2013 a year of solar wins against utilities

Several utilities lost fights to reduce net metering payments for rooftop solar this year.

“It’s the end of the year and it’s time to count the wins and the losses,” said Bryan Miller, , co-chair of The Alliance for Solar Choice and VP of public policy and power markets for Sunrun. “The utilities launched a coordinated attack on distributed solar generation and their goal was to dismantle net metering laws throughout the country.”

Net metering is the name for the practice of utilities buying excess power from distributed generations systems such as rooftop solar arrays. In most of the states where it has been controversial, utilities credit customers at the retail rate.

Miller said utility efforts failed.

Louisiana, Idaho and Georgia all quashed utility attempts to reduce net metering benefits or charge major fees to solar customers before the utility debates even became high profile headlines.

That didn’t happen until Arizona Public Service campaigned for the Arizona Corporations Commission to allow it to charge an additional $50 to $100 a month to rooftop solar customers. The utility argued that solar customers aren’t paying their share of grid maintenance, which will ultimately raise rates on non-solar customers.

APS spent millions on its campaign, stirring controversy about “dark money” and underhanded tactics including the creation of fake grassroots groups against solar, Miller said.

The millions were a waste. The Corporations Commission voted to allow APS to raise fees to solar customers by as much as $5 a month – a fraction of what the utility requested.

“Several states have decided not to change net metering even though utilities have spent 10's of millions.” Miller said.

And he expects utility attempts to continue to fail.

“What’s happened is that the utilities have overreached and engaged in a fight against something the public wants,” Miller said. “State regulators are simply listening to the public.”

California passed legislation that guarantees the future of net metering in the state. Now, the industry is looking to Colorado, where Xcel Energy has proposed net metering changes.

“They were looking to the Arizona decision to pave the way for them,” Miller said.

Arizona’s intensely conservative political climate should have been ideal for APS. But pubic sentiment through all of the campaigning and massive spending on anti-solar marketing didn’t make a dent in public opinion.

“If that utility that was in the best possible position and the best possible political environment couldn’t do it, others are going to be looking at that,” Miller said.

Xcel’s proposal in Colorado is different from that in most of the other states where changes were attempted this year. Individual homeowners who have solar arrays will still get the same credit. But the utility is asking to count more than 6 cents of the 10.5 it pays per kilowatt hour to solar customers as a subsidy. That means it can take the 6 cents from a state renewable energy fund financed through an allowable 2 percent annual rate increase. And that means distributed solar would essentially be capped.

While utilities are still proposing new ways to whittle away at net metering, the emergence of TASC and other organizations in 2013 made a big impact.

“Utilities had accomplished quite a bit coming into 2013,” Miller said. “Now, the tables have turned.