PROVO — Advocates say a vote by Provo city leaders approving a new fee for rooftop solar customers "sticks a knife in the back" of clean energy, but city officials insist the surcharge is a matter of fairness for other customers and preserves the city's fiscal health.
"George Stewart is all about fairness, and the current system was not fair to the rest of the users," said George Stewart, a City Council member who voted for the new surcharge in a 4-3 decision earlier this week.
"We felt they had been subsidized long enough," Stewart said.
Provo Energy is Utah's largest publicly owned power utility, serving more than 32,000 residential customers in the city.
Advocates say customers who have existing solar energy systems — about 160 homes — as well as those intent on making the investment will now be faced with a much less affordable energy option.
"Those 167 families who already have systems in place, it is a real bummer for them," said Matt Pacenza, executive director of HEAL Utah, an advocacy organization pushing renewable energy options. "They made a decision to make this investment based on a series of assumptions, and now that has changed."
The new solar capacity charge of $3 per kilowatt will add an estimated $18 to $20 per month to Provo solar owners' bills, according to HEAL Utah, and will cost users thousands over the life of their system.
But Stewart said the new fee offsets costs associated with net metering of solar customers, including their use of the grid, noting that Provo Energy buys power from them several cents below market rate.
Stewart said 11 percent of the revenue generated from the sale of power by Provo Energy goes into the city's general fund and helps pay for essential services like law enforcement.
While there was a push to raise the utility's "fixed rate," Stewart said council members felt a surcharge was ultimately more equitable.
"We felt it was fairer to put the surcharge on those who are not contributing the same amount because they are buying less power," he said.
Provo Energy produced a video to explain its need to upgrade its net metering policy, but it did little to assuage critics.
"It is a blow for families who already have solar or are considering it," Pacenza said. "You would think (Provo) would figure out a way to welcome solar, but instead four council members decided to stick a knife in its back."
Stewart said it was better for the city to act now — with less than 200 households on solar — rather than wait until more customers are impacting the system.
"Solar does not stand on its own unless you have subsidies from the federal government or the state government," he said. "And now they wanted it from the city."
With the increasing popularity of rooftop solar due to costs that make it more affordable, power utilities across the country are taking a second look at their net metering policies, or the billing mechanism that credits customers for the solar energy they don't use and put back into the grid.
Kaysville, which is a municipal power provider, put a moratorium on any new rooftop solar systems while city officials re-examine net metering policies but rescinded that move after public backlash. City leaders are now reviewing Kaysville's rate structure.
St. George and Santa Clara, also independent providers, established new fees as well.
Rocky Mountain Power is in the midst of an extensive net metering case with the Public Service Commission, which has ordered a cost-benefits study of the issue before it approves any changes.
Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy, said while it is natural for power providers to evaluate rooftop solar given its increasing popularity, she urged those providers to exercise caution.
"It is a time when we need to look carefully and make decisions that are fair to the utility and to all ratepayers and also allow rooftop (solar) to thrive," Wright said. "In the long run, solar can defer utility investments and leverage capital, so you want to make sure whatever you do does not stop the solar industry from moving forward."
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