Rooftop solar payments may soon change
Some Wyomingites are saying that a proposed bill could devastate the solar industry in the state, but supporters say the bill would create a more sustainable power grid.
Rooftop solar panels can sometimes generate more power than is needed for a small business or home. Under Wyoming state law, utilities are required to buy that surplus at retail value from the owner of the solar panels. That energy then goes back into the grid – something called ‘net metering.’ Senate File 92, which recently passed the Senate and now goes to the House for consideration, would potentially eliminate the buy-back program and possibly impose charges on solar users.
In a lengthy Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions committee late last week, the bill’s sponsor Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) said net metering lowers solar users' monthly utility bills. He said that means they are contributing less to support the entire power grid infrastructure, leaving a higher bill for those without solar.
Case referred to these utility maintenance costs as ‘fixed costs’ that are being subsidized, or ‘cost-shifted’, to the non-solar customer. He provided a hypothetical scenario using fellow senators.
“The problem is that if Senator Scott were to install rooftop solar, he's producing electricity that is offsetting his demand. So he suddenly takes less [from the grid],” Case said. “He's using the same electricity but it's coming from his own installation. And that's fine except for the point where recovery fixed costs happen. Now we have to recalculate the recovery of fixed costs. So the four of us are shouldering Senator Scott's burden for some customers.”
But those against the bill said this problem does not exist in the state and likely will not for the foreseeable future.
John Burrows, the Wyoming Outdoor Council energy and climate policy director, said less than 1 percent of Wyoming homes have rooftop solar. He said private solar energy in the state is equivalent to three wind turbines.
“These systems are designed so that customers can reduce their electricity bills, not make money, as some have indicated,” Burrows said.
He said the percentage of retail electric sales from net metering customers in the state is 0.8 percent and that it has taken 20 years for that to occur.
“Other studies from different states that have looked at this issue have said that cost shifting is not really a policy priority until you get closer to somewhere between five and 10 percent of those retail metric sales,” Burrows said. “So just for context, that's about a ten-fold increase from where we are currently. Looking at projected rates of change and adoption, that would take decades to occur in this state.”
Along with two other groups, the Wyoming Outdoor Council commissioned a study that found non-ratepayers are not absorbing the costs for rooftop solar users in the state.
Burrows pointed out that solar users should not be punished for having a renewable source of power.
“We're talking about the freedom to generate electricity on one's own property, where you're not just beholden to the utility to meet your needs,” he said.
Sen. Case maintained this bill is not intended to punish those with solar or even stop growth of renewable energy, but rather to make the cost of the power grid sustainable.
“This is not about keeping coal in business. It's not about lighting the utilities’ pockets,” Case said. “It's about trying to make the whole system sustainable in a green sense, in a financial sense.
But nearly a dozen current and prospective rooftop solar owners and installers said this bill will only disincentivize Wyomingites from installing solar.
Notably, both utility companies in the state, Rocky Mountain Power and Black Hills Energy, support the bill. The Wyoming Public Service Commission, which would be in charge of determining how the payment structure would change, said the bill was ‘workable.’
The bill narrowly passed the committee and has since passed the Senate. It will now go to the House.
If passed, rooftop solar panels installed prior to July 1, 2024 would be exempt from the new payment system until July 1, 2039.