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Activists decry lower compensation rate for rooftop solar in Utah

Rate case change comes after 3 years of study

Solar panels cover Glenn Lamson’s garage in his backyard in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.
Solar panels cover Glenn Lamson’s garage in his backyard in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Rooftop solar advocates say they fear a recent decision by the Utah Public Service Commission will deter new investment in the renewable energy by making it less financially attractive for potential customers.

The decision late Friday decreased the export credit rate from 9.4 cents to 5.969 cents per kilowatt-hour in the summer and 5.639 cents per kilowatt-hour in the winter. Rocky Mountain Power’s original request was to reduce the export credit to 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Glenn Lamson is a Salt Lake City rooftop solar owner who argued weeks ago against the rate change, saying if such pricing was in place at the time he invested in the renewable energy, he probably would not have made the move.

“This rate change would seriously make me reconsider putting panels on my roof. If I was locked into this rate, I would hesitate to invest in rooftop solar.”

Lamson said he was one of the lucky customers who got in on the old rates in 2017.

“You do it because it is the right thing, but the economics now will take it longer to pay off,” he said.

Rocky Mountain Power made the rate reduction request after a three-year study and based it on an analysis it said showed non-rooftop solar customers were unfairly shouldering the costs of transmission and other infrastructure because those with solar were not paying for those fixed costs.

Glenn Lamson poses for a portrait in front of his solar panels on his backyard garage in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.
Glenn Lamson poses for a portrait in front of his solar panels on his backyard garage in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

But advocates said beyond those fixed costs, Rocky Mountain Power — and the public service commission — needed to properly assess the environmental and public health benefits that come with having rooftop solar and factor that into a cost-benefit analysis.

The commission disagreed.

“While we recognize the importance of environmental considerations, carbon policy, economic development and public health, these matters fall within the regulatory ambit of other government agencies,” the commission’s ruling said. “We will not appropriate these agencies’ authority or pretend to their essential expertise by adopting a boundless view of our own in the context of utility ratemaking.”

That reasoning brought criticism and disappointment from advocates.

“Utah’s rooftop solar industry was already hurting after previous rate changes, so reducing the export credit at a time where hundreds of solar jobs have been lost due to COVID-19 is a fatal blow to rooftop solar,” HEAL Utah’s Executive Director Dr. Scott Williams said. “Deliberately deciding not to value the environmental, public health and economic development implications associated with rooftop solar is a severe disservice to the customers the PSC is meant to protect.”

The new rate does not kick in for current rooftop solar owners until the early 2030s. All new applications will be subject to the modified rate.