by Ryan Randazzo (April 15, 2016) azcentral.com
Arizona voters could weigh in on whether utilities can charge special rates to solar customers that make it less economical to go solar.
An industry-backed super PAC called Yes on AZ Solar filed paperwork Friday seeking to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would preserve the system of net metering, where utilities give solar customers a one-to-one credit for most of the excess power they send to the grid.
The group will be lead by Kris Mayes, a former chairwoman of the Arizona Corporation Commission and director of an energy council at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability. She will take a leave from ASU to run the campaign.
The initiative is called Arizona Solar Energy Freedom Act, and because it seeks to amend the state Constitution, will require 225,963 signatures by early July to get on the ballot this fall.
“We believe Arizonans have the right to decide this issue for themselves,” Mayes said Friday. “Do we want to be the solar capital of the world? Do we want the right to produce our own power? Arizonans will overwhelmingly say, yes, we do. Solar is part of who we are as Arizonans. This will enshrine that fact in the Constitution.”
Mayes said the initiative is being backed by the solar industry, and that additional filings will be made regarding its supporters. Christine Brown of Lincoln Strategy Group is the committee treasurer. Mayes said “significant” resources will be put into the campaign.
“We are in this to win it,” Mayes said.
Arizona Public Service Co. and other utilities have been adding new fees to solar customers, contending they don’t pay their fair share of maintaining the power grid. The initiative, if passed, would end that practice.
“This is a ridiculous attempt by California billionaires to get richer by forcing higher energy costs on Arizona consumers,” APS spokesman Jim McDonald said Friday. “It works against Arizona families and is detrimental to sustainable solar in Arizona.”
Net metering helps customers lower their utility bills because the credits they get for excess power accumulate and offset power they draw from their utility at night or when they have multiple appliances running, requiring more power than their solar panels generate. Except for rural homes off the power grid, most solar homes don’t have batteries to store the power, so it must be used instantly or sent to the grid for others to use.
Utility policies such as net metering traditionally have been regulated by the five Arizona commissioners, who are elected to their statewide office and vote on such matters. Commission Chairman Doug Little on Friday declined to comment on the initiative, saying he wanted to take the weekend to review it.
Utilities adding fees for solar customers
As the price of solar panels dropped in recent years and leasing arrangements became common, utilities across the country have sought ways to amend net metering and get solar customers to pay more for their utility service.
In addition to preserving net metering, the initiative seeks to protect solar customers from other fees that single them out, and from unnecessary delays in gaining utility approval to begin generating power, which has been a problem recently as some customers wait weeks to turn their systems on.
The initiative would protect solar customers for six years, through 2022. After that, new solar customers could face rate changes, but those who install solar by then would be allowed to remain on their existing rate plans as long as they continued to use solar.
Mayes said the initiative would prevent fees like those in Nevada, where regulators made changes in December and February to solar customers’ rates. That prompted some solar companies to leave the state.
UniSource Energy Services, with 93,000 customers in Mohave and Santa Cruz counties, is requesting similar changes from its regulators at the Arizona Corporation Commission and the state’s biggest utility, Arizona Public Service, is scheduled to file a rate case in June that is expected to make major changes to solar rates, in addition to the average $5 a month in special fees those customers pay now.
If the Arizona Corporation Commission approves new solar-specific rates, and the initiative makes it to the ballot and passes, then the utilities will be given 90 days to come into compliance with the law.
Letting voters weigh in on solar debate
The UniSource case has drawn support from utilities like APS and opposition from the statewide solar industry, which fears that if they pass, they will set a precedent for APS and other utilities.
“Time has shown that demand rates are not popular,” said Mark Holohan of Wilson Electric, a board member of the Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association, who learned of the ballot initiative Friday.
“All the utilities in Arizona are proposing radical changes to residential rates,” Holohan said. “I think this is an exciting thing to go to the people of Arizona to seek their opinion on the subject, since there appear to be some radically different thoughts on it.”
Salt River Project, which is regulated by its own elected board of directors, enacted new rates on solar customers last year and has seen a dramatic drop-off in the number of people installing solar. The initiative Mayes is pushing would not affect SRP rates, only those investor-owned and co-op utilities regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission.
The initiative comes just weeks after two solar advocates won election to the Salt River Project board of directors, traditionally a difficult, small-time election for outsiders to win.
Paul Hirt and Nick Brown ran for the board because they disagreed with the board’s new solar fees. Those charges can largely wipe away any savings solar customers see by generating their own power.
Hirt is an Arizona State University professor of history and sustainability. Brown is an energy consultant who moved to the area in 2011 to help ASU develop solar.
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