A recent ruling by the Utah Public Service Commission ensures that residents with rooftop solar panels will not be charged a monthly fee for the privilege of being connected to the grid. At least for now.
On Friday, the Commission denied a request from Rocky Mountain Power, a division of utility giant PacifiCorp, to charge Utah’s 2,500 solar households a monthly fee, saying there was not enough evidence to justify the new charge. However, this does not mean Utahns are free from any future solar fees. In its decision, the Commission recommended the utility gather more evidence for its next attempt.
“We conclude under these circumstances the better course is for PacifiCorp and interested parties to gather and analyze the necessary data, including the load profile data that is foundational to this analysis, and present to us their results and recommendations in a future proceeding,” the Commission said.
But clean energy advocates are counting this as a win.
“We’re thrilled,” said Christopher Tomas, executive director of HEAL Utah. “Rocky Mountain Power tried to put up barriers to dissuade people from investing in solar, and Utah’s Public Service Commission didn’t let them.”
“What a bright day for Utah’s future,” said Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy. “This order protects energy choice in Utah and recognizes the potential solar has to benefit all Utahns.”
During the hearings on the new fee, Wright testified on the need for the Utah Public Service Commission to help residents transition into a “cleaner more resilient energy future.”
Later, she added that, “We need to reward smart energy investments like energy efficiency and rooftop solar. To add a fee for rooftop solar without accounting for the benefits it provides to our energy system, economy, and health will stifle rooftop solar doing a disservice to all Utahns.”
At present, residents with rooftop panels installed can take advantage of the state’s net metering policy. Utah is one of 42 states in the country that allows electricity customers to return the excess energy generated by their solar panels back into the grid. Utahns can earn energy credits for every kilowatt-hour that is generated in this way. A 2014 analysis by Rocky Mountain Power showed that Utahans are generating an average excess of 100,000 kwh per month in this fashion.
Rocky Mountain Power claims that electricity customers who cannot afford solar panels are essentially subsidizing those who can, because the excess energy put back into the grid is not worth the energy credits they’re being awarded. Dave Eskelsen, a spokesman for the utility, said a fair fixed cost could be as high as $30 per month.
Wright said a monthly fee on solar customers would devalue this incentive, but Matt Moscon, an attorney for the utility, said the fee is not intended to penalize solar customers.
“This is not an attempt to single out net metered customers because they use less power,” Moscon argued. “It is because whether you use a tiny amount, a large amount, or a middle amount, you use that connection to the grid. Everyone uses it by simply being connected.”
If the new fee had been approved, Utah would be the third state in the country to tax solar residents for being connected to the grid. Georgia and Arizona currently enforce such a tax, and earlier this year, Arizona levied an additional tax on companies that lease solar panels.