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A bill that could step up fees on some electrical customers passed out of a Senate committee Monday, but not without a parade of critics deriding the measure as a penalty on those who use solar power.

SB208 is needed to ensure that utility customers who "net meter," or get credit for the current their solar panels return to the electrical grid, pay their share of maintaining this complex distribution system, sponsor Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, told the Senate Business and Labor Committee.

The Senate bill would require the Public Service Commission (PSC) to impose a "reasonable fee" should it determine that Rocky Mountain Power or other utilities are incurring costs associated with such interconnections.

"It's not a tax on solar. It's not a disincentive," Bramble said. "It's saying that anyone connected to the grid should bear some portion of the cost."

But policies are already in place enabling utilities to recover the costs associated with solar, according to the measure's many critics who addressed the committee. This issue is the subject of a contentious rate case before the PSC.

Critics fear that mandating fees will discourage growth in solar, which carries many benefits by reducing reliance on fossil fuels and emissions associated with conventional power generation.

"Increased [use of photovoltaics] would increase our shared air quality benefit. Solar PV is one of the many tools we need to clean our air," said Erin Mendenhall, a Salt Lake City council member speaking in her role as Breathe Utah executive director.

The bill does not require the PSC to consider these public benefits, but rather only the costs to the utilities, said Vicki Bennett, Salt Lake City's sustainability director.

"As long as Rocky Mountain Power is using everyone's atmosphere as a waste dump without paying for it, the prices are not right," added University of Utah economics professor Hans Ehrbar, a specialist in energy policy.

Critics said the state should be taking steps to reduce Utah's over-reliance on coal and the sun's rays offer answers.

"Solar is an untapped resource in Utah," said Kim Sanders of the Alliance for Solar Choice. "Utah ranks seventh in the nation for solar resource, yet 30th and 31st in solar jobs and solar homes."

Only about 2,000 of the state's 800,000 power users are net-metered and the state should be encouraging more conversions, critics said.

All RMP customers pay a monthly surcharge of $5 for fixed costs but it's not nearly enough to cover the $25 the utility spends per customer, and it makes up the different on usage, company officials said. But customers drawing less than 700 kilowatt hours get subsidized use of the grid.

The bill's supporters said it could actually promote more rooftop solar by getting the cost assignment straightened out now, while net metering is still in its infancy.

"We want to get it right so people get a clear signal of costs of putting in a system," said Jeff Larsen, RMP's vice president for government affairs, "so we don't get down the road and as more people get involved...we have to change the game on them."