A recent ruling by the governor of Oklahoma, which had initially been welcomed by pro-solar advocacy groups for apparently supporting solar, has come under fire from some quarters following closer scrutiny.
Critics have claimed that an executive order issued by Mary Fallin ostensibly supporting solar could be undermined by an earlier bill that allows utilities to levy charges on solar and wind energy users to access the grid.
Fallin had issued an executive order stipulating that utilities would have to transparently explain and justify charges levied to distributed generation solar and wind customers and place value on renewable energy as part of a state-wide plan to increase deployment, as well as forcing utilities to put any proposed charges before the state utility commission. Executive orders are pieces of legislation, which have less force than statutes passed by state legislature but are nonetheless binding by law. The executive order had followed the passing of Senate Bill 1456; which had given utilities the leeway to apply charges to distributed generation solar and wind customers.
Advocacy group The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC) said following the issue of the executive order that said it was “notable” for the consideration it showed for distributed generation from solar and wind. Spokeswoman Susan Glick said that although the order mandated that “all executive entities shall support all forms of energy” including fossil fuels, the fact that Fallin, a Republican, highlighted the importance of “renewable energy and distributed generation in particular” was significant.
Senate Bill 1456 allowed utilities to brand distributed generation users as a new customer class, charging them higher base rates. Fallin’s order referred to the Oklahoma First Energy Plan which both promotes wind and solar as “important forms of clean energy which have a significant place in Oklahoma power generation”. The executive order stated that distributed generation is an essential part of the First Energy Plan.
US news outlets on both ends of the political spectrum, including FOX News and MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow reported that charges could be levied by utilities on DG customers, while TASC and others interpreted Fallin’s actions to mean that while the bill allowed charges to be levied in theory, the executive order meant in practice that any charges levied would have to be transparently costed and approved by the regional utilities’ commission.
PV Tech spoke to analyst John Farrell, of the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) about the ruling. He said that the senate bill, based on the theory that distributed generation customers are cross-subsidised for their grid use by non-solar customers, does empower utilities to levy charges from 2015 onwards.
Farrell went on to say that although the executive order from Mary Fallin suggests that any charges levied on DG customers should be applied after a transparent evaluation process, the order “doesn't suggest that the cross-subsidy notion is incorrect. It doesn't prevent the Commission from levying higher fixed charges on DG customers, but mentions that they have other tools to hand such as time-of-use rates and demand charges”.
Farrell also said that the Oklahoma First Energy Plan referred to by the executive order “has absolutely no provision that would undermine the Senate bill, but celebrates the opportunity to generate power from any in-state resource, whether fossil or renewable.” In Farrell’s opinion, although the plan refers to solar and other renewable sources in positive terms, it does so using what Farrell calls “weasel words” such as to “encourage” distributed generation, “where appropriate”.
Some commentators have pointed out the phenomenon of pro-solar political pressure from traditionally conservative groups may have pushed Fallin into referring to solar and wind power positively in the executive order.
Similarly, Farrell said, “It may be that Tea Party influence motivated the Governor to respond, and that itself is a sign of political power. But the actual legal language doesn't give me any comfort that, come 2015, distributed solar producers will avoid any new fixed charges.”
A report, issued in November by Vote Solar ranking US states by their friendliness to solar gave Oklahoma a 'D' rating and highlighted the state for criticism along with southern states Georgia and South Carolina.
This article has been updated to remove a minor innacuracy in one line which reported net metering as the direct focus of the bill, which refers to all forms of distributed generation.