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Know the West

A war for a dollar


An energy war is sizzling in Arizona, with utilities pitted against the solar industry, environmentalists and even some free-market Republicans. The fight basically boils down to dollars: How much can an Arizonan with a solar system save on his electricity bill, and what will those savings cost other ratepayers?

The savings are currently sizable, thanks to Arizona's net-metering program, considered one of the nation's most robust. Under it, the power generated by panels is subtracted from that used by the household; homeowners are charged only for the net amount used. Participants can theoretically zero out their utility bill, and even get an end-of-year check if they use less power than they produce.

But the state's largest utility, Arizona Public Service (APS), says net meterers don't pay their fair share for using the grid, leaving ratepayers without solar installations to pick up the tab. So in July, APS asked the Arizona Corporation Commission -- the state's utility regulator -- to choose one of two proposals, each of which would result in larger electricity bills for new rooftop solar.

Both sides have spouted overblown rhetoric: The solar industry, allied with a group of pro-solar Republicans, says APS' proposed "tax on the sun" would cripple or kill Arizona's solar industry. APS allies -- including a shady conservative group called the 60 Plus Association -- claim that non-solar ratepayers are subsidizing California billionaire solar companies with skyrocketing electricity bills.

High Country News tried to cut through the hyperbolic haze by stripping the issue down to naked numbers to determine just what the utility's proposals might mean for Arizonans.

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Idaho Power is waging war on renewable energy. Is it winning?