Arizona Voters Could Decide Future Of Rooftop Solar Market

By Will Stone
Published: Thursday, April 21, 2016 - 5:56pm
Updated: Friday, April 22, 2016 - 4:22pm
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Paul Atkinson/KJZZ

The future of rooftop solar could come down to Arizona voters this November

Two opposing efforts are currently under way to put key regulatory decisions about the residential solar market on the ballot. For years Arizona utilities and rooftop solar leasing companies have clashed over how solar customers hooked up to the grid should be charged. 

Last week, a super PAC called Yes on AZ Solar filed a ballot initiative to preserve policies favorable to the industry, including net-metering. That billing mechanism reimburses solar customers at retail rates for the excess power they produce. Solar advocates argue that net-metering is a fair way to compensate customers, while utilities call it a subsidy that shifts costs onto other ratepayers. 

Former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Kris Mayes is leading the initiative to pass the Arizona Solar Energy Freedom Act. 

“Make no mistake, if the utilities get their way at the commission this fall rooftop solar will come to an end. We can’t let that happen,” Mayes said. 

The corporation commission is hearing a slew of rate cases this year that could result in significant changes to the rate structures, including an increase in fixed charges and so-called demand charges, which are tied to the peak hour when customers use the most energy.

Mayes’ initiative would prevent any of those changes for the next six years and protect net-metering.

"It's obvious our utilities are going to try to fight competition. They are going to fight solar. They are fighting the will of their own customers who clearly want to go solar and clearly want to be free of these efforts to tax them," Mayes said. 

Their campaign will be a broad coalition of organizations, businesses, elected officials and others. They will release a list soon, she said.

So far the campaign has received financial backing from national rooftop solar leasing company SolarCity, which donated $3 million dollars. 

But the pro-solar initiative will face other obstacles than just gathering more than 200,000 signatures by early July. 

This week Republican State Senator Debbie Lesko announced her intention to advance a referendum that would put a competing proposal on the ballot. While it is still being drafted, the initiative would directly try to undercut some of the key provisions in Mayes' initiative. 

“This is an egregious power grab that these greedy companies are doing that is going to increase the utility rates on everybody else,” Lesko said, referring to solar companies like SolarCity. 

Lesko said her bill will ensure rates remain low and net-metering and other decisions stay in the hands of corporation commissioners. She criticized the pro-solar initiative for giving "preferential treatment over and above all the other utility customers by locking in a retail rate" for net-metering. 

"We have an elected corporation commission that is supposed to determine what's best for everybody," Lesko said. "Not just some niche of people and benefiting billionaire companies in California."

But Mayes argues the solar industry provides thousands of jobs for Arizona residents and cautions that "discriminatory" policy decisions could trigger an exodus of jobs and companies as it did in Nevada earlier this year. 

A spokesperson for Arizona Public Service, the state's largest utility, said the utility supports Lesko's efforts and “will be happy to discuss this after she announces her proposal.”

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