Arizona Corporation Commission rooftop solar hearings draw hundreds of protesters

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(Danika Worthington/DD)

A proposed charge for APS customers who own solar panels in the Valley drew hundreds of protesters to the first day of hearings by the Arizona Corporation Commission on Wednesday afternoon. (Danika Worthington/DD)

After months of discussion and debate about the rates charged to solar-energy customers, the Arizona Corporation Commission began a two-day public hearing in Phoenix on Wednesday with the intention of deciding what many consider to be the fate of solar in Arizona.

The hearings arose from the question of whether rooftop-solar customers should pay more to Arizona Public Service Co. for using solar panels.

According to a statement from APS, the company asked the Corporation Commission to consider two proposals. The first is similar to the current plan, with a new monthly charge for first-time solar customers on the APS grid. The second proposal would give customers a choice between the first plan and a different monthly charge.

Outside the Corporation Commission building, near Washington Street and 12th Avenue, more than 500 people gathered Wednesday to protest the APS proposals.

“What APS is proposing is putting a discriminatory charge on people’s bills,” said Keally DeWitt, a representative for the Alliance for Solar Choice and one of the organizers of the protest. “Meaning that any sort of savings you would recognize, or any sort of financial benefit that you would get from solar, is erased.”

APS’ current solar-energy system uses net metering, DeWitt said. The system works in a similar way to rollover minutes on a cellphone: When customers produce more power from their solar panels than they need, that energy is put back onto the public grid and sold to other utility customers. The utility then gives the customer credit, which goes toward the next month’s electricity bill.

Consequently, solar-power customers who still end up using the utility grid at times when solar isn’t viable, such as at night, end up paying less for the grid compared with customers who don’t use solar power, according to APS. The company considers this unbalanced.

“It’s really about being able to save a little money and have it work out financially,” DeWitt said. “This proposal would essentially end the astronomical growth that we have seen in rooftop-solar installations.”

The protesters asked that no “discriminatory charge” be placed over rooftop-solar bills and wanted the current system to be kept in place, DeWitt said.

“We want to see Arizona really be the solar capital of the world,” said Bret Fanshaw, the state advocate for Environment Arizona, a citizen-based environmental-advocacy organization. “We can’t do that if we make it harder for people to get solar on their roofs.”

The APS proposals would not only make it costly for people to convert to solar power but would hinder clean-energy policy in Arizona, Fanshaw said.

Mesa resident Kyle Hassell said he’s seen a significant savings in his utility bills since he installed solar panels in 2012.

“The negative is why charge for something that’s free?” Hassell said. “That’d be like charging a tax for everybody that commutes on a freeway and gets to use the HOV lane.”

Among the hundreds of protesters, many wore green shirts bearing the logo of SolarCity, an American company that finances and installs solar energy.

“We’re here to protect the rights of rooftop solar for both current customers as well as future customers,” said Chris Wahl, the regional sales manager for SolarCity. “I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to go against clean, renewable energy. A lot of people you see here in green shirts wouldn’t have jobs.”

Near the entrance of the Corporation Commission building, a line of chairs were placed for people waiting to testify before the commission. Inside, the maximum occupancy of the building had been filled and security was directing spectators to an overflow room at the House of Representatives building five blocks west.

By noon, at least 100 people had spoken to the Corporation Commission members, about half of those registered to do so. Each speaker was given three minutes to address the members, the majority opposing the APS proposals.

“We bring a new way, it’s a paradigm shift for a current utility,” Wahl said. “We’re here to break up the largest monopoly in the United States.”

The second hearing for public comment will begin Thursday morning on the first floor of the Corporation Commission building in hearing room one. A decision from the five commission members regarding the APS proposals is expected to be reached after this hearing.

Contact the reporter at thawtho@asu.edu