The rooftop solar industry has had a triumphant couple of weeks in its defensive battles with utility companies over net metering policies.
Just this month, Utah, Washington, Louisiana and Vermont legislatures and regulators have chosen rooftop solar system owners’ interests over those of the utilities.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative lobbyist group that claims to advocate for the free market, has backed nearly a dozen bills aimed at knocking the wind out of the rooftop solar industry’s sails in various states around the country over the last two years. All of the bills have tried to reduce or eliminate the benefits of net metering, which allows homeowners who overproduce with their solar systems during the day to sell excess power back onto the grid, usually at the retail rate.
“ALEC has lost every one of the verdicts so far,” said Bryan Miller, president of The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) and vice president of public policy for Sunrun. “That’s not a great track record if you’re investing in the results.”
The recent victories for rooftop solar came on the heels of some creative and uncharacteristic attacks, Miller said.
“Washington State was a particularly interesting permutation,” Miller said.
If a Washington utility offered leased rooftop solar, no one else in the utility’s jurisdiction could, according to HB 2176, which was defeated this week.
“This really shows the utilities’ true motive,” Miller said. “They’re saying rooftop solar is fine and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it as long as they’re the only ones who get to sell it.”
Utah was another unusual target for anti-solar legislation – largely because the state has very little rooftop solar installed.
The state is notoriously conservative and Miller said TASC believes ALEC’s strategy was to pick a state where it thought it could score an easy win and gain political momentum even though the legislation would have little impact there.
“And the bill still failed,” Miller said.
The legislature voted to launch a study of the costs and benefits of solar net metering, but didn’t otherwise support any change to net metering policies.
Vermont, which is one of few states where utilities pay more than the retail rate for rooftop solar net metering, was on the cusp of hitting its net metering cap.
The legislature voted last week to expand the state’s net metering program, nearly quadrupling the cap from 4 percent of generation to 15 percent.
Anti-solar lobbyists attempted to ambush the solar industry and push a previously rejected piece of legislation designed to gut net metering through congress within a week.
“It failed again,” Miller said. “That’s four decisions over the last week.”
New and recycled battles
There’s proposed legislation in Massachusetts, a state that has seen rapid solar growth in recent years, that would reduce the benefits of net metering.
“That’s a very progressive state, so the utilities are having to operate under the cover of darkness,” Miller said.
Arizona made major headlines in 2013. The conservative state legislature imposed a maximum $5 per moth fee on rooftop solar customers. The solar industry declared the fee a victory because it was a fraction of the $50 to $100 Arizona Public Service requested.
The legislature has recently been debating a bill that would levy a steep property tax on leased solar equipment. The AZ Cap Times reported this week that lawmakers say APS has lobbied them to vote for the bill even as the utility denies having any position in or involvement with the legislation at all.
After the story came out, legislation solidifying tax exemptions or solar equipment started moving through congress again.
There are many peculiar hypocracies about the fight against rooftop solar, Miller said. ALEC is supposed to support the free market and is instead lobbying to prevent competition to established utilities from rooftop solar. And Arizona, a devoutly anti-tax state, is considering a new and aggressive tax.
“It’s just wild flailing and throwing punches to see where they land,” Miller said. “In the long run, utilities are on a Whack A Mole mission with net metering.”