The insanity of a “gardening tax” could be right out of the satirical news rag The Onion, and it’s a good allegory for the assault on rooftop solar. It’s real and it’s really undemocratic, and it reveals the overtly contested nature between rooftop solar and predatorial utilities who see it as a mortal threat. Rooftop solar is valuable and yet utilities seek to destroy it with politics and money in order to expand their monopoly powers and guaranteed profits.
I may grow a few tomatoes and basil in the backyard (allegorically speaking), but I’m still contributing to the grocery store’s profit-seeking operation every time I shop there. The truck still stocks the store, even if I don’t always buy tomatoes and basil when I grocery shop, and my purchases still pad the store’s bottom line. I’m under no obligation to worry about shareholder wealth and my garden isn’t going to raise prices for non-gardeners. I just want tasty pizza. So why should I pay a “gardening tax” to my utility or give them my surplus power for next to nothing, which they’ll sell to my neighbor at full retail? Why would anyone pay the grocery store twenty bucks a month as punishment for growing a garden? I’d just refuse and go across the street to the competitor, but I have no such choice with my utility, thanks again to monopoly power.
Granted the analogy only goes so far since the grocery industry doesn’t have monopoly protection, but here’s why it holds up. The utilities spend lots of money to make us believe that solar households shift the cost burden to non-solar customers and, as such, don’t pay for generation and transmission infrastructure. They are wrong just like in my grocery store example. You might also think of it this way– the electric utility is taxing you because you use less electricity, essentially penalizing you for conserving. What’s the difference between conserving and generating some home grown electricity with free sunlight? Really none as far as my non-gardening (i.e. non-solar) neighbors go.
With a brittle supply chain these days it benefits the utility and all of its customers that some do their own solar “gardening.” It helps reduce scarcity in times of high demand or low supply, and by increasing resilience in the community. Moreover, the utilities’ business-as-usual fossil fuel addiction is deepening the climate emergency– FULL, RED FLASHING LIGHT STOP!
So what’s going on? Our friend and colleague, Nancy LaPlaca, pointed to Arizona as a prime example. She’s intimately familiar with the state’s energy regulatory politics as a former policy analyst there. The utility, SRP (Salt River Project) proposed rate changes in 2014 that raised rates for non-solar customers almost 4% but as much as 65% for solar customers. Utilities love their annual rate increases but 65% is outright theft made legal by the public utilities commission. Fortunately, a customer sued SRP on antitrust grounds as the judge explained in the court’s decision (Pedrosa 2022):
“He [the plaintiff] was ‘directly and economically hurt by’ SRP’s exclusionary pricing scheme, which is aimed at suppressing competition by discouraging customers from installing solar-energy systems,” Circuit Judge Eric D. Miller wrote in the appellate court’s decision.
The utilities love to talk free enterprise when they’re fighting environmental regulation, but monopoly protection is their true addiction as the Arizona case shows. Rate schemes are the wonky environment where these rooftop solar attacks play out, ranging from monthly solar taxes to gutting net metering rates, or both, so it’s easy to bamboozle the public with dull policy speak and self-righteous free enterprise moralizing. After all, most people don’t know what their electric bill actually means, they just pay it if they can. Arizona is focused on anti-trust at the moment, but radical legislators in another sunny state, the “Sunshine State” of Florida, are attempting to kill solar by slashing the rate from retail to wholesale that utilities pay households for the solar energy they supply to the grid (Rohrer 2022). It’s a matter of degree to which any of these arguments hold up to rigorous critique on any particular point, but rarely does a utility’s case hold water. I’ve only mentioned a couple cases, Florida and Arizona, in what really is a nationwide pandemic choking rooftop solar to death, including jobs and business enterprises, orchestrated by utilities, their allies and trade associations, all flush with cash. PIRG published an excellent survey on this last summer (Lippeatt 2021) .
As much as anti-regulation and free enterprise are the twin pillars of righteousness when it comes to the utilities’ war on solar, without irony or shame, they flip their religion when more profit can be extracted. In other words, the utilities fake hand-wringing over how limiting natural gas will raise their customers’ rates, for whom they claim to care deeply about until they don’t, actually. They’re happy to raise rates themselves and they do annually. Witness to this end, the many efforts to trample local authorities’ efforts to ban new natural gas hook-ups (Vogelsong 2022; Harris 2021). These may be portrayed as local resistance but in fact, industry money, clout, and coordination are all over these efforts, as California currently illustrates (Marshall-Chalmers and Gearino 2022).
Stopping this seizure of rights is critical to the broader movement to democratize energy along with our towns, homes, institutions, and the nation, and therefore to a sustainable renewable energy lifeway. Rooftop solar and community solar (what the utilities like to call “customer owned generation”) and public utilities that are truly public and transparent seem like a good place to aim. Also, protecting this right from massive investor-owned utilities even while envisioning the conversion of them to public ownership. Public goods should not be subverted by private profit. But as Dennis Kucinich knows, if there isn’t pressure for municipalities to sell off their utility outright, there’s an eternal pressure to gut them for private profit, and holding that line takes real courage (Scheer n.d.). It won’t be enough just to say a utility is public, since the aggressive actions to cannibalize them, like those cited in this post, are occurring at a raging pandemic rate nationwide (Teicher 2022).
Meanwhile, utilities want to take away your right to garden, we have every right to grow our own garden so let’s keep cultivating!
 Note that while this post focuses on utilities and allies, there are other substantial threats to rooftop solar that can be more subtle. Stringent homeowners association rules and local permitting and zoning requirements, or even unintended effects of vague ordinance language, may also indirectly harm solar. For example, requiring that solar panels be hidden from view, adds cost and potentially reduces your panels’ access to sunlight. This is a significant barrier to one’s financial return since compliance costs for small systems represent a substantial proportion of overall cost, an outcome tantamount to a poison pill. My hometown is an example of this potential, though yet to be tested (Owen 2021).
Harris, Alex. 2021. “Miami Planned to End Natural Gas Hookups to Help Cut Emissions. Then TECO Asked Them Not To.” Miami Herald, November 16, 2021. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/environment/article255764361.html.
Lippeatt, J David. 2021. “Blocking Rooftop Solar.” PIRG Education Fund. https://uspirg.org/sites/pirg/files/reports/US%20Blocking%20Rooftop%20Solar%20Web.pdf
Marshall-Chalmers, Anne, and Dan Gearino. 2022. “Is the California Coalition Fighting Subsidies For Rooftop Solar a Fake Grassroots Group?” Inside Climate News (blog). February 8, 2022. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/08022022/is-the-california-coalition-fighting-subsidies-for-rooftop-solar-a-fake-grassroots-group/.
Owen, Steve. 2021. “The Town of Boone: Facades, Climate, and Matters of Priority.” October 14, 2021. https://aire-nc.org/2021/10/14/the-town-of-boone-facades-climate-and-matters-of-priority/.
Pedrosa, Camila. 2022. “Antitrust Suit Can Proceed against SRP over Charges to Solar Customers.” Cronkite News – Arizona PBS, February 1, 2022. https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/2022/01/31/antitrust-suit-can-proceed-against-srp-over-charges-to-solar-customers/.
Rohrer, Gary. 2022. “Net Metering Bill Gets First House Panel OK, despite Fierce Solar Opposition.” Florida Politics – Campaigns & Elections. Lobbying & Government., February 3, 2022. https://floridapolitics.com/archives/493064-net-metering-bill-gets-first-house-panel-ok-despite-fierce-solar-opposition/.
Scheer, Robert. n.d. “Dennis Kucinich: From Sleeping in a Car as a Kid to 16 Years in Congress.” Accessed February 14, 2022. https://scheerpost.com/2021/06/04/dennis-kucinich-from-sleeping-in-a-car-as-a-kid-to-16-years-in-congress/.
Teicher, Jordan G. 2022. “In Philadelphia, Public Utility Ownership Isn’t Enough.” Jacobin, February 10, 2022. https://jacobinmag.com/2022/02/philadelphia-gas-works-public-utility-renewable-energy-climate-action.
Vogelsong, Sarah. 2022. “Bill Prohibiting Local Bans on Natural Gas Service Advances.” Virginia Mercury, February 11, 2022. https://www.virginiamercury.com/2022/02/11/bill-prohibiting-local-bans-on-natural-gas-service-advances/.