NEWS: Adversaries in Utah fight take a break, for now

Benjamin Storrow,
E&E News reporter
Published: Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Rocky Mountain Power Inc. and solar advocates have declared a cease-fire
in Utah’s burgeoning solar war. The two sides appeared poised for a fight
at the state Public Service Commission this week over the application of
new rates for rooftop solar owners.

Homeowners who installed panels after Dec. 10 could have been subject to
a series of fixed charges proposed by the Berkshire Hathaway-owned
subsidiary. But in a last-minute filing to the PSC on Friday, Rocky
Mountain Power asked to suspend its application to allow for talks with
solar advocates. Commissioners quickly obliged.

The move gives both sides several months to hammer out a deal, boosting
Utah’s chances of avoiding a Nevada-style showdown over the rates paid by
residential solar customers.

“We’re trying to find a way everyone can coexist here,” said Ryan Evans,
president of the Utah Solar Energy Association. “There are other states
that have done this well.”

The talks come at the behest of Gov. Gary Herbert (R), who encouraged
both sides to end the impasse, observers said. Rocky Mountain Power, the
Utah Solar Energy Association and environmental groups held preliminary
talks last week and are seeking to set up a meeting to discuss a path
forward before the Christmas holiday, participants said.

The discussions buy time for both sides until August 2017, when the PSC
is set to hear Rocky Mountain Power’s proposal to overhaul rates for
residential solar customers.

“Rocky Mountain Power is receiving a lot of pushback,” said Michael Shea,
a policy advocate for HEAL Utah, an environmental group. “I think it is
coming from many different sources, environmental advocates, the solar
industry, but also businesses and residents who want to see more rooftop
solar in Utah.”

Whether the sides are able to settle their differences is another matter
(Climatewire, Dec. 2).

Rocky Mountain Power estimates that solar customers are responsible for a
$667 million cost shift over the next 20 years, effectively burdening
non-solar customers with a greater share of the electric grid’s cost.

The utility has proposed three new monthly fees to ensure that solar
users pay for use of the grid. They are: a $15 fixed fee, a $9.02-per-
kilowatt charge on consumers’ peak monthly electricity use and a 3.81-
cent-per-kilowatt-hour fee on total energy use.

Paul Murphy, a utility spokesman, said Rocky Mountain Power’s priority
for negotiations with solar advocates remains the same.

The Salt Lake City-based company wants to ensure that “rooftop solar
customers are treated fairly and the current rate structures stop harming
people that don’t own solar panels,” he said.

Renewable advocates are pressing for an independent study analyzing the
value of solar power, saying Utah should follow the path taken by public
utility commissions in other states. They are also adamantly opposed to
any proposal of a demand charge.

“What we know from our end is we want to make sure solar jobs are
protected, clean air is protected and people continue to have the ability
to go solar,” said Lauren Randall, a spokeswoman for Sunrun Inc., a San
Francisco-based installer that faced off with another Berkshire Hathaway-
owned utility in Nevada over rates paid to solar customers.

Nevada regulators ultimately slashed the credits that solar users
received for sending power back to the system, prompting Sunrun and
SolarCity Corp. to close operations in the state.

Sunrun is hoping a “good faith” negotiating effort in Utah will help
avoid a Nevada repeat, Randall said.

Utah’s solar market has posted explosive growth rates in recent years.
The sector now employs roughly 4,000 people, according to industry
estimates. And Rocky Mountain Power is adding solar customers at a rapid

The utility originally estimated it would end 2016 with 17,000 solar-
owning customers, up from 1,500 in 2012. But since Rocky Mountain Power
filed its application to reform solar rates on Nov. 9, the company has
received 4,622 applications for new systems. It now expects to have more
than 20,000 solar customers by year’s end.

The outcome of Utah’s solar cease-fire may well determine if that growth

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