Solar advocates sue MS Public Service Commission over cutting solar incentives – Clarion Ledger

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A solar energy advocacy group is suing the Mississippi Public Service Commission to repeal a decision that suspends incentives for low to mid-income Mississippians and school districts to install solar panels.

On Wednesday, the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association, members of the Sierra Club and other groups in Mississippi, spoke out against an order made by PSC to strip several economic incentives that provide low-income families with up to $5,000 to install solar panels and battery storage for their homes.

It also suspends a program for school districts to install their own solar panels on 16th section land to offset energy costs and redistribute that money toward other areas.

“This is particularly disappointing because the need for these incentives in the state of Mississippi is significant,” Jonathan Green, executive director of Steps Coalition said. “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 … For many low-to-moderate-income residents in the state of Mississippi, energy burden and energy insecurity represent real daily economic challenges.”

During the meeting held Wednesday over Zoom, members of several solar-related organizations said the commission’s decision undid an 18-month-long process to create those incentives back in 2022 without a proper notice for feedback from the public, which in the lawsuit, the Sierra Club claims is required by law.

Several speakers said the decision creates a scenario where not only average Mississippians have less access to solar energy, but it also creates a hurdle for companies looking to provide those services in the state, as well as those building solar plants with battery storage.

“We consider all sources of the incentives that are available, because ultimately, especially with our focus on low- and moderate-income households, we don’t want to provide a battery and then put them in a non-savings situation,” said Kyle Wallace, vice president of public policy and government affairs at PosiGen, a solar company. “The more we can do to lower the upfront cost of that battery has real value.”

Shown is an image of a home with solar panels installed on the roof in Appalachia. In April, the Mississippi Public Service Commission suspended several incentives for Mississippi residents and school districts to install solar panels and storage batteries.  (Credit: Solar Holler)

What did the Public Service Commission do?

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 monthly bills.

On April 11, the commission met and decided to suspend the incentives. According to an email from Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association, first-year Commission Chairman Chris Brown, R-Desoto County, said the Environmental Protection Agency was going to award the Mississippi Development Authority with a grant via the Solar for All Program. If that happened, Brown said there was no need for PSC to maintain its program.

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However, MDA did not receive the grant. Instead, the Hope Enterprise Corporation was awarded $62 million to help establish solar power generation in low-income areas and school districts throughout the state. According to some at the meeting Wednesday, the nonprofit was actually hoping the incentives would still be in place as well.

“The commission’s recent actions will hamstring the effectiveness of hope $62 million Solar for School program,” said Jill Mastrototaro, the Mississippi policy director for Audubon Delta, an environmental advocacy group.

When contacted by the Clarion Ledger, Brown did not answer questions related to the decision, saying only that the commission did what it thought was best.

“Solar and wind projects are moving forward, but we are making sure to do our due diligence to make sure it does not negatively impact the rate payers or (grid) reliability,” Brown said via text.

Commissioner De-Keither Stamps, who was the only commissioner to vote against the move, did not answer calls seeking comment.

How does this affect utility companies?

Louie Miller, state director for the Mississippi Sierra Club, said the only people who would benefit from such a move would be for-profit utility companies that don’t benefit from people setting up solar panels or plants in their communities.

“Every kilowatt a household generates is a kilowatt they don’t get to sell,” said Louie Miller, state director for the Mississippi Sierra Club. “They see it as a threat to their business model. They clearly agreed to this rule (in 2022) and now they have made a play here with a new commission with no institutional memory on that commission, with at this point three new faces. To do this is unconscionable.”

In a written response, Entergy said that it would not be directly impacted by the commission’s decision and that it intends to keep working with customers who want to use solar power.

“The Mississippi Public Service Commission recently voted to suspend a rule that creates a solar-for-schools offering and a battery storage incentive, and Entergy Mississippi will comply with the directive,” the company wrote. “Entergy Mississippi offers net metering and community solar, and there are numerous other federal programs for customers seeking solar options.”

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According to Wallace, the average cost to install solar power on someone’s home is about $25,000. The federal government currently offers a 30% rebate, on top of what the state offers, which before the commission rescinded the incentives, was about $5,000 for installation of panels and storage batteries.

PosiGen, as well as other companies, also offer customers the option to lease the panels instead of buying them outright, which combined with the incentives, can equate to an almost 50% reduction in total cost to have solar power.

Robert Wiygul, a partner at Waltzer Wiygul and Garside LLC, said the battery incentive will have a huge impact for those looking to install them because of the heightened cost to install one, especially in coastal regions where power outages due to storms or hurricanes is a higher possibility.

“The battery solution with solar after a storm, when the power is out, is really remarkable,” Wiygul said. “I think that resilience aspect, particularly for areas like the Gulf Coast, like the Delta, that are really prone to storm damage is important.”

Former Public Service Commissioner and Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Brandon Presley, who worked to pass those incentives in 2022, told the Clarion Ledger the programs were put in place to help schools and families offset the cost of electricity, not take away money from for-profit companies.

However, Presley did not seem too concerned that the actions taken by the commission in April would have a lasting effect.

“I see this as more of a bump in the road,” Presley said. “The fact is that no one is going to be able to hold back the energy revolution that is taking hold in this country. We are going to move forward. These things are going to come up from time to time, but I think the grander victory is going to be that Mississippi cannot hold back forever.”

Business Reporter Ross Reily contributed to this story.

Grant McLaughlin covers state government for the Clarion Ledger. He can be reached at [email protected] or 972-571-2335.

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