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Utility monopolies are hurting rooftop solar. Can antitrust lawsuits rein them in?

By District Energy posted 02-22-2022 11:26




In 2015, the rooftop solar industry in Maricopa County, Arizona, dried up almost overnight. That year, the Salt River Project, or SRP, a state-owned electric utility that serves about 2 million customers in the Phoenix metropolitan area, set new rates for rooftop solar owners. Suddenly, generating your own electricity from the sun was expected to cost you $600 more per year on your electric bill than it had the year before. At that rate, paying off the panels could take twice as long.

For anyone following the current battle over rooftop solar in California, the rationale for the change will sound familiar. As more of SRP’s customers started generating their own electricity with rooftop solar, the utility’s revenue declined. It claimed that as a result, the cost of maintaining the electric grid would be shifted onto non-solar customers. 

But SRP’s solution of raising rates for solar customers led rooftop solar installations to drop by up to 95 percent between 2014 and 2015. Solar companies, as well as everyday people with an interest in rooftop solar, were outraged. In 2019, a group of citizens decided to take SRP to court for “engaging in anticompetitive conduct” and discriminating against solar customers. 

A federal district court dismissed the case, finding that the plaintiffs did not prove that they had suffered antitrust injury. But earlier this month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that finding and remanded the case back to the lower court. Perhaps more importantly, the 9th Circuit confirmed that SRP is not immune to antitrust challenges.

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