Is Iowa solar power ruling a camel’s nose into electric utility’s monopoly tent?

Michael Giberson

Eagle Point Solar, a for-profit solar power installer and operator, proposed to build a solar PV array on a Dubuque, Iowa municipal building under a long-term contract with the city. Under the contract, Eagle Point would own the solar array and sell power to the city in a “behind the meter” arrangement.

The local electric utility, Interstate Power and Light Company (IPL), challenged the arrangement as infringing on its exclusive service territory. In April of 2012, the Iowa Utilities Board agreed with IPL that the retail electric sales contract would require Eagle Point to be an electric utility and it would thereby be prohibited from providing service in IPL’s assigned exclusive electric service area.

Eagle Point appealed and in March 2013 the Iowa District Court for Polk County overturned the Iowa Utilities Board ruling. Eagle Point was declared not to be a public utility and therefore not in conflict with IPL’s assigned exclusive electric service area. Kari Lydersen at Midwest Energy News summarized key parts of the ruling:

The ruling emphasized that since there is no state statute defining what it means to sell to the public, the utility board should have relied on a decision in a 1968 Iowa case involving the state commerce commission and a natural gas company. Based on a series of tests outlined in that case and actually drawn from a previous Arizona case involving a natural gas company, the court decided that Eagle Point would not meet the definition of either a “public utility” or an “electric utility.”

Among other things, Schemmel noted, Eagle Point would not be able or required to meet all requests for service and it would not be competing with Alliant or creating a monopoly of its own.

Schemmel also pointed out that the solar panels would not meet all of the building’s electricity needs, hence the building would still be hooked up to the grid and buying electricity from Alliant. The building’s demand for electricity from the grid would be reduced, but this would be equivalent to the demand reduction created by energy efficiency measures like weatherization, Schemmel found.

The court also considered a state law declaring it “the policy of this state to encourage the development of alternative energy production facilities” as balancing against the public interests in the law granting monopoly territories to electric utilities.

A significant factor in this case was the ability of for-profit companies like Eagle Point, but not non-profit entities like city governments, to access numerous federal and state subsidies for solar power installations. If the deal was just about power supplies the city could have simply bought the solar array from Eagle Point. But this angle is actually less interesting that the broader possibilities of the precedent to support distributed generation.

The Iowa Utilities Board could appeal the decision to the state’s Supreme Court. But at least until that happens, or if the Supreme Court affirms the district court rules, behind-the-meter distributed power systems appear to be legal in Iowa (at least if they are “alternative energy” based generators, and if they don’t result in entirely removing a customer from electric utility service).

Small renewable providers and cogenerators, start your engines.

Eagle Point Solar: Dubuque City Operations Center

Eagle Point Solar: Dubuque City Operations Center

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3 thoughts on “Is Iowa solar power ruling a camel’s nose into electric utility’s monopoly tent?

  1. Mike,

    I don’t believe such an installation would be an issue, even if it did remove the customer from the utility grid, since the customer has no affirmative obligation to be connected to the grid in the first place. Were the building to be sold, the new owner would have no obligation to apply for utility service.

    The “thorny” issue would arise if the owner of the distributed generation facility sought to sell surplus on-site generated electricity to the utility, or to sell surplus on-site generated electricity to another customer of the utility.

  2. @Ed Reid: Laws in some states forbid third parties from owning generating capacity and selling power directly to retail customers — even one retail customer, in a behind-the-meter configuration — unless they legally become a utility and submit to regulation as such. Iowa’s law obviously left room for uncertainty about this as the IUB sided with IPL.

    It does seem like an antiquated construct that should’ve broken down over years of companies building inside-the-fence cogeneration etc.

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