Montana is considering multiple proposals that, if passed, would significantly reform the state’s net-metering program. Under current Montana law, households with their own electricity generation source, also called “distributed generation,” can sell the excess, unused electricity they generate back to their utility company’s grid. The utility company can then re-sell this electricity to other customers. Distributed generation usually comes in the form of rooftop solar panels. Net metering is the billing mechanism that measures this excess electricity. Under current law, excess electricity is sold back at the retail-price rate.
The first proposal now under consideration would forbid net-metering customers from being “subsidized” by other utility customers and would direct the state’s Public Service Commission to make determinations on whether customers are, in fact, being subsidized.
The second proposal would eliminate five of Montana’s 13 alternative-energy production tax credits, such as the Commercial or Net Metering System Investment Credit, and it would remove net-metering systems from the state’s list of “alternative energy system[s].” This would make net-metering systems ineligible for Montana’s alternative-energy loan program and its energy grant program.
Because utilities pay significantly more to purchase customers’ excess electricity than they can charge when reselling to other customers, they are calling for more-balanced rates for net metering. Currently, because utilities must pay the retail price for electricity instead of the wholesale price, it means distributed generation customers are getting reimbursed not only for the electricity they provide but also for the costs associated with building and maintaining the electric grid. As a December 2013 paper from the Harvard Business Law Review Online noted, “net metering causes a re-allocation of transmission, distribution, and reliability costs to those customers who do not own distributed generation.”
Such cost-shifting impedes social equity, because rooftop solar owners have generally higher incomes than others, so lower-income ratepayers end up paying extra to subsidize higher-income customers. Thus, net metering is just another welfare program for the upper-middle class.
A California Public Utilities Commission study found customers who have installed net-metering systems going back to 1999 have an average median household income of $91,210, significantly higher than the state’s median income of $54,283 and the median income ($67,823) in investor-owned utilities service territories.
The NC Clean Technology Center (NCCTC) at North Carolina State University reports 28 states considered or enacted 73 changes to net-metering policies in 2016, up from 42 actions in 25 states in 2015. According to NCCTC, “considering changes to net metering credit rates was one of the biggest solar policy trends” of the year.
Although owners of rooftop solar panels should be paid for the electricity they sell back to the grid, they should be paid at the same rate conventional sources are paid, reflecting the true wholesale cost of electricity. It is particularly unfair for solar owners to be paid for the costs of maintaining the grid because the intermittency of solar power actually increases those costs.
Moreover, these maintenance costs are shifted to the owners of homes without solar panels, unfairly raising their monthly bills. State net-metering programs should be reduced and ultimately brought to an end, as should all energy subsidies. This would create a truly free, consumer-friendly energy market where all utilities and small-scale power providers are given the right to compete for customers.
The following documents provide more information about net metering.
Ten Principles of Energy Policy
In this Legislative Principles booklet, Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast identifies the ten most important energy issues facing the nation and outlines the energy policy actions that will lead to the highest, most efficient production at the lowest cost to consumers.
Ten State Solutions to Emerging Issues
This Heartland Institute booklet explores solutions to the top public policy issues facing the states in 2016 and beyond in the areas of budget and taxes, education, energy and environment, health care, and constitutional reform. The solutions identified are proven reform ideas that have garnered significant support among the states and with legislators.
Net Metering 101
The Institute for Energy Research provides an instructive explanation about the fundamentals of net metering, net-metering policies, and renewable energy.
The 50 States of Solar (Q4 2016 Quarterly Report & Annual Review)
The purpose of this report by the NC Clean Energy Technology Center is to catalog the proposed and enacted legislative changes to regulatory policy and rate design affecting the value proposition of distributed solar photovoltaics during 2016, with an emphasis on the residential sector.
The High Cost of Rooftop Solar Subsidies
This report from Arduin, Laffer, & Moore Econometric argues state net-metering programs, implemented to encourage solar power use, threaten the reliability of electrical grid systems by imposing additional operating stresses on grids that were built to supply a one-way power flow from centralized generators to users; distributed solar power requires a decentralized, two-way power flow. Current electrical grids were not built to handle this type of power delivery. In addition, the retail price paid under states’ net-metering schemes is much higher than the price grid operators would reasonably pay to obtain electric power in the wholesale power market, wasting scarce resources.
Residential Solar: Myth vs. Fact
This study by the Institute for Energy Research explores several myths surrounding solar power, including the false beliefs roof-top solar is cost-effective, better allows utilities to manage their peak loads, and the view residential solar has achieved “grid parity” in many parts of the United States. The study also shows that without large subsidies, solar energy fails to make economic sense and creates problems for utilities trying to manage the electric grid.
Isaac Orr: Net Metering
In this edition of the Heartland Daily Podcast, Isaac Orr, research fellow at The Heartland Institute, discusses the Champagne wishes and caviar dreams espoused by net-metering proponents.
The Reliability of Renewable Energy: Solar
This study from the Institute of Political Economy at Utah State University shows solar power is inefficient and unreliable because the Sun is not always available and because it cannot consistently meet electricity demand, which means it must rely on backup power sources. The study notes solar power is the most expensive source of power in the United States and requires significant tax dollars to maintain production. The study’s authors say these high costs come with limited environmental benefits.
The Regulatory Challenge of Distributed Generation
This December 2013 paper from Harvard Business Law Review Online summarizes much of the latest research on distributed generation and net metering. Net metering is described as a “controversial regulatory practice,” mainly because of the huge subsidy it creates for distributed generators, which the author says is “over and above the tax subsidy provided to all renewable generation.”
Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Environment & Climate News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.
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