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A rush for solar as decision on APS rate case nears

Effective date for new price on electricity yet to be determined

Rooftop solar panels installed on homes in Prescott. There's a rush to add the panels now because it is likely the rate APS pays for excess energy will decrease in the coming months.

Photo by Max Efrein.

Rooftop solar panels installed on homes in Prescott. There's a rush to add the panels now because it is likely the rate APS pays for excess energy will decrease in the coming months.

Rooftop solar in Arizona has been booming.

Last month, Arizona Public Service — the primary utility provider in Yavapai County — saw a record number of applications for rooftop solar at 4,726, far outstripping figures from previous months or years.

In 2016, the utility received about 1,640 applications per month on average. In 2015, that average was 1,175. And in 2014, it was 680.

The primary reason for the spike is a nearing decision by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) on APS’s rate case, said APS representatives.

On Dec. 20, the ACC voted to end the current net metering (NEM) program that allows homeowners to sell the power produced from their solar panels back to the utility at a retail price.

Instead, APS is proposing that solar customers be paid the wholesale price.

The compromise would be that current rooftop solar owners, as well as those who apply for rooftop solar installation before the new rates go into effect, would be grandfathered into the current NEM program for 20 years from the date they were connected to the grid.

“As long as your completed solar application is received by APS by the effective date of new rates, and your system is installed within 180 days of approval, you can be grandfathered to the current rules,” an information sheet about the proposal states.

Since the rate case began about a year ago, it was estimated that new rates might be in effect by July 2017.

Using this time frame and the proposal as selling points, Arizona-based solar companies have been encouraging the public to act now on installing rooftop solar. Many have posted notices on their websites that boast the time-sensitive opportunity, such as this one from Sunrun, a company with an office in Prescott Valley: “You can protect your home from ever increasing energy bills and lock in solar savings by acting now and qualifying for the current NEM program. Don’t let the opportunity to save money on your electric bill for the next 20 years slip away.”

Or this one from Sun Valley Solar Solutions in Chandler: “Is the sun about to set on residential solar in Arizona? Absolutely not, but it’s certainly going to be very different for new APS solar customers in the near future. Fortunately, APS is offering a very good grandfathering option, so if you’ve been considering solar and want to reap maximum savings, jump to the end and sign up for a free quote today!”

Darren Baker, owner of Blazing Sky Energy Group in Prescott, has seen a significant increase in business recently as APS’s proposal has filtered into the public’s knowledge.

“The common comment from customers is ‘we’ve been looking to go solar for a long time, but this is kind of pushing us to make a decision and move forward on things,’” Baker said.

This was the case for Prescott resident Susan Blake. She’s been following the development of solar energy for many years and has simply been waiting for the technology to become more advanced before investing in a personal rooftop unit for her manufactured home.

When she heard APS might be cutting this deal soon and knowing that there are still some federal and state subsidies available for the technology, now seemed as good a time as any to commit. She has just completed the paperwork for a rooftop unit and the installation is set to begin shortly.

“I know that the cost of energy is not going down — it’s never going to go down — and I think it’s a good investment,” Blake said.

As it currently stands, the ACC has not made a decision about APS’s rate case, so APS has not been able to announce when its new rates will go into effect.

“Now they’re talking maybe Aug. 1, but more like Sept. 1, but it could be later,” Baker said. “Some of it is the utility company not being able to give people hard answers.”

If APS’s proposal on solar energy is approved, then those considering getting solar installed who wish to be grandfathered into the current NEM program will have to start the process at least a week before the new rates go into effect, Baker said.

“People can’t wait until the last day,” Baker said. “It usually takes us about a week to get all of the drawings and documents back to be submitted to APS.”

Follow Max Efrein on Twitter @mefrein, email him at mefrein@prescottaz.com or call him at 928-445-3333 ext. 1105.