Is Beyond Solar program a bit shady?

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Customer interest in solar power is on the rise, driven in large part by the fact that low-cost solar is giving consumers new ways to save on their energy bills and have more control over their energy options. Solar’s growth means that the industry also is proving to be a job creator, employing more than 260,000 workers nationally and adding a new American job every 10 minutes. It’s no surprise that polls and surveys find that nearly everyone wants more solar energy development, and nearly half of customers are considering investing in solar power themselves — either on their own premises or as part of a community solar project.

One way utilities are responding is by offering a variety of green power purchase programs. In 2015, more than 4 million people across the country took part in a voluntary green pricing program, through which they went through or around their utility company to purchase renewable power.

In Iowa, Alliant has proposed a Beyond Solar program to connect more customers with the renewable energy they want — but a closer look reveals that this plan is a shady deal.

Rather than giving customers a way to reduce their energy bills, the program would charge customers a premium totaling $68 each month for the average residential customer who wants to go 100 percent solar. If that same customer were able to invest in a solar system of their own, the costs of the system would be paid back over a few years, and for the remaining life of the solar panels the customer would see substantial savings on their electricity bills.

Alliant’s stated goal for this program is to create clean energy options for people who cannot put solar on their home. This is a laudable goal and one that utilities and states are working to achieve. But the unnecessary price premium will put it out of reach for many Iowa families. And a deeper dive into Alliant’s plan reveals that it intends to market this option to customers who make more than $75,000 per year. Alliant customers deserve a program that delivers on the goal of expanding solar access to everyone who wants to choose clean energy.

The Beyond Solar proposal also means that Iowa’s communities will be missing out on an economic opportunity because Alliant has proposed to use existing solar and wind facilities for the program. That means that while the utility is making money on its promise to “increase the amount of renewable energy produced in Iowa,” there will be no new investment in these projects or the good jobs they create. In fact, this program may result in less solar development by diverting customer dollars away from other ways they might invest in new renewable power.

Iowans need real community solar options, and it would help for the state to adopt a community solar policy to guide utility offerings. These programs should be required to support the development of solar projects, should offer customers a fair price and the opportunity for bill savings, should promote fair market competition to enable diverse and cost-effective community solar offerings, and should expand access to customers at all income levels.

• Becky Stanfield is senior director at Vote Solar.

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