A host of utilities across the United States have gone on the anti-solar offensive, using the influence and capital at their disposal to support legislation and institute policies intended on striking down the efficacy of distributed generation. Those are some of the allegations included in a report released by Environment America, the Frontier Group, and the United States Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
The first part of this series looked at the report’s investigation of national anti-solar players, including the organizations and front groups that use cash and influence to advance their anti-solar agenda.
While these groups may be national, their targeted campaigns almost always are focused at the state level. The report looked at a handful of such campaigns, starting on the East Coast.
Established in Massachusetts in 2013, NERA has a record of opposition to net metering policies in New Hampshire and Maine, according to the report. It gained national notoriety in 2020 for its efforts to substantially roll back net metering in Maine.
In April 2020, the group filed a petition asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to roll back net metering and replace it with gross metering. Under the proposal, utilities would pay solar users a low credit for supplying solar energy to the electric grid, and charge those users a higher electrical rate equivalent to what non-solar users paid for any energy they consume. The group argued that distributed solar energy sales should be regulated under the federal Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act. The petition also would have laid the groundwork to eliminate the state’s ability to promote renewable energy policies that incentivize solar.
The petition ultimately was unanimously dismissed by FERC, after a concerted effort across the renewable landscape to oppose the measure. FERC concluded that NERA failed to prove any harms or controversies that the commission specifically should address. It did not, however, explicitly rule out FERC jurisdiction over solar customer sales to the grid.
The report authors point to Ohio as a case study of how aggressive utility anti-solar campaigns have resulted in policy changes that undermine rooftop solar.
First, the authors outlined how utilities succeeded in convincing Ohio lawmakers to weaken the state’s renewable energy standard (RES). In 2014 the RES (which was designed to achieve a 12.5% renewable share by 2025) had its progress frozen for two years and the end date moved back a year.
This, however, pales in comparison to the saga of HB 6. Passed by the state legislature in July 2019, the legislation was referred to by clean energy expert David Roberts as “the worst piece of energy legislation in the 21st century” and “the most counterproductive and corrupt piece of state energy legislation” he had seen.
HB 6, which took effect in October 2019, cut the renewable energy standard target to 8.5% by 2026 and eliminated the standard altogether after 2026. The law also cut utilities’ required savings from energy efficiency from 22% below 2008 levels by 2027 to 17.5% – which most utilities had already achieved – and then allowed them to end their efficiency programs.
Additionally, HB 6 imposed surcharges on ratepayers to bail out two nuclear power plants, which First Energy, an Ohio utility, claimed were losing money; and two coal plants, one in Ohio and one in Indiana, owned by a utility-controlled collective. The effect of the new law was to remove incentives for further renewable energy development and energy efficiency increases in the state while providing over $1 billion to subsidize four uncompetitive power plants.
On March 31, 2021, Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill passed unanimously by the state Senate which revoked HB 6’s nuclear subsidies, though it did include a provision keeping subsidies for the coal plants and maintaining the renewable energy and energy efficiency rollbacks.
Florida has no renewable portfolio standard, does not allow solar power purchase agreements (PPAs), and requires homeowners to carry general liability insurance for any residential solar power system over 10 kW in capacity. While the state offers net metering, property tax exemptions for renewable energy equipment, and special residential loans for renewable energy property upgrades, the reports authors argued that the state’s overall policy framework is not conducive to rooftop solar growth.
Historically, the authors said, the state’s three investor-owned utilities, Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, and Tampa Electric Company, have backed campaigns and policy changes which have served as roadblocks to expanding the role distributed solar plays in the state.
The report cited a 2018 study by Integrity Florida, which claimed that the utilities directed more than $43 million to political parties, candidates and committees over the 2014 and 2016 election cycles. That was followed by another alleged $9.2 million doled out in 2020.
The authors argued that this spending is an attempt by the utilities to influence how they are regulated by contributing to legislators who would, once in office, be in charge of nominating a list of potential regulators for consideration by the governor.
The report also alleges that the utilities purposely delayed connecting new systems to the grid for months, which would cost customers significant money, and that the state’s utilities have backed groups that point out the shortcomings of distributed solar.
The last East Coast state analyzed in the report is South Carolina. The report focused on Dominion Energy South Carolina’s 2020 proposal to state regulators, which would have more than doubled monthly ratepayer service charges, added a $5.40/kW solar subscription fee to solar customers’ monthly electric bills, and cut the net metering credit that customers receive.
Multiple advocacy groups claimed that Dominion’s proposal would have slowed the state’s rooftop solar market. Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce said that approval of the proposal would essentially say goodbye to all future residential solar development in the state.
South Carolina regulators unanimously approved an alternative, solar-friendlier bid to keep net metering in place while also gradually transitioning Dominion Energy’s net metering program to an existing time-of-use rate schedule for customers.
Attempts to discourage rooftop solar development aren’t limited to the East Coast. The report touched on action that has occurred west of the Mississippi, even in states where rooftop solar has long enjoyed success as a resource. More on that in the next entry in this series.
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