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Decision on validity of net-metering awaited

The United States Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is to decide whether Iowa's net metering rule is pre-empted by the Federal Power Act or the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act. The FERC order could have major implications for the 22 other states with net metering laws, which allow small wind and other energy producers to feed energy into the utility grid system and receive credits for the amount of energy they produce. Every kilowatt-hour of energy they feed into the grid offsets a kilowatt-hour of energy they would otherwise buy from their utilities..

More than 80 groups and individuals have intervened in the case to protest the attempt by utility MidAmerican Energy Co to overturn Iowa's law allowing for net metering. If MidAmerican Energy succeeds, FERC will strike down the law. Without the net metering provision, small scale ownership of wind turbines is not a viable proposition.

Tom Starrs, an attorney for a number of renewable energy advocates, says he expects FERC will focus only on Iowa's law in this case, though any decision about this state could affect other states who would see it as a precedent case. "This initial ruling could have snowball effects that could affect every net metering law in the country," he says.

In its most recent action in the case, FERC rejected MidAmerican's request to temporarily halt implementation of Iowa's net metering rule, says Starrs. That was good news for renewable energy advocates. "This isn't the first time Iowa's net metering rule has come under fire," Starrs notes. "And it isn't the first time renewable energy supporters have rushed to its defence."

In November 1997 -- apparently in response to pressure from utilities -- the Iowa Utilities Board issued a proposed rule that would have prohibited any new customers from using net metering. The response was fast and furious, recalls Starrs. Not only did the renewable energy groups oppose the move, there was a strong grassroots uprising in Iowa. Eventually, the board dropped the proposal. Since then, support for self-generation has stayed strong.

"There's very strong support, even among people not interested in doing it themselves. It has to do with supporting renewable energy and supporting peoples' interests in self sufficiency, just as people take pride in growing their own crops," comments Starrs. "It's a real Midwestern ethic."

Terry Black, director of the Project for Sustainable FERC Energy Policy in Washington DC says he expects FERC to issue an order on the net metering law within three months -- and was optimistic FERC would keep the law intact. "This has real political viability given that there are over 80 interventions against MidAmerican. FERC never sees that kind of involvement in cases unless they are major mergers," he says.

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