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Resolution of a lengthy disagreement over solar power is a welcome move

As The News’ David Robinson recently noted in his column, something amazing has happened as the state’s largest utilities and some of the nation’s largest solar energy developers, including SolarCity, have reached an agreement on the issue of “net metering.”

That is the practice of paying the owners of solar power systems the retail price for the electricity they sell back to utilities. The ability to sell their excess electricity for a high price is one of the selling points for residents considering solar panels.

If it holds, and that is a huge caveat, the agreement could prove beneficial for Western New York and serve as a model for other states.

The long-standing debate, as Robinson stated, is over “how much solar power system owners will be paid for the electricity they sell back to the utility.”

Utilities complain that the payments are too high – more than what they pay for power they purchase elsewhere at a lower wholesale price. Solar advocates say the advantages to the utility outweigh the costs.

Solar power is supposed to become the next big thing in clean energy, but the expense of installing solar panels slows the growth of the industry. There is growing evidence – not necessarily as much in this region, but elsewhere – that solar is catching on. It is even on the verge of becoming commonplace in sunnier climes, although New Yorkers see enough sun to make solar practical.

As Robinson pointed out, solar advocates maintain that solar energy cannot compete with conventional electricity sources without subsidies. The question is how big that subsidy should be. Under the tentative agreement, the current rates would remain in effect until 2020, then begin to decline.

The compromise helps solar by keeping predictable subsidies in place. It places a value on the environmental benefits solar power offers. Utilities, as Robinson noted, avoid having to make costly upgrades in new power plants or upgrades to the power grid.

This is where New York could fashion itself into a model for other states to emulate. A Credit Suisse analyst noted the unique camaraderie – for now. The manager of energy transformation and solutions at Central Hudson Gas & Electric, one of the utilities involved in the “Solar Power Partnership,” noted the rare joint comments between solar utilities and solar companies.

The partnership includes National Grid, New York State Electric & Gas Corp., Rochester Gas & Electric Corp., Central Hudson, Con Ed and Orange and Rockland Utilities. The solar developers are SolarCity – which is moving into a huge solar panel factory at RiverBend in South Buffalo – SunPower and SunEdison.

Time will tell whether any compromise holds up, but for customers, a new day is dawning and it could very well be solar-powered.