The Utah Supreme Court issued a ruling this week that marks a setback for Utahns with rooftop solar panels and, indirectly, efforts to expand the state’s supply of clean energy.
At issue was a 2020 decision by the Public Service Commission that cut the amount rooftop solar customers can recoup from power companies from a little over 9 cents per kilowatt hour to just 5 cents — a number that will be adjusted every year.
Vote Solar and other solar power advocates filed a lawsuit in 2021, arguing that the rate was too low and didn’t take into consideration the other benefits that solar power provides — including improvements to air quality and mitigating climate impacts.
The case made its way to the state Supreme Court, which on Thursday ruled against Vote Solar, in effect leaving the lower reimbursement rate in place.
Since that lower rate was put in place, the number of homeowners installing solar panels has dropped significantly. Leaving that rate in place means the big investment to install panels will be less attractive and Utah will likely continue to lag behind neighboring states that offer more generous compensation, said Vote Solar’s Interior West Regulatory Director Kate Bowman.
After the rate was adopted, she said, several companies left Utah to focus on markets where solar panels were a more attractive option.
And having a rate that adjusts annually makes it hard for homeowners to assess how long it will take for them to see the benefits from their investment in rooftop panels, said Logan Mitchell, a climate expert with Utah Clean Energy.
My beef isn’t so much with the Supreme Court. Their ruling didn’t get to the merits of Vote Solar’s claims, but the reasoning in the unanimous opinion — from my untrained reading — looks to be sound.
The larger problem is Utah’s failure to come up with a cogent, forward-looking energy policy built on a vision for the next hundred years rather than a longing for the last hundred.
Earlier this month, Utah’s Legislative Auditor released a blistering report stating that Utah’s Office of Energy Development lacked defined goals, had gone through five directors and seven mission statements in 12 years, didn’t rely on data in its decision-making, and failed to provide needed guidance in a critical transitional period in the energy landscape.
And also this week, Utah filed a lawsuit challenging a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule aimed at reducing climate-damaging ozone emissions. In announcing the suit, Gov. Spencer Cox touted Utah’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy and its success in providing low-cost electricity to the state.
But simply saying we want “all-of-the-above” without considering the hidden costs, long-term impacts and sustainability is not really much of a policy at all.
And we can’t really claim to be promoting all of the options when the state is simultaneously making rooftop solar a much less attractive option for homeowners and ignoring the benefits — clean, cheap power, a resilient power grid among them — solar panels provide.
Look, we can stick with the way we’ve done things in the past if we want, but change is going to come and we shouldn’t be surprised if we wake up one day finding our state scrambling to catch up with those who had the vision, initiative and will to lead.
“We’re in the midst of a global energy transformation,” Mitchell told me. “Utah is kind of rudderless in this area. Half the Legislature is looking backwards and thinks we’re going to maintain the system we had 20 years ago when everything is changing.”
More simply put, Mitchell said: “We desperately need energy leadership in the state.”