LAS VEGAS (AP) – The costs and benefits of rooftop solar electricity in Western states emerged as a key topic during an annual green power conference hosted Monday by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid in Las Vegas.
President Barack Obama was expected to keynote the close of the eighth National Clean Energy Summit at the Mandalay Bay resort.
Obama is using an event that Reid has nurtured during his time as Democratic leader of the Senate to announce new executive actions and other efforts aimed at making it easier for homeowners and businesses to invest in green energy improvements.
Reid opened the conference highlighting a local utility’s plan to build a 15 megawatt solar generation project on 80 acres west of Las Vegas. It will serve the Valley Electric Association, and company chief Tom Husted said it could help lower electricity prices for about 25,000 customers in Nevada and California.
The debate about costs to consumers installing home rooftop solar panels and to utilities that control the electric grid in sunny states like Nevada, Arizona, California, New Mexico and Utah provided a point-counterpoint discussion between Charles Cicchetti of the Pacific Economics Group, speaking for consumers, and Lisa Wood of the Edison Foundation, representing utilities.
“It’s a misconception that rooftop solar users don’t need the grid,” Wood said. She called it only fair that customers continue to pay to maintain the transmission system from which they draw electricity during peak use times and at night.
The misconception, Cicchetti said, is that consumers are required to buy power from the utilities. The bigger danger to the companies, he said, would be for rooftop solar users to become so alienated that they find ways to store electricity collected during the day and withdraw from the grid altogether.
The question hits home in Nevada, where the dominant utility, publicly traded NV Energy, reported last week that it hit a preset statewide cap of 235 megawatts on the amount of rooftop solar power it will buy back from customers.
The utility will still accept applications for rooftop solar projects, company spokeswoman Jennifer Schuricht said. But it obtained the cap at the Legislature last spring to give state utility regulators time to revise net metering rules to eliminate what NV Energy calls cost-shifting from customers with solar to other customers.
Similar fights have taken place in Arizona and New Mexico. Utilities are working to impose higher fees and rollback incentives set up to help the solar industry get established. They argue the cost of transitioning to solar has declined, and it’s time for solar customers to pay their share of fixed costs associated with maintaining the electrical grid.
Regulators rejected a bid by New Mexico’s largest electric provider, Public Service Co. of New Mexico, to charge solar customers new fees, stop paying renewable energy credits, and eliminate a practice that lets solar customers get credited at retail rates for every kilowatt hour of solar electricity they sell back to the grid. The utility is expected to resubmit its rate request.
Arizona Public Service, the largest utility in that state, has been pushing state regulators to allow a monthly charge for solar, while the second largest, a non-regulated publicly owned entity called Salt River Project, instituted charges on its own.
The solar industry is fighting the fees, saying the utilities are just trying to maintain their monopoly positions and profit margins. They complain utility policies threaten to kill their fledgling industry.
Reid, who has made clean and green energy one of his touchstone issues at the conference, noted in opening remarks that the key challenge today is “properly valuing rooftop solar, properly valuing energy efficiency and properly valuing other distributed sources of clean energy.”
One leader of a utility company said she welcomed the trend.
Almost one-third of the energy used by California utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric comes from what company president Geisha Williams called a renewable portfolio standard.
PG&E serves an area with about 16 million people in northern and central California, and Williams said it now has some 175,000 customers with home solar generation.
Williams said her company gets as many as 5,000 applications per month for rooftop solar, and it has streamlined approvals so they usually take about five days.