JACKSON — Though Mississippi has lagged in its use of solar energy, it may be starting to catch up.
Tuesday, the state Public Service Commission voted to seek comments on a proposed rule that would mandate that utilities pay solar panel owners for power they generate. Also Tuesday, Entergy Mississippi held a groundbreaking for a commercial solar facility adjacent to an existing natural gas-fired power plant in north Jackson.
Both regulators and leaders of the unit of Entergy Corp. say they want to give Mississippians the ability to power their homes and businesses using renewable energy.
The commission plans to accept comments on its proposed net metering rule through July 1, and then hold a public hearing, before issuing final guidelines.
The rule would require that utilities take power from customers who have solar panels or other generating methods, and credit bills for power fed into the grid. Customers would have to pay for a meter capable of measuring electricity flowing both ways, plus line upgrades. But the proposed rules wouldn’t allow other fees above standard connection charges.
Mississippi is one of the last states without a net metering rule, but a consultant last year reported that such connections could reduce costs for all users. That study dismissed concerns from utilities that rooftop solar users displace costs onto others. Utilities nationwide have been asking regulators to add fees to cover the costs of maintaining transmission systems and keeping power plants at the ready for nights and cloudy days.
Under the Mississippi proposal, customers would be credited for electricity at their normal rate up to the amount of power they use each month. Above that, they would be credited at a cost equal to what utilities avoid by not having to run their most expensive power plants.
The rule would initially allow utilities to cap solar generation at 3 percent of their other generation, although a utility could waive the cap.
“We certainly hope with the actions of today’s commission, the tide will be turning. These are off-the-shelf technologies that can be applied today,” said Brent Bailey, a Republican candidate for the PSC’s Central District seat who has worked for a renewable energy group.
Entergy Mississippi CEO Haley Fisackerly said his company doesn’t oppose that vision, but wants to make sure costs are distributed fairly. He also said the utility hopes to show, by spending $4.5 million to install three small solar-energy projects in Jackson, Brookhaven and DeSoto County, that it can offer renewable energy to customers.
“We want our customers to have whatever choices they want to,” Fisackerly said. He said larger-scale solar installations are cheaper than rooftop ones, and Entergy might be able to offer customers the chance to own panels at a centralized site, instead of at their own homes or businesses.
The projects, which would each generate 500 kilowatts of power using solar panels built by Stion Corp. in Hattiesburg, are supposed to be finished later this year.