Rooftop Solar Fight Heats Up In Colorado

Xcel wants more renewable energy in Colorado – from wind and solar plants that feed the grid over big transmission lines. But distributed solar that’s used at or close to the source? That seems to be a different matter.

On the same day Xcel talked about new plans to add 170 megawatts of utility-scale solar and 450 megawatts of wind, a pro-solar group lashed out at what it characterized as an attempt by the company to stifle rooftop solar by undervaluing the benefits of net metering policies and inflating their costs.

rooftop solar net metering

image via U.S. Department of Energy

Vote Solar said that the utility was “using shady math and backroom tactics” in a study that it included as part of its 2014 plan for compliance with Colorado’s renewable energy standard. In the eyes of Vote Solar, that study “could be used to weaken one of the state’s most important solar policies, net metering.”

Contrary to costing Xcel, Vote Solar said net metering – which credits customers the full retail rate for power produced by their rooftop system, whether they use the power or send it back onto the grid – is saving the utility as much as $11 million a year by saving on investment in transmission and distribution infrastructure; reducing electricity lost over wires; saving on the cost of managing power delivery; and saving on the cost of meeting carbon and renewable requirements.

“Xcel has significantly undervalued solar power from its customers and we are determined not to let their incomplete math be used to dismantle the most important rooftop solar energy policy on the books,” Annie Lappé, solar policy director at Vote Solar, said in a statement. “While we understand that rooftop solar represents a change from the utility’s traditional way of doing business, it’s clear that Coloradans want that change.”

In its filing earlier this year, Xcel said it would add 42.5 megawatts of new solar generation in 2014, including 24 MW of onsite small solar and 6.5 MW of community solar through its Solar Rewards program. Oddly, the company said it “does not propose to change the amount of money paid to solar customers,” but then seemed to argue precisely for that:

Xcel Energy believes the value of the net metering incentive is not clearly identified. Solar generation does allow the utility to avoid the cost of fuel, some future generating plant needs and some system energy losses, but other costs related to distribution, transmission and generation capacity are not avoided so they ultimately are paid for by other Xcel Energy customers in Colorado.

Xcel is hardly the only company pushing back against net metering as more people produce their own power through rooftop solar – and reduce their electricity bills. We saw the same thing unfold earlier this year in San Antonio, for example, where CPS Energy said it was becoming difficult to to meet its cost of maintaining the energy infrastructure. The company said it’s only options were to reduce the amount it credits solar households for rooftop-produced solar, or raise rates for everyone.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.