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Solar Rates Debate Begins In Earnest

Rocky Mountain Power and rooftop solar advocates have been negotiating for months, but they still can’t agree on how to compensate solar customers for excess energy they send to the grid. So, next week the Utah Public Service Commission begins hearings on the question.

Solar companies and their customers fear higher costs will slow the booming industry and community benefits, like cleaner air. Among them are the Searles, who scraped up the money last year to put 14 solar panels on their modest home in Rose Park.

Erin Searles says a rate hike now would undercut their investment.

“It’s kind of a punch in the gut, honestly,” she says. “You know, we did this for the right reasons. It’s, it’s completely unfair.”

Sarah Wright is executive director of Utah Clean Energy, a nonprofit fighting Rocky Mountain Power’s rate proposal. The company contends that it’s ordinary ratepayers who are subsidizing solar customers, but she says higher costs would make solar unaffordable for anyone but the wealthiest Utahns. Wright says it’s up to the three P-S-C commissioners to decide what’s fair.

“And, depending on that outcome,” she says, “we’ll either see solar continue to grow in Utah or we’ll see a dramatic reduction.”

Jon Cox, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, says compromise is still possible.

“The important thing is that we’re all still at the table,” he says. “And as long as you are all still at the table, you can still find a solution. And that’s what we’re hoping to do.”

The PSC is reviewing thousands of pages of documents in making its decision. It will also consider public comments and input from the solar industry, the power company and advocates.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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