Mia Maldonado

Todd Fischer, an electrical engineer, has lived in his North End home since 1988. Built in 1905, the Victorian-style home is a juxtaposition between Boise’s historical architecture and modern energy technology.

On the inside, the home is aligned with wooden columns and a wooden staircase, but on the outside sit 16 solar panels on the south side of his rooftop that generate electricity for his home.

In an interview, Fischer said he installed his solar panels in 2016 and receives monthly credits for providing additional energy to Idaho Power’s grid. In the winter he pays $5.24, and in the summer months he pays $0.24.

“My power bills are beautiful,” he said, while holding a stack of power bills he has collected since installing the panels.

Fischer’s solar panels are a part of Idaho Power’s “legacy” system, meaning he qualifies for the company’s original credit system for homeowners providing extra energy to the grid. Fischer does not get paid for over generation, but instead he accumulates credits from Idaho Power that compensate for the cost of his energy usage from the grid at another time.

But soon, homeowners who are a part of the “non-legacy” system, meaning they installed solar panels after December 2019, could face changes in the amount of money Idaho Power credits to their account.

Idaho Power is awaiting a decision from the Idaho Public Utilities Commission on a proposal to decrease the amount it credits customers who sell their rooftop solar back to the grid. Fischer, who is compensated under the “legacy” system, would not be affected by the changes if approved by the utilities commission.

But along with local environmental advocates, Fischer argues that Idaho Power’s proposal disincentivizes home owners from installing solar panels.

On Aug. 5, the Idaho Climate Justice League, a youth environmental advocacy group, held a rally outside of the Idaho Power building in downtown Boise addressing concerns about the company’s proposal to reduce its credit rates for solar.

In a letter to Idaho Power CEO Lisa Grow, the youth advocates said the proposal is contradictory to the company’s 100% clean energy goal by 2045.

“We, the youth, demand change,” the justice league letter said. “We are the ones who will face the future consequences of your inaction. As the climate crisis intensifies, and as the date on your commitment to 100% clean energy draws closer, we will not stand idly by.”

But Idaho Power negates the justice league’s claims. In a response letter to the justice league, the company said it is committed to reliability and affordability for all of its customers.

“We support solar and we’re seeking to pay a fair market price for it, whether that’s from a large solar array or a customer’s rooftop,” the Idaho Power letter said. “We are proud to have some of the lowest energy costs in the nation, but we can only maintain that by making sure we’re looking out for the interests of all customers while we invest in our clean energy future.”

Idaho Power says solar credit changes would bring fairness to customers

Jordan Rodriguez, the spokesperson for Idaho Power, told the Sun that residential solar power brings many benefits to the company, but that its current credit system, established 20 years ago, is outdated.

Rodriguez said Idaho Power supports customer choice, and it acknowledges that residential solar saves the company money on expenses that it would take to generate and distribute that same energy using other sources.

However, the proposal to change its credit system is meant to be more equitable to customers without solar, Rodriguez said – noting that the number of customers with solar generation in the company grid has grown significantly in recent years.

The number of Idaho Power customers with residential solar power has increased from nearly 1,000 in the Idaho Power system in 2016 to more than 13,000 in 2022, according to a company report.

Rodriguez said the rise in Idaho homeowners with solar panels is largely driven by the decrease in costs associated with installing solar.

Solar installation costs have declined by more than 50% over the past decade, so in addition to a decrease in installation costs, the desire to run on clean energy or save money on electric bills is driving solar adoption across the country, according to an article from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“An average-sized residential system has dropped from a pre-incentive price of $40,000 in 2010 to roughly $25,000 today (2022),” the article said.

“We are looking to change the way we credit customers for energy they generate because the current credit structure is unfair to the 98% of our customers without solar panels,” Rodriguez said. “Customers without rooftop solar currently pay an unfair share of grid maintenance and improvement costs.”

The change would more accurately reflect an on-site generator’s use of the electrical grid, he said.

If approved by the utilities commission, the changes would include:

  • A change from net monthly to real-time net billing, which would better measure customers’ actual reliance on the grid.
  • A change in the excess exported energy credit from a fixed kilowatt-hour (kWh) credit ranging in value of 5 to 12 cents (based on customer class) to a variable bill credit ranging from approximately 5 to 20 cents per kWh (based on off-peak and on-peak exports) that would be updated annually.

Idaho Power requested an effective date of Jan. 1, 2024, but the case is ongoing and the timing of the order is at the discretion of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

Idaho Power addresses clean energy goals

Rodriguez said the outcome of the utilities commission case will not impact the company’s 100% clean energy by 2045 goals, adding that the company has several large-scale solar projects under construction.

“We support solar energy — our proposal is intended to ensure our customers don’t pay more for solar energy from one source than they would from another,” he said. “Looking into the future, Idaho Power expects solar energy will continue to be an important part of our energy mix and clean energy goal.”

Built in 1905, this North End Boise home has solar panels that provide energy to the Idaho Power grid. (Mia Maldonado / Idaho Capital Sun)
Built in 1905, this North End Boise home has solar panels that provide energy to the Idaho Power grid. (Mia Maldonado / Idaho Capital Sun)
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In late 2022, Idaho Power began purchasing energy from the Jackpot Solar Project at some of “the lowest prices for solar energy in the nation,” Rodriguez said. The project brings up to 120 megawatts to Idaho, providing energy to roughly 24,000 homes, the Idaho Capital Sun previously reported.

Rodriguez said the company is also working on pairing the solar projects with batteries. The batteries would help store power generated during periods of lower use and deliver the power during peak energy consumption times, which he said are typically during hot summer evenings when the sun has set but energy use remains high.

Shutting down misinformation about solar

Rodriguez said misinformation about residential solar plays a role into public discontent with the company’s credit rate proposal.

“Customers are encouraged to get the facts about solar energy before making a financial commitment,” he said. “Any Idaho Power visits to customers’ homes will be preceded by a phone call or other communication. Idaho Power employees will arrive in a company vehicle clearly marked with Idaho Power’s logo.”

Idaho Power is hoping to dispel misinformation and scams related to residential solar power on its website.

Common tactics being reported include solar sales representatives:

  • Stating they work for or have been sent by Idaho Power.
  • Falsely advising customers they will never pay a power bill again.
  • Providing inaccurate information regarding Idaho Power’s rates, solar payback periods, tax credits, and how and in what amount excess energy is credited back to the customer.
  • Giving false promises of customers being “locked in” to current pricing. Idaho Power’s tariffs are not contracts and are subject to change with approval from the public utility commissions.

Is solar worth it? Here’s what Idaho residential solar homeowner says

While Fischer believes a new credit system at Idaho Power would disincentivize homeowners from installing solar panels, he said his decision to install solar panels was “definitely not a financial” decision—adding that installing them cost him about $17,700.

Additionally, the amount of time it will take to get a return on the investment is so long, assuming that he will be living in the same home until then, he said.

Fischer said he acknowledges that Idaho homeowners already enjoy a low electricity rate because of the state’s rich hydroelectricity production.

As such, he said investing in solar panels is not as “financially viable” as it would be in a state like California, which ties with Maine as the state where electricity prices are increasing the fastest in the country. Both states have seen a rise in electricity prices by 78% in the last decade, according to the Sunpower Solar Energy Report.

So what motivated Fischer to install solar panels? The decision was based on curiosity, he said.

As an electrical engineer, Fischer said he was “intrigued by solar power,” and wanted to get firsthand experience with it. He said his biggest concern when deciding to install solar panels was finding a reputable installer.

After installing the solar panels, he said there were other costs outside of the installation that he did not initially take into account such cutting down trees, replacing his roof and fixing water damage in his home after the solar panels were incorrectly installed.

“My advice would be to talk to your friends that have solar, find out if they were happy with the quality of work that installer did,” he said. “They can fall off your roof in a windstorm, and they can cause a leak in your roof.”

Despite the lessons he learned along the way, Fischer said he has no regrets after installing his solar panels.

“There’s a lot better investments you could do than solar panels,” he said. “If you wanted to spend that much money to have a lower carbon footprint, I suspect there are better options than solar panels.”

 

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