Suppose you put solar panels on your roof and have more electricity available than you need right now? In most places, you can sell that excess power to your local utility company. But at what price? The answer is critical to making solar power affordable. Too little and the incentive to install solar arrays disappears. Too much and the utility loses money on its operations. The amount the utility has to pay for your electricity is called the “net metering charge” and it is the subject of furious debate between utilities and their customers all across the United States.

Solar PanelsThat debate is going on right now in front of the energy committee of the Connecticut legislature. Battle lines are being drawn and both sides are bombarding the committee with reports, studies, and the opinions of various experts.

Utility companies argue that solar customers are not paying their fair share to maintain the grid. All those poles, wires, transformers, and substations cost a lot of money to install and keep in good operating order. They say too much of that burden is being shifted to customers who consume and pay for their electricity the traditional way. “Millions of dollars of costs are shifted to those who do not participate in such networks,” Stephen Gibelli, an assistant general counsel from Eversource Energy, told the committee.

Not so, say solar advocates. They point to a recent study in Maine that values solar power at 33 cents per kilowatt. That’s more than the price of electricity from local utilities, which in Connecticut is about 20 cents per kilowatt. The solar power is worth more, proponents say, precisely because it can be used locally, which eliminates the need for expensive transmission lines and other grid infrastructure. More importantly, it creates no fossil fuel emissions, which benefits the environment and public health as well.

“The cost shifting, which the utilities and others have brought to the table — they are promoting as if it is a given,” said Joel Gordes, president of Environmental Energy Solutions, an energy consultancy. “Let me assure you it is not. Net metering payments are not subsidies, not cost-shifting. They are compensation for the products that residents are selling back to the utilities.”

All this controversy has been stirred by a proposal for a community solar farm in Connecticut. Community solar allows people who can’t have a solar power array on their rooftop — people who rent, for instance — to buy shares in a solar farm and receive a credit on their electric bills every month. The debate is about how much the local utilities must pay for that solar generated electricity. The utilities want to pay less. The solar farm developers want them to pay more.

The utilities want the project scaled back. They are advocating for a small pilot program first. “It’s as simple as we need to crawl before we walk,” said Roddy Diotalevi, United Illuminating’s senior director of sales and marketing.

Proponents of the large community solar farm argue that community solar farms are already operating sucessfully in neighboring states and a delay will cost big money. The current federal tax credit for such projects is 30%. That percentage is scheduled to drop to just 10% at the end of 2016. If their project is delayed by the need to do a pilot study first, millions of dollars in federal tax credits may be lost and the solar farm may never get built at all. Which, of course, is precisely what the utility companies are hoping for.

If you live in Connecticut and are a proponent of solar power, let your state representatives know how you feel on this issue. When it comes to politics, this old adage is still true: “If the people will lead, their leaders will follow!”

Source: The Hartford Courant