California solar contractors can still install energy storage systems (for now)

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The Attorney General of California filed in San Francisco Superior Court a written stipulation agreeing to voluntarily stay enforcement of the Contractor State License Board (CSLB)’s July 27 decision limiting the ability for California’s solar contractors (C-46) to install solar paired with energy storage projects. As a result, C-46 solar contractors may continue to install solar and storage systems throughout California on and after November 1, 2021.

The decision also means that the work of a C-46 contractor installing stand-alone solar or solar paired storage systems may continue to be done through the contractor’s existing trained and experienced solar workforce, and not be limited to hiring Certified Electricians, as required by the CSLB’s July 27 decision. CALSSA contends that there is a severe shortage of Certified Electricians and that they do not necessarily bring public safety benefits compared to the existing specialized solar workforce. The CSLB upheld the existing practice of allowing General A and General B license holders to continue installing solar and solar paired storage systems without using Certified Electricians as well.

We discussed this issue toward the end of our debut Power Forward! episode:

“This is a huge relief, albeit temporary, for hundreds of contractors up and down the state,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar & Storage Association (CALSSA). “The restrictions suddenly imposed this past summer were devastating and came at a time when consumers and the state as a whole desperately need more reliable clean energy, not less.”

The stay agreed to by the CSLB stands until “this action is finally resolved, and the Petitioner-Plaintiff has agreed to withdraw its motion in exchange,” as stated in the stipulation. In other words, the stay on enforcement is good until the CSLB has promulgated new regulations or CALSSA has dropped its lawsuit. The bottom-line is contractors holding a C-46 solar license can continue to install solar and storage systems for at least 12-18 months, and possibly longer depending on the outcome and timeline of any new regulations.

This decision to stay enforcement was made by a majority vote of the CSLB on Sept. 29, and the written stipulation filed with the Court was negotiated between the Attorney General representing the CSLB and CALSSA’s litigation team. It represents a major victory in defense of California’s solar and storage industry but not the end of the road.

“Much more work lies ahead to ensure that any new regulations are clear, consistent, and not harmful to our industry,” said Del Chiaro. “We sincerely hope the CSLB will work with CALSSA going forward and not try to cut corners again.”

With this written stipulation, CALSSA has agreed to put a hold on its Preliminary Injunction which would have sought a court-ordered stay on enforcement. The voluntary stay has the same effect and was arrived at sooner than a court would have. CALSSA has not put a hold on its lawsuit claiming that the decision and subsequent bulletins are illegal, underground regulations but is willing to enter settlement negotiations with the CSLB.

“We won’t put a hold on our lawsuit until the Board concludes a legal decision-making process for any future regulations and carefully considers what it means to our industry, especially small businesses which make up the majority of our contractor base,” said Del Chiaro.

CALSSA points out that the threat of future licensing restrictions remains at the CSLB. The difference is, thanks to CALSSA’s litigation, any new restrictions would be arrived at through a rule-making process that adheres to the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). Such a process typically takes 12-18 months and, according to the law, must be based in fact, be clear and consistent, and consider economic impacts especially to small businesses. If the new regulations don’t adhere to the APA, then CALSSA could decide to take CSLB once again to court.

“It is CALSSA’s sincere hope that this will not be necessary,” clarified Del Chiaro. “But the solar and storage industry is here to stay. We might be small compared to our opponents in the fossil fuel industry, but we work together to speak with one voice.”  

In addition to the existential fight at the licensing board, CALSSA is also engaged in a consequential battle over the future of Net Energy Metering (NEM) at the California Public Utilities Commission. The same labor union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) that pushed the illegal regulations at the CSLB were also behind AB 1139, a bill that mirrored the NEM fight at the CPUC and would have devastated the rooftop solar industry harming existing and future consumers. The bill was shot down by the legislature in June but only after a grueling battle that required the engagement of thousands of voters, small businesses, and environmental groups.

“This has been quite the year and we are not out of the woods yet,” reflected Del Chiaro. “Our hope is that Governor Newsom exerts some leadership and protects the current and future growth of distributed solar and energy storage in California.”

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