U.S. Sens. Angus King, I-Maine, and Harry Reid, D-Nev., are trying to push forward an amendment aimed at protecting rooftop solar customers by limiting the ability of state agencies and utilities to retroactively change net-metering rates for existing customers. The two lawmakers want to add their provision to a broader energy bill the Senate has been debating, called the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015.
The senators’ Amendment 3120 comes as the debate over net metering continues throughout the country, especially in Nevada, Reid’s home state.
In December, the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) slashed net-metering rates and added higher fees for solar customers, and the changes apply to customers who had already installed solar under the original rates. Although solar advocates have been pushing against retroactive enforcement of the new policies – and utility NV Energy has submitted a controversial grandfathering proposal – the PUCN has yet to take a final vote on grandfathering in existing solar customers.
According to a synopsis of the King-Reid amendment, the provision would protect existing U.S. solar customers that already have net-metering deals with their utilities from “unjustified and abusive rate hikes and new fees.”
As proposed, the amendment would add language to the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 stating, “Once an electric consumer has been offered and has accepted net-metering service … from an electric utility, the state regulatory authority with rate-making authority over the electric utility and the electric utility may not change the rate classification of the consumer unless the state regulatory authority or electric utility, as applicable, demonstrates, in an evidentiary hearing in a general rate case, that the current and future net benefits of the net-metered system to the distribution, transmission, and generation systems of the electric utility are less than the full retail rate.”
Furthermore, the amendment would make sure a state regulatory authority can’t impose a new or increased rate, such as a demand charge, on existing net-metering customers “unless the new or higher rate is also charged to all electric consumers in the same rate class of the electric utility.”
In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Reid underscored the benefits of net-metering and the negative effects of attacks against such programs.
“Net-metering policies have been an incredible success,” he said. “Today, more than half a million American families and businesses have their own renewable energy systems – a 7,000 percent increase over 11 years ago. Producing clean energy at home is mainstream today.”
“Utilities are cheerleading anti-competitive measures that will cost families money and take away their opportunity to generate clean energy at home,” he remarked. “In Nevada, our utility proposed – I say utility because 95 percent of all electricity in Nevada is owned by one company – our big utility in Nevada proposed, and regulators recently agreed to slash, the value of rooftop solar for customers and imposed those changes retroactively.”
The senator called for support from his fellow legislators, declaring, “This amendment is good for consumers in Nevada and across the country. It will safeguard people who want to generate their own clean energy from retroactive rule changes that could devastate their finances.”
On the Senate floor Wednesday, King also defended the need for the amendment: “This amendment is really a modest one. It is not a takeover of the regulatory process.
“It simply urges and advocates that the state public utilities commissions take into account the positive factors of solar, as well as the costs in order to reach a fair compensation agreement between utilities and their customers,” continued King. “This is the future. It is going to happen. The only question is whether it happens efficiently, fairly, or by fighting. I would prefer the former. I think this is an important part of the future of this country, and we have an important role to play in this body.”
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) is calling for the Senate to include the King-Reid amendment in the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015.
“We urge the Senate to adopt the King-Reid amendment and end a practice that subjects hardworking families and businesses who have invested in solar to potentially abusive rate hikes and new fees from monopoly utility companies,” says Rhone Resch, president and CEO of SEIA, in a statement. “By blocking this amendment, utilities are trying to take away consumers’ ability to make their own energy decisions.”
The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC), a coalition of rooftop solar installers focused on net-metering policies, has also chimed in.
Evan Dube, director of public policy for Sunrun and spokesperson for TASC, says in a press release, “We applaud Senators King and Reid for introducing legislation that protects consumer choice and free market competition.”
Although the Senate was expected to wrap up the debate on the Energy Policy Modernization Act and its amendments by as early as the end of Thursday, progress has halted; Democrats blocked the legislation from moving forward amid a partisan feud with Republicans over aid funding for the water-contamination crisis in Flint, Mich. This puts the future of the overall energy bill in question, but according to multiple reports, at least some Senate leaders appear determined to reach a compromise.