Is Utah smothering rooftop solar? Robert Gehrke argues there are benefits beyond electrical power.

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The Utah Supreme Court will decide if rooftop solar reimbursement should include factors like mitigating the impacts of climate change and a diversified supply of electricity.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

About once a week, it seems, there’s that knock on the door. My dogs lose their minds and then there’s someone in a golf shirt standing on my porch, offering either to kill any bugs I have creeping around my house or, more often, trying to get me to install solar panels on my roof.

There is appeal to the concept of rooftop solar — good for the environment, becoming less reliant on the grid, helping the home value and maybe getting a break on the electricity bills.

But over the last several years, taking the plunge has lost some of its allure thanks to a string of decisions by the state Public Service Commission that has slashed how much homeowners can benefit from the excess electricity they generate and put back onto the grid.

Until 2017, Utah had a system in place known as “net metering,” giving homeowners a credit for every kilowatt hour they put onto the grid.

That year, stakeholders like Rocky Mountain Power and others agreed to replace the watt-for-watt credit with a set rate of 9.2 cents per kilowatt hour for those who installed panels after that date. Then in 2020, the PSC set a new rate, right around 5 cents per kilowatt hour, which is adjusted each year. After the last adjustment, it slipped just under 5 cents in winter months.

You can probably guess the impact the rate cuts have had on homeowners willing to make the big investment to install rooftop panels.

“We’ve already seen a significant decline in the number of people who are going solar every year since there have been changes to lower the rate,” said Kate Bowman, interior West regulatory director for the advocacy group Vote Solar. “If you’re not getting fair value for the energy you’re exporting to the grid, it takes a lot longer to pay for that up-front investment.”

Moreover, adjusting the rate every year adds volatility and makes it harder for customers to anticipate how much benefit they will reap from their panels, Newton said.

According to data from Rocky Mountain Power, the number of customers installing new solar panels peaked at more than 10,000 homes a year in 2016 and 2017 before tumbling in 2018 and 2019. Last year, there were fewer than 8,000 new customers.

This week, Vote Solar went before the Utah Supreme Court to ask the justices to direct the PSC to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new rate. They argue that the commission only looked at the raw price of the electricity generated and did not take into account other benefits of rooftop solar — things like mitigating the impacts of climate change, reduced demand on the electrical grid and a diversified supply of electricity.

Taking all of those into account, Vote Solar contends, the rate should be closer to 22.5 cents per kilowatt hour. Maine has set one of the nation’s highest rates at more than 33 cents per kilowatt hour. Back in 2020, when the issue was before the PSC, Rocky Mountain Power argued for a rate of just 1.5 cents.

The justices aren’t confronted with having to decide the rate, only with deciding if those other factors should have been considered when setting the rate. And after a dense hearing that lasted more than 90 minutes, I don’t have a clue how they are going to rule.

But I do know this: Whether it’s rooftop solar or clawing coal out of the ground, we need to start taking a broader view of the true costs of electricity, and that includes climate impact.

While rooftop solar is not some magical panacea — ultimately it will take large-scale solar farms to make a meaningful dent in our demand — it can be a small, yet significant piece of our energy puzzle, provided we don’t smother it by undervaluing it.

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