Solar energy advocates decry hearing, intent of bill that would charge users extra | State News

The public hearing on a bill that disturbs renewable energy advocates has been extended to next week after opponents expressed outrage at the last-minute notice, limited speaking time and snowy roads that blocked many from Wednesday’s hearing.

The bill, HB 539, proposes adding fees to customers who use solar panels, as well as charging additional fees for installation, constraining the sale of excess solar energy and reiterating consumer protections.

“I’m not against solar,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeff Knight, R-Lebanon, said. “I’m not here to kill jobs. I’m here for simply fairness in an industry.”

Proponents argued at the House Utilities Committee hearing that establishing “fairness” means reducing what they see as extra incentives to use solar power. The way the electric system is set up now, they said, means non-solar customers of co-ops and electric power retailers effectively subsidize other customers’ use of solar power.

Knight also said that “net metering basically will establish a cost for the use of the (power) grid” by charging solar users both when energy is transported and when they sell excess energy back to the grid.

Opponents said the new fees are not proposed for the sake of fairness.

“The whole bill is designed to be a burden to the solar industry and to customers,” said James Owen, executive director of Renew Missouri. “The utility companies say it costs extra to provide service to solar customers, which is not true. So it would add monthly increments to (the customers’) bills to make sure they do not see any benefit from solar.”

Owen said in states where fees like these have been implemented, like Kansas, these disincentives have “wiped out the solar industries.” He noted that a Kansas court ruled these discriminatory charges to certain customers unconstitutional.

Owen was unable to speak at Wednesday’s hearing but plans to attend next week when it continues.

The announcement Tuesday of the hearing on HB 539 prompted outrage from Renew Missouri and other environmental groups. Many complained that the 24-hour notice and continuing snow and cold would prevent them from being heard. The continuation will give the public another chance to weigh in.

Committee Chairperson Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, said that especially with these controversial issues, the committee is looking to work on the bills “for as long as it takes to get it right.”

Owen said this is not a new issue and that this sort of bill threatening solar energy has come up in the Missouri legislature for the past several years. Despite the previous defeat of similar bills, environmental advocates still see looming threats to the progress of renewable energy in Missouri.

Paul McKnight, the owner of EFS Energy in St. Louis and president of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association, argued that expanding the use of renewable energy should be encouraged.

“These (upgrades and changes) are things which we need to allocate resources to,” McKnight said. “To try to slow that down or restrict that, I feel, is moving in the wrong direction.”

The Utilities Committee will reconvene at 8 a.m. next Wednesday to continue the public hearing.