Solar supporters are making important progress at the State Capitol with the Solar Fairness Act. The bill:
Frequently Asked Questions
Solar electric systems are interconnected to the grid via net metering. Net metering is a simple utility bill structure for customers who produce some of their own power. With net metering, solar owners are credited one kilowatt-hour on their utility bill for each kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity their system produces and shares with the grid. Without net metering, a customer would need to buy the electricity they made back from the utility.
Washington first enacted net metering for solar owners in 1998. The state’s 60+ electric utilities are required to offer net metering on a first-come, first-served basis to customers wishing to produce solar power from their location until the cumulative generating capacity of all customer systems equals 0.5% of utilities’ 1996 peak power. At less than 1%, this is among the lowest thresholds in the nation.
Once utilities have allotted net metering contracts up to the minimum threshold (18 have done so already), state law does not stipulate next steps. Utilities can propose other rates for solar owners, including undercutting contracts with existing solar customers and denying net metering to new solar customers. To date at least four Washington utilities have ended their net metering program upon meeting the 0.5% minimum.
With net metering, solar owners get full credit for the distributed energy they produce. With the help of net metering, electric utility customers who install solar typically save tens of thousands of dollars on their electricity costs over the lifetime of their solar panels. Other broad benefits of net metering include easing strain on the grid during periods of high electricity demand, reducing the need to build expensive, centralized power plants, less transmission congestion, and the environmental benefits of fewer emissions from burning fossil fuels.
One might think that because minimum net metering thresholds or caps have been reached, the state must be awash in solar. In fact, less than 1% of Washington’s electricity mix comes from solar. Existing and future solar customers, utilities, and the state’s many solar companies are in legislative limbo, waiting to see if net metering will be expanded as it has in dozens of other states.
If net metering is not expanded in Washington, solar adoption will slow dramatically, as it will be less economical to “go solar.” If customers cannot earn full credit for the power they produce, few will be able to afford solar (metering arrangements other than net metering are analogous to taxing solar owners for producing power). When solar owners earn partial kilowatt-hour credit for the power they produce, they can buy batteries to store the power for their later use, though this is not feasible for many customers.
Net-metered solar is similar to energy efficiency. Just as efficient appliances help families trim but not eliminate their electric bills, few solar owners can offset their whole electric bills with solar. They buy the balance at the full retail rate, and thus pay the same fixed charges as other utility customers. If utilities close net metering, new solar owners may leave the grid by adopting increasingly affordable battery technology. Off-grid homes and businesses pay no utility rates or fixed charges.