SALT LAKE CITY — Solar energy advocates gathered downtown for a public hearing Wednesday to oppose a utility company's plan to raise rates for solar customers.
"These rate changes, if they go into effect, would be some of the most regressive in the nation and (would) stop the growth of rooftop solar in the state," said Michael Shea, senior policy associate for HEAL Utah, a clean-energy advocacy group.
Shea and other clean-energy advocates spoke to supporters at a news conference outside the Heber M. Wells Building, 160 E. 300 South. Inside, the Public Service Commission listened to community members speak against the plan to raise solar energy rates.
The plan initially was proposed last November, when Rocky Mountain Power asked the commission to approve a change in the net metering structure for solar customers.
Net metering lets homeowners with solar panels sell their extra solar energy back to the utility company. But every kilowatt generated on rooftops is one less the utility company sells.
Rocky Mountain Power first proposed charging customers per kilowatt for peak period demand and per kilowatt-hour for the amount of energy used, plus an application fee and fixed monthly rate.
However, those rates were discarded following negotiations between Rocky Mountain Power and solar companies.
Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Jon Cox said the current compromise focuses exclusively on reimbursement rates to customers when they want to send excess energy to the grid.
"We currently buy solar from two different sources: rooftop solar customers and solar farms," Cox said. "The main difference between the two is that the state of Utah requires us to pay three times more for rooftop solar than solar farms. We believe that needs to change so our other customers aren't paying above-market rates for solar when other sources are readily available."
The alternate proposal was suggested in testimony by the Office of Consumer Services and Division of Public Utilities. Rocky Mountain Power expressed support for the changed proposal in a filing three weeks ago.
"You wouldn't pay any more for electricity under this proposal," Cox said. "But if you want to sell your excess energy to us, we believe we should pay the fair market rate for energy instead of the full retail rate as currently provided in net metering."
Solar advocates argue costs for customers will skyrocket if net metering changes are approved by the Public Service Commission.
"Utahns should have the opportunity to use the energy they produce on their roof within their own home and not be penalized for it," said Ryan Evans, president of the Utah Solar Energy Association.
Similar net metering changes were passed in Nevada in 2016. Solar panel installations dropped by 99 percent, and many major solar companies were forced to leave the state, local solar companies have said.
"Utah’s rooftop solar energy is paving the way for the energy future in Utah," Evans said. "We need to find a path forward that preserves the industry and allows Utahns to affordably invest in clean energy."
At the public hearing, advocates for and against the Rocky Mountain Power proposal shared their thoughts.
Joel Eves, power director at Lehi City Power, said he's supportive of Rocky Mountain Power's approach to cover the solar costs. Lehi faces the same cost issues, he said, and the city wants to protect consumers who choose not to put solar panels on their homes.
"In Lehi, we have 200 solar customers, about 1 percent, as we cross 20,000 customers this year," Eves said at the hearing. "Our big challenge in Lehi is stabilizing those rates for those who have lived there a long time.
"When we have solar customers coming in, our concern is when they're not paying those costs, then they're going to be passed on to the other 19,800 people," he said.
David Bennett said he installed rooftop solar panels on his Park City home in 2010.
"I didn't do it for economic reasons, because certainly back then it didn't make economic sense," Bennett said at the public hearing.
"I did it because it was the right thing to do," he said. "We shouldn't be taxed and have to pay more because of our committment to the environment."
Professional snowboarder Forrest Shearer said he's against the proposal because he's seen how carbon pollution damages outdoor recreational activities.
"We must actively address climate change now," Shearer said at the hearing. "This recent proposal penalizes these efforts rather than rewards them."
Jane Myers, a instructor at the University of Utah and Eisenhower Junior High in Taylorsville, said she and several of her students suffer from asthma.
"We put in 17 solar panels in March because we felt strongly that we wanted our grandkids and our great-grandkids to have clean air," Myers said. "My neighbors benefit from my panels and draw in less power from coal-fired plants during the summer when I'm producing power."