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Utilities Spend Big In Arizona Solar Energy Fight As Final Decision Looms

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ARIZONA SOLAR
A worker installs First Solar Inc. photovoltaic solar panels at the Agua Caliente Solar Project in Yuma County, Arizona, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2012. Arizona regulators are considering whether to change the state's solar net metering policy. Photographer: Joshua Lott/Bloomberg via Getty Images | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Utility commissioners in Arizona will decide the fate of rooftop solar incentives this week, in what has become the biggest fight over renewable energy policy in the country. A two-day hearing on the issue at the Arizona Corporation Commission began Wednesday.

The Arizona Public Service, the state's largest utility, is asking the commission to change the current policy, which allows homes and businesses with their own solar power systems to sell any excess energy they generate back to the grid. That policy, known as net metering, was first put in place in 2009. The utility argues that customers with rooftop solar aren't paying their fair share to maintain the grid, and has proposed policy changes that would increase prices for those with solar systems. But local solar advocates have accused the utility of trying to kill the state's burgeoning solar industry, and have launched a counter-campaign.

As The Huffington Post has previously reported, the fight got interesting when the utility revealed that it had been secretly funding anti-solar ads produced by a national conservative group. After a commissioner asked the company and other groups involved in the net metering debate to disclose how much money they were spending on the issue, APS disclosed that it had spent $3.7 million on PR work. The solar lobby disclosed that it was spending nearly half a million dollars on fighting the proposed changes.

Meanwhile, the Edison Electric Institute, a national group that represents utilities, has jumped in the fight, spending $520,000 on a 10-day television ad campaign in support of APS, the Arizona Republic reported.

Hundreds of solar supporters came to rally outside the hearing on Wednesday, and dozens testified. The commission is expected to decide Thursday whether to change the policy.

Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have some manner of net metering policy in place, which has helped spur the growth of solar across the country. Both solar proponents and utilities elsewhere are watching Arizona as a test case for the issue, as a handful of other states have also considered changes to similar policies this year.

And as this fight has shown, utilities are willing to put big bucks behind efforts to change them.

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