A battle over rooftop solar panels is brewing in New York.
As regulators revamp the way utilities pay homeowners for the solar power they feed the grid, they’re mulling a monthly charge to support clean-energy and efficiency programs. It would amount to about $6 a month, but clean-energy advocates warn it could still erode solar’s fiscal advantage.
“It could fundamentally change the economics,” David Gahl, the Solar Energy Industries Association’s senior director of state affairs for the Northeast, said in an interview.
The proposal comes as new residential solar installations have already slowed for the last two years in New York, partly from uncertainty as the state revamps its electricity market. If they slow more, it could make it tougher for New York to meet Governor Andrew Cuomo’s goal to get 100% of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2040.
Debates over fixed charges for solar customers have played out in states across the U.S. Utilities contend that when homeowners with rooftop panels are allowed to sell power back to the grid at retail rates — which is called net metering — they avoid paying their fair share to maintain wires, poles and the rest of the system. So they’ve pressed regulators to increase fixed charges.
The proposed fees in New York aren’t to maintain the grid. Rather, they’re for state programs including the New York Green Bank and an initiative to promote solar for homes and businesses, according to a study prepared for regulators by the consulting group, Navigant. Customers without panels already pay the fees as surcharges on electricity sales. But solar customers, who buy less power because they generate their own, pay far less.
“This is an idea to claw back some of that by charging solar customers,” said Karl Rabago, executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center. He said it’s a fallacy that solar customers aren’t paying their fare share for the public good.
A spokesman for New York Department of Public Service, John Chirlin, declined to discuss the proposed fees. He said the agency’s staff will continue working “with all interested stakeholders in developing final recommendations” for a new net-metering policy.
New York homeowners installed about 75 megawatts of rooftop panels last year, down from 96 megawatts in 2017, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
Evan Dube, senior director of public policy for rooftop panel installer Sunrun Inc., said New York’s process to revamp its net-metering policy has been “very long and thoughtful.” But adding monthly fees, he said, could undermine the effort.
“As those customer savings are eroded through charges like this, that obviously has an impact,” he said.