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Editorial: Don't let Missouri's utility industry strangle solar energy incentives.

Editorial: Don't let Missouri's utility industry strangle solar energy incentives.

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A proposal in the Missouri Legislature to let utilities levy additional fees on customers who augment their service with solar panels is based on a legitimate concern that some solar-panel users get a free ride from other customers. But the bill’s proponents want to give the utilities blank-check authority to set those charges, raising concerns the companies will use it to impose inflated fees that could eliminate the financial advantage of going solar — an outcome that would be good for the utilities but bad for solar investment, the environment and the future. The legislation shouldn’t advance in its current form.

When homeowners install solar panels, they generally remain hooked up to the local power grid as a backup. Those customers will use solar when the sun is shining, and draw from the regular grid when it isn’t. Any unused power their panels produce can be sent into the grid — sold to the utility, essentially — with its value being subtracted from their utility bills. A robust home solar system can lower a utility customer’s billed usage dramatically.

And that, say the utilities, is the problem: There are fixed costs to having a home hooked up to the grid — maintenance of the system, repairs, administration — even for customers who have little net power usage. Utility bills contain line items to cover these fixed costs, but the industry says those fees are generally inadequate to cover the real costs. It all works out when customers are also paying plenty for power usage. But solar users who pay little for power usage (the argument goes) might fail to even cover what it costs the utilities to keep them on the grid.

In Missouri as around the country, advocates for solar power have generally agreed that some kind of fee is reasonable to address the issue. But in other states, utilities have added fees so high that they effectively cancel out the cost savings of having solar panels, negating a key incentive for going solar.

In its current form, the Missouri legislation, which not surprisingly is backed by the utility industry, would grant open-ended authority for the utility companies to set those additional fees for solar users. They would in essence have unilateral power to effectively make it financially unfeasible for anyone to go solar. It isn’t difficult to deduce why a fossil-fuel-driven industry might want to do that. This isn’t some paranoid environmentalist fantasy. Even the Republican chair of the House Utilities Committee, Rep. Bill Kidd, R-Buckner, warned of such a “purely one-sided” approach to solar fees.

If the utilities are only interested in recovering their legitimate fixed costs, they should agree to a rate structure that’s set by regulators and limited to that goal alone. Renewable energy is the future. Its survival shouldn’t be left at the mercy of utilities with a vested interest in its demise.

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