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Provo residents with rooftop solar arrays are taking a free ride on city services, say council members who approved a monthly solar surcharge this week. But advocates of alternative energy see the fee as an extreme anti-solar move one that could also prompt at least one solar company to pull its sales force from the very county in which it is headquartered.
The Provo City Council voted 4-3 on Tuesday to approve the Solar Generation Capacity Charge, which requires Provo City Power customers with rooftop solar arrays to pay a monthly charge of $3 per kilowatt of solar capacity, beginning Jan. 1.
Assuming an average installation size of six to seven kilowatts, solar customers would see monthly costs of $18 to $21 as much as $252 per year. Solar customers who filed a net-metering application with Provo City before Oct. 4, 2016, would not be charged for their first two kilowatt hours of generation capacity.
Erica Dahl, director of public policy and government affairs for Vivint Solar headquartered in Lehi, 19 miles north of Provo called the council's decision "one of the most drastic anti-solar" measures she has seen pass.
Vivint was just about to roll out a sales initiative aimed at Utah County residents, Dahl said. The company has previously been focused on Rocky Mountain Power's service area.
"As a result of the decision, we are not going to sell in Provo," she said. "We are going to redeploy our sales force to more solar-friendly communities."
Adding $200 a year in charges to the operation of a solar array makes residential solar economically infeasible, she said.
But without the charges, Dave Knecht, a member of the Provo City Council who voted in favor of the ordinance, says rooftop solar customers are getting a free ride.
It's not just that solar customers who are generally still connected to the electrical grid aren't paying for their fair share of grid maintenance, Knecht said. Provo City Power also generates some $10 million in revenue that's put into the city's general fund to help pay for services such as police, fire and parks.
"When you've put up enough panels that you don't buy any power," he said, "you don't contribute to the general fund for services."
Knecht, who said he bought a couple solar panels a few years ago but never had the time to install them, said that if he were to eliminate his power bill, he would have to increase his own property taxes by roughly $200 per year to make a fair contribution to the general fund.
He said he also felt Provo City needed to do something to signal to residents that solar power is not free.
"This is not necessarily the best solution, I admit that," he said, "but we felt we needed to do something in a timely manner before people jumped into contracts naively thinking that they would not have to contribute."
Ryan Evans, president of the Utah Solar Energy Association, said he believed it would have been possible for the city and the solar industry to arrive at a compromise if the city had been willing to spend more time with the discussion.
"I have no doubt that if Provo City is willing to look at it and work on it, that we can come to a better decision than what was done Tuesday night," he said.
Evans said solar advocates had participated in various working groups where the City Council discussed creating some form of solar charge, but were focused on educating the council on the potential benefits of solar and had not presented their alternatives to the monthly generation capacity charge.
And there was no reason for the council to rush to a decision, Evans said Provo residents have adopted rooftop solar at a slower rate than the rest of the state. Only about 170 of Provo's 37,000 electric customers have rooftop solar arrays.
City Council Chairwoman Kim Santiago, who voted against the charge, said she too felt more time should have been dedicated to looking at alternatives to the charge.
"I don't feel like all the questions had been answered," she said. "I didn't feel settled. I had a lot of questions myself."
But the vote will stand, she said, unless one or more of the four members who voted to pass the ordinance Knecht, Gary Winterton, Kay Ban Buren and George Stewart choose to change their votes.