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An Epic Battle Between Solar Firms and Power Utilities Could Leave One Side Unplugged

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The request follows months of posturing by the utility industry and by solar advocates, both of which have painted the scene as an epic battle that may result in the death of one side or the other.

Net metering is policy in 43 states and Washington, D.C. — and the possibility of reducing net-metering payments has caused an uproar in states with lucrative payments to solar users, including California and Louisiana. Arizona, among the states that are more generous to the solar industry (which makes sense, considering its 300-plus days of sunshine annually), is poised to be a leader in siding with utilities over solar companies.

In the past few weeks, regulators in Idaho and Louisiana denied power-company requests to change the rules. No utility has been successful as APS in reducing payments to solar users: "[It] wants to make Arizona first [in the category]," Sunrun's Miller says with detectable bitterness.

In spite of the eyeball-glazing term "net metering," the issue is debate gold for political junkies and energy-policy wonks. Sparks often fly.

A vaguely Republican group fronted by Jason Rose, former PR man for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, is among voices claiming that the utility's ultimate goal is to destroy the rooftop-solar industry. TUSK, as the group calls itself (for Tell Utilities Solar Won't Be Killed) and other solar advocates label officials at APS, the state's largest utility and taxpayer, as liars and cheats.

The utility industry, meanwhile, sees rooftop-solar units as parasites that, although beneficial in some ways, may destroy its host body if left unchecked. APS has responded to criticism by TUSK and solar-company executives with vigor, turning the charge of lying back on the solar firms, accusing them of not caring about rate hikes or of making the power grid less reliable.

"They don't want to change the current net-metering incentive because a change would hurt their bottom lines," Mark Schiavoni, APS executive vice president of operations, stated in a June 24 op-ed in the Arizona Capitol Times.

In a YouTube video enjoyed by many in the solar field, APS manager of renewable energy Greg Bernosky gets tag-teamed on the issue on stage at an April 2013 solar-power conference by fellow panel members, including Sunrun co-CEO Edward Fenster and Nat Kreamer of Clean Power Financing.

"Utilities have never thought about cost control or how to do things more effectively," Fenster says as Bernosky — who spends much of the question-and-answer session looking as if he'd rather grab a live power line than be where he is — shakes his head.

For energy-market watchers, this is better than MMA cage fighting.

Public hearings on the issue before an administrative law judge are expected to be scheduled as soon as APS pulls the trigger on its request. The rhetoric about net metering will grow more heated before the anticipated vote, possibly this fall, by the five-member Corporation Commission.

Naturally, net metering has conservatives and liberals at loggerheads.

Last November's election of three new Republican Corporation Commissioners — who joined two Republican incumbents — has spawned nastiness and suspicion by liberals and solar enthusiasts.

In January, the Corporation Commission voted to reduce residential solar incentives that APS must provide, and it eliminated APS' subsidies entirely for new commercial rooftop projects. The board briefly considered lowering the goal set by the Renewable Energy Standard and Tariff, the rule that requires 15 percent of Arizona's electricity to come from renewable sources by 2025. (The rule applies to APS, Tucson Electric Power, and other state utilities but not to the quasi-governmental Salt River Project, which isn't governed by the commission but set its own goal of 20 percent "sustainable" power, mostly hydroelectric, by 2020.)

On June 17, Commissioner Bob Burns filed a formal letter about net metering, declaring his concern for the likelihood that non-solar users will be unfairly affected.

It's safe to say the Corporation Commission has acted differently than it would have if the "Solar Team" of three pro-solar Democrats hadn't been defeated at the polls in November.

Along with Rose's group, TUSK, some Republicans have taken a stand against traditional right-wing opposition to renewable energy. Former California Congressman Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the legendary GOP icon and longtime Arizona senator, is the most prominent face of the group, his presence alone symbolizing the message that it might be safe for conservatives to support solar.

Net metering even has caused division within the ranks of solar companies. James Hughes, CEO of Tempe-based First Solar, a panel-manufacturing company, wrote a guest opinion column in local newspapers in early June that took the side of the utility. The motivation is clear enough: If anything's going to be subsidized, First Solar would prefer priority be given to large-scale solar-power-generation plants, like its 290-megawatt Agua Caliente Solar Plant 65 miles east of Yuma.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.