An electric company in West Texas wants users of alternative energy to pay for the privilege of living off the grid.
El Paso Electric has set up a separate rate structure to bill customers using alternative energy sources like solar panels. Those customers would be required to reimburse the utility company the amount of money they’re saving from using alternative energy sources.
Ryan Maye Handy reports on utilities, oil and gas for the Houston Chronicle, and has been following the story. She says that utility companies are trying to find a way to deal with customers they see as competitors.
“They are trying to charge these customers for the electricity they use, but the customers are also using their own electricity and putting it back into the grid. So it’s like there are mini-generators out there that the utility now has to compete with,” Handy says.
She says this is one way utility companies are trying to finance their operations in the face of declining profits. But consumers who have invested in alternative energy — often with costly solar panels — won’t see the payoff if they’re made to pay these charges.
“This is the crux of the debate here,” Handy says. “[U]tilities say we got to make up for the loss to the grid here, and all of the customers say The reason why we did this was to reduce our energy consumption.”
There are about 1,800 customers with solar panels in El Paso — less than one percent of all residential customers. But Handy says the use of solar energy is growing, and will have a greater significance moving forward.
“Are they really making a huge impact?” she asks. “Solar power is becoming much more popular, and they will be making more of an impact in the future.”
Handy says all forms of energy efficiency are reducing demand on the grid, from LED lightbulbs and high-efficiency appliances. She said that by adding charges, utility companies could deter consumers from committing to energy-efficient practices — a prediction she says alarms alternative-energy advocates.
“This is the fear here, is that if we charge these customers additionally, and put them in their own rate class for using their own energy…it will deincentivize, essentially, them to want to invest in solar power, which is a pretty big investment,” Handy says.
If El Paso Electric fails to come to an agreement with the city, the Public Utility Commission will hold a hearing next month.
Written by Lila Weatherly.