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New State Battles Try To Kill Pro-Solar Law On PURPAs

They just keep coming, don’t they?

No matter how many obstacles legislators and other solar opponents put in our way, we’ve managed to overcome them all to date.

We won the renewal of solar investment tax credit (ITC) in Congress, kept usurious special charges to solar users’ bills at bay and defended solar users from false accusations that they don’t pay their fair share of grid upkeep.

But now there’s a new front opening in the war on solar: the attempts to eliminate—or at least severely limit—a previously obscure law titled the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 or PURPA.

The U.S. Congress passed (yes, believe it or not, there was a time when Congress could actually pass laws) PURPA when the country was in the grips of the 1978-1979 oil crisis, when Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised oil prices so precipitously that we decided to wean ourselves off fossil fuels immediately.

PURPA was Congress’ attempt to encourage that goal by promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy—nearly 40 years before 197 countries signed the Paris Accords to do essentially the same thing.

In essence, PURPA deregulated the energy market and forced utilities to compete against independent power producers (IPPs) to generate power at the cheapest price. In fact, utilities have to buy power from IPPs and other Qualifying Facilities (QFs) if they produce power at a cost lower than the utilities. Under the law, IPPs have flourished, as has solar in non-traditional solar states.

Nowhere is this truer than North Carolina, which hosts the most PURPA-related projects in the country. Under the auspices of the august law, North Carolina has climbed from being a virtually non-existent solar market to the No. 2 market in the country for installed solar behind only California.

According to an October report by GTM Research, 20 states have more than 200 MW of solar under development with utility-scale development leading the way. The report says much of that development is being driven by PURPA—which makes the efforts in some these flourishing states all the more baffling.

Legislative wrangling in North Carolina, Montana and Wyoming have revealed that PURPA is under fire. Montana recently cut PURPA reimbursement rates by more than half, which most analysts say will bring that state’s industry to a grinding halt. Utilities in Wyoming are starting to push back on the law. And in North Carolina—North CAROLINA of all paces—utilities are petitioning the legislature to fundamentally alter the program to their benefit.

The actions are undermining the best free-market solution there is to encouraging solar growth. It creates a competitive market and forces IPPs and utilities to work together to provide ratepayers with the lowest electricity prices possible. And with everyone telling the solar industry to wean itself off government subsidies, isn’t moving to the free market something all of us can get behind, especially when the consumer comes out on top?

So I believe the new conflicts at the state level could easily center on this nearly 40-year-old law. Learn what it is and how it fuels the solar market in your state—and then prepare to fight for it will all your might.

Tony Clifford
Tony Clifford About the author

Tony Clifford, chief development officer for Standard Solar, is a nationally recognized solar policy expert. He is also an elected board member of the national Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), serves on SEIA’s Executive Committee and also served as president of the regional chapter of SEIA, MDV-SEIA from 2009 to 2012.

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