Critics decry solar fee as 'sun' tax

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News

Published: Tue, July 29, 2014, 8:20 p.m. MDT

 People listen to speeches during a rally for solar energy at the Utah Public Service Commission office, Tuesday, July 29, 2014.

People listen to speeches during a rally for solar energy at the Utah Public Service Commission office, Tuesday, July 29, 2014.

(Michelle Tessier, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Critics of a so-called "sun tax" railed against Rocky Mountain Power on Tuesday and later packed a Public Service Commission hearing to protest what they say is a punitive, unfair proposal.

As more and more households choose to plug into the sun to meet a portion of their energy needs, Rocky Mountain Power says it still needs to cover its fixed costs of delivering power, even if the usage among those customers is going down.

The proposal is front and center before the Utah Public Service Commission and calls for a monthly fee of $4.65 to be added to the bills of residential solar customers who are on Rocky Mountain Power grid.

Monumental, voluminous filings comprise the case — to be decided in September — from a stable of seven groups at the table, including the utility company, the state Division of Public Utilities, the Utah Office of Consumer Affairs and Utah Clean Energy.

The irony in it all is that for polarized sides, the addition of a monthly fee is branded as a matter of fairness: It either allows the utility company to avoid passing on more of those fixed costs to non-solar customers or enables them to unfairly punish solar users who are doing more to reduce their carbon footprint.

It is a fight pitting solar advocates and the growing solar industry against traditional utility companies in multiple states across the country, finding a voice with Republican Party faithful Barry Goldwater Jr., a former congressman who leads Tell Utilities Solar Won't Be Killed.

At Tuesday's rally in front of the Heber M. Wells building — where an hourslong hearing of public testimony was to later unfold — Goldwater stoked the crowd.

"You can't tax the sun," he said, his voice rising. "No one owns the sun, and to put a tax on it is wrong. … The last thing we need is the government taxing us out of existence."

While Rocky Mountain Power was praised in one sense for its embrace of programs that encourage energy efficiency practices and alternative energy, Goldwater said the "monopoly" utility is committing a gaffe of epic proportions by penalizing solar customers instead of cutting them a break.

"These big utilities, if they don't get on board, they will be left behind," Goldwater said.

While residential solar customers only comprise a small share of Rocky Mountain Power's customer base in Utah — about 2,200 households — the utility company expects a signficant expansion of residential solar in the years to come, especially as prices continue to drop and the technology gets better.

An analysis coincidentally released Tuesday by the Worldwatch Institute said that 2013 witnessed record-breaking growth for solar electricity generation, with the photovoltaic market representing one-third of all newly added renewable energy capacity — or 39 gigawatts.

Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Paul Murphy said as that market continues to take hold in Utah, it is unfair to expect that non-solar customers be expected to pay a disproportionate share of the fixed costs to deliver electricity.

"This would ultimately lower the costs for people who can't afford solar or who chose not to have solar," he said.

Advocates — and solar customers who testified at Tuesday's hearing — want the Public Service Commission to reject the proposal by Rocky Mountain Power to add the net-metering fee to monthly bills and instead engage in a full cost-benefits analysis that examines the "externalized" costs of carbon-based fuels, such as pollution and attendant health impacts.

"When you look at the enormity of what is at stake, future generations will look back and ask, 'What did we do?'" said David Bennett, a Park City resident with a rooftop solar array, testifying before the Public Service Commission. "You need to send a statement to the people of Utah that we encourage renewable energy, we encourage solar power."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

1. Fitness Freak
Salt Lake City, UT,
July 29, 2014

How about if Rocky Mtn. Power just take all the money that they spend on goofy "watt smart" television ads and use THAT money to fuel their profits?

We get it. Turn off the lights - save money. How many ads do we need to figure that out?

2. Demisana
South Jordan, UT,
July 29, 2014

Ok... since they incurred no costs to generate the power, their overall cost just dropped. Cut the price they pay the generator of the electricity, maybe. But to outright tax people who just paid thousands of dollars for their solar system is ridiculous.

3. collegestudent25
Cedar City, UT,
July 29, 2014

People are clearly missing the point here. They are using the infrastructure put in place by the power company. It is only fair.

4. A Chem Engineer
Pocatello, ID,
July 29, 2014

I never cease to be amazed at the number of people who do not understand business finance. It is as simple as this folks: A steady consistent draw of power from a major source, 24/7, yields the lowest operating cost possible, whether it be a nuclear power plant, a coal-fired plant, or whatever. Operating cost translates directly into purchase price for the customer.

However, if you take that same major power source and have to keep jacking the output around - high output for a few hours, then low output for a few hours - then maybe have to shut it down for a few hours - then start it back up and go for high power output - - WOW - - what an inefficient, expensive way to run the equipment! And guess what that does to your purchase price.

So, what on earth would prompt a utility to run their power plants in such a haphazard fashion? Um, maybe the rising and setting of the sun, with a few storms mid-day thrown in to just spice things up, and then dumping that haphazard solar energy into the grid!! How about that!

5. A Chem Engineer
Pocatello, ID,
July 29, 2014

Batteries can be used to smooth out the haphazard surges in solar-generated electricity, but consumers are not usually willing to spend 2-3 times more money for their installation to buy the batteries, digital controller, etc. needed to make that happen.
And why should they? They don't care that it forces the utilities, who are required to take the power they haphazardly dump on the grid, to operate in a much more expensive fashion. Somebody else is always there to pay the cost for them.
Until now.
Frankly, $5 or so a month is not bad, all things considered. Anyone who wants to try solar, and doesn't want to pay that, can invest in batteries, the controls, and take themselves off the grid with their new "green power source". Of course, their much more expensive system means they will be paying a lot more for their "home-grown" electricity....