February 23, 2016 11:14:00 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi utility regulators may have averted an attempt led by electrical cooperatives to strip many powers of the Public Service Commission, but the deal could leave the regulatory body without the power to order cooperatives to pay rooftop solar panel owners enough money to make residential solar worthwhile.
Lawmakers had introduced multiple bills backed by Mississippi's electrical cooperatives after months of disputes over the commission's attempts to expand regulation over cooperatives. Key issues included whether the commission had power to order cooperatives to subsidize energy efficiency programs and residential solar panels, and to regulate cooperatives deposits and billing disputes. Another dispute in recent months centered on the commission's effort to force cooperatives and rural water associations to delay deposits charged of domestic violence victims hooking up new utilities.
Senate Bill 2089, as originally introduced, would have sharply restricted the commission's powers, but a compromise measure rolled out last week at least partially preserves most powers. Commission President Brandon Presley, a Nettleton Democrat, said he's satisfied with the outcome.
"Is it everything we wanted? No," Presley said Monday. But he said the bill keeps alive most of the powers the PSC has asserted.
"We have been arguing with the commission about the lines of jurisdiction," said Jim Compton, general manager of South Mississippi Electric Power Association. "We wanted to have a clear line of whether we're rate-regulated or not."
Hattiesburg-based SMEPA generates and transmits power for 11 cooperatives in southern and western Mississippi. The Tennessee Valley Authority supplies 14 cooperatives in northeast Mississippi.
Advocates of residential solar panels said Monday that the bill could let cooperatives, which serve 772,000 customers statewide, strangle the development of rooftop solar.
"These people do not want anyone putting solar panels on their roof because they don't want the competition," said Louie Miller, the Sierra Club's Mississippi director.
The state's two private electric utilities, Entergy and Mississippi Power Co., serve fewer than 620,000 customers combined -- and the commission's authority over them is much clearer.
Michael Callahan, CEO of the Electric Power Associations of Mississippi, though, said that cooperatives don't want members who don't use solar panels to subsidize those who do. Public service commissioners last year passed a regulation that could have required a subsidy.
"It would leave this up to the board, who are in theory elected by the members, so the members could vote them out if they don't like the rate," Presley said of each cooperative.
Although cooperative leaders say they've allowed customers to sell back power at an unsubsidized rate for years, only about 30 customers among the 11 cooperatives served SMEPA have moved forward. Miller said the contracts that cooperatives require customers to sign can also be onerous.
Compton said it's more cost-effective to sell solar power generated from centralized solar farms than to buy it from individual homes. SMEPA has agreed to buy power from a large solar farm near Hattiesburg, and is working on five community solar projects.
The bill would also restrict the commission's ability to mandate what kind of energy efficiency program a cooperative must offer, although Presley said programs must be "legitimate."
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