Studied To Death — Solar Customers Don’t Harm Non-Solar Ratepayers

Certain anti-solar forces are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to convince everyone (though the popular press and consumers are the main targets) that solar customers are stealing money from non-solar customers.

The argument is spurious at best, disingenuous at worst and absolutely 100 percent false. But despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, public-utilities commissions and governmental entities insist on studying the subject to death.

In a nutshell, here’s the argument the utilities want to prove: Solar customers, by consuming their own energy, are avoiding paying for upkeep on the grid, which (in this argument) means those costs shift to non-solar ratepayers.

Frankly, it’s a compelling sell. If I didn’t know better, I’d probably resent solar customers, too. After all, why should solar customers get the grid for “free” while I’m paying for its upkeep?

Now that they’ve got your dander up, the utilities go in for the kill: This freeloading scenario demands that they charge solar customers special charges (monthly fixed charges, solar tariffs, etc.) so equity for all ratepayers can be maintained. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to show their claims are true.

In fact, 16 states have commissioned cost-benefit analyses on whether having solar consumers on the grid negatively affects non-solar customers (the list misses the studies in South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana). Only one study has given even the hint that ratepayers are harmed (Louisiana), and that study was done by a firm so closely tied to the fossil-fuels industry as to be easily discounted.

And yet some states refuse to believe the evidence of their own studies. In recent years, Nevada commissioned two studies that showed solar is a benefit to all consumers. Earlier this year, they commissioned a third study in the hopes that it would show something different.

We’ve seen the same pattern in other states where the fossil-fuel interests are so entrenched that they can fight tooth-and-nail to keep their monopoly power on electrical distribution. Let’s take Maine for an example.

According to the independent consulting firm Crossborder Energy, having solar on the grid in Maine cuts electricity prices for everyone by reducing peak demand on the grid and its associated power plants. The 20 MW currently installed in Maine will save all electricity customers an aggregated $45 million in direct payments alone, not to mention the $17 million in savings thanks to other solar attributes and the estimated $58 million savings from reducing pollution in the state. If the state legislature had passed a clean energy bill that would have increased the state’s solar capacity to 250 MW, the savings balloon to $775 million.

But Maine Gov. Paul LePage insists solar customers want a “reverse Robin Hood” deal, taking money from the poor and giving it to “rich” solar owners, despite all the evidence to the contrary (two studies—one in 2014 by the state’s environmental office and the 2016 one referenced above—prove otherwise). So the battle in Maine continues while a once burgeoning solar market goes dormant.

Here’s a reality the utilities don’t want to face: No matter how many times they attempt to force different outcomes by demanding more studies, the studies consistently show having solar on the grid is a net benefit to everyone. In other words, their arguments are consistently shown to be false.