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Electric cooperatives holding back solar boom in Mississippi

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Mississippi has a lot to celebrate as we welcome spring -- festivals and outdoor fairs, magnolia blooms and warmer weather -- but there's something standing in the way of many homeowners and businesses making the most of the sunshine. Simply put, a number of Mississippi electric cooperatives don't want to play ball and follow the common sense standards our Public Service Commission laid out late last year to promote rooftop solar.

Solar-generated electricity helps alleviate the increased demand warmer weather brings as we turn on the air conditioning by using the sun's rays to generate power. Mississippi is actually rated eighth in the nation for solar-energy potential, and our homes and small businesses can become energy providers with rooftop solar. We're on the brink of a solar boom, but some big energy providers are trying to keep us from moving forward.

The commission's program would create a level playing field for clean, renewable Mississippi-produced solar energy while reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and providing an independent energy future in turn, but the plan is receiving serious pushback because the electric cooperatives don't want to reimburse rooftop solar owners at the reasonable rate set by the commission. These cooperatives are making it difficult, even uneconomic, for Mississippians to invest in solar, holding back the freedom of energy choice and preventing the solar industry from creating a booming economy with good-paying jobs for Mississippians.

So why aren't utilities willing to support energy freedom for their customers? Competition. Every home with solar panels means economic independence and less demand for the electric power being provided by the utility. After years of monopoly status and profits based on burning dirty fuels, you can understand why powerful utilities are worried.

The electric cooperatives claim that the commission's program will mean regular power customers are subsidizing those with solar panels, but that's just not the case. The program merely seeks to create a fair system for true energy diversity and independence and jump start the energy revolution right here in Mississippi. Better still, a thriving rooftop solar market will actually mean lower bills for everyone -- even those without solar.

We've seen some electric cooperatives change course recently by ramping up utility-scale and community solar projects -- showing a marked change of trajectory in our energy market, but their continued pushback against competition from rooftop solar only serves to hamper innovation while ensuring their monopoly status.

Competition will provide the catalyst to propel Mississippi toward a clean energy economy, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and diversifying the fuel mix, providing consumers with choice and reducing their electric bills to boot. It's time for electric cooperatives in the state to get in the game on rooftop solar rather than continuing to obstruct innovation.

Louie Miller, director of the Sierra Club's Mississippi Chapter, can be contacted at Louie.Miller @sierraclub.org.

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