El Paso: A test case for proposals attacking rooftop solar

Photo by Spencer Selvidge

Homeowners and small businesses increasingly use rooftop solar to generate power and lower electricity costs. Communities win when more solar is installed. It creates local jobs, reduces reliance on polluting traditional generation and reduces the need for electric companies to build new, costly infrastructure that will be paid for through customers' electric bills.

Ignoring these benefits, El Paso Electric (EPE) has tried once already to handicap solar development. Now they're at it again — and, if successful, could begin a trend of anti-solar proposals statewide.

All El Paso residential customers, solar and non-solar alike, are charged only for electricity they actually use. Through solar net metering, customers earn credit for self-generated power, lowering their monthly bills.

EPE's proposal would discriminate against solar customers by charging them an exorbitant "demand change" based not on how much electricity they actually use, but instead based on when each individual customer uses EPE's electric grid most. You see, EPE knows solar customers rely on the grid when the sun isn't shining and solar panels can't offset demand. In addition, EPE would force solar customers to pay more for additional electricity they buy from the grid during sunny El Paso summers.

In short, EPE wants to game the system to erase the financial savings for solar panel users.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), average residential solar customers' bills under the EPE proposal may increase 100 percent. By contrast, non-solar residential rates would increase 9 percent.

This proposal especially burns customers who invested in solar with the understanding that it would pay for itself through lower electricity bills. SEIA said more than half of current solar customers would lose 40 percent of their expected savings. Others would pay more for electricity than if they had never installed solar at all!

Even worse, the complexity of EPE’s proposal makes it impossible to predict monthly electricity costs. EPE wouldn't notify solar customers of their highest demand until after slapping them with high fees.

EPE's proposal is the latest in a nationwide campaign, led by lobbyists for investor-owned electric companies and the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to damage a growing solar industry they view as a threat. Since 2013, utilities convinced lawmakers in at least five states to phase out net metering. In 2017 alone, 42 utilities in 25 states took action to change solar-related policies.

The truth is, where solar grows, all ratepayers save. Consider California's largest utility, which saved ratepayers more than $300 million by putting on hold construction of an expensive voltage line and 13 transmission projects, due in part to the growth of rooftop solar.

I'm all for utilities, including EPE, recovering costs for upgrades necessary to serve their customers. But according to the Office of Public Utility Counsel (OPUC), which represents residential consumers and small businesses in utility proceedings, EPE did not even consider any potential value of solar when it calculated costs of solar customers in their last rate case, producing a rate design biased in favor of the utility. OPUC opposes EPE's currently proposed solar demand charges.

EPE's anti-solar proposal is particularly pernicious because, unlike in most of Texas, EPE has a monopoly in its service territory — meaning it has no competition to keep prices low, innovation high and customer choice abundant. The only protection its consumers have from burdensome rate increases is the state's Public Utility Commission (PUC).

EPE's proposal clearly contradicts the intent of Senate Bill 1910, a law I passed in 2011 to authorize net metering in El Paso. Like my colleague Rep. Joe Pickett, who introduced legislation during this special session that would prohibit EPE's solar proposal, I also think we may need to examine the utility's dogged attempts to stop the spread of residential solar, as well as its monopoly status.

EPE is currently engaged in a PUC regulatory proceeding with several parties, including both the El Paso city and county governments, which have each formally opposed the solar provisions. A hearing is scheduled to begin later this month.

This case has the potential to set precedent and create a domino effect in electricity markets across the state. I urge anyone interested in promoting solar to make your voice heard. Texans who want the choice to go solar depend on it.

José Rodríguez

State senator, D-El Paso