Utilities push back growth of rooftop solar panels

One of the biggest thrills Lynn Krell and her husband felt after installing solar panels on the roof of their Hattiesburg, Mississippi home was watching their electric meter roll back as their utility credited them. the excess electricity they sold back to the grid.

These credits also showed up on their electric bill, helping to lower their average monthly payments by $11 – on top of the roughly $250 they saved during the summer months by using solar power themselves.

But eventually, the Krells began to question the value of the credits. The Krells learned that Mississippi regulations allow utility companies to purchase rooftop-generated solar power at a small fraction of the retail rate they charge to return that power to customers’ homes. The Krells spoke with rooftop solar owners in other states where more generous offset rules have allowed them to offset all of their electric bills.

It was unfair.

“I’m royally ticked off,” said Krell, 63.

Mississippi, which gets lots of sun, was one of the last states to provide grants to people who install solar panels on their roofs in 2015, and those grants remain among the smallest in the country. Thirty-seven states reimburse the full retail rate, but Mississippi offers significantly less. According to experts, this is one of the reasons why rooftop solar power has not caught on there. Only 586 households in Mississippi have the technology.

How to solve this problem is the subject of a fight before the Mississippi Public Service Commission, which is considering rules that would expand subsidies for rooftop solar energy. The battle is one of many across the country that could determine the future of home solar panels, which supporters say are crucial to weaning the energy system from energy sources that emit carbon dioxide, a cause major cause of global warming.

Rooftop solar power has “enormous potential” to reduce air pollution, create jobs, protect against outages and reduce utility bills, said Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. The technology will be vital for the United States to transition to fully renewable energy by 2050, he said.

“It’s such a simple fruit, such an easy thing to do, to put signs on people’s roofs,” Jacobson said. “We’re really shooting ourselves in the foot by not doing it.”

The question is who pays.

Lynn Krell at her home in Hattiesburg. Bryan Tarnowski for NBC News

Almost all states offers a kind of credit to the owners of rooftop solar panels who send excess electricity to the grid. But as solar power has become cheaper and more widespread, utilities in some states have pushed to cap payments, said Autumn Proudlove, senior policy program director at North Carolina State University’s NC Clean Energy Technology Center.

In Florida, the state’s largest utility persuaded lawmakers to vote to dump solar credits on rooftops across the state, a move Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, vetoed Last week, saying it would harm consumers. In California, state regulators, at the request of utilities, are considering removing rooftop solar incentives. In North Carolina, utility-backed proposals to change the state’s relatively generous rooftop solar subsidies divided environmentalistsopponents claiming the plan puts customers and solar installers at financial risk.

In Mississippi, the dispute pits environmentalists and solar companies against the state’s largest utilities, Mississippi Power and Entergy Mississippi, regional monopolies whose business models depend on building power plants and transmission lines that supply electricity to homes. Most of that energy is created by burning fossil fuels, but utilities are also expanding their own solar offerings. They have resisted competition from rooftop panels, in part by asking regulators to limit financial incentives for customers to install them, saying they are unfair to low-income customers.

“Utilities are kicking and screaming, crying foul, saying this is horrible,” said Louie Miller, the Sierra Club’s Mississippi manager. “They have a protected market. They’re a monopoly, for god’s sake. But there are people who want clean energy and the right to produce themselves.

Representatives from Mississippi Power and Entergy Mississippi declined requests for interviews. In recent filings with the Mississippi Public Service Commission, the companies argued that softening solar subsidies would result in higher costs for customers who cannot afford solar panels.

“Rooftop solar is uneconomical for the majority of customers, and any efforts by the Board to artificially enhance those savings will be financially supported by non-participating customers,” Mississippi Power said in a February filing.

This question remains unresolved. Some studies have supported the utility argument, while others have not. One, by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2017, found that the effect of rooftop solar on electricity prices “is likely to remain negligible for the foreseeable future.” but that costs could rise in states where rooftop solar adoption rates are “exceptionally high.”

Despite the efforts of solar installers and environmentalists, refund rates for rooftop panel owners seem unlikely to increase in Mississippi. But utilities may have to offer other incentives.

In January, the Mississippi Public Service Commission proposed new rules that would add $3,000 cash rebates to low- and middle-income customers who install rooftop solar systems. Mississippi Power opposed the rebates in a February filing with the commission; Entergy Mississippi, which did not object to the rebates, said its acceptance depended on what the final rules said. The commission is expected to vote on the change in the coming weeks.

About Cassondra Durden

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