Fox News is scheduled to come to Boise today to investigate the dispute between Idaho Power and its more than 300 customers with rooftop solar power systems.
I suspect that Fox is here because nationwide, indeed worldwide solar power’s time has come. So many solar panels have come on the market, especially from China, that the price of the panels has come down dramatically.
It was so dramatic that Transform Solar, the partnership between Micron Technology and Australian Energy company Origin, ended and the Nampa panels plant closed. It wasn’t that they didn’t have good technology, they just couldn’t compete on prices in the current market.
But as is true in any relatively free market, low prices benefit consumers. So all over the U.S. and in nations like Germany, homeowners are investing in rooftop solar systems.
The benefits are already amazing. For two hours one day in May of 2012, German homeowners and businesses generated enough solar power to meet the nation’s entire electric power demand, according to Bloomberg Businessweek in an excellent story on solar.
Remember, Germany is north of most of Idaho.
But there also are costs for the electric utilities who serve these customers. They now have to integrate all of this new power into their system but still have power ready when the sun goes down.
The challenge is even greater for regulated utilities, which depend on a public utilities commission to set their prices and approve their rate of return instead of the market. These companies, like Idaho Power made investments in coal plants, natural gas plants, power lines, substations and the other systems that send power to their customers every time they flick a switch. It also has the hydroelectric power plants, built 50 years ago and long paid off by customers, which use our public resource, moving water. These legacy generation plants keep our prices relatively low until the expected $500 million in relicensing costs is added sometime soon.
Under this regulated monopoly system that is nearly 100 years old, utilities have a right to expect a rate of return for the costs the PUC approves. But its solar customers argue that the recent proposal that increases their costs and actually would take some of the surplus power they produce in the summer when Idaho Power needs it by arbitrary taking all power credits left Dec. 31.
“We can manage market risks, but we can’t invest if a monopoly has the power to arbitrarily and severely change our economics,” Courtney White, who I interviewed for my story on Idaho Power’s net metering proposal, in her PUC comments.
So I will be interested in how Fox News approaches the story. Will it focus on the generous subsidies that the federal government gives to people who install rooftop solar panels on their homes?
Will it examine the role the free market plays or can play in this great electric energy transition we and the world are going through? Will it talk about the freedom individuals get if they are producing their own electricity instead of depending on the regulated utility?
Will it examine how the government-regulated utility made wise investments with guidance from past public utility regulators to keep Idaho’s rates lower than most of the rest of the country?Courtney White
I doubt it will talk about the underlying issue that supports the subsidies, which is human-caused, rapid climate change. It is not a subject the network has examined very deeply except for the political ramifications.