Letters From the West

Idaho Power backs off taking solar customers’ power, partially

Steve White installed solar panels at his business and home. He has fought Idaho Power's proposal.(Statesman File Photo)

Steve White installed solar panels at his business and home. He has fought Idaho Power’s proposal.(Statesman File Photo)

Idaho Power proposes allowing its solar customers to “self-select” the one-year period for using credits they earn by generating their own electricity.

But it still wants to end its practice of paying customers at the end of that year for the excess power they generated. It had argued that its solar customers should forfeit unused power and the end of the year, which would be shifted to all customers.

The utility will still argue before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission Tuesday that it must change its rate structure for its net metering customers to ensure its fixed costs like transmission lines and even billing are paid for by the rising number of customers with rooftop solar generators.

“Customers who reduce their base charges to zero through financial credits can avoid contributing to energy efficiency programs and municipal fees in addition to avoiding the costs of distribution, infrastructure and customer services,” said Matt Larkin a regulatory analyst for Idaho Power, in testimony filed with the commission.

Idaho Power is proposing to double the capacity limit on the amount of energy that can be generated from its net metering customers from 2.9 megawatts to 5.8. Currently Idaho Power has about 350 net metering customers and under the proposal could add about 414 new solar customers.

The investor-owned utility also wants to increase the rate solar and wind users pay for the power they get from Idaho Power and quadruple the fees they pay to hook up to the grid. Solar customers say the proposal will only benefit solar customers who use a lot of electricity and harm those who are conserving energy, which is why most install solar in the first place.

The Idaho Public Utilities Commission will hold a technical hearing Tuesday, beginning at 9:30 a.m. for the utility and parties who have intervened in the case to cross-examine each other. A public hearing will be held Tuesday evening at the PUC headquarters at 7 p.m.

Clean energy advocates say instead of a subsidy, solar net metering customers, who make up most of the new ones, actually provide more benefits to Idaho Power’s customers than costs. And solar power installers say the proposal has hurt their business just as solar panel rates have come down to a level that is competitive.

The Idaho Public Utilities Commission staff agreed with critics on nearly every point. Matt Elam, a utilities analyst in the engineering section filed testimony that solar power generating customers add little cost to other customers and actually help reduce the cost of Idaho Power to meet its demand during peak periods.
“Aside from potentially providing a capacity benefit during the utility’s peak, net metering potentially allows the Company to meet growing load with current resources,” Elam said in testimony filed with the commission.
He also said Idaho Power should carry over credits earned from power generation to future years without writing solar customers checks. About the only point of agreement the staff had with Idaho Power was the need for a cap on the amount of energy that can be generated from its net metering customers at 5.8 megawatts.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West