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Editorial: Utility rules should consider air quality

Published May 25, 2014 1:22 pm

Utah must not discourage solar power.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

America's road to a post-carbon energy economy, one based on clean and renewable sources of power rather than the mining and burning of dirty and finite fossil fuel stocks, is going to be long, bumpy and expensive.

And there's going to be a lot of math involved.

One important calculation to be made by the Utah Public Service Commission is whether Rocky Mountain Power, the state's main supplier of electricity, can slap an extra charge on the monthly bills of those who have gone to some expense to generate their own clean and renewable power.

From pure dollars and cents, the petition that RMP be allowed to add $4.25 a month to the bills of those who have installed solar power arrays on their homes makes some sense.

Because these customers not only reduce the amount of power they buy, but are also entitled by law to sell any power over their own needs back to the utility through a system called net-metering, their energy frugality costs RMP money. Money the for-profit utility claims it needs in order to provide and maintain a fully reliable power grid, which even customers with solar or wind power at home must have to keep the lights on 24/7/365.

If the state does not allow the proposed surcharge — which can only be expected to rise as more customers add solar power and the price of everything goes up — the utility argues that costs will be shifted from the solar power haves (mostly affluent) to the solar power have-nots (not so much).

There are, though, some other wrinkles that the PSC needs to consider. One is that both the utility, and its rate payers, should save considerable amounts of money, over time, as the demand placed on the grid is eased.

Many utilities, including RMP, see this when they offer rebates for such energy-saving acts as installing insulation or buying high-efficiency appliances. It seems inconsistent that energy suppliers encourage conservation in that way, yet seem to resent the competition posed by home-generated power.

Harder to tease out of any spread sheet, though, is the benefit to the whole community whenever anyone does anything to cut down on the amount of energy the still mostly coal- and natural gas-fired power plants must produce.

State regulators, and legislators, may find it difficult to place a precise value on efforts that cut down on air pollution. But utilities have absolutely no incentive to improve air quality until and unless government regulation makes it profitable for them to do so, or expensive for them not to.

Our rules should reflect that reality.