By Jesse Harris

I’m a solar household. A little over two years ago, I put panels up on my house to take advantage of the high solar potential in Cedar City. They’ve been producing very well and I have no regrets at purchasing them. Net metering has made it possible to mostly break even on power use over the course of a year. A lot of people make the decision for ideological reasons, but for me it was purely economics, fixing my power costs at 2015 rates for the next three decades.

Rocky Mountain Power’s proposal to charge solar customers more affects me directly. The change is to make it so that instead of a straight across watt-for-watt exchange, solar customers will sell to Rocky Mountain Power at less than retail but more than wholesale and buy back at retail rates. Their argument is that they bear significant infrastructure costs and can buy the power at wholesale rates for a lot less. While this may be true, it’s also missing a deeper point.

Power utilities were designed around a model of having a monopoly provider that sent power from a central generation location to distributed points of use. They often plan their costs decades into the future, a boring but stable business. Solar, however, represents a pretty significant disruption. Every consumer of power can also be a generation source. Worse for the utilities, they can switch between consumer and generator at any time without warning.

So this is the question: do we care? Rocky Mountain Power’s inability to adjust to disruption in its monopoly market isn’t the fault of its customers. There’s nowhere else they can go for power (well, other than buying their own panels) to break ties with them if they don’t like it. In essence, part of Rocky Mountain Power’s argument is that it has the right to exist with its largely legacy business model because it failed to see and plan for the growth of distributed power generation in its service areas. It’s not all that different from the ridiculous proposals by the entertainment industry to exact a “piracy tax” on recordible media and portable media players. Why should I be the one to bear that cost?

More troubling, this is a problem that will also affect a number of municipal power generators in Utah including Murray, Provo, and Brigham City. Those utilities, while cheaper than Rocky Mountain Power, still contribute quite a bit of funding to city budgets. They are just the same locked into long term generation contracts. What happens if these municipal power utilities go from being a boon to a drain on the city budget? The overall trend of decreasing power consumption isn’t helping either.

All electric utilities, Rocky Mountain Power included, failed to see emerging trends and now have to adjust accordingly. They can’t do so by placing the costs on the backs of hostage customers. But this is the danger of a utility with a monopoly, that they have the power to put the consequences of their bad decisions onto a captive market. It would be best to let Rocky Mountain Power take their lumps and explore ways to make the electrical market more competitive.

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