Rooftop solar seems to have lost some of its shine in Utah, but industry and clean air advocates say the alternative energy source still has a bright future.
Electricity provider Rocky Mountain Power filed its most recent net metering report with the Public Service Commission in July, which indicates some of the changes facing the industry. To date, the utility counts more than 30,000 solar customers. New rooftop solar installations are down by about 23 percent compared to the year before.
Those in the industry say some of the volatility came from Rocky Mountain Power’s phase-out of net-metering, which went into effect last November.
“We have definitely seen some attrition in the industry,” said Ryan Evans with the Utah Solar Energy Association. “However, I think most Utah companies were able to handle the changes.”
With net metering, the power provider paid solar customers the market rate for their excess energy sent to the grid. Solar customers used those credits to offset their bill when the sun wasn’t shining.
Rocky Mountain Power argued net metering caused costs to pile on that were passed on to non-solar customers. After striking a deal with groups like Utah Clean Energy and the Utah Office of Consumer Services, the way the utility compensates its solar customers has changed.
New solar customers are now in a transition mode until 2020 while the utility and its watchdogs decide how to better manage Utah’s solar surge. Transition customers are being paid slightly less than market rates for their solar, rates that are grandfathered until 2033.
Those who had solar installed before November are also grandfathered at their net metering market rates until 2035.
Rocky Mountain Power reported 9,372 customers installed new solar arrays in 2017-2018, just before net metering ended.
Another 212 households and businesses installed solar between November and March, becoming the first round of solar transition customers.
By comparison, the utility counted 12,408 new rooftop solar installations the year before.
Evans said after a few years of massive growth, the solar industry is starting to level off.
“The low-hanging fruit is already taken. Those people interested in solar, if they’d been looking, they went for it in 2016” before net-metering phased out, Evans said.
That leveling off combined with the Trump administration’s tariffs on solar panels have hit some companies hard, he added, but most solar installers have been able to adjust.
“We anticipated we’d see a decline in industry,” he said. “Our whole effort this year has been to minimize that decrease.”
Generating funds for low-income Utahns
Whether grandfathered into net metering or part of the new transitional rate program, Rocky Mountain Power customers only have a year to use solar credits to offset their electricity bills.
The solar generation “year” starts on April 1. Come March 31, if a customer generates more solar credits than what’s needed to power their home, they forfeit the credits.
“It’s in part to make sure net-metering customers aren’t over-designing their system,” said Kate Bowman with Utah Clean Energy. “If your system is designed correctly to meet 100 percent or less of your energy needs, you won’t have expired credits.”
Most rooftop solar customers end up using all their credits. Still, the value of those expired credits is rising rapidly.
In the 2016-2017 generation year, for example, Rocky Mountain Power solar costumers forfeited a total value of $56,494.
But this year, expired credits amounted to $159,840. It’s an unprecedented jump, but Bowman thinks there are a few explanations.
“Sometimes people want to put up more solar (panels) because they are anticipating buying an electric car,” she said. “Or they put solar on roof and became more energy efficient because they’re paying closer attention to their bills and use.”
Utah Clean Energy is taking a closer look at those expired credits as a possible way to help the underserved and further grow the solar industry.
By law, Rocky Mountain Power has to use the expired credits to help low-income electricity customers.
In the past the utility used the credit to offset their costs to run the Home Energy Lifeline Program, or HELP, which gives low-income customers around $13 off their monthly bills.
Instead, Utah Clean Energy has proposed investing expired solar credits in a pilot program that helps low-income households buy rooftop solar.
“Lower-income households have a harder time accessing the benefits of clean energy,” Bowman said.
But they’ve seen some pushback from the Office of Consumer Protection and the Utah Division of Public Utilities.
“We don’t think there’s a well-enough defined program to support, so I’m skeptical,” said Michele Beck with the Office of Consumer Services. “(The credit funds) can help more people by going to weatherization than some low-income solar pilot.”
Rocky Mountain Power is also opposed to directing funds to a pilot solar program for low-income households. Such a program would have a high cost, Hall said, and benefit only a few.
“How many people would even be eligible?” he said. “A lot of people rent (their homes) in those situations.”
As of late Thursday afternoon, the utility proposed sending the expired solar credits to the Salvation Army’s Lend A Hand program as an alternative, which gives donated funds to at-risk individuals and prevents disconnection of their electric service.
For now, Utah Clean Energy has thrown support behind sending the expired solar credits to the Utah Weatherization Assistance Program. But they’d still like to see some of the funds help financially strapped households invest in renewables.
“I think Utah solar customers like knowing when their credits expire, they’re not just disappearing. They’re going to help people lower their utility bills,” Bowman said. “It’s aligned with what solar customers want and what they think their credits should be used for.”