Reform 'net metering' for equity with solar power

It would seem the conversation around solar policy in Illinois is heating up - and rightly so. We all want a more efficient power sector and a clean energy future. However, before you jump into the solar debate, it's worth taking a look at the experience of other states and how policies like net metering have played out in terms of equity for consumers.

Illinois has an appetite to go green, with a push for clean energy at the center. Clean, affordable energy is undoubtedly the foundation for a brighter, more sustainable future in the state.

As proposed legislative initiatives seek to jump start solar in Illinois and energy providers look to develop innovative technologies to seamlessly integrate solar into the grid, there's no doubt that solar will have a role to play in the state's energy future. Personal or private solar panel systems are becoming more affordable and more efficient. This is all really good for the state.

Given all of this, now is the time to set the foundation for smart, sustainable growth of solar and to ensure that all residents are able to access it. This can be done by updating policies that are exacerbating the inequity of green energy sources.

One of these is a policy called net metering, which allows families with private solar systems to sell the excess energy they produce. Other customers end up buying this excess energy, but it needs to be bought at a rate that is competitive. This would mean ensuring that private solar customers are paid at the same, competitive price we pay for other solar power, instead of an artificially high rate that results in higher costs for all customers without private solar.

To avoid putting higher costs on customers and ensure policies that balance the needs of private solar customers with all other customers, many other states have recently taken a look at their antiquated net metering policies, with the goal of developing a bright and fair clean energy future.

Some private companies and advocates fear that there is a tradeoff - but there doesn't need to be one. Good policies, including energy policies, must ensure that all Illinois residents - regardless of class, race or income - are afforded access to clean energy equally.

Unfortunately, this is currently not the case. For example, there are about 645,000 homes and businesses with rooftop solar panels in America. Of these, less than 5 percent are households earning less than $40,000, according to the George Washington University Solar Institute. And, according to the software provider Opower, the typical solar home is 34 percent larger than the typical non-solar home. Not to mention, rooftop solar systems can cost upward of $20,000 - certainly not pocket change for most of us.

The implications of this are clear and will be a reality in Illinois if precaution is not taken: solar power pitting the "haves" against the "have nots" by asking those without private solar who are less well-off to pay for the costs for those with private solar.

Considering that around 15 percent of families in the state live below the poverty line, and are disproportionately minorities, we must do everything we can to ensure that no one is left out of the green energy revolution.

As one example, in California, a report found that the typical rooftop solar customer has an average household income of $91,000. Juxtapose this against the fact that the national median income for Hispanics is $39,000, and the impact of this policy on minority families is easy to see.

Sustainability and clean air are laudable goals for Illinois, and clean energy advocates and energy providers have every reason to work toward them. As part of this, regulators, policymakers and industry leaders will no doubt be working feverishly to make the kinds of changes that clean energy advocates call for.

But in the midst of this excitement, we simply cannot lose sight of struggling families in Illinois. The state must put policies in place that protect all consumers, so that a sustainable energy future is accessible to all residents, not just some. A good place to start would be to fix the policy of net metering to allow all energy users to have their day in the sun.

Monica Martinez is a former Michigan Public Service Commissioner and founder and CEO of Ruben Strategy Group LLC.

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