whackamoles

Solar’s Seemingly Endless Game of Whack-A-Mole

This article appeared in Solar Power World Online here.

We’ve all played Whack-A-Mole, right? That insidiously addictive arcade game where you try to hit randomly appearing moles with a mallet in order to win…oh, who are we kidding? Hitting the moles on the head is winning the game (especially if you’ve had a particularly frustrating day at the office).

But Whack-A-Mole is a lot less entertaining when it comes to solar policy, when states and utilities try to gut what has been the most successful policy designed to promote solar developments. I’m talking, of course, about net metering.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, net metering is “a billing mechanism that credits solar energy system owners for the electricity they add to the grid.” For most of its existence, net metering has meant solar customers would be compensated for the excess energy they fed back to the grid at the full retail rate—what the utilities are charging other customers for the electricity.

A one-to-one exchange of electrons spurred solar’s growth in solar-rich states like California and Arizona, and non-solar states like Indiana and Missouri. Lately, though, utilities have been petitioning their public utilities commissions (which go by different names in different states) to modify net-metering laws or, in some cases, eliminate them all together.

More often than not, these attempts to gut net metering stem from the largely mythical concept of “cost-shifting.” The utilities argue that solar customers are freeloading bums who don’t pay their fair share for grid upkeep, which allegedly shifts those costs to non-solar users.

Once that argument is accepted, utilities will tell their public utilities commissions that they need to set solar ratepayers aside into a different class than other customers so that they can add solar-specific charges to electrical bills to recoup the costs.

That argument is one of the most brazen lies I’ve ever heard. For Pete’s sake, at least 16 state-level studies (and two national studies) prove it’s a lie, but that’s not enough for some state governors (I’m looking at you, Gov. Paul LePage of Maine – you’re so desperate to destroy the solar industry you’ve commissioned a third study because the first two proved the utilities were lying to you, and you didn’t like that answer. What a waste of taxpayer money, Mainers – but I digress).

But utilities continue to make this argument across the country, at times convincingly enough that they succeed in eliminating the policy entirely. And that’s where the Whack-A-Mole analogy comes in. Let’s just take Nevada and Arizona as two recent examples

In 2015, Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission, using a rationale no one ever really understood or thought was legitimate, eliminated net metering suddenly in December 2015. One day net metering laws were in place. The next day they were not. And it cratered the rooftop solar industry in the state.

Thanks to a strong Nevada solar industry and some external allies over the past year, the Nevada PUC reversed its ruling on net metering in 2016. It didn’t go back to a one-to-one exchange like it has been before, but the new structure they designed was something with which the industry could work.

With that mole whacked back into its hole, the industry thought maybe it could take a breather—and that’s when the mole in Arizona popped its ugly little head out of its hole.

This one wasn’t as much of a surprise as Nevada’s decision, since the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) had been looking at the net-metering issue (what they called “export rates”) for nearly three years. So when the ACC decided in December 2016 to slash its net metering rates, the industry was disappointed but not completely caught off guard. Which is why negotiations started almost immediately between the solar industry and Arizona Public Service (the state’s biggest utility and perhaps the utility most hostile to solar in the country) to find a compromise.

In July, a tentative agreement was reached, and an Administrative Law Judge endorsed the deal—and the solar industry breathed a sigh of relief. Another mole whacked (with the caveat that until the ACC approves the deal, this little sucker could pop its head out again, requiring the Mallet of Solar Sanity to return to the Valley of the Sun to hit it again).

But while we were focusing our attentions on forcing Arizona’s attack on net metering, guess which mole stuck its head out of its hole thumbing its nose at us? Right, Nevada.

Even though the state legislature had just passed Assembly Bill (AB) 405, requiring the state’s largest utility NV Energy to offer some net metering and setting the rate at a percentage of the utility’s normal retail rate, the utility found a new argument against keeping net metering in place.

NV Energy came to the public utilities commission with a filing it said was an attempt to comply with the new law. But nestled deeply in the 376-page filing (a whopping 1,242% larger than AB 405 itself) was a provision challenging the net metering provisions, saying that they violated federal law.

These moles are really something, aren’t they?

No decision has been made yet in the Nevada case, but now that it’s out there, you can expect other utilities to use it, popping out their holes in an attempt to slow—and in some cases try to stop—the growth of the solar industry.

After a while, even Whack-A-Mole become tiresome, especially when moles you think you’ve bested keep popping up no matter how hard you hit them.

There’s one notable difference, however, between the arcade game and the solar industry: The solar industry can never stop playing the game, no matter how hard it seems or monotonous it is.

Because the minute solar advocates stop fighting for the industry’s existence is the day it disappears, taking 260,000 jobs with it—including yours.

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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