In 2015 Minnesota's net-metering laws were amended to allow cooperative and municipal utilities to charge "grid-access fees" to solar arrays installed after July 1 of that year. A grid access fee has to be reasonable and proportionate for the customer's service class and must be based on the utility's last cost of service study. Several cooperative utilities started assessing fees to solar arrays and they ranged dramatically in price. The methodology the cooperatives devised also results in large variations of the fee from year-to-year. At the time, no cooperative had filed their fees with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, but some of these fees were the highest in the nation.
To push back on this anti-solar legislation, MnSEIA and its sister organization the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Project, found a solar customer and filed a dispute at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The complaint alleged, in part, that the cooperative's fee was illegal because it had not been filed and approved by the Commission itself. Shortly after this initial filing, several cooperatives filed their fees with the Commission, presumably to head off similar disputes with their own membership. In response to this influx of filed fees, the Commission decided to launch a broad investigation into the fees to determine if they complied with state law.
In the 2017 Minnesota Legislative Session, and during the cooperative fee investigation, another bill was introduced seeking to change the net-metering laws again. This bill's original intention was to remove the ability of solar customers to file disputes with the Commission. It also would have cancelled any pending disputes or investigations before the Commission, and given all dispute resolution control to the cooperative utility. The goal of this bill was clearly to preclude the Commission from reviewing the fee investigation and stopping similar investigations in the future. But MnSEIA was successful in altering the bill to allow for the cooperative fee investigation to continue and to establish greater consumer protections for individual cooperative customers. Despite MnSEIA's lobbying to securing two gubanatorial vetoes of the bill, the bill became law at the end of the session and limited the scope of the Commission's inquiry of the fee to just the fee's "methodology."
Ultimately the fee investigation wrapped up in November of 2017, and MnSEIA was able to convince the Commission that the fees are illegal, because their methodology did not use the correct cost of service studies and because the fees were calculated using the wrong customer classes. The cooperatives had to redo their fees prior to assessing them to solar customers. Our analysis of the record indicates that in most service territories a given cooperative's fees should decrease by between 10% - 30% and will change far less frequently on a year-to-year basis. While MnSEIA had hoped to further reduce or eliminate the fees, our work on this matter should reduce customer payback periods and reopen cooperative service territories that had fees previously too high to sell to customers.
As far as our continued work on this issue goes, time permitting we will work with installers and customers on a one-off basis to resolve cooperative and municipal issues. There is also now a Distributed Generation Advisory Committee where MnSEIA, Minnesota's utilities and other stakeholders can get together to discuss other cooperative issues to resolve them in a proactive and mutually beneficial manner. Lastly, court proceedings are always an option as well, and we will keep our eyes on the evolution of these fees to see if they warrant further legal action.