A Wyoming home with a solar panel. This particular panel is not connected to the grid. (Linda Sternberg)

Lawmakers advanced a surprise bill last week that would direct the appointed Public Service Commission to set payment for privately generated solar power and ensure the compensation excludes subsidies.

The draft bill would change the existing system, in which those who generate solar power are paid retail rates for excesses they produce. Committee members said utilities should only pay owners of rooftop solar systems the wholesale price of power.

The current system also allows those who generate solar electricity to accumulate excess-power credits over an entire year; the draft bill would limit that accrual to a month. Rooftop-solar power generators only pay about a third of their share for infrastructure, said Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), who authored the PSC bill.

But the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions committee drew heavy fire for its last-minute adoption of Case’s bill, which it substituted for a different solar-power measure it had advertised.

Some committee members and state residents, 78 of whom signed up to testify at the committee’s virtual Zoom meeting Nov. 11, called the last-minute bill swap unfair, confusing, deleterious to solar power and chicanery that deprived state citizenry of meaningful participation.

Because of the political machinations, Wednesday was “not a good day for the Wyoming Legislature,” committee member Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) told her colleagues. She complained about the “kill-and-replace” maneuver, made “without warning.”

The committee twice posted screen shots of the last-minute bill, allowing virtual attendees a few minutes to absorb the previously unseen language. Committee co-chairman Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance) allowed virtual attendees prepared to testify on the original but now-dead measure to speak during a four-hour session.

Because of the last-minute switch and lack of public notice, the stakeholders with the greatest interest in the bill, Nethercott said, “don’t understand what’s happening.”

Process upturned

Lawmakers are intent on protecting the state’s coal sector, which has been wounded by consumers’ nationwide choices of renewable-power alternatives, renewables activist Mike Selmer told the committee.

Rep. Danny Eyre (R-Lyman) proposed the original bill, saying it would cure existing solar-power compensation ills. Rooftop solar today is subsidized by other consumers in an opaque system, he said. Despite proposing changes, Eyre maintained that any new system should grandfather existing solar installations under existing rules.

A display at the Snake River Brewery and Restaurant in Jackson records the solar electricity the business generates to (orange) and takes from (gray) the grid. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr/WyoFile)

Eyre’s measure, which had been listed on the committee agenda along with the text of his bill, brought a tsunami of emails to the committee, plus the lineup of 78 public commenters. The engagement, Eyre said, highlighted the committee process as the “epitome of state government.”

But it took scant minutes for the committee to turn the process on its head and swap Eyre’s draft for Case’s new bill.

“Rate design isn’t supposed to happen in the Legislature,” Case told the committee, referring to Eyre’s proposal. “I think we need to get this issue in [front of] the Wyoming Public Service Commission.”

After a straw poll that favored Case’s PSC move, Lindholm said Erye’s bill would die. Although such bill swaps are not allowed during legislative sessions, that prohibition does not apply to committees, Ted Hewitt, Legislative Service Office staff attorney, told the committee.

Solar critics at the meeting said Case’s new measure would eliminate what they say is a small but growing inequity that could significantly and unjustly burden ratepayers who have only conventional power. Burdening others with solar’s costs, “that’s just not fair, said Shawn Taylor, executive director of the Wyoming Rural Electric Association.

In an apparent nod to the climate-saving aspects of renewable energy, Case, an economist, declared he is “for saving the planet.” But, Wyoming’s electrical rate structure “has to make some sense,” he said.

Effort ‘to kill solar’

Wyoming lawmakers are hell bent for leather as they target solar power, Laramie activist Selmer told the committee during public comment. Lawmakers oppose any changes that make conventional fuels less valuable, he said, in a sentiment that was echoed by many critical of the state’s support of the declining coal industry.  

The effort “to kill solar” was not started by any complaint by any consumer, Selmer said. Every step taken by lawmakers has harmed companies that want to move to Wyoming and work in the renewables industry, he said.

The bill-swap confused Wyoming residents, said Steff Kessler, Wyoming Outdoor Council program director, who helped organize citizen turnout to comment on Eyre’s bill.

“For the public to have meaningful participation, they need to have the chance to see what is under consideration,” she said after the meeting. Meaningful participation, a catchphrase state officials use frequently in dealings with the federal government, comes only after an opportunity to consider, research and understand a proposed measure, she said.

The committee’s action was “a purposeful effort to confuse the public and keep them in the dark,” she said. “A lot of people there didn’t know what the PSC is or didn’t understand the reference.

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“Their voice was essentially silenced because this process did not provide the public notice,” she said. WOC’s position on Case’s bill will only emerge after study, Kessler said.

Committee member Nethercott, who was among several who disagreed with the bill swap, didn’t argue with the substance of Case’s bill.

“I think the PSC is the right agency to look at this,” she said. “I just don’t think this is the process.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Just wanted to respond to Duncan McClellannd (great Scottish name, BTW!): That’s a great question! And guess what? In two years of meetings with this committee, there’s never been time for anyone from the public/supporters of rooftop solar to get a chance to educate this committee about all the different options going on in other states. There’s a wealth of models and studies Wyoming could learn from, from other states, but the public and small solar businesses are never allowed to speak very long – limited to just 3 minutes per person to testify. Meanwhile, utilities get to take up as much time as they like opposing what they perceive as competition from on-site, small scale renewable energy systems.

  2. Angus Thx for follow up here-
    Interesting that Case and his cronys are worried about ‘subsidizing’ solar power. Guess they don’t see the roughly $20 billion dollars in subsidies that the fossil fuel industry receives every year.
    That was my first up close and personal look at the WY legislature at work. If that is sausage in the making, I’m going vegan.
    Happy turkey day. Going to miss it, porgy

    1. Damn, state lawmakers still trying to resurrect coal. Time to smell the sage brush and get on the renewables wagon. Coal has done gone along with mr trump. Quit dragging that dead horse .

      1. Exactly. They should be looking to bolster solar and the small, local business owners that do the work toward the future not subsidizing coal, oil & gas executives that claim bankruptcy on the way to cash their bonuses & leaves us to clean their mess & support their laid off employees.

  3. WHAT DO OTHER STATES DO ?? Do other states pay retail or wholesale for excess power ? Maybe a cap on retail .

  4. Thanks, Angus, for this important article on the recent legislative high-jacking of Wyoming’s current and future use of solar energy. Not good. I appreciate your commitment to the cause-and-effect detail here.

  5. Thanks to Angus and WyoFile for keeping us informed. Hoping to see more on this issue.

    Peace
    Dave Racich