Knowledge is power, or at least the first step toward it.
That’s why, especially at this time when solar is under attack in so many state utility commissions, it’s exciting that our friends and colleagues at the advocacy groups Vote Solar and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council last week released their eighth annual report on state solar interconnection and net metering rules, called Freeing The Grid: Best Practices in State Net Metering and Interconnection Policies. Wonky though it may sound, the report is actually cram-packed with accessible information about rules and policies each of the 50 states uses to either speed or hinder the expansion of solar energy. It’s information advocates and activists like you and me can use to improve solar policies at the state level where so many of them are decided.
The report focuses specifically on interconnection and net metering rules, which, respectively, govern the way individual solar power systems plug into the grid and determine whether solar users can sell excess power back to utilities — usually, investor-owned utilities — and at what rates. There’s a good reason to concentrate on these policies specifically: “While financial incentives are the engine of market development,” Freeing The Grid’s authors write, “interconnection and net metering policies are the road. It is much easier for a market to accelerate on the smooth, finished roads of Colorado, New Jersey and California, for example.” Using the letter grades we’re familiar with from school, FTG tells us which states are on the honor roll and which states are, ahem, not living up to their full potential. (Texas, you know who you are.)
FTG also offers plug-and-play solutions — best practices — that states can adopt in their efforts to promote solar. Among them are rules and policies that:
- don’t impose unnecessary limits on the size of the individual solar systems allowed to feed electricity into the grid, or artificially limit the total amount of solar allowed;
- enable customers to carry forward on their electric bills from one month to the next retail-rate credits for the excess electricity they’ve sold;
- enable customers to invest in off-site community solar projects;
- allow the third-party ownership of solar systems that is driving so much of solar development these days;
- allow developers to easily access information about the interconnection process and about preferred interconnection locations.
So, who’s on the honor roll and who’s hanging out at the back entrance to the school smoking cigarettes? For interconnection, only seven states got “As” — Arizona, California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon and West Virginia. The net metering honor roll includes large swaths of the West and Northeast. A special shout-out goes to Vermont, which last year increased the amount of electricity solar can provide in the state from an already impressive 4 percent all the way up to 15 percent now.
Meanwhile, 16 states lack statewide interconnection rules, and seven generally don’t allow net metering, without which it’s difficult for owners of solar systems to earn back their upfront costs. These laggards include several states with way-above-average solar potential: Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas.
The report lists rankings from 2007 on. And it’s nice to watch some states, like Utah, move up from “Fs” in both interconnection and net metering in 2007 to two “As” today. (Another feather in the state’s cap: In September, Utah’s Public Service Commission rejected a utility proposal to charge solar users an additional $4.65 a month to use the grid.) Other states, sadly, have fallen in the ranks, due to sustained political attacks on solar and other forms of renewable energy. In Kansas, for instance, where groups funded by fossil-fuel billionaires Charles and David Koch have worked hard to overturn clean energy laws and policies, the state has rolled back its net metering law, reducing the amount that solar power producers get paid for the energy they sell, and limiting the rollover of utility bill credits for excess electricity.
Still, overall, we’ve seen great progress since the first FTG report was issued in 2007.
And states can go even further, with Freeing The Grid’s help. Knowledge is power. Let’s all of us — policymakers, activists and advocates like you and me — get out there and use it.