While “net neutrality” has been in the public mind for years, the fight for “grid neutrality” has just begun. Across America, and potentially in Idaho, home and business owners who invest in clean energy face the prospect of discriminatory fees to access the power grid. The principles of grid neutrality protect fair prices for all electric customers and prevent people with solar or wind from being penalized.
A recent New York Times piece shows that equal public access to the grid is under threat from fossil-fuel industry lobbyists working to eliminate solar net metering programs across the country. This would force consumers to keep buying something we don’t want anymore — electricity generated by polluting-spewing coal and natural gas plants.
Idaho’s net energy metering program is vulnerable to this misguided effort.
Over 1,200 Idaho Power customers have rooftop solar or small wind generators. These net meter customers gladly pay $5 per month for access to the electric grid. Just like other Idaho Power customers, this minimum applies even if no power is used in a given month.
Idaho Power has raised concerns that this might not be enough to fully recover the costs of operating the grid and wants to cap the net metering program now. The company wants customers who install solar panels today to agree in advance to pay undisclosed higher rates and fees in the future.
It’s clearly not fair to charge people with rooftop solar more than other customers for access to the electric grid. If the utility truly isn’t charging enough to cover the costs of the grid, then rates should be adjusted for all customers — not just solar power users.
As important as net neutrality is to the future of the internet, grid neutrality is to our energy system beyond fossil fuels. Without grid neutrality green-energy users will soon balk at unfair extra fees and charges. If they to go off of the grid, not only will the utilities will lose customers, but society will lose a chance to build a truly integrated smart grid.
Despite these uncertainties, there has never been a better time to invest in solar power. The cost of panels is at an all-time low. The 30 percent federal tax credit and state deductions make it even more affordable. We need policies to support these investments and local solar jobs. We can’t let fear tactics from the fossil fuel industry hold us back.
The Snake River Alliance is talking with Idaho Power and the Idaho Public Utilities Commission about grid neutrality and the costs and benefits of solar and distributed energy in Idaho. But right now, Idaho’s net metering program isn’t broken. Today all customers pay the same base rates. Policies that discriminate or penalize customers for installing wind power or solar panels should be turned back.
Wendy Wilson is the executive director of the Snake River Alliance and lives in Boise.