Texas Climate News, July 2, 2013
The non-profit Institute for Local Self-Reliance says its mission “is to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development.” The organization has offices in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. Journalist Greg Harman of San Antonio talked with John Farrell, director of the institute’s Energy Self-Reliant States and Communities program, about rooftop solar power and related subjects.
Q: San Antonio’s publicly-owned utility, CPS Energy, recently argued in favor of ending net metering on the grounds that upper-income solar owners were saddling low-income residents with an unfair share of maintaining the power grid. It’s not a new argument for a utility to make against rooftop solar. How do you respond?
A: Most of the studies I’ve seen that are carried out by independent third parties about net metering programs have shown that there is a net benefit to the utility in terms of offsetting other investments they would need to make to meet peak demand or lowering infrastructure investment costs by producing electricity close to load, so I’m immediately always a skeptic when a utility says [rooftop solar] will cost them something.
I’m a little more willing to listen in the case of a public utility than a private one, because investor-owned utilities are making that argument out of disinterest in losing market share. They make their money by capital investments, so solar doesn’t add up for them. But I would still want to see a rigorous third-party analysis before I would immediately make the assumption that simply because solar is done by some people instead of other people that someone is winning and someone is losing. There are public benefits above and beyond private benefit.
The second thing that is really important – and I think has to be at the core of whatever policy a utility adopts around solar – is how you encourage participation and give everybody an opportunity to share in those benefits directly. What are the policies for community-based solar? Colorado has their Solar Gardens law that requires that there has to be some measure of participation from low-income participants. I think that’s a really great example of quality policy.
Q: When I think about environmental justice and economic issues, I’m reminded the percent of a low-income homeowner’s utility bill is going to be a bigger share of their expenses. And then there are energy security concerns like we saw in Sandy in the Northeast where people’s power was knocked out for weeks on end. Where else are such considerations having an impact on policy?
A: I don’t know there have been other policies from the economic or environmental justice approach, but it was a big focus behind a [Minnesota] solar-energy standard that’s pending signature by the governor. He’s promised he’ll sign it [and did so after this conversation], and we were successful in getting a community solar program similar to Colorado’s. Actually, it’s better because it’s not capped. We have been facing in Minnesota 10 years of an average of 4-percent retail electricity rate increases [per year], and solar is one of the ways that folks can get off this never-ending ramp-up. To me, things like solar Mosaic and crowd-funding is a great example of how we can finance it.
Community solar is great because you can buy in very small chucks, you can buy 200 watts. I think the California law is good with multi-family dwellings. That’s really going to be the key. How do you get those properties involved so the tenants there have a chance to participate? I think there are good examples but I don’t think many are in widespread practice yet.
Read the full interview here.