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(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nia Sherar and Anton Sherar protest Rocky Mountain Power's proposed fee on solar-equipped customers Tuesday July 29, 2014.
Commission hears debate over solar power fee
Debate » Rocky Mountain Power says it needs money to cover operational costs; opponents argue it will discourage use of clean energy.
First Published Jul 29 2014 08:30 pm • Last Updated Jul 29 2014 09:36 pm

For Barry Goldwater Jr., a clean energy economy is arriving in the form of efficient, low-cost photovoltaics and utilities that fail to embrace this innovation risk "getting run over by the future."

But the former Republican California congressman contends Rocky Mountain Power and other utilities are flexing their monopoly power to stifle the expansion of rooftop solar to preserve an outdated business model.

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"If you tax something, you’re going to have less of it," Goldwater said at a rally Tuesday denouncing RMP’s proposal to impose a $4.65 monthly fee on "net-metered" customers who cover part of their power needs with solar arrays. "No one owns the sun and to put a tax on it is wrong."

Goldwater now chairs a free-market group call TUSK, or Tell Utilities Solar Won’t be Killed, that is joining clean-energy advocates around the country to fight proposed fees on net-metered ratepayers. Arizona is the only state to have authorized such a fee, but Utah may soon follow.

"Solar choice means competition. Competition drives down prices and drives up quality," Goldwater said.

About 200 residents joined Goldwater outside the Salt Lake City headquarters of the Utah Public Service Commission before pouring into the Heber Wells building to address the three-member panel that regulates utilities. Critics say the fee would help keep RMP hooked on coal by discouraging personal investment in renewable energy.

"We should not allow solar to be stomped out of the marketplace just as it is gaining momentum," said Salt Lake City resident Jared Campbell, whose 8.5-kilowatt PV system produces more energy than his home consumes. He is incensed the state would allow penalizing citizens who tap an energy source that is free, last forever and doesn’t pollute.

This week, the PSC has been hearing diametrically opposed versions of net-metered customers’ impact on Rocky Mountain Power and its 700,000 residential customers.

In the version advanced by the company, current rate structures end up subsidizing solar-equipped customers because they no longer pay their fair share of the utility’s substantial investment in power distribution and transmission and peak generating capacity.

RMP engineer Douglas Marx said solar power production peaks too early in the day to help offset summer peak power demand between 4 and 7 p.m. And the intermittent nature of distributed solar generation, due to the movement of the sun and clouds, can trigger voltage fluctuations that stress infrastructure.

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Fixed operational costs account for 60 percent of the utility’s expenses, which are covered by retail rates.

Solar-powered customers, who still rely on RMP’s power when the sun isn’t shining, avoid paying their full share of these fixed costs by reducing their monthly bills. As a result, net metering "shifts costs" from one class of customer to another, an imbalance the proposed fee seeks to correct, company and state experts testified.

A consultant retained by the Sierra Club, however, conducted an "avoided cost" analysis, and concluded RMP’s 2,000 net metered customers last year benefited RMP by the tune of $1.4 million, mostly through offsetting the need to generate power and transmit the electrons over long distances.

"The benefits provided by residential net metering systems far outweigh any costs the Company claims rooftop solar systems impose on the utility," Dustin Mulvaney wrote in his testimony. "Applying a fixed [net metering] charge will negatively impact the Company’s solar incentive program by reducing customer investment in rooftop solar facilities and other distributed generation, reducing energy efficiency and conservation measures, and increasing harmful emissions."

Mulvaney’s arguments were echoed by dozens of Utah residents who addressed the commission Tuesday evening.

Mark Thomas, a member of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance, told commissioners they have yet to consider the avoided costs net-metering brings.

"Until you do, let the voice of wisdom speak in the streets. I went out in the streets. She is not there," said Thomas, an expert in public finance who has worked on Utah power stations. "Reject this unjust fee."

David Bennett, a net-metered Park City resident, said he installed solar not so much to save money, but to do the right thing.

"Look at the enormity of what’s at stake here," Bennett said. "Future generations will ask what did we do when we were put on notice that fossil fuels were limited and the harmful effect burning it would have on our environment, particularly the air."

In recent weeks, the PSC has been inundated with 11,000 comments. Many decry Utah’s poor ranking in solar production — 31st in the nation — while harboring the seventh largest solar energy resource.

Also opposing the fee are Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. The Magna Community Council is among more than a dozen around the county that voted to "ally ourselves with the future" by passing resolutions opposing the fee on solar-powered homeowners.

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