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You might be paying for your utility company to fight against solar

Avatar for Ben Zientara
Published on 08/01/2017 in
Updated 03/04/2019
Utility wires with a $100 bill behind them

You may have heard the phrase “utilities are waging war against rooftop solar,” and it’s true. In statehouses and the halls of the U.S. Congress, utility company lobbyists from groups like the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) have been putting pressure on lawmakers to re-write the rules that govern how much solar owners get paid for the extra electricity their panels make.

Currently, most states have some form of net metering rules, which ensure solar owners are credited for the full retail cost of every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by their panels, whether they use it or not. Here’s our current ranking of states by their net metering policies:

State by state grades for net metering in 2017

Net Metering is one of 11 categories in our annual state solar power grades

Why they’re fighting

Utility companies can see the writing on the wall. In the not-too-distant future, microgrids of local generators and customers will enable whole neighborhoods and cities to eliminate the need for huge transmission lines and giant power plants. The future will be built on “distributed” generation, backed up by battery storage, with large-scale solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear installations where they make sense.

But rather than embrace the coming paradigm, utility companies are bowing and scraping their way to maximum profits now, by influencing state lawmakers and public utilities commissioners. High profile battles against net metering have been won in Indiana and Arizona, while lawmakers in Maine continue to fight their own Governor as he vetoes any attempt to create a fair deal for homeowners.

How you’re paying for it

Utility companies pay annual dues to trade organizations that advocate for what’s best for their members. These activities often include direct lobbying, but can also take the form of advertising, public outreach, and, oh yeah, helping to write model anti-solar legislation.

The most well known of the utility industry groups is the aforementioned Edison Electric Institute (EEI), of which nearly all investor-owned utilities in the country are members. And those utilities pay their dues for EEI membership partly through charges on their customers’ electric bills.

A recent study by the Energy And Policy Institute (EPI) reveals serious problems and concerns about how utility companies often pass on EEI dues to ratepayers on their electricity bills, even over the objection of state Public Utilities Commissions (PUCs).

Is your utility charging you to fight against solar?

It’s hard to tell exactly where the money comes from for utility company EEI dues. That’s largely because the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), the organization responsible for overseeing how EEI spent ratepayer money, hasn’t fulfilled that role for over a decade.

These days, we largely rely on the EEI itself to tell us how much of its activities could be categorized as “lobbying.” The EPI report discusses the invoices the EEI send to its members, on which it lists percentages of dues used to pay for various activities. But without NARUC oversight, those numbers aren’t being vetted by anyone, unless the PUCs step up to the plate.

The study gives several examples of states, including Missouri, Arkansas, Minnesota and others, in which PUC commissioners recommend that no EEI dues should be recovered through additions to their customers’ bills, because the utilities haven’t shown that the work of the EEI has any benefit to ratepayers.

How much is this costing you?

Information within the EPI report shows that the amount charged to customers is often on the order of $50,000 to $500,000, depending on the size of the utility. That might be only a few cents per ratepayer per year, but that’s not the point. The point is, customers are being made to pay for the activities of a group that actively fights against their best interests.

On top of that, one of the utility industry’s biggest talking points against rooftop solar is that solar owners don’t pay their own fair share, instead passing on extra costs to everyone without solar on their roof. But those “extra costs,” if they even exist, amount to pennies per year.

For which would you rather pay those pennies: your neighbor having solar panels on their roof, or the group lobbying against allowing those panels?

This is the industry that’s known climate change was a problem for nearly 5 decades and done very little to change its ways. Where one company is under FBI investigation for its anti-solar activities. An industry that willfully charges it customers (who until recently had no other choices) for activities that ensure future customer dependence and stifle innovation.

Do you really expect them to do the right thing here, without some strong oversight?

Last modified: March 4, 2019

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Marc Rhodes

You list Georgia as “Retail price with restrictions.” If you can tell me how to get anything close to retail price from Georgia Power please let me on on the secret. They have never offered me anything but a tiny fraction of the retail price.

Gregor Smith
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Gregor Smith

OKLAHOMA needs your help! It has been under examined for fraud in reference to paying for fees not used for their intended function. Instead, OG&E in particular is misusing solar collected fees.

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