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November 27, 2014
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Let the sun shine


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.

Independent research by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) reveals that net metering actually provides a significant financial benefit to utilities, making nonsense of ALEC’s argument. IREC’s analysis of New Mexico’s surcharge found that on-site generation helped the utility avoid energy costs, line losses, capacity upgrades and transmission costs, and that these benefits added up to more than 15 cents for every kilowatt hour (kWh) generated. Even when any costs related to net metering were included, the policy had a net benefit to the utility of 7.8 cents per kWh.

That’s not going to sway the folks at ALEC, who recently announced their goals for 2014: block climate legislation and EPA enforcement of environmental laws, weaken state clean-energy regulations and limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and of course, punish homeowners for installing solar panels.

The Guardian newspaper recently shone a little antiseptic sunshine on this agenda by quoting ALEC spokesman John Eick: “What we saw in 2013 was an attempt to repeal RPS [Renewable Portfolio Standards] laws, and when that failed… what we are seeing now is a strategy that appears to be pro-clean energy but would actually weaken those pro-clean energy laws by retreating to the lowest common denominator.”

On my own agenda for 2014 is a resolution to expose and reject deceptive, “lowest-common-denominator” environmental legislation that weakens standards and slows our progress to sustainability.