Despite reaching a settlement agreement with solar stakeholders last year, Texas-based utility El Paso Electric (EPE) is revamping efforts to change the rules for rooftop solar customers and impose new charges.
The solar plans are included in EPE’s broader 2017 Texas rate case, which seeks to increase prices for ratepayers. The company, whose service territory also includes parts of New Mexico, filed its rate case with the Public Utility Commission of Texas and other relevant authorities in the Lone Star State. According to an EPE press release, the utility is requesting “an increase in non-fuel base revenues of approximately $42.5 million. Under the proposed rates, a residential customer using 635 kWh per month will see an average bill increase of $8.25 per month when new rates are implemented.” The utility says the increase is necessary in order to help pay for grid improvements and recover costs associated with a natural gas plant in Texas.
“We’ve worked hard to modernize our aging local generation fleet and promote solar and other clean energy technologies our customers want – all while providing safe, reliable and affordable service,” comments EPE CEO Mary Kipp in the release. “We spend a lot of time planning how to best meet the demands created by the continued growth of our region, and these latest investments will benefit our customers well into the future.”
Notably, EPE officially became coal-free last year and said it was increasing its focus on cleaner energy resources, including solar.
However, the utility is again proposing to create a separate rate class for its rooftop solar customers. In its announcement, EPE claims the new structure would “reflect the unique service characteristics and cost of service for this group of customers” and include a new monthly demand charge “to recover the cost of grid-related services.”
In the release, Kipp comments, “It is important to establish a fair rate structure that reflects the cost to serve each customer class. As technologies evolve and our customers’ needs change, we must also evolve to provide programs and rate structures that allow us to provide safe and reliable service at a price that is fair to all our customers.”
According to an EPE fact sheet on its website, the proposed solar provisions would increase a residential solar customer’s monthly bill by $14.09, on average. The utility says it has also proposed “identical” rate structure changes for small commercial customers with rooftop solar.
EPE made similar requests targeting rooftop solar customers in its 2015 rate case, but the utility eventually dropped the controversial plans under a settlement agreement with solar industry stakeholders in 2016. The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC), one of several advocacy groups that championed the compromise, seems none too pleased with the utility’s newest proposal.
“Demand charges found unreceptive audiences among regulators in 2016, and last year, Texas residents clearly rejected El Paso Electric’s same drastic and unprecedented rate design that punishes solar customers,” says TASC spokesperson Amy Heart. “EPE is attempting to circumvent Texas policymakers and citizen directives to support solar growth and competition by implementing confusing charges that have been rejected across 14 states and counting. It is time EPE focuses on integrating solar opportunities and customer choice, rather than force anti-consumer rate design on Texans.”
In addition to TASC, at least one Texas legislator has spoken out against the 2017 rate case. State Sen. José Rodríguez represents District 29, which includes El Paso County and some other Texas regions, and he charges the new rate case includes “anti-solar proposals” that raise “similar concerns” the senator had with EPE’s 2015 case.
“I’m disappointed that El Paso Electric insists on discouraging people from installing solar on their homes,” says Rodríguez in a press release. “The electric company once again wants to single out solar customers by increasing their rates at least two times the amount of their non-solar neighbors. Solar customers will no longer be able to save on their electric bills, which was the reason they installed solar panels in the first place.
“Frankly, the energy bill uncertainty alone will significantly stifle solar; what new customer would install solar panels today if they can’t predict what their future energy savings will be, if any?”
He adds, “El Paso Electric ignores the positive contributions residential solar brings, like reduced grid demand during sunny months. As solar grows, it could reduce electricity bills for all ratepayers by reducing the need to construct new, expensive power plants and transmission infrastructure – the costs for which are borne by the ratepayer.”
In its fact sheet, EPE notes the 2017 Texas rate case decision could take up to a year, and the utility says it has “met with several interested parties since the 2015 rate case, and conversations will continue throughout this rate case process.”