Utah solar advocates generating support ahead of Aug. 9 net metering hearing

Wednesday , July 26, 2017 - 5:15 AM1 comment

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct a quote from Michele Beck. We regret the error. 

Utah solar advocates are working to amp up support ahead of a hearing next month on Rocky Mountain Power’s proposed changes to net metering.

The proposal would drastically change the way residential rooftop solar customers are billed for their electricity use and paid for their power generation. The Utah Public Service Commission will hold a public hearing on the issue Aug. 9. In the meantime, groups like the Sierra Club and Utah Clean Energy are rallying their supporters to submit comments to the commission. 

“We work to try and let people know there is a public comment period, as well as a public witness day where they can go in person,” said Lindsay Beebe, Beyond Coal organizer for the Utah Sierra Club. “The way the Public Service Commission works ... it’s not an easy space to get public involvement because it is such a technical space, that’s why we try to break through the technical jargon and let people know they have a voice.”

Net metering pays rooftop solar customers for the surplus power they send back to the grid. As the number of rooftop installations rise, however, Rocky Mountain Power says they’re not paying their fair share for use of that grid. 

The amount the utility pays for homemade solar, too, is significantly more than what it pays for power from large-scale solar plants, they argue.

Read more about the Rocky Mountain Power net metering proposal:

Rocky Mountain Power proposes new rates for rooftop solar customers

Proposed solar charges from Rocky Mountain Power cause customer confusion

Survey shows mounting effort to rally opposition to higher solar fees

Small-scale utilities mull solar and net-metering impacts

“We pay three times as much for rooftop solar as we do from solar farms,” said Jon Cox, spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power. “We’re just trying to resolve that. Ultimately, if they’re trying to sell it to us, we think we should be able to purchase at a fair market rate.”

The utility has around 20,000 rooftop solar customers in Utah, but they expect that number to grow considerably.

“We believe solar is here to stay. It’s only going to grow — we certainly use a significant amount of solar to power our customers throughout the state,” Cox said. “We would like to find a sustainable path forward, where we can do that without requiring our other non-rooftop solar customers to pay more.”

The utility estimates non-solar customers have to kick in $6.5 million each year to support rooftop solar, and those costs could grow to $78 million as more homes install panels.

With the net metering proposal, new net metering customers would pay a charge of $9.02 per kilowatt during high-demand periods. Solar customers would also pay an additional 3.81 cents per kilowatt-hour for energy used. The utility figures the average solar customer’s bill will rise by $20 a month, but industry experts say it could jump by as much as $85. 

The Standard-Examiner wrote a deeper dive on proposed cost changes in November, when the proposal went public

Solar advocates argue those increased rates would have a crippling effect on the panel installation industry in Utah. It could kill the incentive for most middle-class homeowners to invest in solar.

“In Nevada, there was public outcry ... when a similar rate structure passed in 2015, the solar industry tanked,” Beebe said. 

The commission has received a steady stream of comments since November, but the number has jumped recently. On July 20, the commission received 155 emailed public comments alone, compared to 14 for the entire week before. The comments are mostly boiler-plate letters expressing concerns that Rocky Mountain Power hasn’t truly considered the benefits rooftop solar provide to the grid. 

Utah Clean Energy conducted its own analysis of Rocky Mountain Power’s numbers and found its estimates misleading.

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“There are a few ways it undervalues the benefits provided by rooftop solar and overvalues the costs,” said Kate Bowman, solar project coordinator for Utah Clean Energy. “One thing their analysis does is include the bill credits that rooftop solar customers receive as ‘costs,’ when in reality they’re not costs incurred to the utility.”

Rocky Mountain Power also didn’t include the value of the power rooftop panels generate. Because it’s produced locally, less is lost as it travels along transmission lines. In fact, they figure rooftop solar brings a net benefit of $1.3 million to all customers on Rocky Mountain Power’s grid.

Michele Beck, director of the Utah Office of Consumer Services, has conducted her own analysis of the Rocky Mountain Power proposal. Her office represents residential, small commercial and agricultural interests in the confusing world of monopoly utilities. 

“Our position is that there are several elements in the Rocky Mountain Power proposal that are not in the public interest, that are really contrary to the public interest,” Beck said. “On the other hand, our analysis and evaluation of the evidence shows that net metering ... does provide a subsidy to the residential customers who choose to have rooftop solar.”

Beck figures the costs non-solar households pay to support those with rooftop solar to date are “relatively small.” Still, it’s important to develop an equitable cost structure now as the solar industry continues to grow.

“Our position is we don’t need to do an immediate cut to something new, but it’s time for us to get it solved and … design a rate that would be more fair,” she said. “Make it a glide-path so it doesn’t immediately or unduly harm the solar industry.”

While public comments continue to pile up at the Public Service Commission, Rocky Mountain Power, the Utah Office of Consumer Service and solar advocates are working together to development a settlement that addresses concerns on all sides.

The details of that settlement, however, remained under wraps at the time of publication.

“Certainly people are interested in moving toward solar and renewables, also I think people feel very strongly about having the fundamentals change after they make an investment decision,” Beck said. “At the same time, I read most of the public comments. There are, embedded in these public comments, a lot of misperceptions of the system, the value of solar and how utility rates are set.”

The August 9 public witness hearing session begins at 2 p.m. at the Fourth Floor Hearing Room 403, Heber M. Wells Building, 160 East 300 South in Salt Lake City. The commission extended the hearing time, which will now end at 6:30 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. Written comments can be submitted to psc@utah.gov and should include Docket No.14-035-114

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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