BOISE — Some Idaho residents are worried that a proposal from Idaho Power will undercut their investments in home solar panels.
The utility announced in December that it wants to quit paying some solar panel owners who generate more power than they use, hike the fees it charges solar users for hooking up to the power grid and increase the rate they pay for the power they purchase from the company.
Idaho Power officials told the Idaho Statesman that the charges will ensure other customers aren't subsidizing solar-generating customers.
Solar power generators earn credits from Idaho Power. But under the new proposal, instead of getting checks when they produce more power than they use, they'd lose their credits at the end of the calendar year. Idaho Power cost of service manager Tim Tatum said these credits "would essentially be donated to the system to benefit all our customers."
"It really comes down to a fairness issue," said Tatum. "It is a revenue-neutral proposal."
But Margit Donhowe, who with her husband spent thousands of dollars to install solar panels on their Boise Foothills home this summer based on the current system, sees it differently.
"I call that stealing," she said.
Boise financial adviser Steve White used to tell his customers that installing solar panels on their home was a good thing to do, but not necessarily a good investment. As solar panel prices dropped, his advice changed. White and his wife, Courtney White, installed the panels on their own home.
The panels will be paid off in eight years and then produce all the power he uses for free for decades. Courtney White said Idaho Power's proposal is an abuse of monopoly power that removes the incentive for homeowners to reduce demand and provide power during summer afternoons, when it's most needed and most costly for Idaho Power to purchase.
Idaho Power pays 12 cents a kilowatt-hour to produce the peak power it needs during these periods, she said. Solar net-metering customers are paid 6.5 cents for the power they produce.
"When people invest in solar, it's good for Idaho," said Courtney White. "When a person writes a check for solar panels, they are subsidizing other Idahoans."
Don Reading, an economist who used to work for the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, said the nature of public utilities, which profit from selling power and building transmission lines, gives them an incentive to make it harder for people to put solar panels on their roofs.
"They will be progressive and build their own solar plants where they earn a profit on the plant they build," Reading said.
Idaho Power officials said they support renewable energy, and the company has no plans to build a utility-scale solar project.
They point out that the new proposal does envision expanding the number of people in the net-metering program.
"Idaho Power has made this proposal to make net metering both sustainable and scalable going forward," Tatum said.