A proposed Rocky Mountain Power fee imposed on homeowners who produce their own energy may only be about as much as a latte per month, but opponents say the fee is wrong in principle and that solar panel owners should not be penalized. The utility company says the fee is necessary, as those who produce power are not paying to help maintain the electric grid they use.
Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Dave Eskelsen said the main issue is that the utility's rate structure was designed when most residential customers had "similar usage patterns." Thus, the rate factored in fixed costs that were reflected in the kilowatt-hour charge.
"The energy used is only part of the cost of the electric service," Eskelsen said. "There's the construction and maintenance of all the infrastructure that's required to get that energy to you, such as power plants and local distribution networks."
When utility customers participate in a net metering program -- which includes mostly solar users -- they are credited for all excess energy which they contribute to the grid at a retail rate. Rocky Mountain Power maintains that, although solar customers are using less power, they are not paying for facilities costs in their bill while still using the grid to transmit power.
The fee originally proposed per month on net metering customers was $4.25, although as per SB208, which dealt with the issue, the Utah Public Service Commission will determine what such a fee should be, or if there should be one at all.
Summit County Sustainability Coordinator Lisa Yoder, who helped to coordinate a record year for the Summit Community Solar program last year, voiced opposition to the fee.
"I would not like to see it implemented because it's kind of a disincentive to residential solar," Yoder said. "The fact that people go to their personal expense of installing solar benefits everyone because it offsets that much electricity produced by less clean methods."
Yoder added the contribution solar makes in savings is "certainly worth $4.25."
Timberline resident Roger Crawford had a solar panel system installed on his home last year and also is against the proposed fee.
"I still pay an almost $10 a month service charge even if I don't use any of their power," Crawford said. "I don't see why I should have to pay them, because I'm giving them a lot of power. I'm taking the load off of them because I'm not using the power they have, [which] they can then send somewhere else."
Eskelsen said the fee is a matter of equity and that those who do not use solar energy end up subsidizing those who do. The fee would also not be geared toward increasing profits, but would simply help the utility cover costs. Rocky Mountain Power currently has 2,700 customers with solar arrays and the trend toward increased solar and energy efficiency will only lead to more costs being shifted to users of traditional energy, he said.
"To the extent that solar installation continues to grow, there would be a continued subsidy from residential customers who don't use [solar] to those who do," Eskelsen said, who added the utility is also requesting to increase the customer service fee from $5 to $8 for everyone. Wyoming, he said, charges $25.
Addressing costs associated with net metering has been a recent trend for utility companies across the country, with many efforts being spearheaded by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which, among other things, writes model legislation for ALEC members to propose in state and federal legislatures, the New York Times has reported.
In ALEC's 'Updating Net Metering Policies Resolution,' the group calls on state policymakers to "update net metering policies" and to make sure everyone helps to pay for maintenance of the electrical grid. SB208, the net metering bill which passed in the 2014 session of the Utah State Legislature, was sponsored by Sen. Curtis Bramble (R-Provo), who serves on the Governing Board of ALEC.
Eskelsen said that, even with the fee changes, Utah's energy costs would still be among the lowest in the nation. He understands customers may be wary of the changes, but added they are for the best, especially if a future with increased solar installations is envisioned.
"It's what the company thinks is necessary for how solar technology in particular is changing the way people pay for their electric service," Eskelsen said.
Yoder said there is more at stake than just economics.
"[Solar power] contributes to getting off of the fossil fuel economy," Yoder said. "People with solar panels should be rewarded or at least not charged extra."