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Analysis finds growing solar energy generation in Wyoming

Tom Beach presents the report's analysis of primary cost-effectiveness tests for residential solar distributed generation on the Rocky Mountain Power system. (Mary Stroka/County 17)

CASPER, Wyo. — While relatively uncommon in Wyoming, rooftop solar is growing and worth the cost, according to a recent report.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council, Wyoming Outdoor Council, and Wyoming Chapter of the Sierra Club commissioned the benefit–cost analysis report. The study, “The Benefits and Costs of Net Metering Solar Distributed Generation in Wyoming,” evaluated metering for ratepayers in service territories of PacifiCorp, DBA Rocky Mountain Power, High Plains Power, and Carbon Power & Light. The report said that there are about 10 megawatts of rooftop solar online today and that that value is growing about 3 megawatts annually.

Researchers found the annual “solar value” by multiplying the average residential electric rate by the annual output of a typical fixed-array solar system in each state’s largest city. The report said the solar value in Wyoming is $170/kilowatt-year.

The metric assumes most states have made net energy metering available so customers can receive value roughly equal to the state’s average retail electric rate if they produce on-site solar electricity.

Researchers found that net metering doesn’t cause a cost shift to non-participating ratepayers, and in the long run utility bills will decline without requiring modifications to net metering to recover the full cost of service over time from net metering customers.

Solar owners in Wyoming have high costs because of electricity prices and system costs, and that’s why state residents are slow to adopt solar, the report said. Reducing compensation for rooftop solar customers will likely hurt the growth of solar, but economics could improve as solar costs fall.

The federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act grants customers the right to interconnect solar systems to the grid and sell their excess generation to the utility at state-regulated rates based on avoided costs.

“Although such installations are not planned or controlled directly by utilities, from a resource planning perspective, solar DG is a cost-effective resource for utilities in Wyoming,” the report said.

Solar’s benefits also include increased reliability and resiliency of customers’ electric service because solar supports backup power systems and micro-grids.

“Distributed generation also enhances customers’ freedom, allowing them to choose the source of their electricity, and results in customers who are more engaged and better informed about how their electricity is supplied,” the report said. “The choice of using private capital to install solar DG on a customer’s private premises leverages a new source of capital to expand Wyoming’s clean energy infrastructure.”

The report said Rocky Mountain Power stands to gain more than it would lose through solar distributed generation. Rocky Mountain Power would avoid costs in energy, generation, transmission and distribution losses, carbon emissions, transmission capacity, distribution capacity, fuel price uncertainty and market price mitigation, the report said.

Creative Energies co-founder and co-owner Scott Kane, a Lander resident, moderated a June 13 webinar about the report.

He said his company, a solar contractor, often asks customers whether they prefer American-made solar energy products and wants to ensure customers are aware of their options. He said all of the components can be sourced from the U.S., but there are manufacturers around the world. Solar panels tend to either come from manufacturers in Asia or the U.S., he said, adding that most of the panels his company acquires are from South Korea.

“Our customers, more often than not, are after the best pricing that they can get, and that tends to be — not always, but it tends to be — the equipment that’s made overseas,” Kane said.

He said some manufacturing companies are developing solar panel recycling systems, through which panels can be broken apart into separate materials. The aluminum, glass and other metals can be separated, Kane said. A customer taking a panel to a recycling system can expect to pay about $15 per panel, and panels newly installed now shouldn’t have to be recycled until they’ve been used for about 25 years, he said.

In his company’s experience, extreme hail — the kind that can wreck cars, break windshields or destroy entire roofs — can damage solar panels, but mild hail won’t do it.

Tom Beach, a principal consultant for the study who has about four decades of experience in rate design and ratemaking issues for natural gas and electric utilities, presented the study’s main findings in the webinar.

He said participant test costs include a $2.75 solar cost per watt, or about .125 cents over 25 years. Customer bill savings, which equal costs to non-participant ratepayers, are about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, he said.

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