Our major concern is there could be unintended consequences for the state. It is sending the wrong message to people who are thinking about having solar on their homes. —Rene Oehlerking, acquisition and development partner with Garbett Homes
SALT LAKE CITY — Critics want to kill a legislative proposal they say threatens to turn off the lights on any more solar development in the state, punishing residents and businesses alike who want to turn to "green" power for their needs.
"Our major concern is there could be unintended consequences for the state," said Rene Oehlerking, acquisition and development partner with Garbett Homes. "It is sending the wrong message to people who are thinking about having solar on their homes."
Oehlerking and a roomful of other critics in Monday's meeting of the Senate Business and Labor Committee say the measure sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, would deter development of solar because of the added costs it imposes by Rocky Mountain Power.
"Our concern is that it has taken about 10 years to get to this place of where there are 2,000 customers with solar," Oehlerking said, adding that such a bill would greatly reduce any subsequent progress.
Bramble's SB208 proposes to levy an additional fee on top of an already assessed monthly fee of $5 for all Rocky Mountain Power customers. The utility company is proposing before the Public Service Commission to add $4.25 monthly to all net-metering customers — or those customers who generate their own solar energy or wind power.
The so-called net-metering bill would institute fairness in a system where those same solar power customers inevitably plug into the infrastructure of a power grid paid for by all, Bramble said. He compared assessing the new fee to the inequities that exist in the gasoline tax — which owners of electric cars don't pay despite their usage of the roads.
"The reality is that there are fixed costs to the grid," Bramble said. "When the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing, there is a fixed cost to being connected to the grid."
Rocky Mountain Power officials say the bill, if it becomes law, will enable the utility to recoup its costs on infrastructure it must pay for regardless of a customer's use of intermittent solar power.
"We are not in any way opposed to solar or renewable energy," added Dave Taylor, Rocky Mountain Power's manager of state regulatory affairs. "It is a misconception that a customer who has solar panels on a roof or net meters does not use the utility system."
But multiple groups that include homebuilders, solar industry associations and clean energy advocates say it has been difficult and expensive enough in Utah to tap into solar, and it's senseless to invoke punitive measures on top of hurdles like accessibility and costs.
Lincoln Hobbs, a downtown Salt Lake City attorney, has 20 solar panels installed atop the building housing his law firm and solar panels on a cabin in Summit County.
Hobbs told lawmakers he is already paying for those connections and more should be done in the arena to promote solar.
"I think you need to encourage customers to be willing to invest in solar in order to ultimately reduce our reliance on fossil fuel," he said.
Sara Baldwin, senior policy and regulatory associate at Utah Clean Energy, said it makes little sense to change policy midstream and take action to dissuade growth in a market still in its infancy but poised to take off.
Todd Stevens, managing director of RenewableTech Ventures, told committee members the measure would not only hurt residents who want to put solar on their homes, but also industry, commercial, retail and governmental nonprofits.
Pointing to companies such as eBay and Oracle, Stevens said lawmakers shouldn't dissuade corporate interest in the pursuit of clean energy.
"There is great interest in having renewable energy available to offset clean air issues," he said.
The panel of lawmakers, with little discussion, voted to approve Bramble's bill, but noted it was subject to another committee's approval, as well as modifications.