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Let the sun shine


January 8, 2014

Solar energy is booming across the country and around the world, because it is increasingly affordable, productive and reliable. Utilities in California and Colorado that only recently were considering building natural gas-powered generating plants have announced they will use solar instead, because it’s cheaper.

Costs are down for residential solar installations, too, and a big selling point for home and business owners is the ability to net-meter, or sell back to the utility the excess electricity their systems generate. Actually, no money changes hands in this arrangement. Customers are credited for the electricity their solar panels feed into the grid, which reduces their utility bills. In New York State, net metering is limited to 10% over the amount the building uses. In the case of a business, a school, or municipality, this electricity can be credited to another site owned by the same entity.

This is such great news for consumers and for the environment; wouldn’t you think everyone would be celebrating? Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry’s response is to try to shut it all down. Their designated weapon is ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC ghost-writes and promotes industry-friendly legislation to protect the interests of their corporate clients.

In the case of residential solar electric generation, the plan of attack is to persuade state legislatures to approve a tax on residential solar generation, claiming that homeowners who install solar panels are “freeloading” on the distribution system—the grid—and should be charged to “sell” their electricity to other customers. In November, Arizona became the first state to penalize homeowners with solar installations, imposing an average monthly surcharge of $5 per residential customer. New Mexico followed suit. While these charges fall far short of the outrageous $100 monthly surcharge the ALEC legislation originally sought, it is nevertheless an egregious misrepresentation of the mechanism of net metering, a deception that ultimately harms the utilities as well as homeowners.