Ahead of the November election, ballot initiatives designed to expand or change the adoption of clean energy have been introduced in at least six states. Florida currently has three ballot measures up for debate. Other states include Nevada, Oregon, Montana, Ohio and Missouri.
A couple of these initiatives have already been retired or replaced with different policies, while others are in the process of gathering voter signatures or undergoing legal review. Taken together, these initiatives seem to indicate widespread popular support for greater access to renewables. However, it's unclear if any of these initiatives will make it to a November vote.
On Monday, March 7, the Florida Supreme Court heard arguments on a utility-backed ballot initiative led by the Consumers for Smart Solar. The amendment would allow customers in Florida to “own or lease” solar, but would not allow for third-party solar financing. Solar advocates say the measure does nothing to expand consumers’ rights, and is purely designed to confuse voters and limit the market.
Consumers for Smart Solar was created in response to a separate ballot initiative that sought to allow third-party solar financing in Florida. Consumers for Smart Solar -- which has received nearly $7 million from Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy and other utilities -- launched a campaign against the competing ballot, calling it the “Shady Solar Amendment.” That initiative, led by the grassroots group Floridians for Solar Choice, ultimately failed to collect enough signatures in time to qualify for the November election. Organizers are not exploring options for the 2018 ballot.
Floridians for Solar Choice argued on Monday that the utility-backed amendment does not expand consumer rights beyond what’s enshrined in current law, and fails to inform voters that they would in fact be restricted from leasing solar systems.
“It is a cynical proposal designed to confuse voters. Its ballot language falsely tells voters that the amendment gives people the right to make a solar energy choice, when in fact it gives them nothing more than what they already have under the Florida Constitution’s basic rights and under general law -- the ability to own or lease the solar equipment they use to make electricity at their homes and businesses,” said Bill Garner, solar choice attorney with Nabors, Giblin & Nickerson.
Consumers for Smart Solar argued the ballot is needed so that Floridians know they have a “constitutional right” to purchase solar equipment.
The “Smart Solar” initiative has secured the necessary 695,376 signatures to qualify for the November ballot, and is now seeking court approval of the language. On Monday, the court justices appeared divided, the Miami Herald reports.
Justice Charles Canady said the Smart Solar initiative was reasonable. “It’s about the rights of people to have the right to have solar,” he said. “I think it’s perfectly clear.”
Justices Peggy Quince, Barbara Pariente and James Perry were skeptical. Pariente noted that the Smart Solar amendment was created with the aim of “defeating the other amendment.”
“The concern is by putting this into the Constitution, it maintains the status quo and prevents a further expansion of those that want solar energy, and that’s why they’re opposing it,” she said.
Meanwhile, as the general election ballot advances, Florida lawmakers passed a joint resolution that puts a constitutional amendment on the August 30 statewide primary ballot for citizens to vote on extending a property tax exemption for renewable energy source devices on commercial and residential properties.
On February 26, the District of Columbia Public Service Commission rejected a merger settlement, but kept open the possibility of approval by introducing an alternative proposal. On March 1, the D.C. District Attorney and the Office of the People’s Counsel withdrew their backing. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser dropped her support shortly thereafter, despite having brokered a $78 million benefits package as part of the merger settlement last fall.
In a last-minute effort to salvage the deal, Exelon and Pepco submitted yet another alternative on March 7 that seeks to address the concerns of the PSC and city officials. The new offer preserves $25.6 million in residential rate credits from the original merger settlement, and reallocates $20 million from a grid modernization fund to fund the PSC can allocate at its discretion.
According to an updated PSC timeline, stakeholders have until March 17 to comment on the utilities’ proposed plan. However, the D.C. Government and the Office of the People’s Counsel rejected the Exelon-Pepco proposal on Friday. While the latest filings do not absolutely rule out approval, opponents of the merger are calling the rejections a victory.
“Today’s filings are great news for D.C. residents and ratepayers,” said Anya Schoolman on behalf of the PowerDC Coalition. “There is no viable path forward for Exelon’s attempt to take over Pepco. We agree with the Office of the People’s Counsel’s filing. D.C. is ready to move on.”
Solar advocates continue to build momentum around a ballot initiative in Nevada that seeks to undo changes to the state’s net metering program, despite pushback from a utility-supported political group. The Bring Back Solar Alliance, which supports the No Solar Tax PAC, recently announced the support of the progressive political group Battle Born Progress, the advocacy group We Are Solar and the pledged support of more than 90,000 Nevadans.
Last month, the Nevada Public Utilities Commission voted not to grandfather existing customers onto a new rooftop solar tariff that lowers net-metering compensation and creates new fixed charges. Solar companies say the new rates are unfair to current solar customers and have made it impossible to attract new ones.
On February 12, Carson City-based attorney James Cavilia filed to create a new PAC called Citizens for Solar and Energy Fairness, designed to “advocate for, or oppose” net metering programs. Days later, the group filed a legal challenge to the pro-solar ballot initiative. A Nevada circuit court is expected to hear the challenge before March 28.
The Montana group MTCARES ("Community Affordable Renewable Energy Saves"), is advancing an ambitious ballot initiative to increase the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 80 percent by 2050, the Great Falls Tribune reports. MTCARES was recently given permission to begin gathering signatures after the Initiative 180 language was approved by the Montana Attorney General and Secretary of State. The referendum needs 24,175 people to sign the petition in order to get on the November ballot.
California’s three major investor-owned utilities have filed for the PUC to vacate or modify its January decision to uphold retail rate net metering -- widely considered a win for the solar industry. Southern California Edison (SCE), San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), as well as the ratepayer advocacy group Utility Reform Network and the California Coalition of Utility Employees, filed requests for a rehearing on March 7, the application deadline.
While maintaining net metering, the January net metering ruling requires solar customers to pay a one-time fee of 2 cents to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, as well as to move to time-of-use rates. SDG&E’s Amber Albrecht said her utility is seeking to have solar customers pay transmission charges for all of the energy delivered to them, which was originally included in the net metering proposal and removed in the final ruling. The utility-proposed modification would raise the non-bypassable fee from 2-3 cents to 4-5 cents.
The PUC has 120 days to respond to the filings. Regulators will conduct a full re-evaluation of the net metering program in 2019.
In the legislature, the California Senate has passed a bill (SB 286) that requires requires the CPUC to expand direct access for non-residential customers over a period of three years. Through the phase-in, direct access availability would increase by 8,000 gigawatt-hours, allocated among the state's utilities. SB 286 requires that 75 percent of new direct access transactions be for electricity products sourced from renewable energy resources in 2016, increasing to 100 percent by 2020. The CPUC must enforce the renewable energy requirement as part of the state RPS.
UniSource Energy Services, a small Arizona utility, is seeking regulatory approval to implement mandatory demand charges on all customers, increase fixed charges from $10 to $15 per month, and lower net-metering credits for rooftop solar customers to the wholesale electricity rate. The proposals are part of parent company UNS Energy's general rate case, which is currently being considered by the Arizona Corporation Commission (E-04204A-15-0142).
The UNS proceeding stands to set a precedent in the state and has consequently drawn input from a wide array of stakeholders, including utilities seeking similar rate changes. As part of the UNS proceeding, Arizona Public Service (APS) filed a study conducted by Navigant Consulting that found solar leasing companies receive a 40 percent project return on rooftop solar leases, and thus can afford to see net metering compensation decline and still offer customers savings.
Solar companies rejected the premise of the APS report.
“There has never been a cost-benefit study commissioned on rooftop solar in Arizona, ever. There is zero data in Arizona to support increasing fees on solar companies or solar customers. So why are we talking about a study designed to show how much pain successful businesses can take for the benefit of a utility?” said SolarCity spokesperson William Craven.
Solar advocates argue that UNS’ proposed demand charges coupled with a reduced net-metering credit would be a death sentence for the state's rooftop solar industry. Meanwhile, another recent study found that distributed solar offers a net benefit to all ratepayers. Consumer groups have opposed UNS’ proposed mandatory demand charges, because they believe they will disproportionately affect low-income consumers.
Separately, on March 1, Arizona’s three investor-owned utilities -- APS, UNS and Tucson Electric Power -- filed their preliminary 2017-2032 integrated resource plans (E-00000V-15-0094). The plans are intended to help the state comply with the Clean Power Plan. Stakeholders have several weeks to comment ahead of an open meeting on August 1.
On March 2, Oregon legislators passed a landmark bill to double the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 50 percent by 2040. It also requires the state’s utilities -- Portland General Electric and Pacific Power -- to stop purchasing coal power for Oregonians by 2035.
SB 1547 emerged in response to a ballot initiative that sought to move Oregon off of coal. Utilities argued that the ballot measures were too drastic, and partnered with environmental groups to find an alternative. SB 1547 ultimately received widespread approval from utilities, environmental advocates, consumer groups and lawmakers from both parties.
Critics of the bill, including members of the Oregon PUC, said the bill will simply prompt utilities to sell their coal power to customers in other states, and will force Oregon ratepayers to pay more for renewable energy. Proponents point out that the bill includes a safety valve that caps the incremental costs of compliance at 4 percent of the utilities' annual revenue requirement for a compliance year.
In addition to the RPS and coal requirements, SB 1547 establishes a community solar program and instructs electric utilities to propose programs designed to "accelerate transportation electrification" by the end of the year.
A separate renewable energy bill (HB 4037) also recently passed in Oregon that directs the Oregon Business Development Department to establish an incentive program for solar projects between 2 and 10 megawatts. Under the program, qualifying project developers will receive half of a cent per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated for five years. The bill is intended to support SB 1547 by encouraging developers to build solar projects and create jobs in the state.
Hawaiian Electric Co., which serves 95 percent of Hawaii’s electricity customers, recently reported that 23.2 percent of its energy came from renewables in 2015, up from 21.3 percent in 2014. HECO’s performance surpassed the state’s goal of 15 percent renewables in 2015, and sets the state on a path toward meeting its ambitious 100 percent renewable energy target.
Like a handful of other states, Ohio is also considering a ballot measure. The Clean Energy Initiative outlines a $14 billion dollar energy program that includes infrastructure projects and alternative energy research. The measure was certified last fall. Supporters now need to collect 305,591 signatures by July 6, to get the initiative placed on the November 2016 ballot.
Separately, Ohio legislators have introduced a bill (HB 472) that would unfreeze Ohio's renewable portfolio standard and efficiency targets. The bill would require 12.5 percent renewables and 0.5 percent solar by 2025. It also would amend existing minimum setback requirements for wind turbines.
On February 17, Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander announced a ballot petition that would allow companies or individuals to own or operate community solar facilities, and would establish a clean energy tax credit through June 2022, KFVS reports. Supporters have until May 8 to collect signatures of support.
Xcel Energy began accepting applications for its Solar Rewards Community Program in December 2014. In a matter of months the utility had received more than 1,600 project applications worth more than 900 megawatts. As of February 1, the program had 986 megawatts of active applications, an additional 983 megawatts of withdrawn applications, and only one 40 kilowatt solar project under service.
According to Advanced Energy Economy’s regulatory tracker, on February 26 the Commission asked for comments on the following issues: “re-evaluating the subscriber bill credit rate and/or methodology, expanding the 1 megawatt limit on co-located applications after September 15, 2016, and encouraging low-income and minority subscribers to the program.” Initial comments are due by April 1 and reply comments by April 29, 2016 (13-867).
Solar firms in Massachusetts have reported layoffs as the state remains gridlocked over its net metering policy. National Grid and Unitil reached their net metering caps last year and other utilities are close behind. Despite several legislative efforts to raise the cap, the House and Senate failed to pass a bill before winter recess. Legislators have indicated they want to pass a comprehensive energy bill in 2016 and could take up a House proposal to expand the cap by 2,400 megawatts.
At the same time, Massachusetts’ SREC market is reaching capacity. In early February, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources announced the SREC-II Program was capped for projects over 25 kilowatts, PV Magazine reports. The cap is also approaching for projects under 25 kilowatts. Uncertainty around both SRECs and net metering could put a chill on the Massachusetts market.
Legislators in Maine introduced a bill last month that could offer a viable alternative to net energy metering. The legislation received widespread support from utilities, ratepayer advocates and regional solar companies. However, Governor Paul LePage cast a shadow over the deal in announcing that he opposes the plan, claiming it maintains an unfair subsidy for solar customers at the expense of other ratepayers.
Meanwhile, The Alliance for Solar Choice has argued that the deal should also include an option to keep traditional net metering.
The proposal replaces net metering with a fixed 20-year contract for all of the solar power or for the excess solar power a customer generates. The Public Utilities Commission would be responsible for setting the contract price, which would initially be competitive with current net metering compensation, but would decline over time.
The plan hinges on the concept of utilities playing the role of a solar “standard buyer,” which would purchase and aggregate the output from solar systems, and sell it into New England’s wholesale energy markets. The market revenue would allow utilities to offset program costs.
The legislation proposes that utilities in Maine enter into long-term contracts for a total of 248 megawatts of solar power over the period from 2017 to 2022. Residential and small commercial projects would make up 118 megawatts of the overall target, which is equal to the National Renewable Energy Lab’s median estimate for the amount of distributed solar that would be installed under traditional net metering. The remainder would be made up of community, large commercial and industrial and grid-scale solar projects.
House representatives in New Hampshire passed a bill (HB 1116) on Thursday to raise the state’s net metering cap from 50 megawatts to 100 megawatts. Eighty percent of the 50-megawatt increase is designated for residential projects.
The bill now goes to the senate, which previously passed legislation to increase the cap by 25 megawatts. Solar advocates argued that increase wasn’t enough to ensure sustainable growth.
Solar companies see New Hampshire as a promising market with strong consumer demand for renewable energy resources. Recognizing that, SolarCity opened an office in the state last April. However, all utilities in New Hampshire save for one, Unitil, have now met their net metering caps. Governor Maggie Hassan urged New Hampshire senators to pass the latest version of HB 1116.
“Lifting the cap on net metering is essential to the continued success of New Hampshire’s solar industry, and I applaud the House for its bipartisan vote to pass this critical measure,” she said, in a statement. The Senate has already supported this legislation, and I urge them to concur with the version passed by the House and send this bill to my desk as quickly as possible so that we can lift the cap on net metering.”
This spring, National Grid will launch a first-of-its-kind solar marketplace in Rhode Island that allows customers to shop for solar and receive an incentive for improving energy efficiency at the same time. The initiative, expected to launch in April, will help the state meet its goal to increase the amount of electricity generated by customer-owned equipment by 160 megawatts over a five-year period. It could also lay the foundation for a new utility business model.
Separately, the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources recently published a 67-page strategy document that addresses key issues and opportunities related to the future of Rhode Island's electric grid, including assessing market potential, costs and benefits of AMI and time-varying rates, expanding electric-vehicle infrastructure and mapping the state’s current renewables promotion processes.
Policy developments are tracked in partnership with EQ Research, which offers in-depth subscription services covering regulatory developments, legislation and general rate cases in all 50 U.S. states.