When it comes to technology, so-called “early adopters” understand they are taking a risk. Those who choose to pay more for unproven or unscaled technologies do so with full knowledge that they both cost a lot and may ultimately fail.

In the world of consumer electronics, buyers of the Betamax or Microsoft’s Zune music player learned this lesson all too well. In the decidedly higher stakes realm of power generation, those sufficiently daring and ecologically conscientious to seek independence from the power grid may be on the brink of their own Betamax moment.

The Pacific Northwest – and Washington state, in particular – long has been home to breakthroughs in energy generation. But some in Olympia are seeking to tamper with the public policy fundamentals that help establish the viability of distributed generation technologies, touted as the future of energy generation.

Still in their infancy, these technologies are beginning to show signs of growth. The darlings of the long-promised green economy, they include fuel cells, always-trendy wind turbines and solar panels. In theory, early adopters who install one of these technologies on their property can reduce their reliance on the public power grid. More and more, this is how it is working out in practice, as well. Distributed generation technologies can have a net positive effect on power generation and push energy back onto the grid.

Washington’s H.B. 2045 is putatively intended to “increase the reliable distribution of distributed energy resources.” The bill’s proponents seek to accomplish this goal by moving toward centralized regulatory control. Existing energy providers (primarily utilities) like the idea, because they have an existing relationship with the state Utilities and Transportation Commission. Through that relationship, utilities likely would be able to head off competition from distributed generation technologies. Indeed, specific provisions of the bill make more sense when viewed through that prism.

Under the “net metering” process, a customer’s charges for each billing cycle are set by calculating the amount of energy they drew from the grid, minus the value of credits for energy they produced using onsite renewable generation and exported to the utility’s distribution system. In a nutshell, consumers generate X amount of power and they get a credit for whatever amount they export. This ensures they capture the full value of the energy their solar systems produce.

At issue in H.B. 2045 is whether it is necessary to control the number of “net metering” systems to avoid burdening other consumers unfairly. Given the current low penetration levels of distributed generation technologies, the case for doing so is unsubstantiated and more than a little suspect. What’s more, it’s difficult to see how taking less power from the grid would be a burden. Nonetheless, the bill seeks to end net metering once the 0.5 percent cap, among the lowest in the nation, is reached.

While net metering is considered a prerequisite to a consumer-friendly rooftop solar market in those states where rooftop solar is doing well, H.B. 2045 effectively scraps net metering in favor of a largely untested “value of distributed generation tariff.” This tarriff would be fashioned later by and at the discretion of the state’s utilities, subject to UTC approval, who contend they need this control to maintain the grid. This effectively puts the utilities in control of the future of distributed generation in the state and allows them to limit the competition they might otherwise face.

Punishing early adopters by upsetting the basic mechanism upon which they have come to rely will deal a huge blow to what appears to be a promising new technology.

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