Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Solar in the news: electric utilities working against renewable energy put AZ in a new Race to the Bottom

Despite competing in and winning the Race to the Bottom (in education funding, for example), we should be happy that AZ enjoys bright sunny days most of the time. So with all the sun, an outside observer might think that AZ should be the solar energy capitol of the world. We could have all our parking lots covered with solar panels, we could cover the CAP aqueduct with solar panels, and maybe even use solar energy to power all our golf carts. And as an additional benefit (with measurable value), our reliance on dirty energy (coal) would be reduced.

So it should not be a surprise that Pima County is aiming to save money on its electric bill by installing solar panels at some of its facilities. The report is in this morning's Daily Star.

County supervisors approved a $22 million package of contracts Tuesday to buy solar power that is expected to save $4.5 million over 20 years.

"We wanted to save the most amount of money for the taxpayers and this seems the best way to it," said Supervisor Sharon Bronson.

The board unanimously approved 11 contracts with Tucson-based Solon Development to build, install and maintain solar-covered parking structures at several county facilities.

The county will buy the electricity generated by the structures from Solon at a 20-year fixed rate of 12.8 cents per kilowatt. The current rate the county pays Tucson Electric Power is 12.1 cents per kilowatt. But that rate is set to increase an average of 3 percent per year, topping off at more than 21 cents after 20 years.

Never mind all the benefits to taxpayers. The electric utilities, and TEP is among them, want to change the policies that were responsible for the growth of roof-top solar in AZ.

[TEP spokesperson] Lucero asked supervisors to wait to approve the contacts until at least June, when new rules TEP proposed to the Arizona Corporation Commission would reduce the rate TEP has to pay when it buys back excess power solar installations generate.

TEP currently buys the solar-generated power at 12.8 cents per kilowatt but that will drop to 5.8 cents when the new rule kicks in.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said if supervisors didn’t approve the contracts before the change it would end up costing taxpayers more.

Daily Star columnist Tim Steller has a lot to say about the opposition by the utilities

Trico Electric Cooperative, Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative and Tucson Electric Power have all taken steps to increase the costs of power for people who install new rooftop solar systems. Their moves come after APS and the Salt River Project — the Phoenix area’s largest electric utilities — succeeded at raising the cost of rooftop solar for homeowners and businesses, drastically driving down the number of people installing solar panels in the Salt River Project’s service area.

... Larry Lucero, TEP’s government-relations man, told the [Pima County] board that if the county enters into the deal, it means shifting costs to other customers.

"It will cause us to recalculate some of what we do in terms of the entire rate structure," Lucero told supervisors.

This is also TEP’s argument in the application it filed March 25 to change the "net metering" system that went into effect in 2009 and led to the boom in rooftop solar in Arizona. Under that existing system, owners of homes with rooftop solar panels may create more energy than they are consuming at times, and that energy goes back into the grid for sale by TEP to other customers. The amount of excess energy produced by these solar customers is then credited to them on their next month’s bill.

Suffice it to say that many people disagree with this analysis, which has been offered up now by all the top utilities in Arizona and is also available in a publication produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council. Yes, the notorious ALEC, with its connections to the fossil-fuel industry, wants the states to stop giving such good incentives to install solar panels.

... the current dislocated discussions seem to be ignoring the key reasons for trying to spur the spread of renewable energy in the first place. Most important, in the case of coal-heavy TEP, is that the more solar power we use, the less coal we burn, the less carbon dioxide is released, and the less water we use in producing electricity.

If the utilities do convince the Arizona Corporation Commission to approve a different rate structure that changes net metering, crAZy will have positioned itself as a lead competitor in another Race to the Bottom. The metric in this new race is how long the state can postpone realizing its potential for solar energy.

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