PSC axes solar programs in light of EPA funds, advocates file lawsuit – Mississippi Today

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Advocates from some of the state’s conservation groups — such as Audubon Delta, Mississippi Sierra Club and Steps Coalition — spoke out Wednesday against a recent decision by the Mississippi Public Service Commission to suspend several solar programs, including “Solar for Schools,” less than two years after the previous commission put them in place.

“This is particularly disappointing because the need for these incentives in the state of Mississippi is significant,” said Jonathan Green, executive director of Steps Coalition. “Energy costs in the South, and in particular the region known as the Black Belt, are higher than those in other parts of the country for a number of reasons. These regions tend to have older energy generation infrastructure, and housing that has not been weatherproofed to modern standards. For many low- to moderate-income residents in the state of Mississippi, energy burden and energy insecurity represent real daily economic challenges.”

The PSC voted 2-1 at its April docket meeting to do away with the programs, reasoning in part that new funds through the Inflation Reduction Act would be available to the state. About 10 days later, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded $62 million to the state, through the Hope Enterprise Corporation, to help low-income Mississippians afford adding solar power to their homes. The funds are part of the Biden Administration’s Solar for All program, one of the several recent federal initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The PSC decision ended three programs the previous commission put in place to encourage wider adoption of solar power through the two power companies it regulates, Entergy Mississippi and Mississippi Power: “Solar for Schools,” which allowed school districts to essentially build solar panels for free in exchange for tax credits, as well as incentives for low-income customers and battery storage.

Last Friday, the Sierra Club filed lawsuits in chancery courts in Hinds and Harrison counties against the commission, arguing the PSC broke state law by not providing sufficient reasoning or public notice before making the changes. Advocates also argued that new funding going to Hope Enterprise won’t go as far without the PSC’s low-income incentives.

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The programs were part of a 2022 addition to the state’s net metering rule, a system that allows homeowners to generate their own solar power and earn credits for excess energy on their electric bills. Mississippi’s version is less beneficial to participants than net metering in most states, though, because it doesn’t reimburse users at the full retail cost. Mississippi’s net metering program itself is still in tact.

Northern District Commissioner Chris Brown said that, while he supported efforts to expand solar power, he didn’t think programs that offer incentives from energy companies were fair to other ratepayers.

imageSolar panels on the roof of the performing arts center at North Forrest High School.
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Solar panels on the roof of the performing arts center at North Forrest High School. Credit: Mike Papas / Forrest County School District

“It’s the subsidy that we take issue with,” Brown said at the meeting. “It’s not the solar, it’s not the helping the schools. We just don’t think it’s good policy to spread that to the rest of the ratepayers.”

Brown and Southern District Commissioner Wayne Carr voted to end the programs, while Central District Commissioner De’Keither Stamps voted against the motion. All three are in their first terms on the PSC. Brown’s position is in line with what the power companies as well as Gov. Tate Reeves have argued, which is that programs like net metering forces non-participants to subsidize those who participate.

Robert Wiygul, an attorney for the Mississippi Sierra Club, countered that argument during Wednesday’s press conference, saying that net metering actually helps non-participants by adding more power to the grid and reducing the strain on the power companies’ other infrastructure. Moreover, he said, the PSC hasn’t offered actual numbers showing that non-participants are subsidizing the program.

“Look, if the commission wants to talk about that, we are ready to talk about it,” Wiygul said. “But what we got here is a situation where these two commissioners just decided they were going to do this. We don’t even know what that claim is really based on because it hasn’t been through the public notice and hasn’t been through the public comment process.”

While no schools had officially enrolled in “Solar for Schools,” which went into effect in January of last year, Stamps told Mississippi Today that there were places in his district getting ready to participate in the very programs the PSC voted to suspend.

imageMississippi Public Service Central District Commissioner De’Keither Stamps, discusses current agency operations across the state during an interview at district headquarters, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Jackson.
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Mississippi Public Service Central District Commissioner De’Keither Stamps, discusses current agency operations across the state during an interview at district headquarters, Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

“My issue was we should have talked to the entities that were going through the process to (understand what they were doing) to participate in the programs before you eliminate the programs,” he said.

Several school districts in the state are already using solar panels thanks to funding from a past settlement with Mississippi Power. Officials there told Mississippi Today that the extra power generated from the panels has freed up spending for other educational needs. During the public comment period for the 2022 net metering update, about a dozen school district superintendents from around the state wrote in to support the initiative. Ninety-five school districts in the state would have been eligible for the program because they receive power from Entergy Mississippi or Mississippi Power.

Former commissioner Brent Bailey, who lost a close reelection bid in November to Stamps, was an advocate for the schools program that the PSC created while he was there. At the April docket meeting, he pleaded with the new commission to reconsider, arguing that the new federal funding won’t have the same impact without those programs.

“My ask is to at least give this program a chance, see where it goes, and hear from stakeholders that have participated,” Bailey said. The solar programs, he added, weren’t just about expanding renewable energy, but taking advantage of a growing economy around solar power as well: “We can just stand by and watch it go by, or we can participate in this and bring economic development to the state.”

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