State regulators delay Rocky Mountain Power's net metering hearings to allow more settlement talks

Rocky Mountain Power joins in seeking the postponement, aimed at supporting private settlement talks on alternative plan to the utility’s controversial rate overhaul

In this undated photo provided by SolarCity, workers install solar panels on the roof of a home. SolarCity will begin offering loans to homeowners for rooftop solar systems, a move that analysts say could reshape the market for rooftop solar and propel its rapid adoption. (AP Photo/Courtesy SolarCity)

State regulators have postponed hearings related to a controversial proposal to change electric rates for rooftop solar owners in order to allow Rocky Mountain Power and solar advocates to continue negotiating on an alternative plan.

The state Public Service Commission (PSC) granted the delay Friday afternoon after a coalition of industry and environmental advocates, as well as state and local government representatives, asked the regulatory panel for more time to work on a promising settlement. Rocky Mountain Power later added its name to the motion, which was filed late Thursday.

Parties involved in the confidential talks have indicated that they prefer an alternative suggested by the state Office of Consumer Service and the Division of Public Utilities to Rocky Mountain Power’s proposal, released last fall. Critics say the utility’s proposed rate overhaul had the potential to dramatically increase power bills for some residential customers with rooftop arrays.  

The company, too, has also expressed favorable views of the new agreement, which would possibly scrap Rocky Mountain’s current system for reimbursing solar panel users for surplus power they generate altogether — and replacing it with a new system. 

Just as the PSC was set to resume its review of the utility’s original request with hearings on Monday, those hearings have now been postponed to mid-September.

In Thursday's motion, opponents of Rocky Mountain Power's November request said they needed more time to finalize a settlement. Solar advocates cited “significant progress that has occurred in settlement discussions recently,” according to documents.  More time, their motion said, “will facilitate a negotiated resolution of the proceeding.”  

But some of those participating in the negotiations disagreed about how much time was needed to reach an agreement, Michele Beck, director of the Office of Consumer Services, said Friday. The Office of Consumer Services was one of the parties that filed Thursday’s motion for a delay.

In an earlier motion, Rocky Mountain Power asked the commission “to set a two-day hearing on August 28-29, for the purpose of potentially ratifying any settlement stipulation reached by the parties.”

Jon Cox, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, said the utility had hoped to finalize a settlement by the end of August. However, the company later withdrew its request for the August hearings.

The environmental advocacy group Western Resource Advocates also filed a motion indicating it would support the delay if the settlement negotiations were opened to the public. However, the three PSC commissioners said in Friday’s rescheduling order that they were “not aware of any legal basis by which we can dictate the terms of settlement discussions.”

“A party who is unsatisfied with the manner in which settlement discussion proceeds may appear at a hearing to oppose a settlement,” the PSC wrote.

Rocky Mountain Power’s original proposal urges a new three-part rate structure for net metering customers in Utah, arguing the rate structure more accurately represents the actual costs from the expansion of rooftop solar, and that the rate overhaul would keep electrical rates lower for other customers.

But those in the solar industry say the proposal could bring the growing pace of solar installation in Utah to a near standstill.

The Public Service Commission is in the process of gathering information for and against the proposal, having held the first in a series of hearings on the matter on Wednesday.