Rocky Barker: Solar freedom versus economic justice

July 8, 2013 

Power poles running about nine miles south of Kuna off Swan Falls Road.

STATESMAN FILE — Statesman file

The Idaho Public Utilities Commission did not question Idaho Power's motives for proposing a major change to its "net-metering" plan that could have taken much of the incentive out of rooftop solar installation just as its price has become attractive.

In fact, the commission and its staff recognized the balancing act the electric utility faces as solar and other "distributed generation" programs become economically viable. There are clear benefits for all utility customers when some are prepared to invest capital to add power to the system - especially power that comes during peak demand periods. But there are system costs - fixed costs such as transmission lines, customer service and repair crews that all customers share.

Ensuring these solar-generating customers carry their weight of the overall system burden was Idaho Power's main argument for changing the plan. But it acknowledged that the few net metering customers on the grid were not costing other customers. Renewable advocates showed the benefits would outweigh the costs.

The issue is one facing utilities all over the country, even though rooftop solar is just beginning to become a significant share of the power portfolio. The term "net metering" refers to how these customers send power to the larger grid at times, and use power from the grid at other times. If they generate more than they take from the grid, their power meters essentially run backward and their "net" bill is zero or they are even owed money or credits by the utility.

In Texas, CPS Energy, San Antonio's publicly-owned utility, told solar net-metering customers it was going to cut payments in half for the power it buys from them. It came at the same time the utility was aggressively moving to develop more than 400 megawatts of solar generation projects of its own.

CPS Energy made many of the same arguments Idaho Power did about how other customers would be forced to carry the fixed costs while the solar customers would not.

"To ensure that solar customers continue to enjoy the benefits of any distributed energy they produce, and pay a fair share of the infrastructure that they rely on, we're taking a different approach," Cris Eugster, executive vice president and chief strategy and technology officer for CPS, said in a news release. "This is really important in San Antonio, where one quarter of the community's residents are at or below the poverty level, and monthly energy bills absorb a larger portion of their monthly budgets."

This publicly owned utility in a largely Democratic community was making the economic justice argument. In essence, it's saying that rich and upper- middle-class customers who can afford to put solar panels on their homes are cutting their costs and leaving the poor and lower-income customers to pay for the rest of the system.

CPS' argument dramatically illustrates the challenge before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. Most customers don't realize that residential rates all contain some level of subsidy - or as commissioner Marsha Smith says, "cross subsidies" - that favor one group over another. For example, second homeowners in rural areas cost more to serve than urban homeowners but pay the same rate.

At any given time, the cost to provide power for one customer or another is different depending on their use, location and timing. It's up to the commission to balance these differences for all customer groups as a matter of policy.

In the simplified language of political debate, it is electrical redistribution.

As a monopoly utility without competition, the Idaho PUC ensures that Idaho Power treats its customers fairly and charges fair rates.

The commission also is entrusted to ensure Idaho Power gets a fair return on its investment for providing reliable power when its customers need it, night or day.

Idaho Power has wrapped all of its recent initiatives against wind, solar and suspending demand-management programs around saving its customers money. But in conservative, independent Idaho, it was a hard case to take on customers willing to put up their own dollars to cut their own bills and protect themselves from power outages.

I would be surprised to see them play the economic justice card, especially before the Idaho Legislature.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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