Arizona Solar Skirmish Foreshadows Bigger Battles
November 17, 2013
Barry Goldwater Jr appears in this web video supporting consumer choice for solar energy in Arizona. It’s not high art, but you get the message. There is a Green Tea Party taking shape in southern and western states, making alliances with green campaigners, and threatening to throw Koch-financed anti-renewable energy campaigns into chaos.
The conflict is that more and more folks are buying solar energy systems. That cuts into big utility revenues – and threatens the business model that has sustained the electric industry for more than a century. The big Arizona Utility, Arizona Public Service, had proposed a stiff, some would say punitive, charge for solar householders who sell electricity on to the grid. The utility’s point is that even if solar powered homes don’t need as much, or any, power from the grid, they should pay to help support that infrastructure for the larger community, and so that it’s available in times of clouds or darkness.
The booming solar industry wants no impediments to growth. A lot of state regulators are watching this one, and we are a long way from figuring out how this is eventually going to work. But we’d better get started, because, like the internet, solar is now a disruptive technology, and utilities that do not find a way to adapt and adopt will be going away.
Arizona is one of 43 states that requires utilities to buy electricity from household solar systems, potentially cutting into revenue for the company known locally as APS. The regulator’s staff recommended Oct. 1 that the utility’s request be rejected and the issue taken up again at a regularly scheduled hearing in 2015 for rates that would take effect the following year. Some conservatives are siding with the solar industry.
Utilities “don’t like the competition,” said Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the late senator and presidential candidate. “I’m a conservative Republican and I think people should have a choice.”
Arizona Public Service spokeswoman Jenna Shaver declined to comment on growing conservative support for solar energy.
(below, Chris Hayes interviews Debbie Dooley of the Georgia Green Tea Party)
Goldwater founded Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed, or TUSK, which calls APS’s proposal a “solar tax” that’s unfair to people who have invested in rooftop solar systems. Tom Morrissey, former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, joined the group as co-chairman in October.
“Utilities have had their heads in the ground for so long they didn’t notice that it’s become cheap enough to compete with them,” he said.
AZ Central reported on the latest status of the net metering debate in Arizona. The state’s utility board attempted to split the baby on this increasingly contentious issue.
“No one goes away completely happy,” Pierce said as he and the other Arizona Corporation Commission members prepared to vote on charging rooftop-solar customers some of the costs of supporting Arizona Public Service’s electric grid.
“They’re happy it’s over.”
As is anyone who has been overrun by the campaign-style attacks ads that filled radio, television and the Internet for the past month.
But don’t get too comfortable. This was only the beginning.
The commission landed on a proper compromise, voting 3-2 to charge new rooftop-solar customers 70 cents per kilowatt to support the grid that delivers electricity to them when the sun isn’t shining or carries their excessive power to their neighbors. That works out to about $5 a month for an average installation.
That’s considerably less than the $50 to $100 a month that APS wanted. It’s more than the zero the solar industry lobbied for.
It’s slightly less than the Residential Utility Consumer Office suggested, although it incorporates the office’s suggestion to require regular reviews to consider increasing the surcharge.
The compromise is enough to maintain some balance between solar and non-solar customers, without killing the rooftop industry. It buys time until APS’ next rate case, when the issue can more fully be vetted.
This was just a warmup for what’s to come, a skirmish before the real battle in a couple of years.
Arizona has become the first US state to introduce a charge on rooftop PV users in what America’s solar industry has described as a “precedent-setting” action.
At the end of a two-day hearing over an increasingly contentious issue, the Arizona Corporation Commission voted 3-2 in favour of allowing state utility Arizona Public Service to impose a US$0.70 per kilowatt charge on solar net metering customers.
APS had argued that the charge was necessary to offset the cost the growing number of solar systems passed on to non-solar ratepayers. The utility said that net metering customers, which are able to claim credit on excess power fed back into the grid, effectively shift the cost of maintaining the grid on to ratepayers that do not use solar.
The ACC commissioners narrowly upheld this claim, voting for a charge that will be imposed on all new systems built after 31 December this year. The fee is expected to hit solar users to the tune of around US$5 per month.
“Having determined that a problem exists, we would have preferred for the ACC to fix it,” said Don Brandt, chairman and chief executive of APS. “The proposal adopted by the ACC…falls well short of protecting the interests of the one million residential customers who do not have solar panels. We will continue to advocate forcefully for the best interests of our customers and for a sustainable solar policy for Arizona.”
Rhone Resch, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said he was “deeply troubled” by the “precedent-setting action”, implying that the decision will have attracted the interest of utilities and ratepayers beyond Arizona.
“Imposing punitive fees on Arizona consumers – without first proving the need and demonstrating the fairness of these charges through a comprehensive, transparent rate case where due process is afforded – is patently unfair, jeopardising future solar growth and job creation statewide,” Resch said.
Will Greene, the Arizona representative of environmental body the Sierra Club, said the move would “stifle” the growth of solar in the state.
“We acknowledge APS originally proposed a much-larger charge, but our state’s burgeoning private solar industry will still need to overcome this new challenge. Rooftop solar brings important energy savings to working families and it gives us the freedom to be more energy independent.”
Arizona has become the biggest battleground over the solar net metering issue in the US, with APSrevealed to have been secretively funding an anti-solar lobbying campaign.
The issue has also polarised public opinion. At the start of the ACC hearing on Wednesday, an estimated 1,000 pro-solar campaigners turned out to protest against the charges proposed by APS.