Three months after Iowa's utility regulator stated publicly that it believes the state's net metering law is working fine, a state legislator introduced a bill that would reduce the rates paid to solar customers.
On Tuesday, Rep. Dave Heaton introduced HF 2100, which would remove the requirement that the state's major utilities essentially pay retail prices to customers for excess solar generation, and would substitute a much lower wholesale price.
“Without net metering in place, the solar industry would be decimated in Iowa, just as it's starting to grow,” said Amy Heart, speaking for the advocacy group Alliance for Solar Choice. “Net metering is the essential policy for rooftop solar. It's the backbone of being able to build a strong solar market.”
Nathaniel Baer, energy program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, called net metering “one of those policies we need, to maintain what we're doing now and to become a regional and national leader. This would certainly jeopardize that.”
Barry Shear, a Dubuque-based solar installer, estimated that the proposed change would add five or six years to the payback time for most residential and non-demand customers, and would have “very serious implications” for the future of solar in Iowa.
On Oct. 30, 2015, when the Iowa Utilities Commission published its opinion supporting the continuation of Iowa's net metering law, the commissioners did acknowledge that an evaluation of the practice's costs and benefits might be helpful at some point in the future – most likely when solar energy production in the state grows well beyond its current level. At present, solar arrays produce less than 1 percent of Iowa's electrical power.
Asked for its thoughts on the legislation that would undercut the commission's policy statement, a spokesman said the board “has no position on pending legislation.”
Solar advocates note that the bill employs arguments commonly used by utilities. However, neither Alliant Energy nor MidAmerican Energy, the two utilities covered under Iowa's current net metering policy, are behind the bill, according to spokespeople.
Alliant spokesman Justin Foss said the company was surprised by the bill's introduction, and does not have a position on it yet.
MidAmerican spokeswoman Ruth Comer said that utility did not initiate the bill and likewise does not have a position on it, adding that the utility does “support policies that are fair, and believes everyone who uses the grid should pay for the grid based on how they use it.”
Rep. Heaton is affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that has made weakening net metering policies a priority.
Heaton's office did not return calls for comment on this story.
Heart said she wonders where this bill came from, and why it came forward at this time when there is broad support for solar in Iowa. Heaton "is not even on the commerce committee, the committee that this would first be heard by. For me, that's interesting.”
Heart said she's seen similar legislation across the country.
“Here in our region, there is a bill that's been proposed in Michigan that does essentially the same thing. Since the beginning of 2016, we've seen similar bills in Washington and Utah.”
Although some people downplayed the likelihood of the bill surviving both chambers of the legislature and being signed by the pro-solar Gov. Terry Branstad, Baer of the Iowa Environmental Council said, “I think it's not something we should dismiss, given the implications if it did pass.”