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

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Littlefield says he neither gets paid for boosting TUSK nor has solar panels on his home. He believes firmly that APS should pay its solar customers more, not less. But he has a softer take than TUSK in general, saying diplomatically that "disagreement" may exist, but APS isn't "lying." He prefers to see the issue aired out in public.

"We can discuss whether the [net metering] rate should be retail or something else," he says. "What I don't want them to do is do away with the thing altogether or neuter it to the point that it's not viable."

Over the next several months, it will be up to the experienced Corporation Commission staff — who may or may not share the same biases as the politicians they work under — to recommend to commissioners which side to believe.

For one or the other in this debate, the Commission's upcoming decision might be the beginning of the end.

Someday, especially in sun-soaked Phoenix, people may be able to unfurl solar panels mated with batteries on their homes, an innovation that would be unlike anything yet seen. Such a possibility isn't too far-fetched: Recent articles have broached the possibility of making super-efficient batteries from graphene, a super-substance discovered in 2004 that's made of one-atom-thick layers of carbon atoms. Graphene is touted as a substance that could be used to make photovoltaic paint, eliminating the need for installed panels.

If the public is able to store and use all its electricity from cheaper-than-ever solar systems, utility companies would be kaput.

But with today's reality of on-the-grid hookups, utilities still hold the cards.

There's no question that solar power, in its current form, will keep growing. APS believes that by 2030, solar power (from residential, commercial, and industrial projects) will provide up to 20 percent of its electricity demands for at least a few hours each day.

Current Corporation Commission rules require that nearly a third of renewable energy used by Arizona come from decentralized sources, with half of that coming from residential systems and the other half from non-utility commercial systems. APS is counting on rooftop-solar systems to help it meet the state's renewable-energy goal.

But as long as these systems are connected to the grid, solar users should have to abide by the rules that provide the best deal for the most customers.

This is not necessarily a boon for rooftop-solar companies, who say they'll have a much tougher time selling their product if customers can't earn as much for power.

In the short term, solar customers like the Recreation Centers of Sun City are lobbying hard to make sure they're grandfathered in to any changes to net metering. The company sent a letter in May to the Corporation Commission expressing concern that the topic was brought up at all.

"RCSC has [14] solar projects that will be completed and online in the very near future, and many of our residents in Sun City have invested in rooftop solar, because of the net-metering policies that the Commission adopted," the letter states. "Net metering allows RCSC and our residents the choice of solar while also providing those on a fixed income the ability to manage their energy costs and needs."

Though the company is saving money thanks to net metering, some of the recreational centers' users take a more cynical view.

"Doesn't everybody take advantage of a government giveaway?" asks Tim Kelleher, a 70-year-old Sun City resident who'd just finished a morning workout at Lakeview Center.

It's not just solar companies receiving "corporate welfare," he argues. The government ought to rethink such programs, he says. But Kelleher, who's up on the net-metering debate, acknowledges that APS has cause to complain about the solar-payout scheme: "[APS buys] that power at retail. If they don't make profit on something, why buy it?"

The utility doesn't want to buy it. Not for the going price. And the public wants to buy solar-power systems at heavy discounts. (The federal government's 30-percent-off sale on solar installations doesn't end until 2016.)

Last year's rate increase made it clear that when the utility sells less power because people use less electricity, utility customers get stuck with higher rates.

The solution for now — contrary to the wishes of liberals and some conservatives — looks to be less solar power instead of more.

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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.