America’s solar industry supplies less than 1 percent of the electricity in the U.S. but has experienced explosive growth. Unfortunately, there’s growing opposition from the utilities. A recent study by utilities think tank the Edison Electric Institute candidly says solar power is a future threat to the utilities.
A coalition of corporations and right-wing activists is mobilizing to penalize homeowners who install their own solar panels in a wide-ranging new offensive against renewable energy, according to documents obtained by the Guardian.
In 2014, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) will promote legislation to weaken state clean energy regulations and neuter the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They favor stripping the EPA of any meaningful oversight of fracking (even explicitly barring it from shutting down any oil or gas well or facility). They also oppose the EPA’s proposed greenhouse gas emission standards for new and existing power plants and its plan to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
In the first seven months of 2013, ALEC helped get at least 77 anti-environmental bills introduced into 34 statehouses, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.
Some details of ALEC’s strategy were provided by John Eick, the legislative analyst for ALEC’s energy, environment and agriculture program. Eick told the Guardian that the group was worried about homeowners with solar panels being compensated for feeding surplus electricity back into the grid.
“This is an issue we are going to be exploring,” Eick said.
He said ALEC wanted to lower the rate that electricity companies pay homeowners for direct power generation — and possibly even charge homeowners for feeding power into the grid.
“As it stands now, those direct generation customers are essentially free riders on the system. They are not paying for the infrastructure they are using. In effect, all the other non-direct generation customers are being penalized,” he said.
Eick dismissed the proposition that an individual who buys and installs home-based solar panels has made an investment. “How are they going to get that electricity from their solar panel to somebody else’s house?” he said. “They should be paying to distribute the surplus electricity.”
Recently Xcel Energy (a member of ALEC) asked the Colorado Public Utilities Commission for permission to redefine the “net-metering credit” as a subsidy. That’s the price homeowners who have rooftop solar systems receive for sending surplus kilowatt-hours onto the distribution system.
The credit, which Xcel deducts from a homeowner’s bill, is 10.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Xcel wants to lower the credit to 4.6 cents per kilowatt-hour.
A few weeks ago, more than 200 supporters of rooftop solar demonstrated at the Xcel Energy headquarters in Denver and delivered a petition calling for Xcel to withdraw the net-metering proposal. The petition had more than 29,000 names.
Rebecca Cantwell, spokeswoman for the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association, said the proposal “would greatly reduce the economic viability” of rooftop solar arrays.
Net-metering exists in 43 states and Washington, D.C. The possibility of reducing net-metering payments has ignited an uproar in California, Louisiana and Idaho. Regulators in Idaho and Louisiana denied power-company requests to change the rules.
A fierce battle has raged in Arizona, which has 300-plus days of sunshine a year. The Sierra Club says “over 138,000 households in Arizona are currently powered by solar energy, and the state ranks number one in solar jobs per capita.”
A study by Crossborder Energy shows how rooftop solar actually makes money ($34 million more a year) for the utility Arizona Public Service (APS). As a result, there should be an average reduction of $2.58 a month on customers’ bills.
The study cites APS’ own data that shows rooftop solar is a cheaper way for APS to meet its renewable-standard requirement than other renewable sources, and that the power provided by solar users meets peak demands that the utility would otherwise fill by ordering up power from more expensive sources.
APS lobbied hard to impose a surcharge of $50 to $100 a month on solar users. In November, Arizona regulators imposed a $5-a-month surcharge, which was a compromise, but a bad precedent.
We should be encouraging a transition to renewables, not hindering it.