Solar energy users claim victory as 'sun tax' rejected

Published: Friday, Aug. 29 2014 2:20 p.m. MDT

Jim French, who installed his first set of solar panels five years ago and recently added more panels, poses for a photograph at his home in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah solar advocates and customers are hailing a decision Friday by the Utah Public Service Commission to reject Rocky Mountain Power's request of a monthly fee for rooftop solar homes.

“What a bright day for Utah’s future. This order protects energy choice in Utah and recognizes the potential solar has to benefit all Utahns,” said Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy.

Members of another advocacy group, HEAL Utah, were also pleased.

“We’re thrilled. 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," said Christopher Thomas, executive director.

“This victory belongs to the tens thousands of rooftop solar owners, community councils, faith communities, businesses, and Utah citizens who stood up for the freedom to choose clean solar energy."

The commission, in its order, said it could not rule that the fee was justified.

“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.

Solar advocates said the decision that lingered before the Public Service Commission since July when public testimony concluded was about customer choice.

"This is an issue about the rights of individual customers; that is, the right to self-determination," said Rick Gilliam, with the national Vote Solar Initiative.

"We believe that electricity customers, the retail customers and residential customers in particular, have the right to use as much or as little electricity as they so choose."

The fee was wildly controversial and an issue which generated thousands of comments and a six-hour public hearing.

Utah stood to become the third state in the nation — behind Arizona and Georgia — to charge residential rooftop solar customers a monthly fee to help cover a utility provider's "fixed" costs.

'Taxing the sun'

Jim French is a Salt Lake resident who had 14 solar panels installed on his home five years ago. In April, he added four more.

"I anticipate that will pretty much cover our electric usage over the course of the year."

He said his initial investment for the panels was $21,000, an amount greatly reduced by federal and state tax credits and rebates from Rocky Mountain Power.

"When we moved to Utah, we became aware that the great majority of power is generated from coal-fired power plants," he said. "I wanted to do what little I could to contribute to clean energy."

French says his home uses very little power during the summer, and he banks on his credits the rest of the time.

The way net metering works — Utah is among 42 states in the country with net metering policies on the books — is rooted in a simple exchange between the customer and the utility at the actual meter.

Net energy metering allows electricity customers who wish to supply their own electricity from on-site generation to pay only for the "net" energy they obtain from the utility. Alternatively, if the customer's system generates excess electricity, it is exported to the grid. The customer than gets a "credit" for those kilowatt-hours of generated energy — much like rollover minutes accumulate on a cellphone bill can be used to cushion overages in the future.

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