IOUs Ransom Solar in Washington

  • Published on January 28th, 2015


By Chip Martin, RGB Contributor

Utilities in Washington State are making the most of the desperation gripping the solar industry there, dangling the promise of an extended rebate program for the small price of the most fundamental solar policy – net metering — and with it, the industry’s future stability. While one would think the local solar community would think twice before entering into such a raw deal with the utilities, so far solar installers have not been so wise. Solar Installers Washington, represented by South Sound Solar and Puget Sound Solar, came out in support of the bill to eliminate net metering in a legislative hearing last Thursday.

A little background on the utilities’ quixotic attempts to destroy solar in other states over the past two years, is in order.

Believe me, the Rip Van Winkles at the utilities awoke in 2013 to the competition solar poses for their entire business model, so (belatedly) they declared war on solar:

First, they tried to eliminate solar net-metering (a practice that allows customers with solar arrays to get the fair-market value for the electricity they sell back to the grid), which is critical to building state solar markets, in more than a dozen states. It didn’t work.

Then they tried to take full ownership of solar electricity generation and make a guaranteed profit on it. This, too, failed in Washington and South Carolina, among other states.

Unable to win any other way, the tactics of Washington’s utilities are part of the new (read: old) playbook for utilities to use across the country: trick the solar industry into sabotaging itself. In Washington, this particular gambit is helped by the fact that the current incentive program used to support solar is coming to a close.  The utilities are leveraging concerns around the continuation of this program to trick local installers into a horse trade that will ultimately kill the industry

The utilities’ scam in Washington is a pincer movement extraordinaire. There are two horrid bills before the legislature:

HB 1096: This bill would all but scuttle NEM (net-metering), the demonstrably-proven path to solar success. Once a utility hits the 0.5% cap on net-metering, they will be required to use one of three other options, all of which are design to stifle the competitive solar market:

  • a Value of Solar Tariff (VOST), which is a utility-supported form of taxation.
  • a Feed-in-Tariff (FiT), which differs from the VOST in little but name and also taxes unsuspecting homeowners; or
  • fixed charges on solar customers that undermine NEM for those who need it most.

The evisceration of this fundamental solar policy, which has fostered the growth of competitive rooftop solar markets across the country, will effectively kill the solar industry in Washington

What makes me pound my head on my desk in frustration, is that local solar installers, represented in this fight by the Solar Installers Washington (SIW), led by South Sound Solar and Puget Sound Solar, stood up last Thursday and publicly supported this bill in front of state lawmakers. While necessity is the mother of invention, it’s clear that desperation is the mother of bad ideas, with the local installers apparently willing to mortgage the future of the industry.   Or is it simply a case of Stockholm Syndrome, where installers have started to identify with the values of their captors (in this case, Puget Sound Electric, Pacific Power, Avista, and a host of Public Utility Districts)? Or is it something else?

I honestly have no idea how any businessperson could support a policy, developed by a deceitful and underhanded monopolist, that will ultimately destroy their business.

HB 1097: Not satisfied with extorting concessions from the installers, the utilities are smearing the solar industry with an implied charge of corruption and deception (which, as students of Freud will tell you, is a classic case of the psychotic impulse of projection). This bill calls for the regulation of solar leases. Leasing is a well-established practice supported by the industry’s most respectable companies, but HB 1097 would place onerous and unnecessary barriers in the way of consumers who want to lease solar systems. Without leasing, solar is reserved only for the small percentage of the population that can afford the entire cost of the system. Apparently, both utilities and local installers are interested in killing competition with this piece of legislation, despite the fact that the introduction of leasing in every state where it exists has increased the success of the industry as a whole.

I hope the installers in Washington state realize soon the peril in which they are putting the solar industry — the business that allows them to put food on their families’ tables.  They should withdraw their support from HB 1096 and HB 1097 if they want their industry to survive.

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  • SIW is allowing big utilities to play divide and conquer in the rooftop solar market. They believe that legislation that is detrimental to solar leasing companies will help them. However, what it does is hand full monopoly powers back to the utility. SIW has been duped to fight against its own long term interests.

  • I can’t even begin to describe how out of line and mis-informed this screed is. With advocates llike the mis-informed Chip Martin spewing bile, solar needs no enemy’s in Washington, we have Chip Broadcasting falsehoods and mis-representations enough.
    We need to keep the carpet baggers out of our state.

  • The facts in this article aren’t accurate…The Washington Solar Incentives were designed for owned solar, not leasing. Leased solar has never been able to receive incentives in Washington, so HB 1097 doesn’t change anything. The Solar Installers of Washington are probably more worried about solar leasing devastating their local industry than anything. I think it’s pretty cool that the state tax dollars to stay with local solar companies, and that they are working with utilities to make solar feasible in Washington.
    The huge national leasing companies are probably just not happy about the fact that the local industry wants there to be consumer protections in place around leasing (which they are supporting in other legislation). Besides, the biggest leasing companies in the country are currently under investigation for taking advantage of Federal Tax dollars…Washington’s utilities are mostly public and municipal (not big bad monopolies).
    I’m sure the local industry knows exactly what they are doing.

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