There’s a Fight Brewing Over Who Profits From Solar Power

Mother Jones

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In the ongoing wars over solar energy, one power company is consistently painted as the archetypal, mustache-twirling nemesis of clean electricity: Arizona Public Service. So you might be surprised to learn that this same company is about to become a big new producer of rooftop solar power.

APS is an unlikely solar patron: In the summer of 2013, the Phoenix-area utility launched a campaign to weaken Arizona’s net metering rule, which requires utilities to buy the extra solar power their customers generate and provides a major incentive for homeowners to install rooftop panels. A few months later, APS admitted giving cash to two nonprofits that ran an anti-solar ad blitz in the state. Early this year, the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that a letter criticizing the solar industry’s business practices, sent by members of Congress to federal regulators, was originally authored by an employee of APS. And a couple weeks ago, APS asked state regulators to let the company quadruple the fees it tacks on to the monthly bills of solar-equipped homeowners.

It makes sense that the company would be worried about solar’s epic takeoff. In many ways, the solar boom poses an unprecedented threat to big electric utilities, which have done business for a century with essentially zero competition. In the first quarter of this year, applications for solar permits in APS’s service area were 112 percent higher than the same period last year, and every one of those is one less customer for APS’s regular power supply, 40 percent of which comes from coal. Now the company thinks it has found a solution to the problem: It wants to start owning its own rooftop solar.

In December, the Arizona Corporation Commission gave a green light to APS to plunk down $28.5 million on 10 megawatts of solar panels, enough to cover about 2,000 of its customers’ roofs. (Tucson Electric Power, another utility in the state, was also approved for a smaller but similar plan.) The idea is that APS will target specific rooftops it wants to make use of—in areas where the grid needs more support, for example, or west-facing roofs, which produce the most power in the late afternoon, when demand is the highest. APS would offer homeowners a $30 credit on their monthly bill, according to Jeff Guldner, an APS vice president for public policy.

The credit essentially serves as rent for the roof, where an APS-contracted local installer will set up a solar array. APS owns the panels, can use the power however it wants, and gets to improve its clean energy portfolio without losing customers to third-party solar companies. Meanwhile, the homeowner gets a lower bill.

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There’s a Fight Brewing Over Who Profits From Solar Power

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