Mary Ellen Cassidy: Solar net metering ensures competition

By By Mary Ellen Cassidy

West Virginians’ ability to save money on electricity bills, by becoming energy independent with solar energy, is at risk. As the Gazette-Mail reported, (“Net metering task force continues to discuss solar,” June 13), the state Public Service Commission is reviewing the state’s sensible net metering policy.

Sometimes a solar system produces less electricity than a home is using. Sometimes it produces more. When it produces less, homeowners are able to back their system with electricity from the grid. When it produces more, the energy flows out to a neighboring house and the homeowner generates a credit for their future electricity use. Net metering allows solar customers to seamlessly connect to the grid, while reducing their bill by the amount of energy they produce themselves. This is the same way that people can reduce their heating bill by using a wood stove to lower their costs.

Utilities around the country have argued that the addition of more solar systems leave them no choice but to raise rates for non-solar customers. Some claim they will need to do so in order to recoup the cost of maintaining the electric grid that solar customers still use. The Public Service Commission is tasked with determining if this is the case.

The evidence is clear. Contrary to utilities’ claims, net metering benefits solar and non-solar customers alike. Studies from across the country, Nevada, Missouri, Mississippi, and elsewhere, have found that adding electricity to the grid from rooftop solar actually provides a net benefit to all ratepayers.

Rooftop solar benefits everyone for a couple of reasons.

Solar electricity’s greatest production happens during times of peak electricity demand. Not all electricity is priced the same. Responding to the market, the price of electricity rises during the day as demand for electricity increases to power air conditioners, offices etc. Electricity from solar provides a local electricity source during the day when electricity is the most expensive that helps lower costs for all users.

The electricity produced on rooftops is produced close to the source of electricity demand. Electricity produced at power plants has to travel many miles to reach demand. Rooftop solar only has to go next door. This is important because electricity suffers efficiency loss the farther it travels.

So what is behind the utilities? effort to limit consumer choice, given the demonstrated benefits of net metering?

Utilities make money by selling electricity and they fear competition from increasingly affordable solar energy. More and more folks are finding they can power their home more cheaply themselves with solar. Over time, this will decrease total demand for energy and even threaten utilities’ monopoly status. Utilities themselves have said as much. A 2013 report by the Edison Electric Institute, a major utility trade organization, called the expansion of distributed solar energy an “existential threat” to the industry.

In response, utilities have attempted to pit solar customers and non-solar customers against each other. They falsely claim that they’ll have to charge non-solar customers more as more customers switch to solar in order to pay for continued maintenance of the electric grid. As has been shown, these arguments don’t hold water. Solar and non-solar customers aren’t different. If anything, non-solar customers might someday get a rate cut due to the “grid benefits” of locally made solar energy.

Solar customers don’t pay for electricity from the utility that they don’t use. This is no different than a non-solar customer not paying for electricity when they turn off the lights. Is the utility’s next step adding in a charge every time anyone flips a switch?

The utilities’ efforts to add unreasonable charges to solar customer bills or not pay for the full value of their electricity is a clear attempt to block competition from the market. The Public Service Commission should maintain consumer choice by keeping West Virginia’s sensible and fair net metering policy in place.

Mary Ellen Cassidy is a member of the Wheeling Solar Co-op.

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