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In our opinion: Compromise needed for utility and solar to thrive

Solar panel
Solar panel

As more solar panels appear on more residential rooftops throughout Utah, it’s critical the state come up with a regulatory structure that allows for the growth of solar energy while not penalizing customers who rely on traditional forms of power generation. We are optimistic that current hearings on the matter will result in a compromise that will consider both Rocky Mountain Power and roof top solar customers.

The arcane matters of utility regulation that generally fill the agendas of the Utah Public Service Commission rarely attract impassioned public interest. The matter of Rocky Mountain Power’s net-metering system for charging home solar users is an exception. The subject is regularly broached by contributors to these pages in letters to the editor and op-ed submissions that speak to the strong feelings many Utahns have about the future of our energy grid. Solar advocates, the power company and state agencies involved in the issue — to their credit — have been working behind the scenes to come up with a plan that will be satisfactory to all sides.

There are good arguments on either sides of what is a complex and often confusing issue. On the one hand, non-roof-top solar users may feel that solar customers aren’t paying their fair share. Meanwhile, solar users feel they’re giving back to the grid, and, as early adopters of the technology, they believe they are providing the funds for solar companies to perform valuable research and development that may someday lead to widespread access to efficient, inexpensive clean energy. There is also the matter of local solar jobs.

Indeed, there is strong public interest in continuing a wave of solar development in residential and industrial sectors, but it is also in the public interest that the utility maintains a stable and efficient rate structure. There are those who would like to see regulatory policy work to actively encourage development of solar power. While that might satisfy environmental interests, there are practical operational issues that go to the efficient operation of the power grid during a period of historic transition. As such, regulatory policy that does not work to discourage development of alternative energy sources would amount to a victory for all parties.

As this issue has evolved, we find it frustrating that it has been cast as an “either-or” debate that pits solar power versus other forms of electrical generation. The growth of home solar power systems has disrupted the traditional methods used by utilities to charge appropriately for kilowatt-hours used by their customers. Rocky Mountain Power’s controversial net-metering plan is criticized as a practical deterrent to invest in solar panels, particularly among middle and lower-income customers. The power company and state regulators do appear, however, to acknowledge that charging mechanisms that would impede the progress of one of the state’s fastest-growing industries are not in the public interest.

The Public Service Commission has scheduled several days of hearings on the matter to sift through the various options and their effects. Like many, we are anxious to see a final result that addresses the needs of the utility to balance its books in an appropriate way while not serving to effectively deter customers from harnessing the power of the sun to replace or supplement traditional sources of electricity.