Solar Energy Is Popular With Left and Right, so What Is Up With Our Utilities?

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Mar 26, 2015

We knew about solar’s universal appeal back in 2006 when U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R, Tennessee) sponsored the bill that brought back the federal tax credit for solar energy systems.  It is just as true today, as explained in a column by Froma Harrop, published in Wednesday’s Seattle Times.  We have seen this in our own state legislature when, in 2005, Senator Bob Morton co-sponsored SB5101 that created the renewable energy cost recovery program that has been an invaluable aid in spurring adoption of solar in our far northwest corner of the lower 48.  This bill passed unanimously in both houses in Olympia, and the Governor really wanted it.  The enthusiasm did not end there; in 2009 an extension of that program passed handily in both houses, albeit in the last hour of the last day of the session.  Again, in 2013, we were pleasantly surprised when the sales tax waiver for photovoltaic systems was included in a big package of tax extenders that passed in the second special session, in spite of the budget shortfall that was the reason we had two special sessions. 

Can we count on our electeds to repeat the performances of past legislatures?  There is much pressure to do so, from the Governor on down, but the devil is in the details, and at the very time that we need their support the most, some of our utility friends are using this predicament to put their thumb down on customer generators.  It is not well known to the general public, but electric utilities across the country have found themselves to be at the mercy of their own rate design as customers have dutifully adopted energy efficiency measures that have slowed, and in some cases stopped load growth.  Frustrated by their predicament, and riled up by a report published by the Edison Electric Institute (the author of which was paid by Macquarie Capital,  owner of Puget Sound Energy) they have found customer generators to be a convenient whipping boy, easily distinguished from the much larger and more homogeneous group of customers who have deployed heat pumps, added insulation, changed lighting, bought more efficient computers and monitors, and so on. 

At a recent breakfast talk Puget Sound Energy CEO Kimberly Harris opened her remarks by calling rooftop solar ‘competition’, and yet she was talking about her own customers.  The recalcitrance of many utilities where solar is involved has even puzzled their own technical guru, the Electric Power Research Institute.  Back in September EPRI’s Clark Gellings summed up a presentation on distributed energy resources by telling his audience that they had neither the tools nor the planning in place to effectively adjust to the ‘integrated grid’ where customer generation, load shaping, storage, electric vehicles and other technologies are already shifting the landscape under utilities’ feet.  Meanwhile, many of the utilities in our state are actually including solar in their integrated resource plans, which means that they recognize the value of the cleanest energy source imaginable, so why the reluctance to accept solar from customer generators?  The simple answer is that rate design is a difficult undertaking in the best of circumstances, and even more so when you have a class of customers who spin their meters backward.  Add to that the fact that we have over 60 utilities in Washington, many of them small co-ops, munis, mutuals, and rural electric associations, and you have all the makings of a stone wall. 

Installation companies, manufacturers, and code officials have all gone to great lengths to make solar safe, reliable, increasingly affordable, and grid-integrated.  Our utilities need to understand that heaping on unreasonable and unwarranted requirements, arbitrary fees and unfair tariffs is not a solution.  It is time for them to figure out how to deal with this equitably, or get out of the way.  Their customers are demanding it.  Sure, it’s a small group of customers now, but it is growing larger every day and they are not going away.

About The Author - Jeremy Smithson

Started Puget Sound Solar in 2001 with 30 years of construction contracting experience, and a desire to turn Seattle on to solar energy. Achieving NABCEP certification in 2004, Jeremy believes that our customers often follow a path similar to the one he took, starting out with solar daydreaming, then progressing to education on the subject, and eventually leading to action. In addition to leading the company he also does some teaching and speaking engagements about various aspects of solar energy, and experiments relentlessly with various solar, energy efficiency, and electric vehicle projects.

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