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State looks at surcharge for solar homeowners

PHOENIX – The average homeowner installing solar would pay $7 a month to use the electric grid under a recommendation by the state’s advocate for residential utility ratepayers.

Under the proposal from the Residential Utility Consumer Office (RUCO), that amount could eventually reach about $20 a month.

On Nov. 13, the Arizona Corporation Commission is scheduled to begin considering changes to net metering, in which power generated by solar systems is fed into the grid, offsetting a ratepayer’s bill.

APS, the focus of the hearings, is seeking a larger monthly amount from ratepayers adding solar.

At present, solar users don’t pay for access to the grid. Solar advocates contend that the benefits of solar systems offset the cost to utilities of establishing and maintaining the electric grid.

One APS proposal before the commission would add a monthly charge between $50 and $100.

RUCO’s recommendation, released Wednesday, would have homeowners adding solar after the effective date pay $1 per kilowatt of system capacity. It calls for incremental increases that could reach $3 per kilowatt of system capacity.

Patrick Quinn, RUCO’s director, said solar users still create costs for utilities.

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“For instance, they have to be hooked up to the grid,” he said. “They oughta pay the cost of being hooked up to the grid.”

Mark Holohan, president of the board of the Arizona Solar Industries Association and solar division manager for Tempe-based Wilson Electric, said RUCO’s recommendation, though lower than that of APS, is still excessive.

“As an industry we are still disappointed that they feel some additional costs or taxes be put on solar system customers,” he said.

Solar’s overall benefits, such as benefiting the environment and reducing the need to build more power plants, exceed the costs utility companies pay for the grid, Holohan said.

Jenna Shaver, a spokeswoman for APS, emailed a statement saying that the utility hasn’t had the chance to fully review RUCO’s recommendation and develop an opinion, though it supports recommendations that help solve the issue of net metering now.

Quinn said RUCO’s calculations found that the cost of adding solar users to the grid has added about $20 to the bill of a ratepayer without solar.

The proposal would grandfather current solar users for 20 years, and new solar users will be locked into their initial rates for 20 years, according to a RUCO news release.

Corporation Commissioner Susan Bitter Smith said while she hasn’t made a decision on net metering RUCO’s recommendation has the right goals.

“They’re very focused – obviously I think correctly – on making sure all ratepayers are considered in this discussion and that whatever we do does not create survival issues for the solar industry in Arizona.”

RUCO’s recommendation came on the same day that Corporation Commissioner Bob Burns filed an inquiry into finances of parties waging a public relations and lobbying campaign on net metering, including APS and solar companies and solar industry groups.

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Burns asked both sides how much they spent on the net metering debate and how many hours employees have worked on the issue. The filing also asks utility companies if they plan to recover money spent on the campaign in future rate cases.

Shaver said APS is reviewing Burns’ request.

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Arizona solar numbers

• 316: Number of solar companies.

• 9,800: Number of solar employees.

• 719: Megawatts of solar electric capacity installed in 2012.

• 1,250: Total megawatts of solar energy installed.

• $590 million: Money spent installing solar in homes and businesses in 2012.

Source: Solar Energy Industries Association