CO Regulators Reject Xcel’s Anti-Competitive Proposal
On Monday, the Colorado PUC rejected a flawed Solar*Connect community solar proposal from Xcel Energy. Originally filed back in early April of this year, Xcel’s proposal had caused strong and somewhat mixed reactions among interested parties – including Vote Solar. The basic concept was to provide a subscription-based solar program using a 30 to 50 MW dedicated solar resource to retail customers that had limited or no access to rooftop solar or community solar gardens. On the surface, a progressive idea.
Diving even slightly below the surface however finds a few other unusual aspects. First and foremost, the program included a charge for the subscription and a credit for some of the avoided cost savings but was structured so that customers would essentially always pay a premium. Furthermore, Xcel sought the right to change that subscription price at any time at its discretion – not for those who had already signed up but for any new customer. So you might sign up today at one price per kWh and your neighbor might sign up tomorrow at a higher or lower price. The utility claimed this was simply reflecting a pricing approach similar to unregulated solar developers. The problem with this argument is of course that – unlike those solar companies – Xcel is a regulated monopoly and enjoys a distinctly privileged market position with supreme access to customers and their usage data, in addition to guaranteed returns on its investments. They could and should offer their customers more certainty. Plus the utility sought to retain any profits from the program for its shareholders. When asked if PSCo would consider allowing other, non-regulated businesses to make similar offerings, it declined. Participants in the docket were left wondering if the utility’s new concept was regulated or unregulated, a matter never fully resolved. What was clear, however, was that the Solar*Connect plan was distinctly anti-competitive and fell short on delivering ratepayer value.
As a result, none of the 15 parties who intervened in the case supported the proposal as submitted. Most parties sought outright rejection, while a couple (including Vote Solar) sought major changes to the proposal in order to allow it to be implemented. In the end, after five rounds of testimony from 18 witnesses, and three full days of hearing, the Commission took a grand total of sixteen minutes to dispatch the filing to the waste heap.
We believe the Commission made the right decision in this proceeding. The concept was fraught with problems that most certainly would have led to bad outcomes for Coloradans. Having said that, we also believe that new concepts like an improved Solar*Connect should be encouraged from utilities. Utilities across the country have been working to upend the economics of distributed solar generation, creating a great deal of animosity between the utility and the solar industry. Rather than being roadblocks of progress, utilities should be exploring new ways to meet their customers’ demand for more clean energy. These utility programs should create more ways to participate in, invest in and benefit from solar energy. They should not come at the expense of a customer’s right to consume her own self-generated electricity, nor the cannibalization of other solar options.
Whatever Xcel’s motivations were for developing and submitting Solar*Connect, we hope to see more – better – utility proposals for supporting balanced and vibrant solar markets. , and that Commissions provide thoughtful guidance to encourage those ideas and ideals.