Q&A: Utah Consumer Services director breaks down the RMP solar settlement

Monday , September 04, 2017 - 12:00 AM

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

Rocky Mountain Power reached a settlement with rooftop solar advocates last week on net-metering, but as with many things utility-related, the settlement is long, cryptic and confusing.

Michele Beck, director of the Utah Office of Consumer Services, played a big role in drafting the settlement and finding a solution in the interest of all power customers, both solar and non-solar. She answered some lingering questions on what the settlement means, if it’s approved by the Public Service Commission, and helped unwind some of its complexities. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Standard-Examiner: Can you explain what your office does and why you were involved in the net-metering settlement?

Michele Beck: We are, by state statute, the consumer advocates for residential and small commercial consumers of public utilities in Utah. That’s, of course, both solar and non-solar customers. Obviously there are a lot more non-solar customers, but we need to make sure we’re fair to everyone. We were involved in this process to have a say in what’s fair to customers who already have solar, and what’s fair to customers who might be subsidizing solar in their rates and how we have an orderly transition to a new paradigm. 

We weren't trying to save solar or harm solar; that wasn’t our position. We just wanted to focus on customers. Rocky Mountain Power almost always says everything they do is on behalf of customers, but we also know they have a duty to their shareholders. I do not have dual missions. We are here solely to represent rate payers.

SE: Explain, in a nutshell, what the settlement does. 

Beck: What people need to know is, it’s not quite immediate, but net metering is ending on Nov. 15. I’m worried a little bit that solar companies are out there trying to get you some last-minute sales. It’s important to remember it takes a while to do the research, get financing and contacts in place to install a rooftop solar system. That 60-day grace period was mostly for those midway through the process, to finish out in the paradigm they started in. Then, immediately on Nov. 15, there’s a transition period in play. It fixes prices for that period, but it doesn’t mean the rest of us are doing nothing. We’ll be launching a new docket with the Public Service Commission at that point, bringing in specific evidence on the cost and benefits of rooftop solar.

SE: The transition period is likely going to last three years, while parties gather evidence on those costs and benefits.

Beck: Some have said, ‘Aren’t you just kicking the can three years?’ I don’t think that’s the case. What happened in this (current) docket is Rocky Mountain Power came in with a new rate design for net metering. They kept net metering in place, but added demand charges, a monthly fee, a bunch of unpopular things you already know about. Now we have a new paradigm in place. Rather than net metering that nets energy, what’s consumed and exported across a whole month, we’re moving to 15 minute-interval.

All exports get credited. Rather than averaging costs and putting big fixed costs onto customers, it’s instead valuing energy exported form rooftop solar at an appropriate level. I think it’s really focusing issue, which focuses argument.

SE: Why move to a 15-minute netting interval?

Beck: When you net across an entire month, the amount of power you’re exporting varies by customer. Some customers have only a few panels, just carving off the top of their usage. But some have a lot of panels. So when you net during the month, even though the sun shines only a few hours, it looks like you’re producing so much it wipes out the entire bill. It muddies the water in what are you consuming during the time it’s generated versus when you’re banking on the system to meet needs. That’s one of the big changes that happens immediately — separating consumption from production.

When solar panels aren’t generating, but you are consuming power, you pay the same as everyone else. If you’re at home charging an electric vehicle and nothing gets exported, then you’re offsetting your own use. But if no one is home using power during the day, each one of those credits is being counted, counted, counted and added up at 9.2 cents per kilowatt-hour.

You don’t get a check for it, of course. You get a credit on your bill.

SE: Is there anything you’re disappointed with? Do you feel you had to make any concessions?

Beck: I definitely feel good about it overall. I feel I can really defend this as being in the public interest and balancing different customer interests. At the same time, we definitely made concessions that were not my first choice and landed in places that were not my first choice, but that’s the nature of compromise.

I also feel state of Utah is better off in that we found a compromise. We watched what happened in Nevada and Arizona with their net-metering. It was ugly. The negative effects of the fight really spilled over into a lot of arenas. 

SE: Some solar panel installers have expressed a concern with the transition period cap. Only 170 megawatts of residential or small commercial and 70 megawatts of larger commercial can be installed until the commission decides how to value solar. Why did you decide to go this route? 

Beck: Again, everything is part of a compromise. Some parties like it a lot, some think it’s too high, some don’t like it all or think it’s too low. The reason we went with it is because the difference in cost of what’s being credited to those exports ... it does get passed through other customers. We wanted to limit the liability on that.

SE: So you’re covering your bases, in case the Public Service Commission does indeed find out non-solar customers are subsidizing solar ones?

Beck: We need to characterize it differently. We’ve made no decision on whether there’s a subsidy or not. The value might be higher than we expect or lower than we expect. But for the transition, it is a liability for other customers. 

SE: Explain this state-run rooftop solar website included in the settlement.

Beck: I’m really hopeful about it. We want it to be something that tells the specifics of this settlement and the specifics of how you well be compensated for solar. I know our office, solar companies and solar advocates want customers to have good information. We’re concerned there are some bad players out there, so we want to have place people can go to verify things so they’re not reliant on a salesperson or salesperson’s characterization of the facts.

We can’t launch that website though, until we the settlement gets approval from the Public Service Commission.

The Public Service Commission is expected to make a decision on the net-metering settlement during a hearing on Monday, Sept. 18. For more information, visit the commission website at psc.utah.gov.

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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