2013 was an event horizon for the solar electric industry in Arizona. The year brought acrimonious debate over net metering, as the utility industry attempted to reel-in a burgeoning rooftop solar movement that it had portrayed in a white-paper as a threat to its century-old business model and profit margins.
The utility industry employed hard-core political campaign tactics in their quest to control the solar marketplace, complete with TV ads that accused solar customers of freeloading off their traditionally powered neighbors. The utilities say the residential solar producers don’t pay their fair share of the cost of maintaining transmission lines that carry the excess power they produce back to the grid, and to their neighbors.
The debate generated copious media coverage, and solar advocates were able to eventually soften the potential damage. The utility had sought steep fees on residential solar producers that would have severely limited the future of solar adoption in the state.
The utilities wound up with a hollow victory, as the Arizona Corporation Commission voted to impose a small fee on new residential solar electric installations. But even the small monthly fee imposed on new residential rooftop solar sets a precedent, and other states, including neighbors in Utah and Colorado are now grappling with the net metering question.
It’s too soon to tell how this new fee will affect Arizona solar installations, which, before the onslaught of utility attack ads, averaged more than 500 per month. A year-end rush to beat the new fee will likely result in fewer installations for at least the first quarter of 2014.
And the utility pushback may be impacting Arizona’s solar industry in other ways. News accounts tell of a subtle rift between Arizona installation companies and solar leasing companies. The solar water heating industry, meanwhile, has dissociated itself from the solar electric industry by marketing itself as “the other rooftop solar technology.” (Solar water heaters use sunlight to heat water, so they conserve energy rather than producing electricity.)
It’s a warped Good Solar vs. Bad Solar struggle, and nowhere is it more obvious than in the investor-owned utilities’ embrace of utility-scale solar and their efforts to slow down rooftop solar. The utility-scale solar projects fit the existing utility business model: central plants generating power distributed to customers via traditional transmission lines.
But those who wish to write a premature obituary for solar in Arizona should remember that the state has been on the vanguard of solar technology, policy and utilization since Abe Lincoln was president.
It began in the 1860s when the heliograph became the first in a series of solar technologies to be introduced and tested in Arizona. It progressed from there to the Day-Night Solar Water Heaters of the 1930s, the 1954 introduction of silicon solar cells and their off-grid applications of the 70s and 80s. The late 90s brought utility-scale photovoltaic plants.
The success of these technologies belongs uniquely to Arizona. Nowhere is Arizona’s role more elegantly stated than in the writings of the late John Yellot, an Arizona State University professor, inventor and pioneer in passive solar energy. In 1978, Yellot, affectionately known as the Ambassador of the Sun, wrote that solar technology “belongs to Arizona in a special way–as a part of the great American frontier where new devices are ever welcomed and their merits tested and proven and achievements acclaimed.”
The biggest test for the Arizona solar industry will be whether it can reunite rather than fragment in the face of well-financed attempts to darken its future. If the solar industry can heal the developing fissures and repair its partnership with the electric utilities, Arizona can emerge from 2014 with its reputation as the solar state intact. Arizona can survive and prosper as the place where new solar devices and policies are tested and proven – “and achievements proclaimed.”
Jim Arwood is communications director for the Arizona Solar Center. The Arizona Solar Center, founded in 1998, is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization whose mission is to promote the use and utilization of solar energy. The Solar Center maintains an informational website, conducts workshops and solar tours, and performs 3rd party solar water heating quality-control audits as part of the utility rebate process.