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September 11, 2014

Utilities Attack Rooftop Solar and the People Fight Back


As many utilities nationwide see people taking clean energy into their own hands by adding solar to their rooftops, some are fighting it tooth and nail. Arizona passed a solar tax last year, and just this week the familiar battle made the news in Virginia -- but a major victory against these attacks came out of Utah late last month.

Thanks to powerful grassroots activism from thousands of Utahns, Rocky Mountain Power's plan to charge rooftop solar owners a monthly fee of $4.65 were rejected by the state Public Service Commission. (Pictured above, a rally this summer against the proposed rooftop solar fee drew hundreds of Utahns.)

After months of widespread opposition to the proposed fee from business, faith, and political leaders, and over 10,000 citizen comments submitted to the PSC against the solar penalty, groups cheered the decision.

"The strength and resiliency of our coalition came from its diversity and inclusiveness," said Mark Clemens, Utah Sierra Club manager. "We're pleased to have played a role in enabling volunteers and community leaders to organize and get their voices heard."

That unified voice was overwhelmingly heard earlier in August, when hundreds of Utahns packed a PSC hearing about the solar tax. The coalition included Utah Clean Energy, the Alliance for Solar Choice, and Utah Citizens Advocating Renewable Energy (UCARE).

"The fossil fuel lobby thought it could count on a relatively conservative and business-friendly state like Utah to be an easy win in the fight to kill renewables," said Clemens. "But Utah's ultimately fair-minded majority rejected the damaging fossil fuel monopoly and indicated their determination to protect clean energy and consumer choice."


The Utah PSC will now open a public docket to consider the costs and benefits of residential rooftop solar.

According to Casey Roberts, an attorney with the Sierra Club's Environmental Law Program:

Rocky Mountain Power's proposed fee was not based on any evidence that rooftop solar customers impose additional costs on the utility's system. Rather, the company argued that because customers with rooftop solar purchase less electricity, they aren't contributing sufficiently to the fixed costs of maintaining the distribution grid.

What the company's sparse analysis fails to take into account, however, are the many benefits that rooftop solar customers offer the grid. The absence of any accounting for these benefits is inexcusable because state law (recently amended by SB 208) requires the Public Service Commission to weigh the costs and benefits of net metering prior to imposing any fee.

Clemens specifically points to the tireless work of two volunteers for this solar tax defeat -- Elise Lazar and Stan Holmes. Elise volunteers with multiple groups, and Stan with the Sierra Club and UCARE.

"Elise Lazar brought the group together and provided a consistent, far-sighted vision of what we needed to do," said Clemens. "Her original perspectives allowed us to surmount obstacles and see alternate solutions. Stan Holmes showed incredible dedication to marshaling the opposition to the solar tax. Among other contributions, he made presentations to community councils across Salt Lake County and ultimately secured resolutions from thirteen community councils that were presented to the PSC."

"I was struck by how clearly the neighborhood councils understand the connection between Utah's filthy air and the utility's fossil fuel operations," said Holmes.  "Their statements to the PSC reflect this.  Utah leaders at the local level are not afraid to speak truth to power.  Our Public Service Commissioners heard the grassroots message.  The Sierra Club and other pro-solar advocacy groups need to facilitate and amplify these community voices.  We'll need their support for the next round of this fight."

Some think Rocky Mountain Power will try to push a solar tax again in the future, but activists like Clemens, Lazar, Holmes, and thousands of others will be there. Utahns know that clean energy like solar power means good jobs and less pollution.

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