Their Own Sunny Idaho

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Rooftop solar rights recently scored another win! This one from Idaho where the state’s major utility, Idaho Power Company (IPCo) had set out to weaken its net metering program and otherwise penalize solar customers by changing their rates. Well, the verdict came out July 3rd, and the Commission stood strong for Idaho’s rooftop solar customers.

IPCo was yet another in a long line of utilities working to protect their old way of doing business by finding ways to prevent customers from going solar. Utilities, particularly those in fully regulated states like Idaho, are not accustomed to dealing with competition or customer choice in any form. And with rooftop solar adoption growing at record rates, net metering has proven a popular target for squashing that kind of competition.

Despite the fact that the state has the lowest electricity prices in the nation and almost no state-based solar incentives, Idaho has an impressive 2.6 MW of distributed solar on its grid. Net metering — the program that makes sure solar customers get full credit on their utility bills for valuable power they deliver to the grid for others to use — is critical to that growth. The stated purpose of IPCo’s filing was to double the cap on net metered systems from worryingly-close 2.9 MW to 5.8 MW — a wolf in sheep’s clothing for solar supporters. It’s true that under current rate structures, the cap raise should give the state’s energy consumers another 3-5 years of fair net metering access. However, if the rest of the anti-solar rate changes the utility included in the proposal were also adopted, it’s fair to assume wouldn’t have to worry about reaching that cap for a long time to come because the rooftop market would have ground to a halt.

The utility argued that the non-participants must pick up all the costs that net metering customers are avoiding by investing in solar and other renewable resources. That old chestnut. It’s interesting and telling to note that IPCo performed no analysis on the real economic benefits that distributed renewable resources provide to the utility — avoided energy and capacity costs, line losses, and distribution investment to start. Nevertheless, the Company threw a lot at the wall to see what would stick.

Vote Solar participated in the case on behalf of the City of Boise, which was rightly concerned that the IPCo’s proposals would discourage not only the installation of solar resources but also new clean energy businesses from coming to Idaho, resulting in job and economic losses. Our partners at the Idaho Conservation League brought in resources to calculate the benefits of deploying solar in Idaho.

Their proposals included: segregating out new (unhelpful) rate classes for residential and small commercial net metered customers, quadrupling an existing monthly charge and creating a new demand charge for both of those net metered customer types, and proposing that annual net excess generation be forfeited at the end of a twelve month period. All of that adds up to a bad deal for solar customers – although in fairness, IPCo did revise its proposal to allow each customer to pick its own 12 month true-up date, a progressive idea that other utilities should adopt.

Thankfully today’s order from the Commission stood strong against the utility power grab. They declined to cap net metering capacity and declined to modify the net metering pricing structure or move residential and small general service net metering customers into new classes. It also requires IPCo to issue a per kWh credit for excess generation, with the credits to expire only when the customer ends service (not at the end of 12 months).

This decision reflects the fact that all Idahoans benefit when its energy consumers can invest in local, clean solar energy.

Vote Solar is a non-profit grassroots organization working to fight climate change and foster economic opportunity by bringing solar energy into the mainstream.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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