‘Net metering’ bill forces low-income Washingtonians to subsidize solar panels for the wealthy, senators say

OLYMPIA – A ‘net metering’ bill passed by the Senate Monday forces low-income Washington residents to subsidize rooftop solar panels for the well-to-do, senators complained.

Senate Bill 5223 requires utilities to dramatically expand their purchases of power from customers with rooftop solar panels, to at least 4 percent of their load, if sufficient customers seek to join the program. Electric utilities must pay full retail price for the power generated by private rooftop solar panels. That’s more than the wholesale rates utilities pay for other sources of electricity.

The bill passed the Senate 29-19 and now moves to the House for approval.

Under the bill, customers who don’t have solar panels would pay higher electric bills to support the customers who do, said state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch. He noted that the people who can afford solar panels are usually homeowners of moderate or better means. Those who can’t afford them are usually renters, seniors and those of low income.

“It’s going to shift the cost to the least able to pay,” Sheldon said. “And as a Democrat, I think that’s wrong. I’m trying to look out for the little guy. I thought that’s what my party was about, looking out for the little guy. But I guess not anymore.”

Sheldon, a former commissioner of Mason County Public Utility District No. 1, said smaller utilities would have particular trouble accommodating large purchases of rooftop solar power. Smaller public utility districts serving rural areas would have the least ability to spread costs across a large customer base, and would face greater pressure to increase consumer power rates to cover the cost.

Opposition was led by members of the Senate Republican Caucus. They noted the bill is one of several measures promoted by Democrats this session that would increase the cost of electricity and motor fuel, and make it harder for working families to make ends meet.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, ranking Republican on the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee, said, “It’s not just a cost-shift, it’s a cost shift to people of low, moderate and fixed incomes, to pay for the wealthiest people of Washington state to have solar panels on their roof. That’s bad public policy.”

Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, said, “This is going to cost more money to people, and that money has got to come from somewhere. It’s coming from kitchen tables – food off their tables and out of their children’s mouths.”