Solar power disrupts the business of existing utility companies. In exchange for being granted a monopoly to generate and distribute electricity in a given geographic area, utilities are guaranteed a certain rate of return. That gives them an incentive to spend more money on power plants and grid expansion. The more they spend, the more money they are allowed earn. That’s how the power game is played in the US.
Why Utilities Hate & Fight Rooftop Solar
Utility grids are designed to distribute electricity from one or two central locations to many residential and commercial users. But solar customers often feed excess electricity back into the grid from its margins. That cuts into utilities’ profits, so they try their best to put up barriers to the practice.
They complain that solar customers are not paying their fair share to maintain the grid (and line the pockets of utility company executives). They try to lower the amount they pay solar customers for their electricity. Another favorite tactic is to impose a surcharge on the utility bills of customers with rooftop solar installations.
Solar customers argue that they are conferring a benefit on all people in the service area because their electricity is not made by burning fossil fuels. They say they should be compensated for the improved health prospects of the community. They also argue that they shouldn’t pay as much toward the upkeep of the grid and limited expansion needs because their electricity is used locally and doesn’t need to travel long distances over high-voltage lines.
Earlier this year, the Nevada public utilities commission (PUC) knuckled under to the demands of Warren Buffett’s NV Energy. It ended the requirement that the utility pay for excess electricity and imposed hefty monthly surcharges on rooftop solar customers. All across America, utility companies have initiated a war on rooftop solar. It’s not that they object to solar energy, as such. It’s just they don’t want to give up control over what they think of as “their grid.” They also don’t want their income reduced in any way.
Solar Wins In Arizona & New Mexico
Regulators in Arizona and New Mexico have sided with solar customers in two recent instances. On Thursday, the Arizona Corporation Commission rejected the request by UNS Electric to add fees for solar customers and do away with net metering. Solar advocates in the state applauded the decision, which came after two full days of testimony in front of the commission.
“Today’s vote will keep the way clear for UNS Electric customers to meet their own energy needs with homegrown solar power,” Briana Kobor, a program director with Vote Solar, said in a statement. “I appreciate the Commission’s commitment to reason, to stakeholder input and to the public interest through this critical decision about the future of solar energy in Arizona.”
“This decision is great news for Arizona families and small businesses that plan on going solar, and for everyone who breathes cleaner air as a result,” said Earthjustice attorney Michael Hiatt. “The decision sends a powerful message to Arizona utilities that the Commission will not simply rubberstamp their anti-solar agenda.”
Also last week, regulators in New Mexico approved a settlement that will decrease the amount of fees for solar customers in Southwestern Public Service Company’s service area. That utility had also proposed an increase in fixed charges for solar customers.
The struggle between utilities and solar customers is far from over. Elon Musk last week made some conciliatory remarks when he said there is room enough for all in the electricity markets of the future. He also foresees an end to net metering. Musk expects the demand for electricity to double or triple as the world transitions away from fossil fuels. But solar power advocates are happy to win two small skirmishes in the war this week.