Solar Under Siege | Alert: Three Arizona Electric Utilities Trying to Stop Solar Energy Rooftop Installations

UNS Electric, Inc., is the first of three utilities in Arizona to file a rate case to kill off the booming residential and business solar industry.  The utilities, UNS, Tucson Electric Power and Arizona Public Service, are undertaking a coordinated effort to increase rates, increase basic fees and wipe out family-owned solar energy rooftop installations. They hope to achieve this by implementing a new rate structure for consumers that includes three nasty components. These tactics are particularly detrimental to families and businesses in Arizona.  UNS is the first to propose it, but if the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) approves UNS’s proposal, the other two utilities are sure to follow.  The ACC is the regulatory commission for Arizona energy utilities.

First, UNS Electric wants to virtually eliminate a long-standing Arizona policy to put solar on parity with other energy options. This policy, called “net metering,” has been adopted by almost all states in the U.S.  Now UNS wants to reverse it in Arizona. Currently under this policy, your electric utility pays you the same rate for the excess solar electricity that you produce as you pay to buy energy from the grid when you need it. In other words, under the current system, if you have solar panels, the utility buys and sells energy from and to you at the same retail rate. UNS Electric wants to cut what they pay you in half. And then they would turnaround and sell the power that they buy from you to your neighbors for twice the price.
    Second, UNS  wants to increase the basic fee from $10 to $15 per month. This is bad in so many ways. It means a much bigger (50% bigger) portion of your bill would be beyond your control. When you reduce energy consumption, a move better for your pocketbook and for the planet, the fee would not go down. When you put solar on your house, which is better for your pocketbook and better for the planet, your fee would not go down. It is a disincentive to using your energy more wisely. And, because UNS gets the vast majority of their energy from coal and gas, it is a penalty to families that do the right thing by reducing their coal and gas-produced energy.
    
Finally, UNS wants to implement a demand charge for residential customers—something that no other major Arizona utility has imposed on residential users and is typically only used for commercial customers who are better able to control and track their usage. The “demand charge” would be a rate (cost per kilowatt-hour) calculation that would be assessed by UNS, and without notice to the customer, based on each customer’s highest energy peak usage over the worst 15 minute period in each month. So if your overall usage for a given month is lower than usual, if during that same month someone ran a number of appliances while the A/C was on over a 15 minute period, the cost per kilowatt-hour for the entire month would go up based on those brief 15 minutes. This would happen even if your peak was of no consequence to UNS.
    Not only have TEP and APS intervened in the UNS rate case on the side of UNS, all three companies have recently put forth the supposition that rooftop solar energy installed by one family is the cause of increased costs to other families. UNS and the other two utilities have been throwing out this concept, without referring to the other alternatives. Statements of costs of solar rooftop without comparing it to the other options are meaningless in the bigger picture. Energy costs for most other UNS options are much more expensive to these families without the participation of rooftop solar.
    If for example, UNS purchases solar energy at a large centralized solar facility, the cost per kilowatt-hour is currently about 6¢ for production, and going down each year, plus 6¢ for transmission and distribution, totaling 12¢/kilowatt-hour. This is after taking out about 2¢ from subsidies. New gas plants are about 13¢/ kilowatt-hour, with a likelihood of increasing fuel costs. This gas plant price is also is after subsidies are subtracted. New coal plants are about the same cost per kilowatt-hour.
    When UNS buys solar, or for that matter, gas or coal, the cost of construction is entirely passed on to the ratepayers, which includes families with and without solar. With utility solar, all ratepayers pay all the utility-solar-plant land acquisition costs, the environmental permit costs, the siting costs, equipment maintenance costs, increased transmission and distribution (T&D) costs, grounds cost, insurance, switch yard costs and more.  
    
    When a family or business decides to go rooftop solar, there are also system costs. However, instead of passing on these costs to other families, that solar family pays all the construction cost, all the interest costs, all of the other costs except a small portion of the normal transmission and distribution cost. The non-solar family would only pay a small added transmission and distribution cost. But this cost is very small compared to centralized plant T&D costs. The rooftop solar energy does not have to be transported on long-distance high voltage transmission lines. Rooftop solar largely uses existing lines. Under the UNS proposal, rooftop solar gets sold locally by UNS at a virtually 100% profit over a time span that is in an instant, not even the normal measurement of a year for return – that is price-gouging.
    In sum, the non-solar family pays much less for system expansion when the neighbor next door expands the system by 5 kilowatts, for example, compared to when the utility expands the system by that same 5 kilowatt of capacity.  Thus, the message that the Arizona utilities are crafting, that rooftop solar is costly, is false.  The much higher costs are with the other options of utility power plant construction and acquisition.  Moreover, solar energy offers substantial environmental benefits.  However, even without addressing these important advantages, solar rooftop costs less to all families, families with and without rooftop solar energy, than the alternative utility power plant expansion.
    I am hoping that many many ratepayers will submit comments to the ACC on this rate case. Please look over the action section below and at the URL in this section.

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TAKE ACTION to keep the solar rooftop option thriving in Arizona! Send your comments to the ACC to the Sierra Club Chapter Director, Sandy Bahr (sandy.bahr@sierraclub.org), as she has offered to get the 13 copies of our testimonies to the Arizona Corporation Commission, so that they will be a permanent part of the “docket,” or rate hearing case. Put at the top of your comments:
Regarding: UNS Electric Rate Case Docket # E-04204A-15-0142
You might address it with something like: “Dear Chairman Little and Members of the Arizona Corporation Commission:”
You can also find out more and comment at the Sierra Club’s http://tinyurl.com/UNSratecase

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