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Two workers install solar panels on a home in Oak View, California on August 23, 2011.

Two workers install solar panels on a home in Oak View, California on August 23, 2011. (Photo: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Ruling on Rooftop Solar Called a 'Game-Changer' for Clean Energy

"For the first time a federal court has said utilities can be liable under antitrust laws if they attack rooftop solar," said one advocate. "The future for renewable energy just got a lot brighter."

Kenny Stancil

Clean energy advocates celebrated Monday after a federal appeals court reversed a lower court's decision and ruled that Arizona power utility Salt River Project—which jacked up electricity rates by more than 60% for customers who installed rooftop solar in the Phoenix metropolitan area—can be prosecuted for violating federal antitrust laws.

"This is a game-changer in the struggle to defend rooftop solar against utilities' all-out war on clean, affordable, climate-resilient energy."

"We're thrilled that the Salt River Project will be held accountable for obstructing rooftop solar," Jean Su, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's energy justice program, said in a statement. "This is a game-changer in the struggle to defend rooftop solar against utilities' all-out war on clean, affordable, climate-resilient energy."

"For the first time," Su added, "a federal court has said utilities can be liable under antitrust laws if they attack rooftop solar. The future for renewable energy just got a lot brighter."

In an opinion piece published last year by The Arizona Republic, Su and Center for Biological Diversity co-founder Robin Silver noted that "SRP customers with household solar systems generate clean, renewable power, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce reliance on SRP's fossil fuel-based grid. These solar customers provide SRP some of its only competition."

After SRP slapped solar customers with a 65% electricity rate hike in 2015, "rooftop solar applications dropped precipitously, with one installer, SolarCity, losing 96% of its applications," wrote Su and Silver.

In 2019, William Ellis and other residents sued SRP, arguing that the utility's pricing plan penalized solar customers and companies in an attempt to maintain monopoly control. Although a lower court dismissed the suit, Ellis and his co-plaintiffs appealed. They were joined in amicus briefs by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Center for Biological Diversity.

In its Monday ruling in Ellis v. Salt River Project, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concurred with the plaintiffs that SRP's pricing scheme "unlawfully discriminated against customers with solar energy systems and was designed to stifle competition in the electricity market." The antitrust claims will now be remanded to the district court for a trial.

According to Su and Silver, "This case has far-reaching consequences for Arizona and the country." With a favorable ruling for SRP's solar customers, the pair predicted in their 2021 op-ed, "the power-hoarding days for SRP and other corporate utilities will be numbered."

While "antitrust laws have been used repeatedly to break up big monopolies," including "railroad oligarchies in the 1920s and telecom giants in the 1980s," Su and Silver pointed out that "electric utilities have been largely spared from antitrust challenges. Until now."

They continued:

Power companies face a dynamic environment of emerging cheaper clean technology, competition from customers who can generate power themselves, and the urgent need to slow climate change by transforming dirty energy portfolios into clean ones.

This is a challenging time to be in the power business, but delivering a public service should be consistent with serving the public interest. That's especially true now, when clean energy must be ramped up to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change.

In its 2019 brief, the Center for Biological Diversity argued that SRP's anti-competitive effort to stamp out rooftop solar undermines "the energy transition demanded by climate science."

"This case has far-reaching consequences for Arizona and the country."

Although green energy spending and production are increasing, so is overall fossil fuel consumption. Corporations are currently planning to expand dirty energy extraction in wealthy and impoverished nations alike despite climate scientists' repeated warnings that new coal, oil, and gas projects must cease in order to have a chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5ºC above preindustrial levels by the end of the century.

Global investment in clean energy surged by 27% in 2021, according to a report released last week by BloombergNEF. The $755 billion spent in 2021 surpassed the $595 billion spent in 2020 and put to shame the $264 billion spent in 2011.

Nevertheless, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), "to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, annual clean energy investment worldwide will need to" total roughly $4 trillion, which would "create millions of new jobs."

Rooftop solar, argued Su and Silver, is "vital" to slashing greenhouse gas pollution and protecting the habitability of planet Earth.


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