Why no news is good news for Iowa net-metering supporters

Nearly two years into an examination of the state’s policies towards distributed generation, the Iowa Utilities Board has signaled that it sees no reason at this point to make any major changes.

And no news, in this case, is good news, in the views of some of the state’s clean-energy promoters.

“I think it’s a positive order and potentially a model for thoughtful, data-driven distributed generation policy,” said Josh Mandelbaum, a staff attorney in Des Moines for the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Spokespeople for the state’s major utilities could not be reached for comment.

The board on Oct. 30 filed a document in which it said, “The Board declines to adopt a policy statement with respect to renewable distributed generation.” The three board members also indicated they would be open to more information about the impact of renewables on the state’s power system.

To that end, they invited the state’s municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives to submit plans for pilot projects investigating various aspects of distributed generation and net metering. The board required the state’s two major investor-owned utilities – MidAmerican Energy and Alliant Energy – to provide pilot proposals by the end of January.

In January 2014, when the board launched its inquiry into distributed generation, some advocates worried that it might result in policies discouraging the development of wind, solar and other renewable energy technologies.

“One concern we had was whether the board would propose policy changes or try to make changes in the absence of good data,” said Nathaniel Baer, energy program director for the Iowa Environmental Council.

“The docket could have led to positions that would be harmful for distributed generation,” Mandelbaum added.

The board regularly sought out comments from a wide range of interested parties including utilities, consumer advocates, developers of renewable energy and others.

Their conclusion, as Mandelbaum sees it, is that, “We should look for ways to encourage distributed generation, and that there is no basis in fact for limiting net metering at this time.

“That’s significantly different from what we have seen in other states. If other states took a fact-based approach, I think you would see a similar outcome.”

Both Baer and Mandelbaum believe that, at some point, a value-of-solar study could add immensely helpful information to the policymaking process in Iowa. But with solar penetration well below 1 percent, they said, such a study is premature. It would need to reach at least 1 percent before it could yield any meaningful data.

Pilot projects could shed some light sooner, they said. The board had indicated it would consider a couple of changes to distributed-generation policy: expanding the cap from the current 500 kilowatts to perhaps one or two megawatts, and changing the way it treats excess generation. Presently, it is rolled over indefinitely to offset electrical usage. The board suggested that it would like to see the state’s utilities experiment with purchasing the excess, or to explore mechanisms for using the excess to help finance distributed-generation projects for people with low incomes.

“If you look at the docket and the comments of the stakeholders, there is a lot of interest in community solar,” Mandelbaum said. “This would be a great opportunity for a utility to figure out how to put together a community solar program.”

Regardless of the direction the pilot projects take, Baer said the board’s statement a few weeks ago is significant mostly because it reflects “a focus on continuing the process of collecting information, and using it to guide policy decisions.”

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