Despite court decision, Missouri solar fight may continue

Seven years after Missouri voters passed a renewable-energy standard, the last of the solar rebates promised under the law are coming to fruition.

As of May 16, customers of the Empire District Electric Co. in southwest Missouri finally will have access to the rebates required by Proposition C, a referendum passed in 2008.

They’ve been put on hold since then because even before the renewable energy law was approved by a 2 to 1 margin, the utility persuaded the Missouri General Assembly to pass a law that would exempt it from the requirements.

Renew Missouri and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, non-profits that advocate for clean energy, challenged the exemption and won before the Missouri Supreme Court on Feb. 10. In approving the rebate rates on Wednesday, the Missouri Public Service Commission put the court’s decision into effect.

Although pleased that Empire soon will be offering rebates to customers wishing to install solar panels – as well as those who’ve done so in the past few years – Renew Missouri’s P.J. Wilson said he suspects that the utility may look for ways to cut short the rebate payments.

Missouri utilities may cease paying rebates when they report that their expenditures on solar rebates have caused rates to increase by more than 1 percent. Two of the state’s other investor-owned utilities, Ameren Missouri and Kansas City Power & Light-Greater Missouri Operations terminated their rebate payments in late 2013 about four years after they began paying them. Kansas City Power & Light still has some rebate funds available.

Given Empire’s historically hostile stance regarding renewable energy, Wilson said, “We are being vigilant about that.”

Julie Maus, a spokeswoman for Empire, said that the company’s goal in the rebate program is “to fully carry out the tariff we filed and had approved by the PSC. Our goal is to follow the rules and procedures that have been established by the commission in good faith.”

The solar tariffs, approved on Wednesday, would pay rebates retroactive to 2010, with amounts gradually decreasing into the future. The per-watt rebates approved are:

• $2 for systems installed from May 1, 2010 through Dec. 31, 2014
• $1.50 for systems that are “operational” by June 30, 2015
• $1 for applications filed by Dec. 31, 2015 and systems installed by June 30, 2016

The utility’s decision to pay rebates retroactive to 2010 could be seen as a generous gesture, Wilson said, or as a strategy to reach the cap and end rebate payments as quickly as possible.

Although the inauguration of solar rebates in Empire’s Missouri territory is “not a huge deal for the whole state,” Wilson called it “a big deal for a few installers and a lot of customers. There will definitely be hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are going to get rebates.”

Wilson and Renew Missouri are already getting ready for what Wilson suspects will be the next challenge to solar rebates in Missouri: a claim from Empire that it has hit the 1 percent cap.

The precise meaning and calculation of the 1 percent cap has been the source of much disagreement in Missouri. The cost of complying with the renewable energy law is to be amortized over 10 years, Wilson said, which effectively would lower the costs paid at the outset.

“We suspect Empire will say, ‘We’ve spent ‘X’ dollars this month, and we are going to suspend rebate payments,” he said.

If and when they do, he said, the next round of litigation likely will begin.

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