I spent an interesting, occasionally entertaining, afternoon last week with three Utah Public Service Commissioners and 140 citizens commenting on Rocky Mountain Power’s request to jack up the fees and rates for rooftop solar electricity.
To give the proceedings an air of the absurd, the Chairman of the commission resembled heavy-jowled Soviet Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (the definitive nuclear apocalypse movie, where a madman seizes controls of the US nuclear arsenal and initiates war, with hilarious consequences).
The vast majority of speakers were opposed to RMP’s “special rate request” to charge customers who have rooftop solar more to connect to the grid. The rate hike isn’t aimed at the several thousand current owners of rooftop solar, who would be grandfathered into the existing rate structure, but rather at the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of disloyal RMP customers who are likely to embrace rooftop solar as soon as they can afford it.
With the current rate structure, federal and state tax rebates, the plummeting cost of installing rooftop solar and the darkening clouds of anthropogenic extreme weather events/global warming/climate change/whatever, there’s never been a better time to install rooftop solar. And that’s why RMP has filed this rate request, to forestall the end of its monopoly. A similar “rate adjustment” in the favor of Nevada’s electricity industry put the skids to solar installations back in 2015.
At the commission’s request, the study to justify the rate increase was done by RMP, rather than by an impartial consultant, presumably to save taxpayers some money, but also because that way it’s easier to cherry-pick the results and make the most favorable case for the rate increase. One speaker pointed out that of 35 studies of the effects of rooftop solar from across the country, 31 found net benefits. The four studies that found disbenefits were all done by electric utilities. So the fix is in.
Some of the cherry-picking included pointing out an apparent mismatch between Utah’s solar electric output peak and the system-wide demand peak. The reality is that Utah’s solar electric output peak closely matches Utah’s electric demand peak, ridiculing any claims that rooftop solar cannot supply peak demand.
What caught my attention was when a woman, we’ll call her Miss Zippy, came forward who said she was speaking on behalf of Americans for Pollution. AFP ~ you might know them as Americans for Prosperity ~ is a nonprofit political advocacy group funded to the tune of $82 million in 2014 by the Koch brothers and their good friends. AFP’s mission statement ~ “to mobilize citizens to advocate for policies that cut red tape and increase opportunity, put the brakes on government overspending, and get the economy working for hard workers ~ not special interests” ~ is particularly ironic, since it is the Koch brothers’ special interests that AFP is most interested in.
Koch Industries is the second-largest private company in the US, with revenue of $115 billion in 2015. If they were a public company they would be 17 on the fortune 500 list.
Miss Zippy stated that, while RMP is a monopoly, Americans For Pollution thought that that was less important than the potential harm to poorer electricity users from unfair electricity rates.
Electricity rates are extremely complex, with dozens of different rates depending upon when and how much electricity you use. The Public Service Commission of Utah is tasked by the Utah legislature with setting those rates fairly. As with too much of government regulation, the Commission is forbidden from considering externalities. Externality is a fancy way of saying the public cleans up the messes that industry makes, whether it’s the dirty air we clean with our lungs or abandoned mine sites cleaned up by the government.
This is where global warming doesn’t come in. Global warming is the mother of all externalities, but you might as well go talk to a wall as waste your breath telling the commissioners how rooftop solar can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It goes in one ear and out the other. It’s ironic that the commissioners have to listen to seven hours of citizen input while the legislators who determine the scope of regulations only listen to a few arguments pro and con then vote the way AFP’s generous contributions and incessant lobbying tell them to.
“Economic freedom” is one of Americans for Prosperity’s favorite buzzwords. They don’t mean open markets, because if there is one thing a capitalist doesn’t believe in, it’s open markets – it’s hard to make an indecent profit if you are playing on a level field.
According to Wikipedia, “economic freedom” includes “the right to control and benefit from property and the right to transfer property by voluntary means.” Which sounds very noble until you realize that Americans for Pollution and the Koch brothers believe that things like breathable air and a stable climate are not property that we own, but rather are the property of whoever exploits them first. They take great umbrage at our insistence to claim breathable air and a stable climate as our citizens’ common property.
What gives me grief is that between regulatory capture ~ one of the three commissioners worked for RMP before being appointed to the commission ~ and the ability of corporations to throw their weight around politically since the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, our democracy has devolved into a plutocracy.
The silver lining in this story is all the committed solarphiles who spoke at the hearing, letting the commissioners, and by extension the legislature, know how important this issue is to them and the future. As long-ago labor organizer Joe Hill famously said, “Don’t mourn, organize.”
John deJong is CATALYST’s associate publisher.