No Free Sun for You! Why Arizona Wants to ‘Tax’ Solar Power

A new proposal would slap existing solar-paneled homeowners with a fee of up to $100 per month for the privilege of selling excess power back to the grid.

Last time we checked, the sun doesn't charge for its energy—so why is Arizona considering charging homeowners who use solar panels for free energy? (Photo: Reuters)

Jul 22, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A climate blogger, RL is chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus.

Arizona does not have enough sunshine. It needs to ration that precious resource.

There’s no other explanation for the latest proposal from Arizona Public Service, Arizona’s largest electric utility. On July 12, it announced a plan to drastically change net-metering, the way in which homeowners and businesses with solar rooftops sell excess power back to the grid. Net-metering is the foundation for all solar leasing; without it, solar companies can’t entice homeowners with the promise of “cut your electric bill, no money down” but instead would rely on sales of expensive systems.

The proposal would slap existing solar-paneled homeowners with a fee of up to $100 per month for the privilege of selling excess power back to APS. If you own a home and don’t already have solar panels, no sun for you! You can never share in net-metering as we know it.

The APS proposal has Arizonans up in arms—a pro-solar rally on July 16 drew hundreds of people to stand outside, hogging that sunshine and keeping it from reaching roofs. After all, net-metering challenges a government monopoly. It’s made with American ingenuity. The alternative is a costly boondoggle of centrally regulated authority.

In this classic fight of freedom from big government, it’s no wonder that Barry Goldwater, Jr. supports solar—uh, wait? Yes, the son of the 1964 Presidential candidate fights for solar power because, as a conservative, he wants a free market, not a monopoly.

Why is Arizona suddenly so opposed to solar energy? The state consumes its electricity 50 percent in the form of coal, and two percent in the form of sunshine. Much of its coal is imported from Colorado and points north, turned into electricity at Four Corners and other massive coal plants, and exported to California—an approach that only makes sense to fans of Rube Goldberg devices. It has some utility-scale solar plants, with more planned, but again much of its power is bought by California’s hungry utilities.

One answer: APS is facing its own mortality. If rooftop solar is adopted widely enough, it means a death spiral for the electric utilities. The price per kilowatt-hour for solar is plummeting. The utilities all know it, and they’re fighting back by making net-metering more expensive.

Another answer: The Arizona Corporation Commission (the state’s name for its Public Utilities Commission) is closely allied with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group generally pushing model right wing laws within states.

“There’s no reason other than ideology,” Nancy LaPlaca, an Arizona energy consultant, tells TakePart. “They just don’t like solar.” Four of the commission members are associated with ALEC. One of them is a former Chevron consultant.

The solar fight in Arizona crystallizes red states’ dilemma: Do they listen to the explicitly fossil-fueled American For Prosperity and the Koch brothers, or do they choose politically popular renewable energy? Libertarian-minded tea party folk allied with solar energy in Georgia to force that state’s PUC to incorporate more solar net-metering. Kansas farmers who want to grow wind among their other crops fought back a law that would have delayed the state’s renewable energy standard. North Carolina legislators were swayed by jobs. Even Idaho’s PUC said no to an effort by a utility plan to end net-metering for all of the 386 customers in the state who lease solar; the PUC chided the utility and cited “overwhelming” public opposition to the plan.

Arizona’s ACC faces a choice. It could tell approximately 18,000 customers that the sun is too scarce in the Grand Canyon state, or that net-metering is too expensive for the utility company (not for the homeowners). Or the five members of the commission could step outside of their air conditioned offices, look out at the state, and notice that Arizona does, in fact, have enough sunshine to go around.