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Solar Energy War: Utilities Set Their Sights on Rooftop Solar

By Travis Hoium - Apr 24, 2016 at 8:55AM

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There's clearly a war on rooftop solar, but it may not be as simple of a debate as you might think.

Image source: SunPower.

Slowly but surely, utilities are eating away at the revolution taking place in rooftop solar. Nevada eliminated net metering altogether, Hawaii reduced net metering benefits for customers, California added charges for non-bypassable costs that have the same effect as reducing net metering benefits, and utilities across the country are starting to increase base fees and challenge net metering benefits to reduce the savings solar provides.

The result is effectively a war between residential solar companies and the utilities they're trying to disrupt. And where your solar investments are positioned in this battle could tell you a lot about their future.

Why the battle over net metering is taking place
The core disagreement between utilities and solar companies is over the price homeowners are credited for solar electricity they export to the grid. The solar energy that's produced and consumed at a home isn't in question -- it's only what's exported that matters.

As the rules stand today, in most states customers are credited with their full retail rate, known as net metering. If the rate you pay for electricity is $0.12 per kWh, you would get a $0.12-per-kWh credit for the electricity exported to the grid. Companies like SolarCity (SCTY.DL), Sunrun (RUN -1.24%), and SunPower (SPWR -0.48%) love this structure because they can sell electricity to homeowners for less than their retail rate (in this example, $0.12 per kWh), offering savings to go solar. 

Image source: SolarCity.

But utilities argue that they can buy solar electricity from large solar farms at a more cost-effective rate than homeowners can. And that makes sense. NV Energy, which is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.B -0.03%), was behind Nevada's massive cut in net metering and its numbers show the problem for rooftop solar. The utility has signed contracts in the last two years with First Solar (FSLR -1.05%) and SunPower to buy solar energy for $0.039 per kWh and $0.046 per kWh, respectively -- far below what you would pay for solar on your roof. So, why should it then be happy buying solar energy from customers for $0.114 per kWh, which is the latest retail rate for electricity? And why should regulators force the utility to buy that more expensive solar energy? 

That's the picture if you're looking at the system as a whole. And it's hard to argue that the utility doesn't have a point that it can procure solar energy more effectively than homeowners. But that doesn't take into account other system benefits, like locally created supply, reduced need for transmission lines, reduction in demand during peak summer air condition hours or choices in energy, something that's new to the industry.  

Does choice in energy matter?
One thing residential solar companies would argue is that choice in energy matters. If a customer wants to generate their own electricity they should be able to. And that's true.

But what can't go overlooked is that solar systems are still reliant on the grid for reliable operation of a home, and net metering, in one form or another, is the only way to make rooftop solar truly economical until batteries that allow 100% self consumption are an economical option.

Image source: SunPower.

Customers have the choice to go solar, but in most cases they're also reliant on compensation from the grid to make their solar choice work. And that tension between choice and compensation is the battle between solar companies and utilities today.

Community solar could solve all of these problems
What could solve this problem is if customers begin getting the choice to buy solar energy from a community solar farm. These are larger solar installations that could leveraging the lower cost that scale provides, but it would still sell energy directly by customers, just like a rooftop solar system. Think of it as owning a small piece of a solar farm for yourself. And the utility would be able to accurately predict energy production and costs, making for more predictability on the grid.

I think community solar will end up being a win-win-win for customers, solar companies, and utilities in the long term, but they're relatively new to the industry right now. Keep an eye on this as a structure going forward as a way to balance everyone's interests.

Where do you stand in the solar war?
I don't write any of this to take sides in rooftop solar vs. utilities, but rather to lay out the position different companies have in this battle. Utilities are often seen as the bad guys, trying to kill off a threatening innovation like rooftop solar. But there's a logical reason to think that utilities could actually help bring more solar energy to the grid more cost effectively than rooftop solar companies can. And that's one of their best arguments for utilities against net metering. If your goal is more solar energy production and not more energy choice, you may lean to the utility side of the argument.

But rooftop solar companies also have a good point that they bring choice to a market that's never had choice before. I just wouldn't expect them to win the argument that net metering will make sense forever given the low-cost solar alternatives and potential cost shift to non-solar customers in high-penetration markets.

When investing in solar, it's important to know where your company stands as the industry changes in the long term. And if you're counting on net metering to fuel your company's business model -- as SolarCity and Sunrun are -- you may want to reconsider how sustainable that model is. Utilities across the country are chipping away at net metering, and that may not be good for the disruptive rooftop solar market.

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Stocks Mentioned

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Stock Quote
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
BRK.B
$304.05 (-0.03%) $0.10
First Solar, Inc. Stock Quote
First Solar, Inc.
FSLR
$65.77 (-1.05%) $0.70
SunPower Corporation Stock Quote
SunPower Corporation
SPWR
$16.60 (-0.48%) $0.08
SolarCity Corporation Stock Quote
SolarCity Corporation
SCTY.DL
Sunrun Inc. Stock Quote
Sunrun Inc.
RUN
$23.07 (-1.24%) $0.29

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