Not so long ago—barely a decade ago—solar panels were viewed as something only purchased by wealthy hippies and eclectic consumers.
But today, solar installations are coming online at military bases, large corporations, and especially the tops of residential roofs. In Idaho, the solar industry is growing exponentially every year, with a majority of that growth centered in the Boise area. According to data from Idaho Power, solar units grew by 46 percent between 2015 and 2016, and another 51 percent between 2016 and 2017. That translates to about 1.66 megawatts of energy added to the grid in 2017.
Kevin King is the owner of EvenGreen Technology, one of the largest solar businesses in Boise. He moved to Idaho about 10 years ago and said at that time that there were maybe 150 solar jobs in total across the state, and he could name all of his competitors by personal relationship. Now, he can’t even keep up with them all.
“We have one of the best solar states in the nation (for production),” King said. Not only is sunshine plentiful during much of the year, but cooler temperatures keep the energy efficiency at a high level. “Our solar production is top notch.”
Economics of Growth
King said many of his customers are in an older age group, in part because having their own solar generation units can help decrease or eliminate their energy bills during the summer or winter.
Unlike most other states in the U.S., Idaho does not have a net metering mandate. Patti Best, who is the solar program specialist at Idaho Power, said the utility adopted the practice anyway to provide customers with choice. When solar units are installed, the resident is equipped with a “net meter” from Idaho Power that assesses how much energy is used to power the home or property. If excess energy is generated, the net meter shows a negative reading, and the homeowner is credited units that can be used at a later date.
“The idea of net metering is looking at what happened on a net basis during the course of the month,” Best said.
Under this model, the units often quickly pay for themselves. That’s part of the appeal for King’s customers. “I’d say maybe 5 to 10 percent of people do it for sustainability reasons, but more do it for cost savings,” King said.
Businesses are doing it for financial reasons too, he said. Notable local businesses with solar include The Flicks movie theater in downtown Boise, the Boise Co-Op, and Idaho Lock and Bolt.
Over the next few years, King said he expects the rise of solar popularity to continue, particularly since the market in Idaho is less than 1 percent saturated. The Treasure Valley, Magic Valley and Wood River Valley will likely see the most growth.
Another reason the industry is growing is because the units are becoming easier to finance, King said. As of five years ago, virtually no banks or credit unions offered loans that could be used to install solar panels. But now, almost all of them do.
“Now it’s no different from buying a car,” King said.
It’s also much easier to track the solar energy being used now, he said. Fifteen years ago, it was difficult to determine how much energy solar units were producing on a daily basis. But like everything else now, energy production and usage can be tracked via phone app.
Although few state tax incentives exist for those who install solar panels, and federal incentives may soon dwindle, King doesn’t think it will matter. He calls that “old school thinking” about the idea, and said people will continue to do it because it makes good financial sense, not for tax credits.
Idaho Power’s data shows that 827 net metering residential systems have come online since 2013, and of those, only two were generation types other than solar photovoltaic. To the utility, this growth represents a need to continue to evolve its grid capabilities and capacity, which also means evaluating its pricing structure as a matter of fairness to its customers. Similar to those who argue hybrid vehicle drivers don’t pay their fair share for road maintenance, Idaho Power contends that those using solar don’t pay their share for grid upkeep and upgrades
The utility recommended increasing the rates for solar users to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission (PUC) first in 2013, and the request was rejected. It then floated the idea again in 2016 by holding public meetings. Utility officials put forth another PUC proposal in July that would create a separate rate class for solar power users, but with no recommendations for cost increases for now.
“The company’s proposal asks the commission to establish two new classifications of customers applicable to residential and small general service customers with on-site generation,” said Connie Aschenbrenner, Idaho Power’s regulatory analyst. “What can’t be disputed is that a customer who generates their own energy is fundamentally different than one who doesn’t—that is the issue at the center of the company’s filing. By placing residential and small general service customers with on-site generation into their own customer classes, Idaho Power can, at a later time, evaluate and propose an appropriate rate design and compensation structure.”
Ben Otto, the energy associate for the Idaho Conservation League, has been involved in this back-and-forth with Idaho Power and the PUC since 2013. The problem with past requests, Otto said, is that the utility hasn’t proved that a problem exists yet.
“Idaho Power has put forward a possibility of there being a problem but have been unable to quantify it in any meaningful way,” Otto said. “The PUC has said, ‘you haven’t proven to us that there’s any reason to make a change yet.’ Our position is that there’s a belief that there’s some sort of problem in this net metering policy, but there’s still no numbers to show the scope or scale.”
The battle isn’t limited to Idaho. Net metering battles are cropping up across the country, he said, as the energy option becomes more popular. However, he says it’s only a true issue in states with much more saturated markets.
“Hawaii and California are some of the only states that have so much distributed solar that it’s causing real operational problems,” Otto said. “Those are double-digit percentages of customers who have these systems. And in Idaho, it’s less than 1 percent. We have plenty of time to work through these issues, and there’s no need to make any kind of drastic change right now.”
To Otto and the ICL, solar still has many more benefits than drawbacks, and the utility hasn’t proven otherwise. The growth has brought in quality jobs that won’t get shipped overseas, homeowners are saving money on energy costs and putting those dollars back into the economy, and solar is energy that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. It’s also relatively easy to maintain solar infrastructure.
Otto said he and ICL are calling for a comprehensive, collaborative study about the costs and benefits of solar to determine how to move forward.
“Our goal is to use this current case to answer the question that we really need to answer, which is, ‘What is the value of solar in Idaho?’ Our end goal is to try to answer that in the next year so we can conclude this and move on,” he said. “What we’re saying is we need to do the value of solar before you know whether it’s appropriate to divide up customers. It could be, but we just don’t know.”
The city of Boise is so far one of the leaders in solar investment in Idaho, with a composting facility south of town that is powered by rooftop solar panels. It is the city’s first net-zero energy building, which Boise Public Works Director Steve Burgos says is just the beginning of their plans.
“For internal operations we have set an energy reduction goal for any new building—by 2030, those buildings will be zero net energy, all of them,” Burgos said.
The city is also conducting a renewable energy study to set a course for an energy efficiency master plan and set goals for the future. The study will help assess infrastructure and land availability for future installations, as well as the costs associated and other feasibility measures. He said energy efficiency investments not only save taxpayer dollars by lowering energy bills for city properties, but it can help attract large corporations that are already making moves toward energy alternatives like solar, and retain businesses that are already here.
“Part of the strategy is also looking forward from an economic development standpoint,” Burgos said. “We’re hearing questions from businesses asking us if we can help them get renewable energy.”
Along with new infrastructure, Burgos said Boise has a goal to reduce its existing building energy use by 50 percent from 2010 levels by making efficiency and renewable energy upgrades. Making efficiency upgrades first, he said, will reduce the amount of sustainable energy needed to supplement the building’s usage.
“These decisions are generational decisions,” Burgos said. “We’ll look back 30 years from now, hopefully, and say ‘Wow, that was a really smart investment. They’re half as much to run now because we invested in efficiency and renewables.’ There’s a lot of work to be done, we’re engaged and we’re working our way through it.”
Thinking about adding solar?
Idaho Power Program Specialist Patti Best said there are many factors to consider before adding solar to a home or residence, and Idaho Power can help navigate people through that process. There are laws, rules, and safety considerations that must be followed for the safety of linemen and the stability of the grid. Go to www.idahopower.com/pdfs/BusinessToBusiness/RenewableFAQ’s.pdf for information.
Total estimated solar jobs in Idaho: 800
Current number of solar customers in Idaho: 1,277
Estimated solar growth by 2022: 6,816 customers
Average panel installation: 4 to 88 panels residential, 30 to 6,000 panels for commercial