COMMENTARY: Despite court ruling on rebates, solar benefits Missouri

Wednesday, July 20, 2011 | 5:26 p.m. CDT; updated 10:56 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Cole County Circuit Judge painted a gloom-and-doom slant on the solar industry when he ruled on June 29 against solar rebates in Missouri, referring to the expected crash of the solar industry.

His legal and economic analyses are both far from accurate.

The truth is that the solar industry has been around in Missouri for over 15 years, and solar rebates helped catapult the technology toward mainstream adoption in the last two years. 

However, dramatically falling prices for solar panels, a hefty 30 percent federal tax incentive and increased competition also mean that, even without a solar rebate, the price of solar power systems would be far less today than three years ago.

Make no mistake about it — in an arena where every form of energy is subsidized, and none more than the fossil fuel industry, solar would certainly suffer in Missouri if its state subsidy was taken away. 

But it won’t because the arguments the lower court recently used for declaring the solar rebate “illegal and unconstitutional” are nonsensical. 

The Public Service Commission and the attorney general, as well as the solar industry itself, are committed to upholding the law as written and challenging this lower court’s flawed logic.  

The court’s misconceptions are actually reflective of commonly held beliefs about solar, and this provides an opportunity for Missouri to learn about the real benefits it has to offer.

First, the court asserts that utilities receive “no benefit” for the solar rebates they pay out. 

In reality, the Public Service Commission requires solar systems that receive rebates to stay in place for at least 10 years, ensuring that this generation is online. And the times that these systems are online are typically the times when it’s the most expensive for utilities to generate power themselves. 

The more solar that’s online, the less utilities have to pay for their most expensive power plants to fire up during the hot, sunny afternoon hours.

Additionally, as opposed to independently financing and paying for new electricity generation, when utility companies pay solar rebates, they’re paying only a fraction — perhaps 33 percent — of the cost of the solar system.  

The rest is covered by the federal government and the customer’s checkbook.  This means that, from the utility’s standpoint, they’re bringing reliable generation online for less money per kilowatt-hour produced than they could ever hope for by building new coal or nuclear.  

If this isn’t a “benefit to the utility,” as well as to the rest of the ratepayers and the public, I don’t know what is.

The judge also states that it doesn’t change the utility’s electricity portfolio even “by one kilowatt.”

He’s right — using Ameren’s own numbers, the 442 kW of solar installed as a result of their rebate program wouldn’t generate “one kilowatt.” It will actually generate 552 megawatt-hours (552,000 kilowatt-hours) of electricity per year in Missouri.

The truth is that solar is here to stay in Missouri. 

Panel prices have fallen by over 300 percent in the last five years, and the total combined renewable energy installed in the United States just surpassed the amount of nuclear energy installed.  

The solar rebates have done a good job of helping Missouri catch up with the rest of the nation, and I believe that the lower court’s decision will be thrown out, and solar rebates will be up and running again in Missouri soon.

PJ Wilson is the director of Renew Missouri in Columbia. He has worked as a solar and wind installer and policy advocate in Missouri since 2006.

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Matt Wilkinson July 21, 2011 | 3:36 p.m.

Well stated P.J.

(Report Comment)
Norb Plassmeyer July 21, 2011 | 7:54 p.m.

The arguments offered here by a solar and wind power policy advocate miss the point of judicial review of a rule published under the state's rulemaking authority. By referring to "the court's misconceptions", and "arguments the court used....are nonsensical", Mr. Wilson implies that the ruling is based on the court's notions about renewable energy. But the rule is in fact based on arguments presented to the court by legitimate parties to the case trying to sort out the meaning and effect of a poorly written statute and rules related thereto.

(Report Comment)

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