Hearings in downtown Salt Lake City this week put Utah at the center of a national controversy over solar power.
Electric companies in 43 states allow homes with solar panels to put unused electricity back on the power grid. Utah is one of those states. But it is deciding on becoming one of the first states to charge solar customers a monthly service fee.
Environmentalists call it a “sun tax.”
“This is a very big national issue at the moment about how to fairly account for the costs and benefits of solar,” says Bruce Plenk, an attorney representing a coalition called the Alliance for Solar Choice at this week’s hearings. “This is underway in Colorado at the very moment we are talking, as well as Nevada, Idaho, California, Arizona and other states outside the intermountain area.”
Rocky Mountain Power is asking the Public Service Commission to sign off on a charge of four dollars and sixty-five cents.
Company spokesman Paul Murphy says, right now, Utah’s 3,000 homes with solar panels are enjoying a subsidy.
“Essentially people who are well-off,” he says, “are being subsidized by people who can’t afford or choose not to generate their own power.”
Michele Beck is director of the Utah Office of Consumer Services, which testified Monday that a monthly charge is in order. She says she understands why environmental groups are fighting the charge.
“It [the Utah case] is Ground Zero in a way for a lot of the solar advocates. I believe they see this as a slippery slope,” she says. “So, once one state does it other states might follow suit. And once a charge is imposed, the charge may grow. From the customer side that we’re trying to represent, we are really trying to balance the interests of all residential customers, and the vast majority of them are not net-metering customers. It really gets to an issue of who pays."
The Public Service Commission has until September 2nd to decide.
Environmentalists want the commission to reject the charge and do a more comprehensive cost-benefit study, one that factors in environmental benefits like clean air and lower greenhouse gasses not considered in the current Utah case.