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Idaho Power's Solar Energy Buyback Credit In Jeopardy

Michael Coghlan
Flickr Creative Commons

Solar panel owners may soon get credited less for the excess power they produce.


The debate comes down to the costs. Idaho Power customers pay on average 10 cents per kilowatt hour. Currently, customers with solar panels are credited one-to-one for the energy they send back to the grid. 

But Idaho Power says that rate is too high because generating non-solar power only costs them around three cents; the remaining seven cents goes to maintaining the power grid.

The utility is proposing cutting the 10-cent rate to more than half over the next eight years

Matthew Dunay works for a solar energy contracting company in Boise, Altenergy. He says the changes would hurt the state’s solar industry and would only help Idaho Power. 

“They get to compensate the solar customer at a much lower rate, but in turn, sell that unit of electricity immediately to the neighbor at full retail rate,” Dunay says.

But Idaho Power’s Sven Berg says crediting those with solar the full 10 cents means solar-generating customers aren’t paying for infrastructure upkeep. 

“That shifts the cost - the total cost for the overall system - to the people who don't have rooftop solar,” Berg says.

Dunay doesn’t think that’s a fair calculation

“But [Idaho Power] didn't have to pay to produce that unit of solar electricity or they didn't have to pay for the infrastructure to produce it,” Dunay says.

Also, Dunay claims solar actually saves the power company money at a time of year when power is most expensive for Idaho. “If they export power back to the grid, do so during peak summer hours when it's really expensive for Idaho power to generate electricity.”

Berg at Idaho Power says the decision comes down to fairness. Non-solar customers shouldn’t be subsidizing others’ solar panels. 

“We view environmental responsibility as part of our charge here at Idaho Power,” Berg says. “But part of being responsible is doing what is economically responsible and socially responsible.” 

Market forces could decide the power grid’s future. That’s according to Professor of public affairs Greg Nemet who focuses on energy policy at The University of Wisconsin Madison. 

“The economics, though, are kind of moving in favor of solar for a few different reasons,” Nemet says. 

Solar technology and battery storage is getting cheaper, he says, as the cost of mining coal continues to rise. Until then, “it’s really up to regulators to get smart on what all the implications are of these different rates, what the real costs are, who benefits.” 

Idaho Power hopes the state’s utility regulatory commission will make a decision soon, so changes could go into effect as early as Jan. 1.

For more local news, follow the KBSX newsroom on Twitter @KBSX915

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Molly Wampler is a newsroom intern at Boise State Public Radio. Originally from Berkeley, California, she just graduated from the University of Puget Sound in Washington state. There, Molly worked for her university's newspaper but is stoked to try her hand at and learn all there is to learn about radio journalism.