Solar Energy Is a Hot Topic
The rooftop solar sector has experienced unprecedented growth over the past decade, for a number of reasons. The cost of installing solar panels atop one’s home or business has plummeted, falling by more than 60% since President Obama took office in November of 2008.
In addition, climate change science is becoming more and more difficult to deny, even for the most entrenched skeptics. A rising tide of environmental concern has certainly helped bolster rooftop solar’s market share.
Solar is also helping to decrease our national dependence on foreign energy sources, and that’s something even the most conservative energy consumer can get behind. Fossil fuel pricing is inherently volatile, and less reliance on foreign oil means a stronger, more independent America.
Public policy has been an additional driver of solar growth. Solar customers in many states have benefited from generous net metering laws that have allowed them to sell their excess energy back to the utilities at retail rates, paying only for the energy they use. And with the Federal Solar Investment Tax Credit footing 30% of the cost of going solar, the cost of installing shiny new photovoltaic panels has been downright reasonable for homeowners and solar lessors, alike.
There’s no doubt about it: rooftop solar is a disruptive technology, and it’s coming up against some very strong opposition from traditional utilities. That’s why it’s been such a contentious issue in statehouses across the country.
During 2015, nearly every state in the union took some sort of action on rooftop solar, and not all of it was encouraging. Still, there have been many bright spots in state energy policy. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights.
The Death of Net Metering in Hawaii and Nevada
Net metering has been one of the biggest points of debate between solar proponents and incumbent utilities. Utilities say compensating solar users for their excess energy at retail rates allows them to unfairly sidestep infrastructure costs, but skeptics point out that distributed generation is actually saving the utilities money in the long run, a position backed by numerous cost studies.
The most recent battle over net metering took a discouraging turn in December, when Nevada’s Public Utility Commission voted to slash net metering rates by more than 75% in the coming years, while simultaneously raising fees for solar users by 67%. The move has prompted solar installers to cease operations in Nevada.
Hawaii’s been called the most advanced solar market in the U.S. More than 12% of utility customers in the state had installed rooftop solar by Q4 2014, and by October of last year, the state’s PUC voted to eliminate the existing net metering program for new customers. They’ll still be able to sell their power back to the utility, but at a lower rate and with higher fixed charges. HECO says the move will help the state of Hawaii reach its (solar) goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045, but some critics aren’t so sure.
Standing Up for Distributed Generation
California, Iowa, and Colorado all voted to keep net metering in place, at least for the time being, with some minor changes.
California has always been at the forefront of energy policy, and its decision to continue compensating solar customers at retail rates was seen as a victory, though the CPUC also voted to allow utilities to levy a one-time interconnection fee and revise their rate structure to include time-of-use rates.
The Iowa Utilities Board seems to be taking a “wait and see” approach to net metering. In December, it requested reports from the state’s two biggest investor-owned utilities, but declined to make any changes to the state’s net metering program in until all the data was in. And as the data generally supports the viability and economic benefits of distributed solar, that’s encouraging news.
States to Watch
These states have been making waves in energy policy circles, but they’re not the only ones to watch over the coming year.
South Carolina and Mississippi both voted to institute net metering policies for the first time last year. Maine will be reevaluating its net metering policies over the next year. Wisconsin’s utilities are pushing for greater fixed charges on solar users, but the debate’s just getting started there. Florida currently prohibits residents from purchasing solar arrays from anyone but the utility, but that could change with two opposing ballots on the market.
Never a Dull Moment
Solar is still a relatively young industry, and its growing pains are far from over. It’s clear that it will be a big part of our collective energy future, and watching it come into its own is part of the fun.
[Image via: Wikimedia Commons]