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Pyle: Non-solar houses have a cost, too

By George Pyle

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Aug 01 2014 05:11 pm • Last Updated Aug 01 2014 05:30 pm

I must apologize to my fellow Rocky Mountain Power customers for being a totally selfish ass.

Because of the way my family gets its electricity, we are shifting an unfair burden onto the undeserving backs of many households around Utah that have a different way of powering their homes.

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Shame on us.

Because we’ve been too cheap to pop for a rooftop solar power system, we are doing more than we should to fill the air with carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other nasty chemicals.

Jerks.

Of course, Rocky Mountain Power looks at it differently.

According to the giant regulated monopoly that provides most of Utah’s power, it is the early adopters of household solar power, some of whom run net-metering systems that credit them for excess power that feeds back to the grid, who are being unfair to other customers.

By paying smaller bills, RMP’s logic goes, solar users are shirking part of their responsibility to subsidize the network of wires, polls, trucks and folks in hard hats who come out at 3 a.m. in a blizzard when the lines go down. So the company is asking the state for permission to slap a new fee onto the bills of homes with net-metering equipment.

To start, such a fee would be only $4.65 a month, just a trickle to stop a shift of the system’s fixed costs onto households without solar power. Households that, as RMP plays the social fairness card, are likely to be less affluent (Rose Park) than those tree-hugging professionals (Park City) who can afford to install a solar system and wait a long time for it to pay out in lower bills.

Many folks object to the fee on the grounds that, even if it starts small, it is likely to only get larger over time. In fact, if more people adopt household solar (or wind) power, the money lost to RMP may get larger, prompting still higher net-metering fees.


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In fairness to the utility, tradition and law demand that the rate structure adopted by a regulated monopoly be fair across the board, to the extent possible.

And, at least in Utah, the law allows the determination of what is fair to only include the dollars and cents costs of getting electricity from their generating station to your fuse box.

Because such a narrowly focused view is mandated, it has not yet been a slam dunk for fee opponents to demonstrate that net-metered households benefit the grid by curbing RMP’s need to burn more coal, build more generators or buy more power on the spot market.

The case against the fee would be much easier to make if the law allowed an accounting of more important, but less mathematically precise, measure of solar and wind benefits, such as the reductions in asthma attacks, cancer deaths, droughts, floods, hurricanes and mass migrations we will have as more power comes from renewable sources and less of it from fossil fuels.

One thing Utah could do to change the math behind power rates would be to follow the 29 states that now require their utilities to get a minimum percentage of their power from renewables.

Utah law sets a voluntary standard of utilities getting 20 percent of their power from renewables by the year 2025. But only if it can be shown to be "cost effective."

Other states have set mandatory minimums for renewable portfolios. Those states include Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. California’s standard, which it is on target to meet, is 33 percent by 2020.

Make increased percentages of power from solar and wind mandatory for RMP, and it would be much easier to show that net-metering customers are doing the system, and their neighbors, a favor.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is deathly afraid of going too far off the grid.

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Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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