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Op-ed: Rooftop solar systems actually offer more benefits than costs

Solar panels
Solar panels

Several years ago, my wife and I decided to invest in a rooftop solar system. Even though we have a modest income, I wanted to do my part to make sure the world was going to be as healthy and sustainable as possible. The savings my family would eventually realize from having a system also played a role in our decision.

I also strongly believe in fairness. To give as much as you take, to share and not hoard. Which is why I was taken aback when Rocky Mountain Power stated last November that because I had a rooftop solar system, I was unfairly burdening my neighbors.

I thought I was doing the right thing by installing rooftop solar. It was expensive at the time, but I felt it was a solid investment in the future, not only for my family, but also for my community. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite and I certainly didn’t want my electricity bills to be subsidized by my neighbors. The most troubling thing to me now is that if the utility succeeds in getting these fees approved by the Public Service Commission, families like mine will no longer be able to afford solar.

We were already low electricity users before we got our panels. Our bills were more than $60 a month. After our system was installed our bills went down to around $10. That $50 savings justified installing the panels. Each month’s savings could allow us to pay off our initial investment in roughly 10 years, the so-called “payback period.”

Under the utility’s proposed charges, our monthly savings would be sharply reduced, from $50, to perhaps $20 or $10 or even nothing. Imagine investing more than $10,000 in a rooftop solar system and seeing your bills barely budge! That could happen, if Rocky Mountain Power gets its way. If it does, “payback periods” could go from 10 years to 20, or even 30 or more. But maybe the utility’s proposed fees are justified? I decided to a little research.

What I found was stunning. Not only have most independent studies found that rooftop solar doesn’t cost the system money, but many have also found rooftop solar systems actually offer more benefits than costs. I am talking about tangible benefits to the electric grid that help save all ratepayers money.

One example is that there are significant costs that will be reduced as we see more widespread adoption of rooftop solar. One cost reduction is for fuel. With solar power, the fuel is free. If you have enough solar, Rocky Mountain Power doesn’t have to buy as much coal and natural gas. Those savings are passed on to the ratepayer.

Another impact on Rocky Mountain Power’s bottom line is reduced transmission loss. With our big power plants mostly located hundreds of miles away from our cities, that power needs to be sent across long power lines. A lot of the electricity is lost in transit in the form of heat. The power plant then must generate even more electricity, use even more fuel, and spend even more money to compensate for that loss.

When my rooftop solar panels generate excess electricity, it goes directly to my neighbors, which saves the utility (and us) money.

These are just a few of the many tangible benefits I found. If you’re looking for more details, check out “Rooftop solar: Net metering is a net benefit,” from the nonpartisan Brookings Institution, which examined solar policies around the country.

I hope Gov. Gary Herbert and the Public Service Commission take a hard look at these benefits with a huge decision on the future of rooftop solar looming.

Ralph Ferrara is a solar panel owner who is concerned about Rocky Mountain Power's proposed rate changes.