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A bill that would allow utilities to impose additional fees on customers with solar panels is headed to the Missouri Senate after having passed the House by a large margin. Nonetheless, a couple of clean-energy advocates who’ve been lobbying against the bill don’t think it will proceed.
Although he called it “remarkable and very alarming” that the bill passed the House on Monday by a vote of 102 to 51, Andrew Linhares said he is certain that the Senate “will not accept it in its current form. We have confidence that the Senate will be more deliberative and take this threat to our economy more seriously.” Linhares is an attorney for the non-profit Renew Missouri.
John Hickey, who represents the Sierra Club before the Missouri General Assembly, said the wide margin in the House is worrisome, and means “we will have to really mobilize effectively to defeat it in the Senate. I think it’s doable, but it’s a challenge.”
HB 340, initially conceived by the Association of Missouri Electric Cooperatives, has been rapidly changing and expanding its potential impact, according to Linhares. Recent changes would allow electric co-ops and municipal utilities, if they perform cost-of-service studies, to offer an alternative tariff for solar customers based on those studies.
Because those utilities are subject to much less state oversight than investor-owned utilities such as Ameren and Kansas City Power & Light, Linhares said, “There would be no public process for reviewing those cost-of-service studies. This would be a fairly unaccountable process for co-ops and [municipal utilities] to avoid having to abide by the normal rules of net metering.”
Moreover, he said, “I’d argue that you have to study the whole picture, costs and benefits of solar.”
This is a matter that has been disputed widely, including in Kansas last year, when the Kansas Corporation Commission decided to consider both sides of the issue.
And the Missouri bill as a whole “is very similar to the threat we’re seeing all across country,” Linhares said. “Attacks have been beaten back in Kentucky and Michigan, attempts to make solar more expensive and to slow its penetration into the market.”
Another addition to HB340 would allow utilities to require their solar customers’ arrays to contain “adequate surge protection,” to be paid for by the customer-owner of a system that goes into operation after Aug. 28, 2017. Linhares said that solar systems already are protected against power surges, and that that provision in the bill is unnecessary.
That provision, and the others in the bill, would apply only to systems that become operational after that date.
But the most concerning piece of the legislation, according to Linhares, is a provision allowing utilities to increase by 75 percent the monthly service fee of customers with solar panels.
Monthly fees vary substantially across the state. Customers of Ameren Missouri and Kansas City Power & Light pay $9 and $11.88 respectively each month, according to their Web sites. But Missouri solar installer Caleb Arthur said that some smaller utilities, particularly rural electric cooperatives, charge as much as $40 per month for basic service, meaning the proposed solar surcharge could add as much as $30 to a monthly bill.
Solar customers rely on the electric grid to move power that they generate, said Brent Stewart, an attorney representing the state’s power co-ops and the author of the original bill. But if they pay greatly reduced energy charges, he said, they are in effect getting some services for free.
Stewart said a two-track rate structure is appropriate because applying identical rates can, in fact, have unequal results.
“The problem we have with the current law is that distributed-generation customers are not paying their fair share of the fixed costs,” Stewart said.
Utilities across the country have attempted to institute a separate set of rules for self-generating customers, and have made a similar argument: that customers with solar panels, by decreasing their purchases of electricity, subsequently do not pay enough to cover their use of the transmission and distribution and other company assets.
“Value of solar” studies have attempted to calculate the financial impact of solar arrays on the grid. Those financed by utilities generally have concluded that solar customers impose costs on the system beyond what they pay. Studies done by others generally have concluded the opposite.
While the costs and benefits for the grid of solar arrays is yet to be firmly settled, the consequences of this bill for many solar customers are much clearer, according to Caleb Arthur, the owner of Missouri Sun Solar.
Adding $30 to a $40 monthly service fee – which, according to Arthur, would be the case for some Missouri customers – would “wipe out any savings they would have had from solar.”