Sun rays give people free warmth and light, but the technology to bring that home is still quite expensive. Solar panels are generating enough electricity to meet demands of the households beneath them and solar panel owners are hoping to sell their excess back to Portland General Electric. As Oregon strives to reach the goal of getting 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, the state and interest groups are looking for incentives to encourage the switch.
One proposal is feed-in-tariffs, where utilities have to pay for all the renewable power leftovers that are fed back into the grid. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) recently gave states the power to set the rates at which utility companies can buy renewable power, making feed-in-tariffs possible.
Ross Swartzendruber of Solarize Salem and Mark Pengilly of Oregonians for Renewable Energy Policy and Energize Oregon are firm supporters of feed-in-tariffs. They both spent time in Germany, which they say inspired them to fight for the same system back home.
“I saw what happened in Germany firsthand. The program created 290,000 jobs over six years and it ended up costing [rate payers] one half of one cent. It translates directly into jobs,” says Swartzendruber.
Pengilly was impressed by how many solar panels he saw all over Germany. “I couldn’t believe it. On barn roofs in Bavaria, on top of historic churches. There were solar panels everywhere! I thought, what are they doing here that they’re not doing in Oregon?”
The answer was feed-in-tariffs.
“It’s like having a piggy bank on your roof. They’re investing in solar and getting a return on their investment. And getting off coal,” he adds.
The debate lies in the green power showing up on Oregonian’s electric bills, and the question of whether taxpayers should pay for the green choices.
The Cascade Policy Institute (CPI), a nonprofit public policy research organization, opposes feed-in-tariffs.
“The main reason is that it essentially socializes the cost of your neighbor’s solar panel,” explains Todd Wynn, CPI’s vice president focusing on energy issues.
Wynn is concerned about the increase cost that Portland General Electric would pass onto their customers, but agrees that feed-in-tariffs would expand the use of renewable energy in the state.
“I don’t think it’s fair for the government to make people pay for someone’s investment or desire to have a solar panel. We are for voluntary solutions. Other rate payers shouldn’t be forced to pay for that.”
Swartzendruber points out that coal and oil are cheap because they’re subsidized and they have hidden costs, such as climate change and health expenses. “The transition to renewable energy is expensive but once we make that transition it’ll be cheaper. The sun and the wind are always going to be free but the cost of the technology is expensive. It’s coming down though.”
Pengilly admits that feed-in-tariffs could raise electricity prices.
“If prices were to skyrocket, some industries could say they can no longer do business in Oregon and high electrical rates could affect low income people,” says Pengilly. His solution is to have programs such as low interest loans to make homes and businesses more energy efficient along with the feed-in-tariffs program.
There’s currently no bill before the legislature proposing tariffs. Pengilly says that groups are waiting for the FERC’s decision to be settled because it might be appealed. They’re also waiting to see how Oregon’s pilot program works. They’re currently allowing people to get tax credits for their renewable investment, but not quite as much as the proposed system would – only as much as they consume.
Pengilly says this encourages people to use more energy instead of saving power.
“If you get paid for all the energy you produce, you want the largest system that can fit on your roof and that you can afford, and also the more you reduce the power you consume, the more money you’ll make. It’s a double incentive,” he says, adding that with the current program, “We might as well waste power so we can get paid for it! If Oregon changes the law, people would cut consumption and generate as much power as we possibly can.”
While Pengilly says the process is in limbo, for Swartzendruber, the important thing is getting the conversation started: “That’s the first step, for people to learn about feed-in-tariffs.”