Bankruptcy lawyers this week began hashing out the future of PG&E, one of the country’s largest utilities, and with that comes a battle over billions of dollars in renewable energy power.
PG&E filed for chapter 11 protection because of potentially billions in liability over recent wildfires. That has solar and wind companies concerned that the utility will be paying them less, or even nothing in the future. They’ve launched a preemptive strike, asking federal regulators to step in to protect their deals with the utility.
PG&E is one of the nation’s largest buyers of renewable energy, driven by California’s ambitious climate change goals.
In 2002, the state passed a law requiring utilities to get 20 percent of their electricity from sources like solar and wind. Last year, the state put utilities on the hook for 100 percent clean energy by 2045.
“We’ve made them our essential clean energy partners,” says Ralph Cavanagh, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “A federal bankruptcy judge has the ability to disrupt that in many ways.”
In bankruptcy proceedings, the judge takes stock of all the debts a company has and then determines how its limited funds are paid out. One possibility is either reducing or rejecting some of the almost 300 renewable energy contracts on PG&E’s books.
“Suddenly those are at risk,” says Cavanagh. “That’s causing consternation across the renewable energy sector, understandably.”
Some of PG&E’s solar contracts date back more than a decade, when the technology was relatively expensive.
“The contracts that PG&E signed were some of the richest and highest price contracts we’ve seen for clean energy to date in the U.S.,” says Ethan Zindler, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “The price of renewables has dropped really dramatically since when they signed these contracts.”
In its bankruptcy filing, PG&E claims some of the credit for helping renewable energy come of age, saying its contracts “contributed to significant price reductions for renewable energy resources currently available on the market.”
But PG&E is still paying out those contracts, which can last 15 to 20 years. The bankruptcy judge could potentially seek to change their terms or prices.
“It could undermine confidence in California as a clean energy market going forward,” says Zindler.