By Jordan Oster
Iowa’s solar energy industry has greatly expanded in recent years. According to the Clean Jobs Midwest report, solar supports 626 jobs in the state. With policies such as net metering and the state Solar Energy Systems Tax Credit, the demand for residential, commercial, and agricultural installations is growing.
Clean energy business leaders met for a panel discussion hosted by the national nonpartisan business group Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 30, to discuss the rise of solar in Iowa. State Representative John Forbes, a pharmacy owner, spoke about how using solar saves his business money. Tim Kruse of Green Light Renewable Services talked about the economic sense of investing in solar, while Channing Congdon of Ideal Energy in Fairfield said his solar company now employs 30 people in a town of around 10,000 residents.
Despite these gains, Iowa’s solar installers and customers have faced the prospect of the net metering policy effectively coming to an end after the state’s largest utilities proposed changes to how solar energy customers are reimbursed for excess energy they produce.
Luckily, the proposals which would have undermined net metering in Iowa are being put to rest. Last month, the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB) issued an order for the utilities to submit new tariffs which would preserve the structure of net metering, lead to its expansion, and allow for an annual “cash-out” of credits earned when customers produce more energy than what they use.
Prior to the IUB’s order and as part of an on-going stakeholder process, the IUB had directed the state’s two largest utilities, MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy, to issue pilot projects for expanding distributed generation. While the pilot proposals issued earlier this year were to focus on increasing solar production in Iowa, they included rate design changes that would make net metering less financially viable for solar customers.
Solar supporters in Iowa spoke out against the utility proposals. When Alliant Energy held a stakeholder meeting in mid-June to discuss its proposal in Cedar Rapids, solar industry workers and supportive organizations were there to raise their concerns. E2 member Tim Dwight, the President of the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association, attended the meeting and said the proposals would stifle a rising technology with great economic benefits.
According to the IUB, the new tariffs will raise the net metering cap from 500 kW to 1 MW. All customer classes will be allowed to net meter, including non-profits and public entities. Customers will only net meter against their energy charges, not customer or demand charges. The new tariffs will also include an annual “cash-out” which allows customers to receive funds for their of overproduction of energy, instead of those credits continuously rolling into the next monthly bill. Those funds will be evenly split between the solar customer and the utilities’ assistance funds for low-income customers.
The rules have not yet been approved as the utilities will have until August 15 to file their new tariffs. If approved, the new rules would be in place for the next three years and then reviewed by the IUB. Current solar customers can remain on their present tariff or opt into the new tariff.
Solar workers have been – and will continue to be – important in shaping the net metering discussion in Iowa. Clean energy business leaders should stay tuned for further policy developments and continue to speak up about the benefits of Iowa’s growing solar energy industry.
Jordan Oster is a consultant for NRDC. He is based in Des Moines.