Utah has already seen its fair share of conflict between utilities and homeowners with solar who participate in net metering. Not too long ago in April a new law was put into place that allowed the state’s Public Service Commission to charge renewable power providers for costs that net-metering programs imposed on utilities. But net metering continues to raise concerns, for both non-solar homeowners and, of course, utilities.
Homeowners with solar often generate more energy than they need, and this excess energy gets fed back into the grid, which utilities are required to purchase at retail prices. Solar homeowners receive credit for the energy generated on their monthly bill, while utilities still pay for the system’s fixed costs. This means that for utilities to get a return on their investments, other ratepayers in the service area without solar would need to be charged more.
Utah’s main energy provider, Rocky Mountain Power, is proposing that in order to be fair to their non-solar ratepayers, net metering customers should be charged an extra $4.25 each month. As reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, David Ekelsen argues that “The main benefit of net metering is to lower the bill of the user. It doesn’t contribute to system peaks. It doesn’t forestall generation from power plants or supply energy to neighbors in any meaningful way. That’s the reason for the proposed charge.”
Utah, with its elevation and climate, already has a lot of solar potential, and the number of Rocky Mountain Power customers taking advantage of this grows by 30% each year. If Rocky Mountain Power became more expensive, customers could be even more inclined to go solar, and Rocky Mountain Power would end up losing some business. So there might be some ulterior motives involved -- but other motives aside, wouldn’t it still be unfair to the other ratepayers?
According to studies done on net metering -- the results of which have already been discussed -- not so much. In the long run, net metering has been shown to have overall benefits for utility customers and solar homeowners alike. One advantage to net metering is that by spreading out power distribution, less demand will be placed on the grid. Sierra Club’s Utah representative Tim Wagner said to the Salt Lake Tribune, “Homes with rooftop solar would help save the utility over $1.4 million dollars in avoided energy and transmission costs in one year. Given that the associated costs with rooftop solar installations far exceed the proposed customer charges, RMP would effectively be penalizing customers who are actually benefiting the entire system.”
Another argument against the extra fee is that it would discourage people from switching to solar, which has another community-wide benefit: less air pollution. Sophie Hayes, general counsel for Utah Clean Energy, said, “Things like air quality are benefits the utility is not in the business of looking at. More clean energy can mitigate their carbon risk and fuel price volatility. The more renewable energy you get, you are less vulnerable to price shifts because the fuel is free.” Solar advocate groups in Utah report that net-metered homes have already prevented the release of 60 million pounds of carbon dioxide a year, along with other pollutants.
Is any of this giving you déjà vu? That’s probably because we’ve already seen a similar situation play out in Arizona last year. There, a small fee was imposed, though it was better than what had been originally proposed. Ideally, this time there won’t be any fee at all.
Many groups have already been formed advocating for net metering customers, including Utah Citizens Advocating Renewable Energy (UCARE), HEAL Utah, Utah Clean Energy, and the Sierra Club. One of the founders of UCARE, Jim French, said, “We hope that our utility will listen to the growing number of Utahns who want less dirty power produced by burning coal and more clean power from renewable sources such as solar.”