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Solar Power

John Coffman, a land steward for The Nature Conservancy, stands in front of the Red Canyon Ranch’s large solar panels while a worker’s pet sheep grazes in 2014 near Lander. Wyoming ranks near the bottom nationally for solar power generation.

These are boom times in the U.S. solar sector. American solar developers are expected to install some 9.5 gigawatts worth of power capacity this year, enough to power roughly 1.5 million homes. Only natural gas, with 8 gigawatts in estimated additions, comes anywhere close.

The increase has been fueled by the falling cost of panels, a tax credit passed by Congress last year and growing concerns over climate change.

Wyoming solar developers, by contrast, have yet to feel the warmth. The Cowboy State’s powerful rays mean solar panels installed here are some of the most productive in the nation. The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, estimates Wyoming residential panels have the eighth most energy potential in the nation.

And yet the 2.3 megawatts of solar power installed statewide ranks 46th in the country in terms of total capacity.

A group of solar advocates want to change that. Their proposal, presented to state legislators last month, is to lift the 25 kilowatt cap on projects now able to sell the surplus power they generate back to the grid.

Doing so, they hope, will boost commercial solar installations and create a new source of employment at a time when the state is suffering from a severe downturn in the coal, oil and gas sectors.

“I think what this step has the ability to do is unleash a new sector of solar development in Wyoming, a sector that doesn’t exist right now, commercial solar,” said Scott Kane, owner of Creative Energies, a Lander-based solar installer. “When we look around to other states, there is as much commercial development as there is residential development.”

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The proposal faces uncertain prospects in Cheyenne. State Sen. Cale Case, a Lander Republican who chairs the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, expressed concerns after hearing the plan aired at his committee’s meeting last month.

Those who sell their surplus power back to the grid may not be shouldering their share of system costs like transmission, distribution and generation, he said. The Lander lawmaker said legislators are nevertheless likely to talk about the subject in coming months, saying, “I think compensation for solar designed power can be devised in an appropriate way.”

The measure could also face opposition from the state’s utilities. Similar policies has become a flash point in state capitols across the country in recent years, as the number of panels installed on homes and businesses has surged.

Many states allow homeowners and businesses who install solar arrays to utilize a practice known as net-metering, where surplus power is sold back to the grid at the retail rate. Put differently, consumers sell their excess power back to the utility at the price they would normally buy electricity it at.

Utilities are increasingly critical of the practice. They say net-metered customers pay less for system costs like transmission, effectively raising rates for customers who do not install solar arrays. In the most famous spat to-date, Nevada regulators sided last year with the local utility, NV Energy, in deciding to ax that state’s net-metering provisions.

PacifiCorp representatives, in a separate presentation to Wyoming lawmakers last month, called the practice a “growing problem across the country,” saying it amounted to a subsidy for ratepayers who place panels on their homes and businesses.

A spokesman for the utility, asked about the Wyoming proposal, said "the company believes that the net metering rules and policies are appropriate and changes are not necessary."

PacifiCorp and NV Energy are both subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

Solar advocates at the national level say those arguments are overblown. Residential and commercial systems still comprise a tiny fraction of the power market. They also offer competition, providing consumers with a choice and lowering residents’ monthly electricity bills in markets where regulated utilities have traditionally been the only player.

That debate has largely been absent in Wyoming, due to the size of the state’s solar industry and its policies around net-metering. Consumers pay a relatively high $20-a-month fixed fee to cover distribution costs, said Al Minier, chairman of the Wyoming Public Service Commission.

“That tends to operate as an economic deterrent to making the leap to net metering,” Minier told lawmakers on the Corporations Committee last month.

In March, PacifiCorp., the state’s largest utility, had 216 net-metering customers. By contrast, it had 8,057 net-metering customers in Utah, where solar development is increasing at a rapid clip.

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Of the 12 solar firms based in Wyoming, many are small operations. Green Steps Inc. in Buffalo is a one-man operation that owner John Snyder operates on the side of his full-time job at the Veterans Home of Wyoming.

Steve Lieske, the owner of Harmony Solar in Laramie, is one of three employees who install five to six solar arrays annually. The company is also a heating contractor.

Raising the 25 kilowatt cap would do little for their businesses, both owners said, though neither were opposed to the idea. Residential systems are generally around 4 kilowatts, meaning they would be unaffected by the change.

Cost remains a primary impediment to solar development, Lieske said, echoing a point of several other installers. Wyoming has relatively low electricity costs. That means homeowners recoup smaller monthly savings by installing solar panels than their peers in states where electricity is more expensive. It also means the time frame for paying off a system is longer than what it would be elsewhere. (The average cost of a residential system is $22,000, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.)

“Most people don’t care only about financials, but everyone cares at least a little bit,” Lieske said.

Backers of the proposal to lift the cap say the state’s solar industry is so small that it could grow substantially and still have little impact on Wyoming’s electricity system.

“We have lots of opportunity to grow this industry, to create jobs, diversify the economy and still not reach the level talked about by utilities in other states,” said Stephanie Kessler, director of external affairs at the Wyoming Outdoor Council, a conservation group.

She pointed to Utah where the number of people now employed in the solar industry stands at 2,679. In Colorado that figure is nearly 5,000. Wyoming’s solar sector, meanwhile, employs 90 people.

Kane, the Creative Energies owner, said lifting the cap would drum up more business for his company by attracting commercial customers. The Lander-based firm employs around 20 people and works in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. Last year, the company installed 7,000 panels, or roughly 2 megawatts of power, with the majority of that coming in Utah.

“We would love for most of it to be in Wyoming, and we’ll do our part to make that happen, but Utah is where the demand is,” Kane said.

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Follow energy reporter Benjamin Storrow on Twitter @bstorrow.

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