Voters Win More Solar Energy Options Despite Opposition From Big Energy
Commonly topping any list of obstacles to a home solar energy boom are price and storage—photovoltaic panels aren’t cheap to own or install, and they maintain the obvious drawback of producing energy during daylight hours only. However, another barrier to the spread of consumer-generated solar has been the utility companies powering American homes.
“Power companies only sell one product in order to make their profit. They don’t sell cars. They don’t sell T-shirts. They sell electrons, and they’re not in the business of having those electrons taken off the grid,” said Ted Trabue, managing director of DC Sustainable Energy Utility, a nonprofit specializing in promoting energy efficiency in Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas.
Through rates, regulation, and political influence, the utility industry has managed to suppress solar energy production even in sunny states where one might reasonably expect a boom. But that might be changing, thanks to recent votes in Nevada and Florida and a surprising new regulatory agreement in Mississippi.
“It’s taken a long time to put this together and get it launched, but it’s come to fruition,” said Mississippi Sierra Club Director Louie Miller of a new, progressive net metering agreement between the Mississippi Public Service Commission and utility companies. The rule changes, made in September, will make home electricity generation more profitable for customers. “I have people in Austin, Texas—one of the bluest cities in the country—who say they don’t have [a net metering policy] this good,” Miller said.
Will Hegman, owner of solar installation company Mississippi Solar LLC, has worked for years under an energy commission that rarely encouraged his business. Even now, after so long with such scant support, he says he is still afraid to get his hopes up.
“It’s too soon to see a difference,” he said. “I’ve had utility companies use every trick to stop me and my customers—from convoluted permits to impossible connection requirements—and there was nothing to stop them but our determination to make solar work. After all that, it’s hard to be optimistic just yet.”
But in changing its tune on net metering, Mississippi is showing a promising new trend toward standing up to the corporate-backed utility industry and its underhanded tactics.
For homeowners, one of the biggest roadblocks to installing $30,000 worth of solar panels is the cost. Many work around the price by signing lease or rent-to-own agreements with solar installers, which then recoup costs by selling the energy their panels generate back to the power companies. If solar electricity costs less to the utilities companies than the juice from their power lines, homeowners sees lowered monthly bills. Through a net metering agreement, customers might also get a credit from power companies for the electricity sold back to the grid.
The success of these leases depends on what the local power company is willing to pay for home-generated electricity. However, and historically, the price paid in Mississippi has been paltry. Utility companies like it that way, Trabue says.
In 2013, electric-company shareholder advocate Edison Electric Institute acknowledged the threat solar posed to the power industry. Its report explained that solar customers might be tempted to limit their grid use to backup purposes only or even permanently abandon the grid as solar technology grows more affordable. This is bad news for the power industry, which requires a stable army of ratepayers to recoup construction costs for its big, expensive power plants and infrastructure.
But the utility industry, however embattled, is still wealthy and politically entrenched. It can afford to donate heavily to political campaigns. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval received $10,000 in campaign contributions from Nevada Power Company in 2010 and another $10,000 from Sierra Pacific Power Company, among others, in 2014. As governor of that sun-drenched state, he appointed three members to the Nevada Public Utility Commission that single-handedly hobbled solar and recklessly endangered almost 6,000 solar-related jobs by tripling solar customers’ monthly charges in January. The commission also cut solar customers’ credit for the home-generated electricity sold back to the power grid.