Missouri legislators are fond of saying they are in favor of jobs and individual freedom. Yet, these ideals are contradicted every time an anti-solar bill is introduced. During the week of Feb. 27, two bills were filed that would add a burdensome, uneconomic charge against solar customers in the state. Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, and Rep. Jeff Knight, R-Lebanon, filed, respectively, SB 1065 and HB 2608. Both do the same thing and have the real aim of torpedoing the solar energy industry by causing solar customers to lose money.
The solar industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in the state. The role of solar technician is Missouri’s fastest-growing profession. Plus, solar customers love being able to have energy independence from state-sanctioned, monopolistic utilities. Not to mention their lowered utility bills.
Reductions in electric sales are bad for utilities, and therein lies the motivation for these bills. Under Missouri’s model for regulating privately owned electric companies, these companies earn a profit by building capital projects that produce power, such as new power plants. When private customers generate their own power, that threatens utility profits. The argument against solar usually goes something like this: The utility company pays for the grid, and having electricity come onto the grid from outside sources adds stress to equipment. That stress will lead to safety risks, we are told. Plus, it is simply too expensive for the utility to handle this additional power coming onto their lines. The charges being proposed by these two bills are allegedly designed to offset these expenses.
The utility companies’ line of thinking is wrong for a number of reasons. For starters, having additional sources reduces strain on the grid in other states. Further, utility companies must approve rooftop solar projects before they connect to the grid. That’s the law. The utility companies themselves must ensure that solar power is safe. If there were incidences where solar panels caused safety risks, these would be publicly known.
As far as cost goes, under Missouri law, solar customers must be paid for their energy at a wholesale rate. Utility companies then get to sell that same power at a retail rate. Under that basic calculation alone, the utility company is going to see a profit because it can sell the power for more than it pays to buy it.
If we allowed rooftop solar to help power the grid, it could generate power for up to 21% of Missouri’s electrical grid, according to a presentation at the Missouri Solar Energy Innovation conference in 2014. Hundreds of megawatts of power are made by independent solar providers all over the state. If anything, the potential for solar to help utility companies is being ignored.
But remember: Utility companies make more money when they can build plants than they can simply by purchasing power from someone else. As an example, the Public Service Commission allows its regulated utilities a chance to make a 9% to 10% return on their capital projects.
When it comes to solar, the issue becomes not about making money but about making more money. These are the facts. Then, there are politics. Utility companies have an oversized presence in Jefferson City. As an example, one investor-owned utility currently has 45 registered lobbyists on its payroll. That’s a lot of people. Rural electric cooperatives in Missouri also have an oversized presence in the legislature. Rural electric cooperatives are particularly opposed to customers producing their own solar power. Solar has formidable foes in Jefferson City. Legislation like SB 1065 and HB 2608 and this charge against solar customers comes up nearly every single year. Some might think saying this will end the solar industry is an overstatement. But one only has to look west to the state of Kansas to see how such a charge, enacted there in 2018, destroyed the solar industry.
Oddly, Missouri never wants to be like Kansas … unless it benefits the powerful. (Pun intended.)
But the Republicans should stick to their guns. Missouri needs an economic infusion, and it makes more sense to bolster a burgeoning industry than to handicap it. Moreover, giving people the right to make their own power should be encouraged in an age where concerns about grid infrastructure and a resilient electricity supply under threats of natural disaster and cybersecurity attacks abound.
SB 1065 and HB 2608, and the backward thinking they represent, should be rejected.
James Owen and Emily Piontek represent Renew Missouri. Owen is executive director of the organization. All views expressed are their own.