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Solar, utilities gearing up for regulatory fight

  

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri lawmakers are anticipating a lengthy debate on the future of solar power in the state over the next few years as investor-owner utilities and solar energy groups begin trading shots.

The impetus for the debate this year will likely come from HB 481, sponsored by Rep. T.J. Berry, a Republican, who is also the Chairman of the Select Committee on Utilities. Berry is offering a bill that both traditional utility companies and electric co-ops and solar energy interests are hoping to turn into a positive vehicle for their issue.

Traditional utilities, like the state’s electric co-ops or the larger KCP&L and Ameren Missouri, are looking for a monthly sub base rate to charge solar energy users, even if their panels generate more than the power they use. Currently, solar power is intermittent; meaning someone with solar panels on their roof may generate enough power for their home during daylight hours, but still needs access to traditional power sources at night. Any extra power generated during the day goes back into the grid and is then used by another consumer.

Solar companies say several amendments offered for Berry’s bill would price them out of the energy market, effectively killing competition. Berry said that was an “overstatement,” but he agreed utility companies needed to be willing to negotiate with solar interests.

The Alliance for Solar Choice, an association of the nation’s largest rooftop solar companies, says that electric utility companies are demanding unreasonable fees and looking to de-incentivize solar panel installation.

“They want to end solar competition,” said Bryan Miller, Co-Chair for The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) and Vice President of Public Policy and Power Markets for Sunrun, a member company. “Solar costs go down every single year by double digits, and every single year, traditional utility costs go up. The clock is on solar’s side, and we shouldn’t be changing the rules in the middle of the game.”

Miller said TASC’s position should appeal to conservative lawmakers, who typically oppose “propping up industry with the power of government” in the face of competition.

Berry said that while utility companies were deeply concerned and taking steps to slow down solar power’s growth, there was a middle ground that would involve both sides preparing to make reasonable decisions.

“What we have to decide is what is fair,” Berry said. “They are afraid some of this language kills them. But it depends on what the level is, and in my bill, that decision about a sub base rate is left up to the Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC), because they’re more equipped to make that determination.”

Berry said a comprehensive study through the PSC was needed before the state made any major changes to it’s regulatory framework. Berry’s bill calls on a thorough study to be conducted by the PSC to determine the costs and benefits of solar power, something longtime solar power advocate Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, agrees with wholeheartedly.

“My position is nothing passes this year,” Holsman said. “Until we have a study from the PSC, my position is going to be let’s hold fast. In the regulatory framework we have right now in the state, the solar companies are telling us they can compete. It’s a ‘do no harm’ situation for them right now.”

Holsman said that utility companies still must maintain the grid in the form of maintenance and infrastructure improvements for nighttime energy usage and the distribution of power across an area, so he wasn’t completely opposed to a fixed regular rate for solar users.

“I don’t oppose a reasonable effort to recover a fixed loss cost,” Holsman said. “The key word is reasonable. And I think we need a study to fully realize the net costs and benefits of solar. Understanding the value versus the cost will make it much easier to determine what a reasonable amount is to collect for a fixed loss cost.”

Perhaps most telling is that TASC is now in a position to fight the entrenched and immensely influential KCP&L and Ameren. TASC has retained John Bardgett of Bardgett & Associates to spearhead lobbying efforts and negotiations on new regulations for solar power.

Utility companies have long warned of the “death spiral” of a rapid expansion of renewable energy. They say that a sudden growth in solar generators will drive up prices for their poorest customers who can’t afford the installation of panels to drive down costs, a process that is still somewhat pricey. Rapidly growing rates means more folks failing to pay bills, and further incentivizes investments in rooftop solar, a cycle that traditional electric generators see as their death knell.

With the cost of solar panels plummeting in the past decade and panels becoming increasingly more efficient, TASC says that competition alone shouldn’t drive regulation that favors traditional electricity out of habit.

Berry said his bill will not pass the House this year, but that he intends to introduce a version on the House floor for sustained debate, as he foresees further debate about renewable energy just on the horizon for Missouri.

“We need to look at what the best policy for the state is and that policy, I believe, is going to have a renewable energy component,” Berry said. “There’s no silver bullet, but there’s pieces of a silver bullet, and renewables are a piece.”