PHOENIX — A major player in the rooftop solar industry said Tuesday that it's suing the Arizona utility company Salt River Project for adopting new fees for homeowners who install rooftop solar panels.
San Mateo-based SolarCity Corp. said in its lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix that SRP's average $50 per month fee on new solar installations would essentially eliminate the incentive to put solar panels on a home.
The lawsuit alleges that the Arizona utility's action is a violation of federal antitrust laws because the fees keep homeowners from competing against a utility they must rely on for power during hours of darkness.
"SRP has a simple strategy to destroy the competitive threat from SolarCity and other competitors: Under SRP's newly introduced pricing plans ... customers who choose to obtain some of their own power from solar energy systems must pay a substantial penalty to SRP," the lawsuit says. "Because solar customers are unable to completely disconnect from SRP's grid — they still need power in the evening hours and at other times when their energy demands exceed what their solar energy systems produce — they cannot escape SRP's penalty."
In a statement, SRP rejected SolarCity's claims and said it plans to aggressively defend itself against the lawsuit. The utility said its board adopted the new fees Feb. 26 after a lengthy public-hearing process and the fees properly spread the cost of maintaining the utility grid to solar customers.
"Solar City's efforts to mischaracterize what the SRP board approved are unfortunate, as is its filing of a meritless lawsuit," the utility said in a statement. "SRP is confident that its new price plan will be determined to be appropriate and is confident that it will prevail in all such challenges to it."
Tempe-based SRP serves nearly 1 million customers in the Phoenix area. It is governed by a publicly elected board of directors and isn't a regulated utility.
The fight over the cost to regular power users from rooftop solar installations has been heating up in recent years as utilities argue that homeowners benefit from the power grid's availability while escaping the costs that other customers must pay to maintain it.
In 2013, the regulated power company Arizona Public Service failed in an effort to get Arizona's utility regulators to approve a $50 to $100 monthly fee for rooftop solar customers. The Arizona Corporation Commission instead approved a $5 monthly fee for new installations after an outcry from the solar industry and homeowners who have installed solar panels on their homes.