The Pella Electric Cooperative has told the Iowa Utilities Board it will no longer seek to charge some customers using solar panels a much higher "facilities fee," Karen Uhlenhuth reported today for Midwest Energy News. The rural electric cooperative had informed members in June that customers installing new solar panels after August 15 would be charged a monthly fee of $85, which is $57.50 higher than what most of the Pella Electric customers pay. Those who had already installed solar systems would be exempt from the higher fee for five years, but would have to start paying it in 2020.
The cooperative’s action provoked an outcry from renewable energy advocates as well as from the handful of Pella Electric customers who would have been immediately affected. Uhlenhuth noted that the non-profit Environmental Law & Policy Center intervened with the Iowa Utilities Board, saying “a fee levied only on customers with distributed generation facilities ran counter to two provisions in Iowa law.” The Office of Consumer Advocate (part of the Iowa Attorney General’s office) asked the cooperative to provide data supporting a much higher monthly fee for solar users. The cooperative had refused to release its “cost of service” study last month.
To all appearances, the coop backed down once leaders realized they were on shaky legal ground, much like Alliant Energy reversed its position on net metering for some solar projects, shortly after critics had intervened with the utilities board. Uhlenhuth quoted a statement released by the Pella cooperative, which sounds like an unconvincing attempt to save face. The coop’s chief executive officer John Smith claimed it is “incorrect” to depict the higher facilities fee as “discriminatory.” He is sticking to his story that charging solar users more was merely an effort to be “fair” to other customers. While not admitting that the cooperative was wrong, the statement said it is withdrawing the proposal “until such time that we can better educate our members and the community as to the fair and equitable recovery of fixed costs.”
A press release from the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which I enclose in full below, notes that the Pella cooperative already benefits from solar panels installed by its customers, because it “buys excess solar energy at a rock bottom price” of 3.3 cents per kilowatt-hour and “sells it at a premium” price of 10.1 cents per kWh. (I’m an active supporter of the ELPC, but I have no role in drafting their public statements or legal strategy.)