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The Utah Senate approved legislation Friday, making significant changes to the way electricity rates are calculated a move that opponents contend will devastate Utah's rooftop solar industry and mean major increases in electricity bills.
Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said his intent was to have the Legislature set policy that would benefit Utahns and use money more effectively to clean up the air.
"We need to be able to move to solutions that are environmentally friendly," Adams said. "If we're going to spend those moneys, we ought to be doing it to protect the air quality we need."
But opponents argue the effect is that the bill could raise rates for consumers, decrease what solar users can recoup from commercial and residential solar panels, and let Rocky Mountain Power avoid having to go to the Public Service Commission to increase rates.
Adams' SB115, third substitute, does the following:
• Allows Rocky Mountain Power to use $10 million from customers for the utility's "Sustainable Transportation and Energy Plan," to fund charging stations for electric cars, research on clean-coal technology and alternative energy programs
• Eliminates a solar-power incentive program for residential and large-scale solar users
• Allows the utility to recoup 100 percent of the cost of buying power, as opposed to the current 70 percent level
Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, called SB115 an attempt to "judge shop," because Rocky Mountain Power recognizes it can't get the rate increases it wants through the normal path of the Public Service Commission.
"This is a powerful utility saying, 'You know what, we don't think we're going to like what's coming down the track [with the PSC] … we want to short-circuit it because we want a different result,' " Dabakis said.
Adams said he thinks the bill will actually keep energy prices down because Rocky Mountain Power won't have to pay retail rates to buy solar power produced by rooftop arrays and can instead buy cheaper watts from other sources, and the money saved can go to other clean energy.
"We're stopping that so rates should actually go down, and we're redirecting that money … into clean fuel vehicles, at least part of it," Adams said.
Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, said there is a disparity now where most of the subsidies go toward renewable energy that provides minimal benefit, while the coal industry a major business in his central Utah district struggles.
"Think about the jobs that [have] been lost in the coal business as well," Hinkins said. "The poor people, the ones who can afford it, don't need tax credits they have no benefits. … The only ones that can afford [solar] are the businesses and rich people."
South Jordan resident Michael Acton invested $22,000 to put solar panels on his roof, in part because the ability to sell electricity back to Rocky Mountain Power allowed him to recoup part of the cost on his utility bills. Acton fears the bill will change how much he and others will be credited for any excess power they produce, leaving it up to the utility to decide how much they'll be paid.
"It made financial sense to me. The other reason is I wanted to be more self-sufficient," he said. "It's going to affect my investment. It's going to affect all these solar companies out there. There are going to be hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs lost."
Tom Mills, who works for Alpenglow Solar, a Utah solar company, said a similar bill in Nevada has been devastating for the solar industry, and he fears Rocky Mountain Power will hike fees so high that "it won't be cost effective and basically nobody can put in solar" until battery technology evolves.
"You'll see the solar industry dry up here just like it did in Nevada," said Mills. "Overall, what they're doing is they're circumventing the Utah Public Service Commission. Every item that is in that bill would normally be brought to the Public Service Commission for review," Mills said.
Adams said those concerns were really based on "hearsay" and not based on the reality in the bill.
"The only effect on the solar industry that I know of is there's a lottery that's held [to receive a subsidy] that affects a very, very small number of users," Adams said.