Make us your home page
Instagram

Power companies clash with small but growing solar industry

For years, power companies have watched warily as solar panels have sprouted on the nation's rooftops. Now, they're fighting hard to slow the spread.

Alarmed by what they say has become an existential threat to their business, utility companies want to roll back government incentives promoting solar energy and other renewable sources of power. At stake, they say, is the future of the electricity industry.

According to the Energy Information Administration, rooftop solar electricity — the economics of which often depend on government incentives and mandates — accounts for less than a quarter of 1 percent of the nation's power generation. And yet, to hear executives tell it, such power sources could ultimately threaten traditional utilities' ability to maintain the nation's grid.

"We did not get in front of this disruption," Clark Gellings, a fellow at the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute, said during a panel discussion at the annual utility convention this summer. "It may be too late."

Advocates of renewable energy, including solar industry executives who stand to get rich from the transformation, say such statements are wildly overblown. For now, they say, the government needs to help make the economics of renewable power work for ordinary Americans. Without incentives, the young industry might wither.

The battle is playing out among energy executives, lawmakers and regulators across the country.

In Arizona, for example, the country's second-largest solar market, the state's largest utility is pressuring the Arizona Corporation Commission, which sets utility rates, to reconsider a generous residential credit and impose new fees on customers, months after the agency eliminated a commercial solar incentive. In North Carolina, Duke Energy is pushing for new charges for solar customers.

Nowhere, though, is the battle more heated than in California, home to the nation's largest solar market and some of the most aggressive subsidies. The outcome has the potential to set the course for solar and other renewable energies for decades.

At the heart of the fight is a credit system called net metering, which pays residential and commercial customers for excess renewable energy they sell back to utilities. Currently, 43 states (including Florida), the District of Columbia and four territories offer a form of the incentive, according to the Energy Department.

Some keep the credit in line with the wholesale prices that utilities pay large power producers, which can be a few cents a kilowatt-hour. But in California, those payments are among the most generous because they are tied to the daytime retail rates customers pay for electricity, which include utility costs for maintaining the grid.

California's three major utilities estimate that by the time the subsidy program fills up under its current limits, they could have to make up almost $1.4 billion a year in revenue lost to solar customers, and shift that burden to roughly 7.6 million nonsolar customers — an extra $185 a year if evenly spread.

Utilities in California have appealed to lawmakers and regulators to reduce the credits and limit the number of people who can participate. It has been an uphill fight.

Power companies clash with small but growing solar industry 08/16/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 16, 2013 4:48pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, New York Times.
    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Federal agencies demand records from SeaWorld theme park

    Tourism

    ORLANDO — Two federal agencies are reportedly demanding financial records from SeaWorld.

    Killer whales Ikaika and Corky participate in behaviors commonly done in the wild during SeaWorld's Killer Whale educational presentation in this photo from Jan. 9. SeaWorld has been subpoenaed by two federal agencies for comments that executives and the company made in August 2014 about the impact from the "Blackfish" documentary. 
[Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS]
  2. Legalized medical marijuana signed into law by Rick Scott

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed into law a broader medical marijuana system for the state, following through on a promise he made earlier this month.

    Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation on Friday that legalizes medical marijuana in Florida.
  3. Line of moms welcome Once Upon A Child to Carrollwood

    Business

    CARROLLWOOD — Strollers of all shapes and sizes are lined up in front of the store, and inside, there are racks of children's clothing in every color of the rainbow.

    At Once Upon A Child, you often as many baby strollers outside as you find baby furniture and accessories. It recently opened this location in Carrollwood. Photo by Danielle Hauser
  4. Pastries N Chaat brings North India cuisine to North Tampa

    Business

    TAMPA — Pastries N Chaat, a new restaurant offering Indian street food, opened this week near the University of South Florida.

    The menu at Pastries N Chaat includes a large variety of Biriyani, an entree owners say is beloved by millions. Photo courtesy of Pastries N Chaat.
  5. 'Garbage juice' seen as threat to drinking water in Florida Panhandle county

    Water

    To Waste Management, the nation's largest handler of garbage, the liquid that winds up at the bottom of a landfill is called "leachate," and it can safely be disposed of in a well that's 4,200 feet deep.

    Three samples that were displayed by Jackson County NAACP President Ronstance Pittman at a public meeting on Waste Management's deep well injection proposal. The sample on the left is full of leachate from the Jackson County landfill, the stuff that would be injected into the well. The sample on the right shows leachate after it's been treated at a wastewater treatment plant. The one in the middle is tap water.