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

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Dee didn't respond to a request for comment.

The song sums up the spirit of TUSK, the group fronted by Jason Rose.

"If APS is successful in changing [net metering], it will effectively end the rooftop-solar market in Arizona," Rose tells New Times.

He pins the timing of this debate squarely on the all-Republican ACC panel. "They see this as their opportunity to have it their way."

Rose, whose wife, lawyer Jordan Rose, has solar companies as clients, says the utilities "fear the future — it's like the typewriter holding back the computer."

APS makes money on solar customers, Rose maintains.

He points to the Crossborder study, released in May, that shows how rooftop solar purportedly adds $34 million a year to APS' bottom line. It seems that rather than $1.21 a month extra on customers' bills, as the APS study estimates, there should be an average reduction of $2.58 a month.

Solar advocates claim the threat of rate increases is bogus, nothing but fear-mongering. They say utilities like APS are just interested in hoarding profits — at the expense of public health.

In what sounds like a conspiracy theory, advocates claim utilities' fears mentioned in the Edison paper constitute propaganda designed to fool the public into supporting local proposals to change net-metering payments.

In fact, they say, as the Crossborder study states, the addition of distributed-energy generation to the grid means that APS can put off buying new transmission lines, natural-gas plants, and other equipment for a few years — a significant financial benefit to the power company.

The study points to APS' own data that shows rooftop solar is a cheaper way for APS to meet its renewable-standard requirement than other renewable sources and that the power provided by solar users meets peak demands that the utility would otherwise fill by ordering up power from more-expensive sources.

Nonetheless, APS officials continue to tout that net metering is a subsidy, saying the Crossborder study misinterprets APS data.

Even if it's indeed a subsidy, APS also receives subsidies, solar advocates argue. One example of this, as mentioned by Sunrun's Fenster at the April conference, is how APS benefits from not having to pay insurance in case of a major accident at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix.

But the reality is that all ratepayers benefit from this kind of subsidy.

With direct handouts dwindling (residential incentives have dropped from 75 cents per installed watt of solar capacity in 2012 to 10 cents) solar companies feel increasingly on the ropes. They can't survive without the utility because solar provides only part-time power, and they can't survive without public support for net metering and other subsidies. Influencing public opinion is crucial.

Fortunately for solar, advocates don't have to do much to convince the general public that solar is worth supporting. But solar advocates need to do more than sell the idea that solar is good — they must convince the public that future solar customers should make just as much money on net metering as do current solar customers.

Democrats don't need much convincing. Solar companies hired PR expert Rose to help them sway GOP voters. Rose and TUSK have tried to get Republicans behind the idea of supporting current payments to solar users. But even though polls show Republicans generally agree on continuing modest solar subsidies, the TUSK group hasn't pulled in Arizona's heavy hitters.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who has referred to herself as the "Solar Queen" because of her support for utility-scale solar plants (which don't take advantage of net metering), isn't a member. Senator John McCain prefers to push for nuclear plants. Republican Congressman David Schweikert, who claims to be a proponent of solar power, refused to return messages asking for his thoughts on TUSK.

The involvement of its most noticeable name, Barry Goldwater Jr., actually strains the TUSK's credibility even further. Goldwater Jr. is on the board of the Goldwater Institute, which proudly takes his father's name to help represent its strict adherence to fiscally conservative governing.

But the Institute has spent piles of donor money fighting the state's Renewable Energy Standard and Tariff, apparently with Goldwater Jr.'s blessing. The former congressman failed to return repeated requests for comment.

The Goldwater Institute itself has no specific position on net metering — it's too busy lobbying for deregulation of the power industry, which could result in more electricity-buying options for customers, similar to how deregulation of AT&T spawned firms like Sprint and CenturyLink. It's too early to say what deregulation would do to solar companies, but the solar industry isn't necessarily opposed — as long as subsidies flow.

TUSK's other main Republican voice is longtime Scottsdale City Councilman Bob Littlefield, who admits he's not a "typical" party member.

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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.