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New rules may result in solar power boon in Mississippi

By   /   April 8, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

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GREENER STATE: A proposed rule on net metering in Mississippi could help Mississippians put solar panels on their roofs and sell the excess back to the power grid.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

Solar panels could be popping up on roofs all over Mississippi if a proposed rule by the Mississippi Public Service Commission is approved.

The PSC voted Tuesday at its monthly meeting to open a comment period for a proposed rule that would allow homeowners and business owners to add solar panels to their roofs and sell back the excess power to the grid at market prices, a process called net metering. The comment period would expire July 1 and be followed by a public hearing before final guidelines are issued.

Mississippi is one of five states — Idaho, Alabama, South Dakota and Tennessee being the others — that has no rules on net metering. That means those who want to add rooftop solar have to deal with varying fees and other complications from their utility. Some of those include caps on the amount of power an individual customer can sell back to the utility, exorbitant charges to hook their solar panels to the grid and other means by which utilities discourage customers from generating their own power.

“I think this is a good signal that the commission is active and alert in seeking opportunities to try to help Mississippians generate their own electricity and give them the ability to do so, be it at their business or at their home or their small commercial operation,” Northern District PSC Commissioner Brandon Presley said. “My hope is we’ll get this done. This has been a long time coming and it’s way overdue to try to get this measure in place in Mississippi.

“We want to get it right and we want to do something that is progressive and that is effectual and that makes sense for the customer in Mississippi.”

It’s been nearly a five-year process for net metering standards in Mississippi, as the initial study order was filed in December 2010. The PSC commissioned a study by consulting firm Synapse Energy Economics, which found in its cost/benefit analysis that rooftop solar could:

  • Replace generation from electrical generation plants only run during “peak” times such as summer, when customers use air conditioning heavily.
  • Help avoid costs such as investments in future generating capacity, line losses over transmissions and distribution systems and environmental compliance costs.
  • Provide benefits to consumers in every scenario Synapse analyzed.

Mississippi’s electrical grid is now a regulated monopoly dominated by two investor-owned utilities — Entergy and Mississippi Power — and several nonprofit electric power associations. All have filed objections to a proposed net metering rule with the exception of Mississippi Power, which agreed to withdraw its objections to net metering in the settlement of its lawsuit with the Sierra Club over the Kemper Project integrated coal gasification power plant.

Net metering is becoming a bipartisan issue. Two candidates running for retiring Central District Commissioner Lynn Posey’s post, state Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, and Republican Brent Bailey, both support net metering in Mississippi.

Brown said net metering could help state and local government save money on increasing utility rates, such as in Mississippi Power’s service area of 23 counties that has absorbed an 18-percent increase to help pay for the Kemper plant. He cited the University of Southern Mississippi’s tuition increase as one area where increasing utility rates are felt by all taxpayers.

“One of the reasons they (Southern Miss) cited was the increase in power costs for the university,” Brown said. “With that announcement, I begin to look at what was going on with school districts, local governments, community colleges and all sorts of public institutions that buy power. To the extent that they have to increase their cost of operation, that’s been passed along to the public.”

Bailey has been an intervenor in the net metering docket with the PSC since the outset and is part of the state alliance team for 25 x 25, a nonprofit organization that wants to have 25 percent of the nation’s energy capacity come from renewable sources such as wind and solar by the year 2025.

“I believe Mississippians should have the ability to choose whatever energy source works for them,” Bailey said. “The current regulatory structure makes it very expensive for homeowners, businesses, schools and government agencies, churches and manufacturers from enjoying the benefits of their own power. Mississippi is also not enjoying the new jobs that this sector contains.”

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Steve Wilson is the Mississippi reporter for Watchdog.org. Beginning his career as a sports writer, he has worked for the Mobile Press-Register (Ala.), the LaGrange Daily News (Ga.), Highlands Today (Fla.),McComb Enterprise-Journal (Miss.), the Biloxi Sun Herald(Miss.) and the Vicksburg Post (Miss.) Steve's work has appeared on Fox News, the Huffington Post and the Daily Signal. His bachelor's degree is in journalism with a minor in political science from the University of Alabama. Steve is also a member of the Mississippi Press Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He served four-plus years in the United States Coast Guard after his high school graduation and is a native of Mobile, Ala.