Next two weeks could decide Utah’s rooftop solar future


In Utah, like many places across the U.S., a years-long surge in new rooftop solar panel installations is being thrown some shade.

Rooftop solar has been booming nationally, with the number of solar panel installations increasing by an estimated 900 percent over the past six years as part of a larger increase in overall solar energy production.

Over that same timeframe, the cost of a typical solar panel dropped more than 60 percent, and a combination of federal and local tax credits, state-by-state incentive programs and companies armed with financing plans to limit up-front costs has encouraged an estimated 20,000 homeowners statewide to go solar on their rooftops.

According to a Department of Energy report, solar generation was responsible for 5,894 jobs across Utah in 2017.

“Utah’s affordable, abundant energy sources support our diverse economy and high quality of life,” said Ben Hart, managing director at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, during the unveiling earlier this year of a state-sponsored 10-year plan to expand rooftop solar programs. “Solar is one of Utah’s fastest growing energy generation resources, and I applaud the solar industry for its success in our state.”

But the rooftop side of solar could face an uncertain future moving forward, with the state’s largest power utility pushing to raise the rates on rooftop solar customers who tie into the electrical grid.

Rocky Mountain Power announced last November a proposal to charge solar rooftop customers installation fees and nearly triple monthly customer charges and peak-time usage. It’s a proposal that opponents argue could crush the state’s burgeoning rooftop solar industry, but one utility officials argue is necessary to create an equitable system between solar and non-solar customers.

Over the next two weeks, the Utah Public Service Commission is holding a pair of hearings on the issue, one to get public input and one to consider the proposal, and advocates on both sides of the issue are rallying to garner support.

In a study supporting the measure, RMP researchers suggest the typical rooftop solar customer underpays their actual cost of service by about $400 per year, and with an estimated 20,000 rooftop solar customers it amounts to millions statewide that other customers must pay to make up the difference.

People with solar systems on their homes typically stay connected to the power grid, allowing them to purchase power from the utility as needed or to sell off any excess power generated back to the utility.

But RMP authors argue the utility pays full retail price for the solar-produced power, meaning that solar customers aren’t being charged equitably for capital investments or infrastructure like work crews and power lines. The buyback rate from rooftop is sometimes three times the rate the utility pays for solar from large-scale facilities.

“Rocky Mountain Power supports renewable resources as long as an appropriate rate is in place that allows customers to use private generation without adversely affecting other residential customers,” said Gary Hoogeveen, Rocky Mountain Power Senior Vice-President and Chief Commercial Officer. “Customers partially relying on renewable energy through the net-metering program must still pay their fair share of the costs to serve them.”

That argument is disputed though.

Utah Clean Energy, a Salt Lake City-area think-tank, produced its own analysis of RMP’s numbers and concluded that the utility was undervaluing solar’s benefits, leaving out the fact that generation taking place on rooftops doesn’t need to be done elsewhere, lowering transmission costs and the demands for new generation facilities. The analysis concludes rooftop solar customers are actually saving the utility $1.3 million annually.

Solar advocates also argue the “green” aspect of solar, creating electricity out of a renewable, non-fossil fuel resource, should count for something as well.

The Public Service Commission is holding public witness hearings on Wednesday in Salt Lake City, with a hearing on the proposal to follow the week of Aug. 14 through Aug. 18.

Utility officials, solar advocates and the Utah Office of Consumer Service have been meeting to develop a potential compromise, but as of Friday no details of an actual settlement were available.

“We’re still hoping for a positive outcome. We still think that’s something that can happen,” said Shaun Alldredge, co-owner of St. George-based Legend Solar, which he said employs about 150 people.

If it doesn’t, the new rates could cripple the rooftop solar industry in Utah, he said, and cause companies like Legend Solar to move their focus to other states.

Alldredge said he hopes Utah can learn from neighboring Nevada, where a 2016 change to net metering rates crushed the rooftop solar industry. The legislature there passed a bill revising the rates to try and attract solar growth back to the state.

Follow David DeMille on Twitter, @SpectrumDeMille, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SpectrumDeMille. Call him at 435-674-6261.

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4 August 2017 9:00 pm
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