By Diane Cardwell
For years, power companies have watched warily as solar panels have sprouted across the nation’s rooftops. Now, in almost panicked tones, they are fighting hard to slow the spread.
Alarmed by what they say has become an existential threat to their business, utility companies are moving to roll back government incentives aimed at promoting solar energy and other renewable sources of power. At stake, the companies say, is nothing less than the future of the American electricity industry.
According to the Energy Information Administration, rooftop solar electricity — the economics of which often depend on government incentives and mandates — accounts for less than a quarter of 1 percent of the nation’s power generation.
And yet, to hear executives tell it, such power sources could ultimately threaten traditional utilities’ ability to maintain the nation’s grid.
“We did not get in front of this disruption,” Clark Gellings, a fellow at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit arm of the industry, said during a panel discussion at the annual utility convention last month. “It may be too late.”
Advocates of renewable energy — not least solar industry executives who stand to get rich from the transformation — say such statements are wildly overblown. For now, they say, the government needs to help make the economics of renewable power work for ordinary Americans. Without incentives, the young industry might wither — and with it, their own potential profits.
The battle is playing out among energy executives, lawmakers and regulators across the country.
In Arizona, for example, the country’s second-largest solar market, the state’s largest utility is pressuring the Arizona Corporation Commission, which sets utility rates, to reconsider a generous residential credit and impose new fees on customers, months after the agency eliminated a commercial solar incentive. In North Carolina, Duke Energy is pushing to institute a new set of charges for solar customers as well.
Nowhere, though, is the battle more heated than in California, home to the nation’s largest solar market and some of the most aggressive subsidies. The outcome has the potential to set the course for solar and other renewable energies for decades to come.