Catching sunlight, to sell it

DENVER — More than 200 protesters gathered in downtown Skyline Park last Wednesday to amp up, march to Xcel Energy headquarters and deliver a petition signed by 30,000 Coloradans in favor of rooftop solar. The energy company recently announced it wants to charge Coloradans with rooftop solar for using the Xcel infrastructure grid — even if they’re using it mainly to provide power to other Xcel customers.

It’s not only solar-panel owners that oppose this idea, said Annie Lappe of the Vote Solar Initiative. “Four out of five Coloradans believe ratepayers with solar should get a fair credit for the energy they put back into the system. That means those same Coloradans also oppose Xcel’s proposed changes.”

The issue of how much solar owners are paid for the energy their homes kick back to the grid came to a head when Xcel submitted its 2014 green energy compliance plan to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The plan proposed changes to so-called net metering. The proposal would draw credits from a fund specifically for green energy encouragement and it would ask future solar-installers to pay for their occasional use of the private grid Xcel owns and operates.

“It’s not a question of whether we incentivize rooftop solar, but how we do it,” said Ethnie Treick, manager of Policy Analysis at Xcel. “How do we provide solar energy to the most people?”

Treick said utility-scale solar is now cost competitive with energy garnered from fossil fuel resources like coal or natural gas. She said that drawing solar energy from, say, enormous fields of panels managed by companies is half the price of rooftop solar. Xcel says that’s why it would like to shift incentives to encourage ratepayers to buy into the 170 megawatts of large-scale solar Xcel just added to their portfolio.

Lappe worried that Xcel’s move to re-examine net metering is a part of a coordinated effort throughout the country to move the economics of solar away from rooftop production and back into the hands of utilities.

Both large-scale utility-grade solar and medium-sized community solar is shipped to homes over the energy-company grid, posing no threat to Xcel’s buy-and-transfer business model.

“We’re not doing this with any other groups,” said Treick. “This is a filing we made to start a conversation with our regulators about how to provide affordable solar to the most amount of people in Colorado.”

Treick confirmed that, although representatives were stopped in Xcel’s lobby, the coalition’s pro-rooftop petition was ultimately delivered to Xcel Colorado President and CEO David Eves.

The debate around the future of net metering, which pivots on the CPUC’s rule-making, will continue into February when the commission will hold several open hearings to finalize the issue for Colorado’s largest energy provider and the thousands of Coloradans with panels on their roofs.

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