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Tension From Utility Companies Casts A Shadow On Rooftop Solar Industry


Electric companies are worried - not just about volatility in the Middle East or new guidelines on CO2 emissions. They're also worried about solar - specifically, the growing demand for rooftop solar panels. And according to reporting by Joby Warrick of The Washington Post, the utilities have mobilized to, as he puts it, stop a home solar insurgency. Joby Warrick, welcome to the program.

JOBY WARRICK: Nice to be here.

BLOCK: And you got access to a computer slide show - a presentation that was given to top utility executives three years ago at a Colorado resort. And it laid out what the problem is from their perspective. What did it show?

WARRICK: Well, it showed a long-term threat from their perspective. You know, for the longest time, you know, people have had solar rooftops, but it's usually an expensive novelty. But it's becoming so popular, and as they were looking at long-term trends, they saw it starting to cut into their bottom line because if people are making their own power at home using these rooftop solar panels, it means less money going to the utilities and less money to support the things that they need to do.

BLOCK: And so if they're alarmed about solar and people basically generating their own power on their rooftops, what are the utilities doing about it?

WARRICK: Well, they're starting to fight back. And they're doing it mostly on the state level looking for legislative fights in which they can try to introduce new fees for solar users. There was a couple of really high-profile battles in Indiana and Utah and a number of other states - 23 altogether that we've seen - in which they've tried to make it more expensive for people to have solar energy. And usually they do this by surcharges, standby fees - other kinds of charges that legislators would have to approve.

BLOCK: There is a coalition of people - and maybe an unlikely coalition of people - fighting back against these potential new fees. Who are they?

WARRICK: It's interesting that some of the most conservative states - the real red states - have not looked favorably upon these new fees. And the ones that are fighting them are not just the green people, the folks that want solar energy, but also a lot of free-market conservatives and evangelicals - people who want solar panels because they like them on their churches or they just like the idea of preserving the environment and they don't want to see these new fees added to slow down this industry.

BLOCK: Now, you talked with an industry executive for your story, and he told you we are pro-solar. He made the argument that the folks with solar panels drive up rates for everybody else because they need to cover infrastructure costs, right? Transmission lines and maintenance crews - does he have a valid point there?

WARRICK: You know, that is the point they make, and there is some legitimacy to this. It's a cost shift issue as they see it, and it's one that will have to be grappled with in some way because if people are generating their own electricity and they're not paying as much money to the utility company, then who pays for the power plant? Who pays for the maintenance crews and all the other fixed costs that utilities have? And so the utilities argue that well, sure - have your solar panel but you have to still chip into the system because on that cloudy day or at nighttime when you can't get your solar power, you still need us.

BLOCK: When the utilities are talking about cost shifting, the point they're making is that the folks who can afford to put in pretty expensive solar panels on their roofs are shifting the burden of infrastructure maintenance cost to the people who can't afford it, right? The people with not as much money.

WARRICK: That's right. And the utilities have tried to make this in some ways, almost a class issue. Because traditionally, people who can afford to put a solar roof on their house have more money. And so the utilities are seeking new allies, and some of the ones they're turning to are minority groups or sort of Black Caucus organizations at some of the state legislatures - trying to get them to help make the point that if you're going to have, you know, expensive solar roofs in certain neighborhoods that can afford them, it's going to mean higher utility rates for the rest of us including the poor.

BLOCK: The PowerPoint presentation that we talked about at the beginning talks about the potential obsolescence of the traditional utility model. And it made me wonder what a new model would look like. Is there a new model?

WARRICK: It's something that some companies are starting to look ahead toward and thinking about how they can incorporate some of these home systems into their larger system - into the grid without changing their cost scenarios. But it's something, I think, the utilities don't really have a good handle on, and that's why they're very anxious about it right now.

BLOCK: That's Joby Warrick, national reporter for The Washington Post. Joby, thanks so much.

WARRICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.