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We have reached that point in spring when many state legislatures have adjourned, and we can begin to tally the clean energy winners and losers. To start this week, we go to Iowa, where solar power companies feel like they averted extinction because of a bill that didn’t pass.

I’m Dan Gearino, your guide to the clean energy economy. Send news tips and comments to dan.gearino@insideclimatenews.org, and thanks for reading.

— Dan

Rooftop Solar Wins in Iowa, But What’s Next?

The Iowa General Assembly ended its session over the weekend without passing a utility-backed bill that would have imposed new fees on rooftop solar customers. Solar companies said the proposal posed an existential threat to their industry.

The bill passed the Iowa Senate but didn’t have enough support to pass in the House, thanks in large part to solar entrepreneurs and their customers who worked for weeks lobbying against the measure. A few weeks ago, I wrote for ICN about the debate and the origins of Iowa’s solar economy.

This was a refreshing turn of events for Christopher Rants, a lobbyist representing the solar companies. He was a member of the Iowa House from 1993 to 2010, and was the chamber’s Republican leader for most of the 2000s. I know him because I covered the legislature during his time as leader.

“It was a power play,” he said, about the push by the utility MidAmerican Energy, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, to pass the bill. He viewed the measure as an attempt to severely diminish rooftop solar in the state, regardless of the economic consequences.

So, he was pleased to see that lawmakers listened to the concerns being raised about the bill. Solar companies and their customers, including many farmers who rely on solar power, came to the statehouse and talked to lawmakers about how the bill would hurt them.

The bill did not specify an amount for the fee, but MidAmerican said a typical household with rooftop solar should pay an additional $328 per year to cover grid services that they don’t otherwise pay for. This means it would take longer for homeowners to recoup the costs of going solar through reduced energy bills.

So what’s next?

Solar companies say they want to negotiate with MidAmerican about a way to address the utility’s concerns without wiping out the solar industry. One suggestion is to have a third party do a study of the costs and benefits of solar for the electricity grid. Throughout the debate, solar companies pointed to a similar study done in Minnesota as a potential model for Iowa.

“We know from looking at other states that smart people can find ways to transition to the next step for net metering,” Rants said.

Indeed, there are debates in many states about net metering, which is the system in which solar owners get compensated for excess electricity they sell to the grid. 

Barry Shear, owner of Eagle Point Solar in Dubuque, Iowa, and a board member of the state solar trade association, says he hopes the bill’s failure will help bring MidAmerican to the table to come up with a compromise. 

“We feel pretty good about it but we’re not so naive that we don’t think they’ll be back next year,” he said. “We’re just going to have to keep up the fight.”

I asked MidAmerican about the possibility of meeting with solar company leaders, and this was the response:

“We welcome the opportunity to continue this conversation with solar companies and other stakeholders who share the same goal of increasing renewable energy in Iowa,” spokeswoman Tina Hoffman wrote in an email.
 

Coal Industry Plays Defense in Indiana 

An Indiana utility wants to close its two remaining coal-fired power plants, and the coal industry has fought that plan every step of the way. 

The utility NIPSCO proposed last summer to close its two coal-fired power plants, a decision based almost completely on economics. The company projected that it would save $4 billion over 30 years by closing the plants and filling the gap with new wind, solar and storage.

The stakes are huge for the coal industry. Indiana produces more electricity from coal than any state other than Texas. And, Indiana has a politically powerful coal industry because of the presence of coal power and the legacy of coal mining, although only a few mines remain open.

But coal companies were not well positioned to stop NIPSCO’s plan. Utilities file their long-term plans with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, a five-member panel that has clear guidelines on the factors to be weighed in such cases. NIPSCO’s plan seemed to check all the boxes for regulators.

So coal interests tried to get the Republican-led Indiana General Assembly to intervene instead.

This led to a flurry of activity, including the hiring of Scott Pruitt, the former head of the U.S. EPA who had resigned amid scandal, as a lobbyist for a coal company. 

You can read about how that went over in Indiana and what happened next in the story I wrote for ICN.

David Konisky, professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University Bloomington, explained how unusual this fight has been. Utilities and the coal industry — both powerful interests — are working against each other in Indiana, where their interests have almost always overlapped.

This puts lawmakers in a business-friendly state in the position of having to choose between business interests.

“Things are in flux,” Konisky said. “The utilities operating in the state are not immune the economic changes happening in the industry. They have come to the realization that coal is not going to be a viable option in the long term.”
 

Michigan Officials Reject Solar Fee in DTE Case

On Thursday, Michigan utility regulators voted to modify and approve a rate plan for DTE, the state’s largest utility. In doing so, they rejected parts of the company’s proposal that rooftop solar advocates had said would do serious harm to their industry.

The Michigan Public Utilities Commission refused DTE’s request to add a $2.31 per-kilowatt monthly charge for rooftop solar customers, which would add up to about $500 per year for someone with 5-kilowatt system, a common size for a home solar system.

The utility sought the fee based on the argument, also used by MidAmerican in Iowa, that solar customers need to pay more to cover the grid services they use.

The commission said the proposed fee would not be equitable and would not be in line with the principle that charges should be based on the costs of service.

The other key issue for rooftop solar in the case was DTE’s proposal to drastically cut the rates customers receive for selling excess electricity back to the grid. The commission essentially split the difference here, choosing a rate structure similar to one developed by the commission’s staff that is between what consumers currently get and the rate DTE sought. I don’t yet have an estimate in dollars of how the approved option compares to the proposal.

Also in this case: DTE was proposing to spend $13 million to start a program to support electric vehicles in its service territory, which I wrote about in this newsletter last month. As expected, that part of the plan was approved.

Solar advocates told me in October that they were extremely concerned the commission would approve DTE’s solar provisions, and that it would be devastating for the industry and its customers.

So how do they feel now?

“This is welcome news,” said Becky Stanfield, a senior regional director for Vote Solar. “I also think it’s a long way from establishing the market dynamics we need to really establish rooftop solar in Michigan, so we have a lot of work ahead.”
 

Renewable Generation Likely Topped Coal in April

U.S. renewable energy likely hit a milestone in April, with the renewable sources projected to produce more electricity than coal for the first time ever. It showed up in the Energy Information Administration’s Short Term Energy Outlook, issued early last month.

This was trumpeted as a “momentous transition” in a blog post from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).


Renewable power systems — led by hydro, wind and solar — were projected to generate 2,322 gigawatt-hours per day in April, while coal-fired power plants were projected to generate 1,997 gigawatt-hours per day. Both renewables and coal trailed natural gas, projected to generate 3,388 gigawatt-hours per day.

Yes, it’s a big deal, but it’s not a surprise. Coal generation is on a long-term decline, and renewable generation is on the rise. The two lines were going to cross.

It’s also not a surprise that this is happening in the spring, when overall energy demand is low and coal plants may be down for maintenance or running far below their capacity.

This is one of what will be many milestones as renewable power continues to grow.

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