know, it never anticipated events like we just went through last week in California, where prices hit historic highs, where every bit of energy that our 17,000 customers were providing back to the grid was making the grid more affordable during those days than any other market energy available to the utilities.

So, fundamentally, what I've been saying is, there is so much we can do and benefit from by radically collaborating and creating the grid of the future, and not looking back, but looking forward to the amazing value that can be created by having this much greater distributed, resilient, affordable grid for all.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: So then, if you have the ear of Gavin Newsom then, what would you suggest as a better alternative to the fee? What is a better way to still achieve this, especially since California is trying to be fully green with its grid by 2045?

MARY POWELL: Well, we've been really clear. Again, we see just tremendous opportunity. I was a utility CEO for over 10 years. And it's proven that it can work, that we can radically collaborate. So my message is always, hey, let's give customers what they want. They want more energy independence. They want more resilience. They don't want to be asked to not use energy during critical times, right? They want to power their vehicles.

So let's radically collaborate and create the more affordable grid of the future. It can be done. It's proven in other areas and in other states. So let's just do it. That is always my message. Let's do it. We've got to be customer obsessed. We've got to meet customers where they are and provide them with affordable, resilient options for the future. So that has been our focus. We've been a leader in, again, leveraging these assets in a way that can make the grid more affordable.

And in fact, in Puerto Rico, like, as we all know with Hurricane Fiona, Puerto Ricans are really suffering right now. The grid, like, immediately failed. Like, and again, it's the 100 plus year old way of thinking about delivering energy, so it's no surprise that it would fail during significant climatic events. But our systems have been powering customers through this entire event. Now, thankfully, because so many in our industry have been busy in Puerto Rico for years, you have 50,000 customers that have been able to power through this kind of climatic event.

So, again, there are examples over and over again, where we can make not just a more affordable energy future for the customers we're serving, but for all the customers of the grid by leaning into innovation, leaning into these new technologies, and then leveraging them, along with electric vehicles and the capability we're going to have with electric vehicles to also power the grid from customers' homes. So there's an exciting future ahead for us if we all just radically collaborate and work towards that, and not think about steps that are steps backwards.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: So then just very quickly, as we're running out of time here, what is it going to take, then? What are the biggest challenges in really bringing the price and accessibility of solar down further faster? Because some people don't have it in their area, or they can't afford large upfront costs or don't meet the credit requirements. What are the biggest challenges that you see?

MARY POWELL: Well, one of the most powerful opportunities, again, we've been doing a lot of work in the multifamily space. So again, it is bringing it to those communities that you're talking about. And again, that is the tremendous opportunity that's right in front of us to do that. And with utility rates skyrocketing, with customers now with, again, the recent moves by the Fed, I mean, customers are going to more and more be looking for affordable options, not just affordable, but stability resilient.

So, again, the solutions are there. We just need to work faster to accelerate them. And again, even in California, the regulators have wanted a tripling of solar energy provided to customers to meet their clean energy goals. So doubling the price of solar if the utilities got their way would make no sense in the context of achieving all of the clean energy goals we have ahead of us.