The Plight of Solar in Farmington

By February 3, 2017Climate Change

By Mike Eisenfeld, Energy & Climate Programs Director

Last week, I attended the full, four-hour Farmington, NM City Council meeting. The Farmington Electric Utility System (FEUS) and their consultant, NewGen, presented to the Council. The City hired NewGen for 200,000 to analyze how to equitably define rates for the utility over the next three years. Their presentation, however, focused on customers who have solar on their homes and participate in net-metering.

“Net-metered solar” is a solar power system connected to the public electricity grid. The system takes electricity from the grid when sunlight is limited and then gives electricity back to the grid when it generates more than it needs. Customers pay when they take power and are reimbursed when they give power back.

NewGen argued we solar users in Farmington aren’t paying to help upkeep the utility’s infrastructure we use during the limited times when the “sun doesn’t shine.” They claim this “free” use of infrastructure is in essence “subsidizing” solar. To counter this, their solution was a $43 per month fee ($516 yearly) for net-metered customers where currently there is no such fee.

The idea of this “free” use of infrastructure as a subsidy is absurd. I have been a customer of FEUS for 20 years and installed 20 solar panels on my roof in 2011. Most solar power systems, such as the one on my house in Farmington, are specifically designed for the building they service. In the current system, we receive 8 cents per kilowatt when we feed electricity back into the grid. Often we “take” just as much power from the grid as we “give back;” the incentive for solar is not guided by making money off net-metering. The decision to install solar panels, as it was with my family, is often guided first and foremost by ethics and an effort towards sustainability.

The amount of money the utility will get from its small number of solar users is a drop in the bucket. But that’s not the point of the fee. Through this fee, the utility is making solar economically unfeasible. Potential future net-metering solar users will be deterred because the fee makes solar more expensive than staying on the grid. Despite society’s growing realizations of the dangers of fossil fuel reliance, the City of Farmington just imposed a financial penalty on solar.

About 30 solar proponents were present at the Council meeting and most spoke during the public comment period. Many comments were about the city creating a disincentive for people considering putting solar on their homes in Farmington and how, philosophically, this is moving the utility in entirely the wrong direction. People’s comments were well-informed and thoughtful, but the City disregarded them, voting 4-0 to approve the fee.

FEUS is grandfathering the approximately 100 existing solar net-metered customers at the current rate of 8 cents/kw for solar production. The solar “standby” fee will apply only to new customers and likely only new customers will be able to test it in court if they so choose.

The solar advocates at the meeting were simply ignored by the City Council.  I hope people aren’t discouraged. It seems investing in battery storage will be the way to go for those considering solar in the future. I wouldn’t pay the $516 a year; I would invest in batteries and get off the grid.

While the outcome of the City Council meeting was discouraging, public involvement in our City and FEUS decisions is extremely important. The next opportunity to engage is in FEUS’s Integrated Resource Planning (IRP), which will determine the energy mix the utility will pursue in the future. The Draft IRP (starts at page 22) can be downloaded here.

FEUS says they intend to put up a community solar project (500kW). We need to engage in this IRP process early to make sure that happens and move this utility off of the addiction to fossil fuels.

Please sign up for San Juan Citizens Alliance alerts so we can let you know of ways to get involved in the future. Our voices are necessary to move the utility off of coal to solar.

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