Legislation introduced in Indiana last week that would slash net metering credits and add fixed charges to the bills of solar customers has created a rift between investor-owned utilities and solar advocates in the state.
Bill HB 1320 is opposed by renewable energy advocates at the Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) and the liberal consumer group Citizens Action Coalition, as well as the Green Tea Coalition, a conservative organization supporting free-market ideals and energy independence. According to these groups, the Indiana bill would kill the state’s solar industry before it gets off the ground.
“Indiana Republicans should be championing free market choice -- not government-created utility monopolies,” said Debbie Dooley, founder of the Green Tea Coalition and leading member of the Tea Party Patriots. “This is a deliberate attempt to kill solar and protect monopolies from competition, and this is going on in other states.”
In 2013, tea partyers joined a campaign to protect access to solar in Georgia. More recently, the group launched a ballot initiative for third-party-owned solar in Florida. The coalition is now contemplating action in Indiana.
If passed, HB 1320 would allow utilities to credit solar customers at a rate about 70 percent lower than the retail rate for electricty. The bill would also allow utilities to add a fixed monthly charge to distributed generation systems and to petition the Indiana Utility Commission to increase fixed charges on all Indiana ratepayers.
“Fixed charges are taxes. They’re taxes by big-government monopolists using rent-seeking influence in the legislature to try to eliminate competition,” said Bryan Miller of TASC. “This is an exceptionally conservative state, and the idea that the legislature would come in and eliminate competition through taxes…is the least conservative thing you could imagine.”
Opponents are also concerned that the bill allows utilities to set their own interconnection rules and charges, giving them the ability to make it prohibitively expensive to connect small solar and wind projects to the grid.
Dave Arland, spokesperson for the Indiana Energy Association (IEA), which represents the state’s fourteen investor-owned utilities, says these fears are overblown.
“It’s an interconnection standard, not a charge, to make sure electricity-generation equipment is standardized so it can connect safely,” he said. “It’s a safety issue, not a charge issue.”
The IEA and its members support HB 1320 as a common-sense policy on customer-owned generation that’s fair to everyone who uses the electrical grid, said Arland.
Representative Eric Koch (R), who introduced the bill, sees it as pro-solar initiative. “What is not getting attention are the provisions of the bill designed to promote and grow distributed generation in Indiana,” Koch told Utility Dive. “It authorizes leasing of distributed systems, which is not permitted right now.”
While allowing third-party-owned solar would theoretically expand the market, new fees and slashed credits would block any meaningful progress, said Miller. “It’s political gimmick,” he said.
TASC has also criticized Duke Energy’s support for the Koch legislation as a disingenuous move, given that the utility, which operates across the Southeast and Midwest, supported a landmark settlement in South Carolina last month making it the 44th state to adopt net metering.
Duke Energy spokesperson Angeline Protogere told Greentech Media that the utility wants to advance green energy in all of the states it serves. “The approach or pathway for how we advance renewables will look different state by state," she added.
West Virginia to repeal RPS, Northeast pushes for more solar
West Virginia is also changing its approach to promoting renewable energy. Both the state House and Senate passed bills last week that would repeal West Virginia’s 2009 renewable portfolio standard, which requires the state to generate at least 25 percent of its power from renewable sources, such as solar and wind, by 2025. The law, championed by the coal industry, throws out the RPS entirely, but would leave in place the state’s net metering policy.
A unified bill will soon make its way to the desk of Governor Earl Ray Tomblin (D), who has indicated he will sign it. Ohio, Oklahoma and Kansas have contemplated cutting back their renewable energy policies, as well. West Virginia is poised to be the first to completely ditch its RPS, however.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, legislation has been proposed to support the state’s solar market as Governor Charlie Baker (R) transitions into office. The two bills (SD-869 and HD-2050), filed by Senator Anthony Petruccelli and Representative Frank Smizik, would extend the state’s Net Metering and Solar Task Force report deadline to June 1, 2015. They would also increase the state’s net metering caps by 2 percent in the public sector and 1 percent in the private sector to support solar development while the task force develops a long-term plan to encourage solar growth in the state.
According to solar industry advocates, including the New England Clean Energy Council (NECEC) and Solar Energy Business Association of New England (SEBANE), there’s an urgent need for this legislation. Analysis by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities indicates that net metering caps in some utility territories will be reached by March 2015.
“This legislation is essential to the continued growth of renewable energy in the Commonwealth and the benefits it is delivering to customers by enabling them to continue to take advantage of net metering for their systems, one of the simplest and most effective solar policies in the state. This bill will also allow the Baker administration to transition into its leadership role on the Net Metering Task Force,” said NECEC President Peter Rothstein.
Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center announced the end of the state’s Commonwealth Solar II program, which provided $36 million in rebates to facilitate investments in solar systems at homes, public buildings and small businesses, totaling more than $407 million.
Since the program launched in 2010, small-scale solar installation costs have dropped nearly 30 percent. Today, there are 715 megawatts of installed solar capacity in the state and more than 12,000 people working in the Massachusetts solar sector.
Finally, in New York, Governor Cuomo underscored his commitment to solar in his 2015 state address.
Cuomo highlighted the state’s $5 billion Clean Energy Fund and efforts to establish a new community net metering program that would expand solar access to renters and others who can’t put solar on their own homes or businesses. The governor’s new proposed budget would further increase support for solar through a sales tax exemption on solar PPAs, making third-party financing options more attractive.