A solar installer secures a photovoltaic panel to a roof. Credit: Roland Balik / U.S. Air Force

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State officials had planned to waive the usual prohibition on back channel communication between regulators and parties.

After months of standing their ground, Connecticut regulators finally relented Wednesday and agreed to limit private communications between themselves and interested parties in a proceeding that will serve as the basis for a comprehensive study of the “value of solar.”

Environmental groups have called for such a study for years. Legislation passed last year directs the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to deliver a joint report on the matter to lawmakers by July 1.

But when regulators announced last August that they were waiving the usual prohibition on what’s known as ex parte communications in the matter — essentially allowing communications between themselves and interested parties to take place outside of public view — the state’s solar lobby immediately cried foul.

“Now that the study is finally here, why would we support the idea that these deliberations would happen behind closed doors in private?” said Michael Trahan, the executive director of Solar Connecticut. “The results of the study are obviously determined by the input, which is why it’s so concerning that those individuals who would like to see a limited view of solar could be sitting at the table behind closed doors determining what the report is going to be.”

The study will help determine how people with solar panels should be compensated for the power they produce after the state phases out net metering after 2021 in favor of a tariff system. Under net metering, solar customers are compensated at the retail electric rate for any excess power they generate beyond what they use. 

Utilities and some consumer advocates argue that net metering unfairly shifts a heavier burden of transmission and delivery costs onto those ratepayers who don’t have solar. The study authorized by the legislature is intended to guide the process for setting a fair value. 

Depending on what factors go into that calculation, values can vary widely. A report by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council noted that in Arizona, a utility-funded study calculated net solar value at less than 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, while a solar industry-funded study came up with a value of more than 21 cents per kWh.

In Connecticut, after regulators announced they would allow for unfettered communication around the study, Trahan quickly responded with a motion calling for those constraints to be put right back in place. 

“This docket is expected to be quite contentious as numerous utility companies, distributed generation developers and public advocacy groups have already sought participant status,” he wrote in a Sept. 4 filing. “To allow any participant … to have off-the-record conversations — away from public view — with the decision makers in this docket is unnecessary and will leave any decision rendered in this docket open to suspicion.” 

The agencies denied the motion, arguing in a Sept. 20 response that the prohibition was unnecessary because the matter would not result in a final rule or a decision, but a report that would require “collaborative dialogue.”

On Oct. 31, Solar Connecticut filed another motion, this time calling for any communications made outside the public eye to immediately be submitted in written form to the docket. 

“We didn’t get a response on our second motion, which is highly unusual,” Trahan said. “Usually they respond within a couple of weeks, and sometimes overnight.”

Then, in December, the regulatory authority announced it wanted to also remove the prohibition on ex parte communications in another major docket, this one exploring grid modernization. This time, the state Office of Consumer Counsel, a consumer watchdog, took issue with the waiver. 

Noting that the matter had attracted “an atypically large” number of private businesses and special interest groups who stood to benefit from the outcome, acting consumer counsel Richard Sobolewski argued that a full waiver could be seen “as an opportunity to embark on extensive administrative lobbying” before the authority. 

He recommended a limited waiver, applying only to communication with state and federal entities. Earlier this month, the regulators complied. 

Andrew W. Minikowski, staff attorney at the Office of Consumer Counsel, said they didn’t pose the same objection to the waiver in the solar value proceeding because it is a study, rather than a contested proceeding. 

“In general, we strongly defend the administrative rule against ex parte communications, but when there is a proposal from the regulator we just weigh it case by case,” Minikowski said. “In this case, there’s no immediate rate impact that’s going to come out of filing the report with the legislature, whereas large grid-scale changes are being contemplated in the other docket.”

But Trahan used the consumer counsel’s objections in that separate docket to file a third request to regulators last Friday. This time, Trahan called for similarly limited private communications in the solar matter, arguing that it is “wholly inconsistent and arbitrary to have sensible and transparent ex parte rules in the Grid Mod dockets and have complete secrecy and covertness in the important and highly anticipated [solar value] docket.” 

After a reporter contacted the regulatory authority with questions about the waiver on Monday, Joshua Ryor, advisor to the chair, responded by email several hours later. Attached to the email was a notice filed by the authority just that day altering the waiver to include only public agencies and nonprofits. 

Ryor noted that the only communication the chair had engaged in outside of the hearing room on the solar value matter thus far was with an elected official — who, ironically enough, was advocating on behalf of Solar Connecticut’s position on transparency.

The official was state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (D-Westport), a member of the Energy and Technology Committee. Steinberg was among 14 legislators who sent a letter to regulators in August calling for a “detailed and transparent methodology” in the study.

“I’ve met with the chairman twice on this subject,” Steinberg said. “It’s no news that I feel very strongly about this docket. A lot is riding on it, and I have sympathy for Mike’s position — he wants to make sure nothing inappropriate is taking place behind the scenes.”

Participants in the docket have until Jan. 29 to submit written comments on the waiver change. The agencies have scheduled a technical meeting for Feb. 3 to discuss inputs and assumptions for determining solar value.

Lisa Prevost

Lisa Prevost is a longtime journalist based in Connecticut. She writes regularly about housing, development and business for the New York Times. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, CNBC.com, Next City and many other publications. She is the author of "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate." A native New Englander, Lisa covers Connecticut and Rhode Island.