Idaho Power Co. proposes allowing its solar customers to "self-select" the one-year period in which they can use credits they earn generating their own electricity.
But it still wants to end its practice of paying customers at the end of that year for the excess power they generated.
The utility will argue before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday that it must change its rate structure for people who generate more electricity than they use - "net-metering customers" - to ensure that the increasing number of customers with rooftop solar generators pay their share for transmission lines, billing and other fixed costs of the electrical system.
"Customers who reduce their base charges to zero through financial credits can avoid contributing to energy-efficiency programs and municipal fees in addition to avoiding the costs of distribution, infrastructure and customer services," Matt Larkin, a regulatory analyst for Idaho Power, said in testimony filed with the commission.
The company is proposing to double the total amount of electricity it gets from net-metering customers, from 2.9 megawatts to 5.8 megawatts. Idaho Power has about 350 net-metering customers; under the proposal, it could add about 414 new solar customers.
The investor-owned utility also wants to increase the rate that most solar and wind customers pay for the power they do use from Idaho Power and quadruple the fees for hooking up to the grid.
Solar customers say the proposal benefits only solar customers who use lots of Idaho Power electricity and harms those who conserve energy - which is why most of them install solar in the first place.
Critics say the proposal is the latest in a comprehensive campaign by Idaho Power against new renewable energy producers who compete with the regulated monopoly and its coal, natural gas and hydroelectric power plants. Idaho Power officials say they are not against renewable energy, but do want to ensure alternative sources don't cost its customer base more than they should.
Larkin acknowledged in an earlier proceeding that, with its current low amount of solar-power generation, other customers won't see their rates affected. But the company worries about the long term, if thousands of customers one day have rooftop solar panels.
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission will hold a technical hearing Tuesday morning, when the utility and other parties in the case will cross-examine each other. A public hearing is set for Tuesday evening.
Advocates say clean energy is good for the utility and its customers.
While Idaho Power argues that solar net-metering customers get a subsidy, these advocates say they provide more benefits than they cost. Solar power installers also say the proposal is hurting their business just as the cost of installing solar panels is coming down to competitive levels.
In its recommendation to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, PUC staff agreed with Idaho Power's critics on nearly every point. Matt Elam, a PUC utilities analyst in the engineering section, filed testimony saying that solar-power-generating customers add little cost to other customers and actually help Idaho Power reduce the cost of meeting electricity demand during peak periods.
"Aside from potentially providing a capacity benefit during the utility's peak, net-metering potentially allows the company to meet growing load with current resources," Elam wrote.
He also said Idaho Power should carry over the credits earned from solar generation to future years without writing solar customers checks.
About the only point of agreement the staff had with Idaho Power was the need for the 5.8-megawatt cap on the amount of energy that can be generated from net-metering customers. By comparison, Idaho Power peak demand last July was 3,245 megawatts.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484