The Arizona Corporation Commission's decision followed a suggestion by the Arizona Public Service Co. to halt its request for higher fees and instead study the cost of rooftop solar customers. But commissioners went a step further and closed the entire case.
They then voted to do a separate review of the cost and value of solar customers that will help them decide not only APS' request for higher fees but those of many other utilities as well. Those requests would come in electricity-rate cases that are either ongoing or expected to be filed. APS plans to file its rate case next year.
Commissioners were urged by their staff to do solar-cost studies in full cases that examine all aspects of a regulated utility's operations before setting rates, but they were concerned that might slow the process. APS also urged an early examination of the solar issue, which they believe needed to be addressed quickly.
"Why don't we wait until the rate case - the answer to that question is pretty simple," said Barbara Lockwood, an APS executive. "It's too important to wait, and it's causing too much chaos in Arizona."
"It's hyper-political and unfortunately it's gotten deeply personal," she added.
APS and other utilities contend non-solar customers are being increasingly forced to pay more than their share to support the power grid because of solar customers who are growing in number each year. Solar companies are pushing back, worried that increased charges for solar customers will make the business uneconomical.
APS wanted the monthly solar fee boosted from the $5 a month approved in 2013 to $21 per month.
The proposals have set off a political fight on the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates the utility. Solar-backed entities have filed complaints against several commissioners, saying they have conflicts of interest for various ties to utility companies.
One of those is the widely held belief that APS spent as much as $3.2 million in last year's Corporation Commission election to back its favored candidates, who easily won. APS will neither confirm nor deny that it spent the money.
Commission chair Susan Bitter Smith was the only no vote on the proposal, saying she thought the matter of the costs and benefits of solar properly belonged in a full rate case. She acknowledged that no matter what direction the commission took, the contentious issue is unlikely to fade soon.
"I as always of us would like the chaos to go away - but that's not going to happen anytime soon," she said.
APS is a subsidiary of Pinnacle West Capital Corp. and serves more than 1.2 million homes and businesses in 11 Arizona counties.