The Legislature is trying to craft a blueprint for expanding solar power in Washington. National solar-leasing companies are battling the bills, saying the changes would still leave them locked out of the state market.
The Legislature’s effort to forge a new blueprint for Washington solar power has stirred a fight from out-of-state companies that want to offer homeowners the option of leasing rooftop systems.
Bills now pending in the House attempt to keep the solar industry expanding while paring back state subsidies. Some provisions reflect months of negotiations between local solar installers that sell rooftop systems and public and private utilities around the state.
Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, currently has legislation furthest through the committee process.
He wants to extend the cutoff dates for providing state-subsidized rebate payments for solar installations. He also would gradually pare back the size of these annual payments that typically top $1,000 but can go as high as $5,000 for systems manufactured in Washington.
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But representatives of companies that champion solar leasing, which is generally not now available in Washington, say the bills don’t do enough to bring them into the state.
“They (the Legislature’s bills) result in solar only available for the privileged few,” said Bryan Miller, a spokesman for The Alliance for Solar Choice, a group that represents SolarCity, SunRun and other leasing companies that account for most rooftop installations in California.
“They are all trying to restrict solar, and that is why this is toxic politics for any politicians who vote for them.”
Morris says his bills would enable leasing companies to claim incentive payments now off-limits to them, and that he’s trying to grow — not restrict — solar power.
“This has been one of the more bizarre interactions I’ve had with out-of-state companies,” Morris said. “They haven’t done their background research about what’s been done here in Washington, and are just shooting their mouths off.”
Washington-based solar companies that sell and install rooftop systems also challenge the leasing companies’ portrayal of the state industry. With loans for photovoltaic systems widely available, they say their products are affordable even for homeowners who don’t have a lot of savings.
“I’ve been in this business eight years, and when I started every installation had a view of the water. Things have changed vastly,” said Reeves Clippard, chief executive of A&R Solar in Seattle. “They (customers) are all over map. More often than not, they’re middle class.”
The Legislature’s attempts to overhaul state policy are part of a broader struggle — waged state by state — to set ground rules for the rapidly evolving solar industry.
Solar power, a clean energy source that doesn’t contribute to climate change, represents less than a quarter of 1 percent of the nation’s electrical supply.
As prices come down and technology improves, the industry is undergoing a huge growth spurt.
The growth has spurred clashes between solar advocates and utilities over how to price the power and how to share the costs of maintaining the electric grid.
In more than 40 states, including Washington, homeowners who produce surplus solar power can sell it back to utilities at retail prices. This so-called “net metering” policy has been a cornerstone of solar’s growth, significantly boosting revenue for homeowners.
In Washington, homeowners who install photovoltaics also are eligible for the state-subsidized cash payments. That’s helped solar gain a foothold in Washington even though the state has some of the lowest power rates in the nation because of an abundance of hydropower.
But many legislators think these incentive payments are excessive and should be reworked before they are extended.
Meanwhile, some electrical utilities are exploring options for developing solar in their service areas, while national leasing companies are campaigning to operate in Washington.
Gov. Jay Inslee waded into the effort of overhauling the solar industry with an executive order issued last year.
“This is a priority for the governor. He is asking for a resolution this session — otherwise, the state’s growth in solar deployment could stall,” said David Postman, a spokesman for Inslee.
But there is now a tangle of bills pending in Olympia.
Inslee asked Washington State University to head an analysis of the industry and work with solar installers, manufacturers, utilities and other groups to come up with legislation. The end result was a bill introduced into the House earlier this month by Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma.
But Morris chairs the House committee that has jurisdiction over Fey’s bill. He disagrees with several parts of that bill and will not give it a hearing.
“The only way it could come out is if the leadership decided to roll me as the chair,” Morris said.
Instead, Morris wants to move ahead with his own bills, which emerged from several years of meetings with solar stakeholders.
Beyond changes in the incentive system, his legislation sets the stage for refashioning net metering. Once solar reaches a certain generating capacity within a service area, a utility could propose an alternative pricing structure to the Utilities and Transportation Commission, as well as fees to help maintain the grid.
Fey says that Morris’ legislation has some significant flaws, and he hopes to change it through amendments.
On the Senate side, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, has produced a road map for the solar industry that critics say would give utilities a leg up in any launch of the leasing industry.
“Out of step”
Solar-leasing companies say they will work to defeat all of those bills.
They bridle at provisions in each bill that would subject their contracts to review by the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.
They also say none of the bills offers them a level playing field to compete in the state, and they accuse Washington solar companies of teaming up with state utilities to try to shut them out of the market. The end result, they argue, will be more expensive solar installations that fewer people can afford.
“This is completely out of step with the progressive nature of Washington,” said Miller of The Alliance for Solar Choice. “We’re going to make sure that every constituent and every politician who is voting on these bills understand that.”
Representatives of Washington solar companies say they have spent a lot of time negotiating with utilities to try to find hard-won common ground and they hope legislation will pass.
“This has been a major step for us,” said Jeremy Smithson of Puget Sound Solar. “These issues are not going away.”