Iowa government unironically tables a “sunshine tax” on solar system owners, which is as regressive as it sounds

Des Moines Iowa Capital Building Government Dome Architecture

Stuff like this is why California’s fight for a Solar Bill of Rights matters. In Iowa, utilities are moving a “sunshine tax” through the state legislature. The bill, which is in front of the full House Commerce Committee, would impose fees of about $300 a year on solar customers under the guise of “grid fees,” says the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. That would be a massive blow to owners of PV systems – killing their ROI – and effectively end Iowa’s market for new solar customers.

From the Courier:

That would extend the payback on small-scale solar power generating units from less than 10 years to as long as 20 years, former legislator and current Cedar Rapids City Council member Tyler Olson told the subcommittee.

“If the life of system is 25 years — no one going to make that investment,” he said, adding that it could lead to the loss of some or all of the estimated 800 solar industry jobs in Iowa, he said.

Pretty much. Fixed charges like this, proposed as fairness to the utility, have been fought and defeated all over the country for years because of faulty calculations of PV’s value as a resource vs. grid costs. The article notes that at least one member of the committee wants to delay this action until the results of a utilities board study. Well, to save some time, here is some easy to access information that Iowa legislators are free to Google or find in our archives. We will repost here to save some time.

Benefits of DG solar energy to the grid

Avoided energy costs. Solar energy systems produce clean, renewable electricity on-site, reducing the amount of electricity utilities must generate or purchase from fossil fuel-fired power plants. In addition, solar photovoltaic (PV) systems reduce the amount of energy lost in generation, long-distance transmission and distribution, which cost U.S. ratepayers about $21 billion in 2014.

Avoided capital and capacity investment. By reducing overall demand for electricity during high-load daytime hours that form the peak period for most utilities, solar energy production helps ratepayers and utilities avoid the cost of investing in new power plants, transmission lines, distribution capacity, and other forms of electricity infrastructure.

Reduced financial risks and electricity prices. Because the price of solar energy tends to be stable over time, while the price of fossil fuels can fluctuate sharply, integrating more solar energy into the grid reduces consumers’ exposure to volatile fossil fuel prices. Also, by reducing demand for energy from the grid, solar PV systems reduce its price, saving money for all ratepayers.

Increased grid resiliency. Increasing distributed solar PV decentralizes the grid, potentially safeguarding people in one region from other areas that are experiencing problems. Emerging technologies, including smart meters and small-scale battery storage systems, will enhance this value.

Avoided environmental compliance costs. Increasing solar energy capacity helps utilities avoid the costs of installing new technologies to clean up fossil fuel-fired power plants or meeting renewable energy requirements, and avoid the cost of emission allowances where pollution is capped.

There’s also this 2014 paper from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that concluded residential solar has little impact on residential rates but could erode shareholder returns.

— Solar Builder magazine

New York utilities seek demand charges in REV mass market rate design proposals

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New York is at an important juncture in its Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) development as a working group is currently assessing proposals for mass market rate design, two of which include demand charges. Considering the whole point of REV is to build toward a distributed future, this raised our eyebrows because demand charges are fundamentally at odds with that goal. So, what’s the deal here?

“This is different than the traditional rate case where a utility proposes X — this is a much more evolutionary process,” says Evan Dube, senior director of public policy at Sunrun. “But still disconcerting nonetheless because the joint utilities have shown their view of future mass market rate design revolves heavily around demand charges.”

Within the overall REV framework, there are numerous different working groups and proceedings going on. We are in Phase 1 right now, which moved much of the industry to the VDER value stack, with mass market rate design – residential and small commercial – still on net metering plan until Phase two, which starts Jan. 1, 2020. That seems far off, but in regulatory terms, the time is now.

RELATED: Our big takeaway from SEIA’s latest Grid Modernization report: Utilities need to step up

All stakeholders in the working group were encouraged to put forward proposals for review. From all of the proposals put forward, five were selected to drill down on and further analyze. These include a proposal from the solar industry and two from the JU – the two that have demand charges included.

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What are these demand charges?

Instead of electricity bills reflecting the total amount of electricity customers consume, demand charges add a fee based on a customer’s maximum electricity usage during each month, averaged over a short period of time. This is similar to going to a coffee shop for a medium coffee but being charged for a large because that’s the size you purchased the day before.

Here is some of the wording from the JU proposals right now referred to as the “2 Demand Rate” and the “TOU Demand Rate” proposals:

Both proposals recover delivery costs through demand (kW) charges and a monthly customer charge (a fixed amount each billing period), and supply costs through volumetric (kWh) charges. In both proposals, the demand charges replace volumetric delivery charges, which currently recover demand-related costs for delivery. The demand charges are calculated to recover the same level of costs as are currently recovered through the volumetric charges of the applicable rate class and are therefore designed to be revenue-neutral.

Here is the full PDF. These proposed demand charges are specifically for prospective DER customers, but the DPS and regulators in New York, in their overall mass market residential rate design, could look to adopt a structure along similar lines with what comes from this process for DER customers.

“I am not surprised that the JU took this direction,” Dube says. “We’ve seen this proposed by utilities a fair amount in the recent past – a majority of which have been rejected [up to 16 states where it’s been proposed and rejected by Sunrun’s count]. We in the renewables industry often reference back to the importance of continuity in the default rates, and the rates for which DER customers will be placed.”

What’s next?

The proposals are assessed by 1) the New York Department of Public Service (DPS), 2) the joint utilities (JU) and 3) a third-party consultant contracted by the DPS. The working group will keep meeting and go over various issues and culminate in a report from staff to the commission at the end of this year. The commission will then put forward an order at the start of 2019 to implement the next phase of rate design in 2020.

RELATED: Shadow costs: How outdated local processes stifle the true solar market

Because the utilities are also part of the group assessing proposals, two of which they submitted, the solar industry stakeholders have been stressing the need for transparency throughout the working group and going forward.
“The utilities possess a great deal of the data required to analyze these proposals, so ensuring there is adequate process and opportunity for industry stakeholders to respond and have access to the same data is important,” Dube says.

Again, just because these proposals exist (maybe as a negotiating tactic?) it doesn’t mean they are favored by the DPS staff or policy makers. Demand charges continue to be rejected in states around the country, most notably in Massachusetts last month, and New York’s execution on REV so far seems to indicate they won’t fly here either, but it is another example of utilities continuing to seek out regressive rate design.

— Solar Builder magazine

Arizona regulators reject new solar fixed charges requested by two utilities (but ends net metering)

rejected fixed charge

Out in Arizona, home of the demand charge, the Arizona Corporation Commission rejected a request by two utilities to subject new solar customers to large monthly fixed charges. As part of their recent rate cases, Tucson Electric Power Company (TEP) and UNS Electric sought a monthly Grid Access Charge and an inflated monthly Meter Fee. The Commission rejected the proposed Grid Access Charge after agreeing with Vote Solar, Earthjustice, and other solar advocates that the charge would over-recover costs from new solar customers. The Commission also rejected the utilities’ attempt to substantially increase the current Meter Fee and instead adopted Vote Solar’s recommendation for a modest Meter Fee increase.

In addition, the Commission eliminated net metering for new solar customers through the implementation of the Arizona Value of Solar decision that was issued in December 2016. As a result, new solar customers will no longer be compensated for the excess energy they export to the grid at retail rates.

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Instead, new solar customers will receive a reduced export compensation rate that is based on utility-scale solar prices.  Existing rooftop solar customers will be grandfathered on to net metering and their current rate design.

“Arizona’s families and businesses should be able to meet their own energy needs with the state’s plentiful sunshine if they so choose,” said Briana Kobor, regulatory director at Vote Solar. “Solar is an investment that supports local jobs, improves energy security and helps build a competitive new energy economy in the state. While today’s decision by the Commission is a missed opportunity for the state to lead, we commend the decision to avoid further penalizing solar customers with additional fees.”

“The utilities’ overly-aggressive proposals would have made rooftop solar uneconomic and halted its growth in southern Arizona,” Earthjustice attorney Michael Hiatt said. “Although today’s net metering decision will unnecessarily chill rooftop solar installations, the Commission’s rejection of excessive solar fixed charges is a win for Arizona families and small businesses who wish to generate their own clean energy.”

— Solar Builder magazine

Massachusetts solar workers to rally at state house Wednesday to fend off demand charges

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With the end of the legislative session quickly approaching, solar workers from across the Commonwealth will rally at the Massachusetts State House May 16 at 10 a.m. to urge the Legislature to act in support of the state’s solar industry. This comes at a critical time for the Commonwealth’s solar industry, which continues to fend off attacks at the state and federal levels. A recent report by the Solar Foundation found that solar jobs in Massachusetts – after nearly a decade of growth – saw a double-digit decline in 2017 for the second consecutive year.

Recently, six industry organizations and leading advocates representing Massachusetts’ 488 solar employers joined forces to call on Governor Baker to support legislation to reverse new solar surcharges on Eversource customers, providing relief from net metering caps (limits on the credit solar energy system owners receive), and ensuring the state Solar Massachusetts Renewable Targets (SMART) program enables all sectors of the Commonwealth’s solar industry to thrive.

Following a rally on the front steps of the State House, workers and leaders from the solar industry will meet with Massachusetts policymakers to urge them to protect the Commonwealth’s solar workforce from further declines through action on the net metering caps, SMART program tariff, and undoing the poorly designed Monthly Minimum Reliability Contribution (MMRC) charge on new solar customers in Eversource territories.

— Solar Builder magazine