After comments, Regulators must decide rooftop solar power rules

JEFF AMY, Associated Press

After comments, Regulators must decide rooftop solar power rules

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Supporters of proposed Mississippi rules to ease installation of rooftop solar panels portrayed them Tuesday as a boon that will benefit all utility customers, while utilities expressed varying degrees of concern about the possibility of shifting costs to poorer customers.

Following a two-hour public hearing on the proposed rules governing how much utilities would pay owners of solar panels and other electric-generating devices, state regulators must now weigh those concerns. Public service commissioners must also decide whether they have the authority to order member-owned cooperatives to abide by the net metering rules.

Commissioners extended the comment period, and it's not clear when they will vote on the issue, which they've been considering since 2011. Both Northern District Commissioner Brandon Presley of Nettleton and Southern District Commissioner Steve Renfroe of Moss Point voiced support during the hearing. Renfroe and Central District Commissioner Lynn Posey of Union Church will leave office at year's end.

Mississippi is one of five remaining states without a net metering rule. A study for the commission found solar panel usage would benefit all ratepayers.

But utilities dispute that, saying customers without panels could end up subsidizing those with them.

The rule would require that utilities credit customers for power fed into the grid from solar panels or other generating methods. Customers would have to pay for a meter measuring electricity flowing both ways, plus line upgrades. But the proposal wouldn't allow other fees above standard connection charges.

"Net metering excites people because it gives them a choice," said Tyson Grinstead of the Alliance for Solar Choice, which lobbies for solar companies.

Christa Bishop, a lawyer for South Mississippi Electric Power Association, warned the plan would give solar panel owners more than surplus power is worth.

"The reality is what is being decided is how much customers without distributed generation will pay customers with distributed generation," Bishop said.

SMEPA generates and transmits power to 11 cooperatives in southern and western Mississippi. Cooperatives, which serve 767,000 customers statewide, argue commissioners don't have the authority to force them to adopt net metering.

Besides how much utilities will pay for power, commissioners must also decide whether they will cap how many customers can install panels. The rule proposes a 3 percent cap, while Entergy Mississippi proposes 0.5 percent and supporters seek no caps. Entergy and Mississippi Power Co. argue a solar generator shouldn't be able to roll over surplus credits into future months, limiting financial benefits.

Mississippi Power says some types of third-party financing arrangements could break Mississippi law about what constitutes an electrical utility. Proponents urged the commission to work around that concern, warning that unless consumers can finance or lease panels from a company besides their current utility, benefits will remain limited.

Robert Wiygul, a lawyer for Mississippi's Sierra Club chapter, urged commissioners to keep rules from becoming overly restrictive.

"The key is to try to keep from putting barriers in place to participate," he said.

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