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Solar-power billing robs poor to pay rich, Idaho Power says. The state might change it

This Boisean barely pays for electricity

Mary Lucachick can’t resist dropping by her electrical meter on the side of her Foothills house to watch the numbers run backward as she puts power back into Idaho Power’s electrical lines.
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Mary Lucachick can’t resist dropping by her electrical meter on the side of her Foothills house to watch the numbers run backward as she puts power back into Idaho Power’s electrical lines.

After months of contention, the Idaho Public Utilities Commission has decided to consider Idaho Power's proposal to make customers who install solar panels on their roofs pay more for access to the utility's grid.

The commission will hold a public hearing Thursday, March 1, in Boise on a preliminary proposal from the utility to reclassify residential and some other customers who generate their own power, mostly through rooftop solar. That reclassification itself would not affect solar users' rates.

But the same proposal asks the commission to launch another proceeding "to establish a compensation structure" for those customers. Residential customers with rooftop solar are now billed the same way as customers without it, but they get a credit on their bills for the retail price of any electricity they send to Idaho Power's grid.

The utlity says the retail credits are too generous, because they do not account sufficiently for the solar users' share of Idaho Power's cost of maintaining and operating its distribution network. That results in a "wealth transfer from lower-income customers to higher-income customers," Idaho Power says, according to a PUC news release.

Rooftop solar installations remain expensive, even after federal and state tax incentives (see story below). But they are gradually gaining ground: The PUC says Idaho Power has about 1,500 "net metering" customers eligible for the credits, up from about 350 five years ago.

The Snake River Alliance opposes the utility's proposal, saying it discriminates against home and business owners who invest in clean energy.

Thursday's hearing will be from 7 to 9 p.m. in the PUC's hearing room at 472 W. Washington St., Boise. People who cannot attend but want to weigh in can complete a case-comment form on the PUC's website until Thursday, March 8. Use the case number IPC-E-17-13.

 

The story below, written by Bill Roberts,  was published July 5, 2017, under the headline "How you can make sunshine run your appliances, and save money on your power bill, too."

Mary Lucachick can’t resist dropping by the electrical meter on the side of her Foothills home just to watch the numbers run backwards as she puts electricity onto the electrical grid and stores up credits for when she will need the power later.

Nor can Lucachick stay away from the app on her phone that updates her in real time on how much electricity she is generating.

Both rituals grew out of the decision by she and her husband Tony Engleman made nearly a year ago to install 11 solar panels on the south-facing side of their roof. The panels run her dishwasher, TV , air conditioning and other appliances. When she isn’t using all she is generating, it goes onto Idaho Power’s grid — furnishing electricity to the company’s system and storing up credits Lucachick can use on less-sunny days.

Since installing the system, Lucachick has barely had to pay for the electricity she gets from the power company. She’s also added a solar panel to be sure she had enough juice for her plug-in hybrid car.

The best part: The solar system will pay for itself with savings in less than 10 years.

Lucachick is one of a small but growing number of Idahoans making the transition to a renewable form of power generation that doesn’t rely on gas, coal-fired or even hydroelectric-dam generation.

“This electricity is cleaner,” Lucachick said. “It comes right off my roof.”

Lucachick installed her solar system through a program called Solarize the Valley, a program by the Snake River Alliance to get more homes powered by the sun in Ada and Canyon counties. About 1,200 homes are in a program that both generates and uses power from Idaho Power’s grid, said Wendy Wilson, Snake River Alliance executive director.

“Clean, safe and renewable is the way we have to go,” said Wilson.

Snake River Alliance has launched its second year of Solarize the Valley. The environmental group has partnered with two Idaho solar companies — Altenergy and Bluebird Solar and Light — that publish their rates for panel installation and promise a free assessment on customer’s needs through the program.

Customers must sign up for an assessment by July 31 and sign a contract by October 31 to get the companies’ rates. Nearly 50 homeowners took advantage of Solarize the Valley in 2016. Snake River hopes to get as many this year.

WHAT’S IT COST?

Going solar isn’t cheap. Lucachick’s system cost $8,000. But systems can easily go $15,000 to $20,000, said Jesse Simpson, Altenergy Boise branch manager.

A 30 percent federal income-tax credit and an Idaho income-tax deduction help take a bite out of the cost, however. And between government incentives and reductions in monthly power bills, solar panels on a home can pay for themselves in eight to 10 years, Simpson said. Panels are typically warranted for 25 years, he said.

The numbers made sense to Lisa Hecht, a retired Hewlett Packard employee, who installed solar panels on her Harris Ranch home last year.

For Hecht, installing solar power is just part of a total lifestyle dedicated to reducing her carbon footprint. Since she began studying engineering in the 1970s, she’s tracked global warming and is convinced the world is not only is heating up, but doing so at an accelerating rate.

“We were not making sufficient progress,” she said.

So along with adding more insulation to her home, installing a smart thermostat and not using a clothes dryer, Hecht installed solar panels. The cost: $15,300. But after incentives, she paid about $9,600.

She also puts excess power into the Idaho Power grid and draws from her bank of power credits when solar can’t fill all her home’s energy needs.

Installation, she said, was easy.

“I feel virtuous for doing the right thing – for doing my part,” she said. “It just works.”

Before going solar, think about...

▪  Your roof: Since solar panels typically go on roofs, you want to make sure your roof has at least 10 years of life left in it. That keeps you from pulling recently installed panels off to replace a roof.

▪  Facing south: Houses with a roof facing the south and free from shade tend to generate the most solar power because they get the most sun. Houses on an east/west plane can generate solar power, but usually 15 to 18 percent less than those with southern exposure, said Jesse Simpson of Altenergy in Boise.

▪  Borrowing: Don’t get a loan for solar that takes longer than about four years, because it will cut into the return on your investment, Simpson advised. The financing cost of a 15-year loan will end up costing you a lot more, he said. The Idaho Department of Energy and Mineral Resources makes loans available for projects such as solar installation. The interest rate is 4 percent and the length of the loan is up to five years.

▪  How long you’ll be in your house. You don’t want to flip it. To get the most return out of your investment, you’ll want to stay in it a while after installing solar, said Beau Husfloen, a partner in Bluebird Solar and Light.

Get more solar info

▪  The U. S. Department of Energy has a homeowner’s guide to solar and to financing solar installation.

▪  The Clean Energy Group offers information on solar financing.

‘Net metering’ — a popular idea under scrutiny

One of the biggest selling points for solar power is the chance for owners to send the extra electricity they generate to the power company — a process called “net metering,” taking its name from the net benefit it has on the power passing through your meter.

Solar customers who generate more power than they use get a credit. On days when solar power doesn’t generate all the power homeowners need, they can draw on the bank and use power-company electricity without additional cost.

In the past year, Idaho Power has taken a closer look at its net-metering system. Because those customers use the grid in a different way than traditional customers who pay for drawing electricity to power their homes, the power company floated the idea of creating a separate class among Idaho Power customers for new net-metered homes.

Net metering advocates worry that those customers could face an increased cost in the access fee to use Idaho Power’s lines in the future, which could slow adoption of solar power.

Idaho Power has not yet gone to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission with the idea, or made any rate proposals.

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