Utahns light up rooftop solar proposal as Rocky Mountain Power negotiates with clean-energy advocates

An utility representative advocates for ”more correct price signals.”<br>

In this undated photo provided by SolarCity, workers install solar panels on the roof of a home.

Hearings regarding a controversial Rocky Mountain Power proposal to restructure electrical rates for customers who use rooftop solar began Wednesday, despite the promise of ongoing settlement talks.

More than 100 individuals lined up to speak at Wednesday afternoon’s standing room only hearing before the Public Service Commission, which is tasked with deciding whether it will allow Rocky Mountain Power to implement a three-part rate structure with the potential to dramatically increase monthly power bills for some of the company’s net metering customers.

The hearing carried on despite settlement talks between Rocky Mountain Power and various solar energy advocates regarding an alternate proposal suggested by the state’s Office of Consumer Services and Division of Public Utilities.

Parties from both sides of the issue who are involved in those negotiations have said the current discussions involve hashing out details of a general plan most appear to view favorably.

Ryan Evans, president of the Utah Solar Energy Association, which is involved in the settlement process, said before Wednesday’s hearings began that he remains hopeful that the group will arrive at a mutually beneficial agreement.

“I think we are close,” he said, “and I sincerely hope we find that win-win-win situation.”

Michael Shea, a policy associate for clean-air and -energy advocacy group HEAL Utah, agreed that the negotiations are close to arriving at a mutually agreeable settlement. HEAL, he said, is holding out to ensure that protections are guaranteed for existing net metering customers.

Though the details of the settlement are being fleshed out and are subject to confidentially agreements, the basic premise of the proposal would end the existing net metering program as well as the debate before the Public Service Commission. Wednesday’s meeting was expected to continue late into the night.

Instead, Rocky Mountain Power would bring a separate case before the Public Service Commission to set a rate at which customers with rooftop solar arrays would be compensated for surplus power pushed onto the grid.

In order to make changes to the electrical rates rooftop solar customers pay for power, the utility would have to open a broader review known as a rate case, in which prices for all electrical customers are considered.

Although the settlement proposal itself did not become a topic of discussion during Wednesday’s hearing, members of the public supported a general review of all Rocky Mountain Power electrical rates.

“Our position is that Rocky Mountain Power should be denied any net metering change … until the need for changes is determined in a general rate case,” said Stan Holmes, outreach coordinator for Utah Citizens Advocating Renewable Energy, or UCARE. “Rocky Mountain Power’s proposal constitutes single-issue rate-making that discriminates against one class of rate payer.”

Holmes went on to argue that the review of Rocky Mountain Power’s expenses and revenues should take into account environmental costs and benefits.

Environment-based arguments were popular among the proposal’s critics, which included net metering customers, solar-industry employees, clean-air advocates, engineers and several professional athletes.

“I do recognize that those of us who generate our own power are costing Rocky Mountain Power money,” Craig Provost, a Salt Lake City resident, said during the hearing. “However, I think solar generation on rooftops is of greater benefit to the community than Rocky Mountain Power’s profitability.”

But others in attendance argued in favor of the utility’s proposal. The current situation, they said, did not require residents who have rooftop solar to pay their fair share of the costs associated with maintaining a reliable electrical grid.

Colin Jack, chief operating officer at Dixie Power, said a utility’s costs are averaged and factored into a per-kilowatt-hour charge on electricity bills. But this practice isn’t representative of the true cost of generating and supplying power, he said.

“We need to start giving out more correct price signals,” he said. “Commercial customers already pay a demand charge. Maybe it’s time that residential customers do, too.”

The implementation of a demand charge, which would bill customers according to the single hour of a given month in which they used the most power, is among the most controversial aspect’s of Rocky Mountain Power’s proposal. The company argues that it more accurately represents the costs of providing power, but critics say the charge is difficult for homeowners to understand and could lead to incomprehensible electricity bills.

Jack also criticized the solar industry, which he said has inundated Utah residents with “high pressure salesmen … telling them they will get a check from the utility … or that rates are going to triple.”

“I have personally heard salesmen tell everyone one of these lies,” he said, “and I have a couple of them recorded on my cellphone.”

Solar advocates have maintained their campaign against Rocky Mountain Power’s proposal, with a demonstration held just outside the hearing before Wednesday’s proceedings began. April Thomas, deputy press secretary for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said that so long as the failure of a negotiated settlement remains a possibility, solar advocates believe they have to plan for the worst possible outcome.

The Sierra Club has not taken part in settlement negotiations, Thomas said, because it did not feel comfortable signing the mandatory confidentiality agreement.

Barring the adoption of a mutually agreeable settlement, hearings on Rocky Mountain Power’s original proposal are scheduled to resume Monday.