- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - Republicans in the Arizona Senate moved Wednesday to send voters a measure mandating separate rates for rooftop solar and requiring state regulators to consider cost-shifts that utilities contend make non-solar customers pay more for their service.

The measure is designed to block a proposed citizen’s initiative requiring utilities to continue paying homeowners with rooftop solar panels the full retail price for power they send back to the grid and blocking new fees utilities are pushing.

The referendum, HCR2041, was approved on a 5-3 party-line vote by the Senate Appropriations Committee and now moves to the full Senate. Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, is backing the referral and says she worked with Arizona Public Service Co. to craft it in response to the competing measure.

That initiative was filed April 15 and requires 225,000 valid signatures to get on the November ballot, a process the Legislature can make with a simple majority vote.

Former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Kris Mayes is chairing the citizen’s initiative, which is backed by Solar City. If approved by voters, utilities must pay full retail rate for excess solar power and can’t charge customers extra fees. Several major utilities are seeking or expected to seek such changes.

“My bill is a total response to the Solar City initiative,” Lesko said.

The citizen’s initiative and legislative referral are the latest battleground between solar companies and utilities. The fight began more than two years ago when utilities began pushing added fees for rooftop solar customers and began preparing rate cases before state regulators seeking to cut the amount solar customers are paid. The industry pushed back, saying utilities were trying to kill the industry to protect their profits.

Meghaen Dell’Artino, a lobbyist for the Alliance for Solar Choice, testified that Lesko’s measure would treat rooftop solar as a completely different rate class, and devastate the industry. She said the measure essentially would require that residential customers are paid the same rate for the power they return to the grid as billion dollar power plants.

“This is a targeted measure to get rid of solar,” she said. “it is a pretty big bat coming down on the industry.”

But Lesko and other Republicans on the panel pushed back, saying the initiative backed by Solar City was an effort to lock in rates that are unsustainable for power companies.

Lesko also is pushing a separate referral with Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, that would put solar firms under the authority of the Arizona Corporation Commission as public service corporations. HCR2039 passed by a 5-3 vote with no Democrats voting in support.

Those opposed to the measure said solar companies are nowhere near regulated utilities, which are given a monopoly and a guaranteed rate of return.

“I just think it is completely ridiculous to treat them like a public corporation,” Dell’Artino. “We are not giving them a rate of return, we are not giving them guaranteed customers like we are with a regulated utility.”

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