What’s it worth to be hooked into the power grid?
That is at the heart of a struggle just beginning over electricity rates for people who generate their own power, usually with rooftop solar panels.
Rocky Mountain Power is requesting a rate increase, and included in that request is a $4.25 flat monthly charge for "net metering" customers who contribute power back to the grid, essentially helping power their neighbors, too.
Wait. That sounds like Rocky Mountain should be thanking those people, not charging them, right?
It’s not that simple. The law requires the utility to buy that excess power from its net metering customers, so it’s not like these customers aren’t compensated for helping out. What’s more, those people aren’t generating their own power all the time. When the sun goes down, they start sucking juice from the grid like the rest of us. But their monthly bills are much lower than the rest of us, so Rocky Mountain argues that those customers aren’t paying their fair share for maintaining the power lines and other customer services.
Right now there are only about 2,000 or so residences that have electricity-generating photovoltaic systems in Rocky Mountain’s system. That means this isn’t about the present. It’s about preparing for a time when solar technology improves and conventional fuels get more expensive.
Imagine if 80 percent of Utah homes have solar panels. Those homes would still need a central power grid, but there would be much less need for developing new power plants like the one Rocky Mountain is bringing online in Utah County. Using today’s rate structure simply wouldn’t work.
Rocky Mountain isn’t just asking for a rate increase. It is also pushing the Utah Legislature to change the law so regulators at the Utah Public Service Commission would be required to make sure net meterers aren’t subsidized by regular customers. No bill has been introduced yet, but here’s the proposed language provided by Rocky Mountain: "Public policy is best served by net metering customers of an electrical corporation paying their full cost of service rather than by shifting a portion of those costs to the electrical corporation’s customer base not participating in the net metering program."
That seems reasonable, but alternative energy advocates are pushing back, saying the Public Service Commission already has the authority, and the priority, to set rates fairly.
Ultimately, the law and the rates must be fair to all ratepayers and to Rocky Mountain’s owners, but they also must be set to encourage the growth of clean energy consumption. That is good for everyone on the grid.
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