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A state representative said Thursday that his 2015 legislation to encourage development of renewable-energy sources in the state wasn't meant to allow a controversial plan now being sought by electric utilities.

Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, was among 23 people who testified before the state Public Service Commission as it considers a ruling on "net metering" that could determine the future of solar-power development in the state. The three-member panel regulates public utilities.

Meeks said he intended for his legislation, now Act 827 of 2015, to "encourage growth" of solar energy and other renewable-energy projects but as part of a "free and fair market."

He said he never intended the law to include "two-channel billing," an arrangement preferred by Entergy Arkansas and the state's electric cooperatives in how those companies should credit solar-power users who generate more power than they need and put the excess power on the grid for use by others. Two-channel billing generally creates a credit that's about half of the retail rate.

About 150 people filled the commission's hearing room in Little Rock, though nearly half didn't return after the commission took a 20-minute break about 11:30 a.m. Even fewer returned at 1:30 p.m. after a lunch break. The commission had received 318 public comments on the issue as of Thursday morning.

A decision isn't expected until next year.

Some proponents of solar power -- notably environmental groups and those in the business of selling and installing solar panels -- say the commission should require power companies to pay for excess power at a rate that is equal to the cost of retail power. That is the credit system being followed now.

Gary Milczarek of Eureka Springs said he designed and built a 6-kilowatt solar system in 2013 to produce the same amount of electricity he'd used the previous four years. Spreadsheets he has compiled provide a look at net metering against 2-channel billing, he said.

With Carroll Electric Cooperative in Berryville crediting him with 8 cents a kilowatt hour, the system already has generated energy that is worth 35 percent of the net cost of his system, Milczarek said. At that rate, he will break even in 11 years and four months.

But two-channel billing that provides a credit of 3.7 cents per kilowatt hour drops the net worth of his system to 23 percent, and he won't break even for 17 years and three months, he said.

"Why would anyone choose all the risks, troubles and costs of solar only to pay more for energy?" Milczarek said. "Under two-channel billing, we would never have installed our system. Valuing customer-generated energy at wholesale or avoided cost rates seems to me to reflect the market value of the energy to the utility, not the utility's cost of providing the service."

All 23 of those who testified were unanimous in their general support of solar power's growth in Arkansas and in opposition to the utilities' proposal. Their uniform opinions contrast with a separate panel set up by the commission over the past couple of years to study the issue. Unable to reach consensus, the panel split into factions and released two competing recommendations.

Sub-Group 1 includes solar advocates such as the Sierra Club and Audubon Society, private landowners who've installed solar panels at their homes or businesses, and the solar-panel industry.

Sub-Group 2 includes the utilities, the commission staff and the attorney general's office, all of whom stressed Thursday that they don't oppose solar power or renewable energy. Entergy has broken ground on a 475-acre solar farm near Stuttgart that will feature more than 350,000 photo-voltaic solar panels, and plans an even larger solar farm near Lake Village.

Assistant Attorney General Shawn McMurray told the commission that utilities have to be able to recover their costs from net metering customers or pass those costs to all other customers.

Commission Chairman Ted Thomas questioned whether the state -- with fewer than 1,000 net-metering consumers -- has had enough experience, and enough data, for the commission to make a decision. The other commissioners are Elana Wills and Kimberly O'Guinn.

William Ball of Stellar Sun, a solar developer, said a decision that goes against the industry will result in solar customers storing their excess power instead of putting it back on the grid. "We'll go from net metering to net zero," he said.

Ball also questioned utilities' claims that they stand to lose money with net-metering customers, saying there's little difference in how utilities bill regular customers and solar customers, and in utilities' costs in dealing with the two segments.

Matt Surgeson of Hot Springs, who designs and installs solar panels, said Arkansas is behind other states. "We're 51st in solar [development] and 11th in radiance [from the sun]," Surgeson said.

Business on 12/01/2017

Print Headline: PSC hearing delves into utilities' credits for solar electricity

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