Rooftop Solar Dims Under Pressure From Utility Lobbyists
Over the past six years, rooftop solar panel installations have seen explosive growth — as much as 900 percent by one estimate.
That growth has come to a shuddering stop this year, with a projected decline in new installations of 2 percent, according to projections from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
A number of factors are driving the reversal, from saturation in markets like California to financial woes at several top solar panel makers.
But the decline has also coincided with a concerted and well-funded lobbying campaign by traditional utilities, which have been working in state capitals across the country to reverse incentives for homeowners to install solar panels.
Utilities argue that rules allowing private solar customers to sell excess power back to the grid at the retail price — a practice known as net metering — can be unfair to homeowners who do not want or cannot afford their own solar installations.
Their effort has met with considerable success, dimming the prospects for renewable energy across the United States.
Prodded in part by the utilities’ campaign, nearly every state in the country is engaged in a review of its solar energy policies. Since 2013, Hawaii, Nevada, Arizona, Maine and Indiana have decided to phase out net metering, crippling programs that spurred explosive growth in the rooftop solar market. (Nevada recently reversed its decision.)
Many more states are considering new or higher fees on solar customers.
“We believe it is important to balance the needs of all customers,” Jeffrey Ostermayer of the Edison Electric Institute, the most prominent utility lobbying group, said in a statement.
The same group of investor-owned utilities is now poised to sway solar policy at the federal level. Brian McCormack, a former top executive at the Edison institute, is Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s chief of staff. The Energy Department did not make Mr. McCormack available for an interview.
In April, Mr. Perry ordered an examination of how renewable energy may be hurting conventional sources like coal, oil and natural gas, a study that environmentalists worry could upend federal policies that have fostered the rapid spread of solar and wind power.
Charged with spearheading the study, due this summer, is Mr. McCormack.
“There’s no doubt these utilities are out to kill rooftop solar, and they’re succeeding,” said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a renewable energy advocacy group. “They’re now driving the agenda.”
A Statehouse Push
Early on a March morning in the Indiana State Capitol, under a mural of the Greek sun god Apollo, solar energy enthusiasts swarmed a committee hearing to defend the state’s embattled solar policy.
A school superintendent said that his underfunded district needed solar power to reduce energy costs. A local farmer pleaded that his pine tree nursery depended on power from his solar panels. A Baptist pastor said he saw drawing energy from the sun as an “expression of our love of God’s creation.”
The coalition was fighting a losing battle.
A week before the Indiana committee hearing, a group of utility lobbyists descended on the statehouse, handing out talking points that said credits for rooftop solar panels lead to higher rates for everyone else. They were there to support a bill, sponsored by Senator Brandt Hershman, that would roll back Indiana’s net metering system by reducing the rate utilities paid to solar consumers for their excess electricity.
Homeowners with solar panels “avoid paying for use of the grid, even though they use it almost constantly to buy or sell electricity,” read a talking point prepared by Indiana’s local investor-led utilities group, the Indiana Energy Association, and circulated among Republican state legislators.
Indiana’s five investor-owned utilities are among the biggest contributors to Indiana’s elected officials, together giving at least $3 million to mostly Republican candidates over the past four election cycles, according to campaign finance filings. They are also known to play an outsize role in drafting energy-related bills.
Mr. Hershman said utility contributions had not swayed him against net metering. He said his bill, which was passed and signed into law this spring, protects current solar customers by locking in their rates for many years.
“I receive donations from a wide variety of groups across the ideological spectrum because I tackle tough issues fairly, listen to both sides and promote good policy,” he said by email.
The pushback against renewable energy has been years in the making.
Four years ago, the Edison institute, an industry group made up of the country’s largest investor-owned electric companies, declared that the business of generating electricity was in danger of being sucked into what has since become known as a “utility death spiral.”
As more consumers switched to rooftop solar and bought less electricity from the grid, the trade group worried in a 2013 document, the costs of running conventional coal, oil, gas or nuclear power plants would be shared among an ever-smaller customer base. That could cause rates to spike, chasing even more customers away.
The prospect of more customers “fully exiting from the grid,” the group said, “raises the potential for irreparable damages to revenues and growth.”
Since then, the utilities have targeted state solar power incentives, particularly net metering, which credits solar customers for the electricity they generate but do not use and send back to the grid. That offsets the cost of electricity they may still buy from their local utility during cloudy days and at night, reducing or even eliminating their electricity bills.
Utilities argue that net metering, in place in over 40 states, turns many homeowners into free riders on the grid, giving them an unfair advantage over customers who do not want or cannot afford solar panels. The utilities say that means fewer ratepayers cover the huge costs of traditional power generation.