Sunday, November 17, 2013
An Already-Lost War
Last week, the Arizona state Corporation Commission allowed our local electric company, Arizona Power Systems, to charge extra to people who have put up solar generating systems on their own land. Why, you may ask? Well, APS argued that it had been supporting green-clean solar energy by, if you please, "subsidizing" solar users by buying the extra electricity these folks had generated at home and not used up themselves, but couldn't afford to do that anymore because there are so many solar users in the state nowadays. Besides, they insisted, everybody uses the electric grid which APS built, and therefore everybody should share in paying for it. APS originally wanted to charge solar users $100 apiece, per month, for the privilege of dumping their extra electricity into APS' grid. The Corporation Commission, whose idea of the scales of justice is a pair of coat-pockets, and whichever pocket gets filled heavier wins, generously decided that such a fee would be too high; APS can charge solar users no more than $5 per month.
Now think about this. People who put up solar generators on their own land (often on their own roofs) at their own expense, who turn sunlight (very abundant here in Arizona) into electricity, make enough electricity to power their own homes/farms/schools/shops/etc. and more, must pay the electric company for the extra power which those folks put into the state grid. Uhuh. This is like saying that anyone who makes his/her own gasoline and can't use it all him/herself must pay Exxon to come haul it away rather than selling it to the oil companies, let alone anyone else. Rrrrright.
This leaves solar-users three choices: 1) pay the minimal fee and forget about it, 2) get off the grid entirely, cut their ties to APS and tell the company to go scr#w itself, or 3) appeal the ruling in federal court. Either of those last two tactics will work.
I doubt if anyone else in Arizona knows this particular piece of history, since it happened more than 40 years ago in New York state, but it certainly applies here. Back in the 1960s, a fairly-famous Anarchist writer named Murray Bookchin lived in a co-op apartment building in New York city. Being very interested in the ecology movement (IIRC, he wrote one of the entries in the original Whole Earth Catalog), and being something of an electrical engineer himself, he persuaded the other members of his co-op to put up a wind-generator on the roof and use it to power the building. Their generator worked so well that not only did the whole building have abundant electricity, but it fed power back into the city's power-lines -- thereby making the meters run backwards. Well, the local electric company wasn't about to take that lying down; it sent the cops after the tenants for the crime of "cheating" the electric meters. The NYC government's courts (which were much more sympathetic to their city electric company -- Con Edison -- than to some bunch of radical weirdos) agreed, and charged the tenants ridiculous money. Murray Bookchin and his buddies didn't give up that easily; they appealed the case -- in the district federal court. There they argued that they had provably created their own electricity and didn't owe Con Ed anything. In fact, by putting the excess electricity into the grid, they had given the city added power -- and if anything, Con Ed owed them for the product. The judge agreed, overturned the lower court ruling, and ordered Con Ed to pay the tenants for the electricity they had generated (plus court costs) and any further electricity the tenants might pump into their lines in the future. Con Ed had no choice but to comply. Of course, the company found ingenious excuses to pay the tenants only pennies, but the point is, they were obliged to pay. Now remember, this ruling was made in federal court -- which means that the ruling applies in all states and territories of the US.
Yes, that includes Arizona. Once the solar users of Arizona discover that little fact, they can appeal the Corporation Commission's ruling -- likewise in federal court -- and get it reversed. APS will then have to pay every solar user in Arizona who generates more electricity than s/he can use and pumps the excess into the grid. It's federal law!
This is going to cost APS some serious money. Possibly this is why APS is sucking up as much money from solar users as possible, before they get wise. Possibly APS is hoping that those solar users will cut themselves off the grid first, so it won't have to pay.
In any case, solar generation is not going to go away. Neither will wind-generators in less sunny states. What will happen when all those green-clean generators get together, form a co-op, and become a power company of their own?