Black Hills Energy doesn’t want solar power to be South Dakota’s Next Big Thing. They’re asking the Public Utilities Commission to authorize charging homeowners for the electricity homeowners make with their own solar panels:
“We have a garden. It would be like the grocery store saying we have to pay for the vegetables we pull out of our own garden because they’ve put in the infrastructure of the coolers and the distribution network…,” Jeremy Smith of Cycle Farm said [Angela Kennecke, “Proposal Puts Cloud over Future of Solar Energy in South Dakota,” KELO-TV, 2021.05.13].
Spearfish sustainable-building mogul Jared “Cappie” Capp says Black Hills Energy’s proposal to charge customers for every kilowatthour generated onsite or off, lower the buyback rate for onsite-generated power to 2.48 cents per kWh, and tack an extra $10 a month onto home power producers’ meters would mean “any sort of small scale renewable energy in South Dakota is dead; 100 percent dead.” A similar policy in Nevada had that mortal effect on solar jobs and business growth:
In 2016, Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission agreed to phase out incentives for homeowners who install rooftop solar panels, after the state’s largest energy company argued the same things as Black Hills Energy: that when solar customers don’t pay to maintain the grid, non-solar customers are stuck with the bill. The Solar Energy Industry Association estimated that more than 2,600 jobs were lost when the large solar companies stopped doing business in Nevada because of the change. A year and half later, new legislation in Nevada modified the ruling and the solar companies returned.
Solar advocates say the same thing could happen in South Dakota with solar energy companies like GenPro in Rapid City, should the PUC approve the new tariff.
“There are entire companies in the Northern Black Hills that would essentially be rendered useless if this was; this is their business model to sell small scale solar,” Capp said [Angela Kennecke, “How Solar Power Could Go Dark in South Dakota,” KELO-TV, 2021.05.13].
The notion that I should pay for energy or vegetables or anything else that I produce is bonkers. If I hook up solar panels and a bike generator to my house, I shouldn’t have to pay anyone else a penny for the electricity that the sun and I generate that powers my lights, computer, and fridge.
But I understand the utilities’ argument as well: my electric bill pays not only for the juice but for the wires that will bring me that juice the moment the sun goes down and my batteries and legs give out. Even if the sun shone all day and I pedaled all night and not one watt from the outside world had to flow to my outlets, I’d still have to pay NorthWestern Energy for the upkeep of their grid. Power utilities, like water systems and roads and other infrastructure, are necessarily collective affairs: we all pay to maintain the network so everyone can use it.
Advocates of solar power and other small-scale renewables could completely insulate themselves from the monopoly gridsters’ predations by going completely off the grid. But building for complete onsite energy independence would still upend the economic calculations of solar installers who figure a big benefit of going producing one’s own power is being able to sell the excess and switch smoothly to the grid when the home system underproduces.
The PUC needs to find the right compromise. That compromise needs to include fair compensation for services rendered by all parties, utilities and homeowners alike. That compromise should recognize the value of the shared power infrastructure as well as the value of encouraging innovation and new jobs.
But at base, that compromise must not include charging homeowners for power they make themselves.