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Renewable energy advocates decry proposed surcharge for solar panels

Published: Wednesday, July 23 2014 5:20 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Advocates for renewable energy gathered at Congregation Kol Ami Wednesday to urge the Utah Public Service Commission not to approve a $4.65 monthly surcharge that Rocky Mountain Power has proposed for customers with solar panels on their homes.

Customers of the utility company currently pay a $5 fee — which will become $6 in September — as well as an average fixed cost of $25 that comes with monthly energy consumption. Net metering customers — those with energy-generating systems, such as solar panels or wind turbines — still use the grid but pay less in fixed costs associated with energy use.

This incurs a greater burden on traditional customers who pay fixed costs in their entirety, which go toward infrastructure maintenance and grid operation, according to Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Paul Murphy.

"These customers are reducing their energy needs, which also means they reduce the amount of fixed costs that they pay," Murphy said. "We are asking the commission for (the customers) to pay an additional $4.65 to cover the fixed costs that are now in their energy bill."

But advocacy groups such as UCare and HEAL Utah, as well as religious and business organizations, expressed the fear that the surcharge would impede renewable energy development.

"Whether it be energy efficiency or solar energy, Utah homeowners want and need energy choice. A solar fee hinders that energy choice," said Damien Mora, an energy specialist with Garbett Homes. "To add a fee now would discourage Utahns from investing in solar when we should be doing everything we can to encourage personal investments in non-polluting energy that helps take pressure off of our energy grid."

The Utah Public Service Commission has already approved a 1.9 percent increase in general energy use rates for Rocky Mountain Power customers. The commission will discuss the surcharge for net metering customers next week. If approved, the surcharge would take effect Sept. 1.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, said the commission is obligated under SB208, which passed unanimously in the last legislative session, to fully examine the costs and benefits of net metering policy.

"They have to consider the benefits, and there are so many benefits to having solar as one of our great sources of energy," Arent said. "We need to think about that in terms of how we're going to encourage people to do that."

Mike Walton, a project developer with Creative Energies, installs solar panels on homes throughout Utah. He says the possibility of a tariff being implemented causes some new users of solar energy to worry about higher costs down the road.

"While the $4.65 a month is not huge, it is interesting to see the flags that it's raising with people," Walton said. "It's not going to completely deter people from doing it, but it does raise concerns."

Solar systems have become increasingly affordable for customers, with an average cost of $3.50 per watt — almost half of what system costs were four years ago, Walton said. Homeowners with solar systems typically see a return on investment of their total cost in less than seven years, he said.

"We're seeing people reduce their consumption between 50 and 90 percent," he said. "We have people that now have a $9-a-month power bill."

Such reductions create a need to even out the fixed costs between net metering customers and traditional customers, especially as alternative energy systems grow in popularity, according to Rocky Mountain Power.

"If they're going to invest $20,000 or $30,000 in a system, we think $4.65 is a bargain for them to still have access to the grid for when the sun doesn't shine or when the wind doesn't blow," Murphy said. "They use the system just as much as anybody else, and we just don't think that other customers should have to bear that cost."

The commission will discuss the proposal with members of the public on Tuesday, July 29, at 5 p.m. in room 403 of the Heber M. Wells Building, 160 E. 300 South in Salt Lake City. Public comment will also be accepted until July 29 by emailing psc@utah.gov.

Email: mjacobsen@deseretnews.com

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