Solar Customers Fed Up With Utility Fees

Going solar seems like it should be the end of your days with the utility company, right? Once those panels are powered up and you’re getting energy from the sun, you can cut the cord. Not so fast.

Many people on solar installations are still hooked into thegrid because they don’t have the battery capacity to meet their energy needs when the sun’s not out. Plus, utilities aren’t happy about seeing people transition to solar, so they’re starting to slap on special rates and fees.

First, to install panels you usually need a permit, and some states have steep permitting fees. Once you get your panels in place, you may also be on a payment plan, a common practice in many states. And the utility’s promise to buy excess energy from you allowing you to earn money by feeding energy into the grid often comes with a catch: very low rates and/or a cap on the amount of energy it will buy.

Oh, and your utility may straight up charge you a fee for using solar power.

You may have thought you escaped unpredictable electric bills with puzzling charges the utility swears are all aboveboard, but in fact you’re in for a whole new era of confusing billing. Utilities say they need to charge solar fees for a variety of reasons. Among others, they’re allegedly necessary to help keep up electrical infrastructure for customers who are generating their own power most of the time and feeding it back into the grid. Because they aren’t billed like normal utility customers, they can turn into freeloaders, according to the logic of utilities.

In Wisconsin, there’s currently a battle with a utility trying to up the fees it can charge to recoup operating expenses. New York is contemplating fees of its own, while Alabama has some of the highest in the country. These fees are set by utilities, typically requiring state authorization, but officials and lawmakers are not always solely focused on their constituents. Utilities spend well and remember well come election time.

Critics say these fees make it really difficult to encourage people to get solar systems. The installation itself can be quite expensive, even in regions with financial assistance for low-income people, seniors and others in eligible groups. While the cost of making panels has fallen, labor charges have not. Depending on where people are, building a system out in compliance with local ordinances can be demanding and require complex permitting processes all of which adds to the expense.

Once that system is in place and all requirements are met, a charge from the power company can be an unexpected and unwelcome surprise. It’s an especially frustrating challenge in areas where people are trying to promote net zero energy and a movement away from reliance on environmentally harmful sources of electricity. Generating power from the sun is much cleaner than buying power from dams, coal-fired plants and other polluting energy sources.

In some states, people are starting to sue utilities over unreasonable solar fees, arguing they are not appropriate and shouldn’t have been approved. They’re also petitioning lawmakers to eliminate or cap them with the goal of keeping fees low and transparent, so people know what they’re getting into.

In the long term, anything that discourages people from installing solar systems is a big problem, especially when it comes to consumers with limited spending power for whom even a “small” fee of $5 to $10 a month can quickly become untenable.

If you’re not sure what the status of solar fees in your state is, contact your utility or public utility commission. Companies that design and install solar panels can also provide you with information about state policies and advocacy work if people are lobbying to change policies they find unreasonable.

Photo credit: powerofforever/Getty Images

36 comments

Maria P
Maria P7 hours ago

thank you

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Lisa M
Lisa M1 days ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa M1 days ago

Thanks.

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Sue H
Sue H2 days ago

The Greedocracy at work.. :(

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Hannah A
Hannah A3 days ago

Tyfs

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Steven W
Steven W3 days ago

Thank you.

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Peggy B
Peggy B3 days ago

Petition signed

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Peggy B
Peggy B3 days ago

TYFS

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Ruth S
Ruth S4 days ago

Thanks.

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Ruth S
Ruth S4 days ago

Thanks.

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