The price of solar panels has never been lower, and both the state and federal government offer generous subsidies.
So Matthew Dunays solar panel installation business should be rising like the morning sun, right?
A proposal by Idaho Power Co. to increase the costs for people who generate their own power has brought uncertainty to the market just as it was taking off, said Dunay, whose Altenergy employs 10 people in Idaho and Virginia.
Its crippling our business right now because we just dont know the outcome of this case and ... we might not know for six months, Dunay said.
Dunay got powerful new allies Tuesday when the city of Boise and the newly formed Idaho Clean Energy Association asked to intervene in Idaho Powers case before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.
Idaho Power has 353 individual customers most with solar units who augment the power they get from Idaho Power with electricity they generate themselves. Some of those customers even get checks from the utility for producing more electricity than they use in a given year. Selling that extra power back to the utility is called net metering.
In December, Idaho Power filed a request with the Idaho PUC to expand the net-metering program but stop writing year-end checks to solar customers who generate more electricity than they use.
The investor-owned utility also wants to increase the rate solar users pay for the electricity they do buy from Idaho Power and to quadruple the fees those solar customers pay to hook up to the grid. Utility officials say the changes will not raise rates for all solar customers, and could lower rates for some, depending on usage.
Idaho Power officials say the changes for solar users are needed to ensure that its other customers arent subsidizing the solar-generating customers.
The company says the increased costs and the loss of credits left over at the end of the year are issues of fairness for all its customers, because the solar customers are not paying the full costs of the utilitys fixed costs, such as power lines.
Idaho Power has more than 500,000 customers, said Stephanie McCurdy, a company spokeswoman. It is the right thing to consider the interests of all of them, not just the 353 participating in our net-metering service.
Idaho Powers new fight with rooftop solar owners is attracting national media attention. Its just one of the ways in which the investor-owned utility which has fought with renewable-energy developers to not have to purchase what it says is expensive, hard-to-integrate wind power wants to stop developers of alternative power from piggybacking on its existing system without paying what it says are the full costs.
HURTING THE INDUSTRY?
Critics worry that the move will slow or stop Idahos young but growing solar industry.
Were really concerned about the effect of this on business, said Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.
In addition to the number of solar-related companies like Dunays that have emerged, a larger solar company has expressed interest in moving to Idaho from California, Bieter said. That company would bring 200 to 300 jobs.
Im concerned this may kill those prospects as well, Bieter said.
In its filing to intervene, Boise city attorney Stephen Rutherford said Boise also wants a seat at the table because the city has a direct and substantial interest in Idaho Powers net-metering proposal: its own solar-panel installations on the citys Foothills Learning Center.
The city is also concerned about the negative effects the proposed change will have in encouraging more citizens to install and use solar panels, thereby reducing pollution and reducing the citys progress in achieving its sustainability goals, Rutherford wrote.
A SOLAR BOOM
These kinds of integration problems melding alternative sources of power into the existing system of generators and transmission lines are cropping up in other places too, like San Diego and Hawaii, where high power costs have caused people to rush out and buy rooftop solar systems that range from $12,000 to more than $50,000.
But solar proponents say the problems are exaggerated. Hawaii relaxed its policies just this week after talks with the renewable industry.
The Solar Energy Industries Association said nearly 52,000 residential rooftop solar systems were installed in the U.S. in 2011, a 30 percent increase from 2010.
Add in commercial buildings, and rooftop solar grew by 109 percent in 2011 and was expected to grow another 71 percent last year, the group said.
Forty-three states have policies that encourage net-metering.
Idaho Power argues that the program was not developed to allow people to sell power only to let them offset their own power bills.
The utility even argues that the practice of writing checks to customers if theyve got more power-selling credits than power-using costs at the end of the year may violate federal energy law, which requires alternative-power producers to meet tough guidelines and be paid at a rate equal to the utilities cost of building its next power plant.
PARITY FOR SOLAR?
Energy Secretary Stephen Chu said in 2011 that rooftop solar power would hit what energy experts call grid parity with natural gas when solar dropped to $1 a watt wholesale. Grid parity is when the lifetime generation cost of electricity from unsubsidized solar panels equals costs for conventional sources.
Dunay said the wholesale cost for panels has dropped $1 a watt. His customers pay from $3 to $4 a watt for solar panels and are eligible for federal and state tax credits.
Grid parity is here right now, he said.
Dunay is one of the businesses that has helped organize the Idaho Clean Energy Association, a non-profit whose first entry into the energy regulatory fray is the net-metering case.
This was just a great rallying cry to bring people together, Dunay said. Its going to make the renewable industry stronger in Idaho.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484