Utilities are refusing to grow rooftop solar panels

One of the biggest thrills Lynn Krell and her husband experienced after installing solar panels on the roof of their home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi was watching their electricity meter work backwards as the utility attributed to them the excess energy they sold back into the grid.

These loans also appeared on their electricity bill, helping them reduce their average monthly payments by $ 11 – in addition to the $ 250 they saved during the summer rush hours and using solar energy themselves.

But in the end, the Krells began to question the value of the loan. The Krells have learned that Mississippi regulations allow utility companies to buy solar energy produced on the roof at a small fraction of the retail rate they charge to deliver that energy back to customers ’homes. The Krells spoke with umbrella owners of solar energy in other states where more generous compensation rules allowed them to reimburse entire electricity bills.

He felt unjust.

“I am royally postponed,” said Krell, 63.

Mississippi, which has plenty of sunshine, was one of the last states to give subsidies in 2015 to people who install solar panels on their roofs, and those subsidies remain among the most stingy in the country. Thirty-seven states make up for it at the full retail rate, but Mississippi offers significantly less. That, experts say, is one of the reasons why rooftop solar energy has failed there. Only 586 Mississippi households have the technology.

How to resolve this is the subject of a debate before the Mississippi Public Services Commission, which is considering rules to expand subsidies for solar energy on rooftops. The battle is one of several across the country that could determine the future of home solar panels, which proponents say are key to weaning the energy system from carbon-emitting energy sources, a major cause of global warming.

Rooftop solar energy has “huge potential” to reduce air pollution, create jobs, protect against downtime and reduce utility bills, said Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil engineering and environmental engineering at Stanford University. Technology will be vital for the U.S. to transition to fully renewable energy by 2050, he said.

“It’s such a low-lying fruit, so easy to make, to put slabs on people’s roofs,” Jacobson said. “We really shoot ourselves in the leg if we don’t.”

The question is who pays for it.

Lynn Krell at her home in Hattiesburg.
Lynn Krell at her home in Hattiesburg. Bryan Tarnowski for NBC News

Almost every state offers some kind of loan to the owners of solar energy on roofs who send excess energy to the grid. But as solar energy has become cheaper and more widespread, utility companies in some states have been forced to curb payments, said Autumn Proudlove, senior director of policy at the NC Clean Energy Technology Center at North Carolina State University.

In Florida, the state’s largest utility company has persuaded lawmakers to vote to repeal state solar roof loans, a measure that Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed last week, saying it would hurt consumers. In California, state regulators, at the urging of utility companies, are considering whether to reduce incentives for solar energy on rooftops. In North Carolina, proposals backed by utility companies to change relatively generous state subsidies for solar energy on rooftops have divided environmentalists, with opponents saying the plan puts financial customers and solar installers at financial risk.

In Mississippi, in the dispute, environmentalists and solar companies are meeting with the largest state-owned utilities, Mississippi Power and Entergy Mississippi, regional monopolies whose business models depend on building power plants and power lines to supply electricity to homes. Most of this energy is created by burning fossil fuels, but utilities are also expanding their solar offering. They resisted competition from roof panels, in part by asking regulators to limit financial incentives for customers to install them, saying they are unfair to low-income customers.

“Utilities are hitting and screaming, crying, saying this is horrible,” said Louie Miller, director of the Sierra Club of Mississippi. “They have a protected market. They are a monopoly, for God’s sake. But there are people who want to have clean energy and the right to self-generate. ”

Representatives of Mississippi Power and Entergy Mississippi declined requests for interviews. In recent submissions to the Mississippi Public Services Commission, companies argued that sweetening solar subsidies would lead to higher costs for customers who cannot afford solar panels.

“Solar on the roof is not economical for most customers, and all of the Commission’s efforts to artificially improve this economy will be financially borne by customers not participating in the project,” Mississippi Power said in a February submission.

This issue remains unresolved. Some studies supported the utility argument, while others did not. One conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2017 found that the effect of umbrella solar energy on electricity prices is “likely to remain negligible in the foreseeable future”, but that costs could rise in countries with “extremely high” solar energy use rates. on roofs.

Despite the efforts of solar installers and environmentalists, it seems unlikely that compensation rates for roof panel owners will increase in Mississippi. But utilities may need to offer other incentives.

In January, the Mississippi Public Services Commission proposed new rules that would add $ 3,000 in cash rebates for low- and middle-income customers who install rooftop solar systems. Mississippi Power opposed the discounts submitted to the commission in February; Entergy Mississippi, who did not oppose the discounts, said its acceptance depends on what the final rules say. The Commission is expected to vote on the change in the coming weeks.

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