By Sam Silerio
If you’ve ever thought about installing solar panels on your property in El Paso, then you probably know about the $30 minimum bill from El Paso Electric. Basically, as of 2017, when you add solar panels to your home or business in El Paso, EPE charges you a minimum, monthly bill of $30 – regardless of your electric usage that month.
While it is true that EPE pays its rooftop-solar customers for excess energy from their solar panels each month, any credit earned is applied against the $30 starting line.
It’s also important to know that EPE will not pay you very much for your extra juice. EPE will pay you less than 3 cents per kilowatt-hour that you overproduce, but then sells that same energy to another customer for their going rate of over 13 cents per kWh.
With EPE paying so little, it’s nearly impossible to pay off the $30 minimum bill with your excess energy.
Another dimension to all of this is that EPE also provides electricity throughout New Mexico’s Doña Ana County. However, this $30 minimum bill only applies to EPE’s Texas customers.
New Mexico residents who add solar panels are only subject to EPE’s customer charge of $7. As a result, when New Mexico residents with solar panels sell their excess energy back to EPE, they often wipe out their electric bill and even drive it down into negative numbers.
That negative amount then rolls over as a credit against that customer’s next bill. Using these rollover credits, some of EPE’s New Mexico customers with solar can eliminate their electric bill expense all year long (although they will continue to receive their monthly EPE bill/statement).
On the Texas side, however, EPE customers with solar should still assume they will have to pay EPE something every month.
Operating in two states, EPE is subject to regulation by both the Public Utility Commission of Texas and New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission.
Generally, the state of New Mexico incentivizes rooftop solar to a greater extent than Texas does – with incentives such as their 10% New Mexico solar tax credit (on top of the 26% federal solar tax credit). Although Texas offers no such statewide incentives, the PUCT certainly does not require EPE to impose its $30 minimum bill on us either.
Other electric utilities in Texas embrace their customers adding rooftop solar. Electric utilities in Austin and San Antonio even pay $2,000 incentives to homeowners who install solar panels if they take a quiz and use an approved contractor. They charge no monthly fees for going solar, and they buy back their solar customers’ overproduction for nearly 10 cents per kWh.
EPE differentiates itself from those utilities and will remind you here that both utilities in Austin and San Antonio are municipally owned, and not a for-profit corporation like EPE.
In New Mexico however, EPE is one of the state’s three primary electric utilities, and all three are for-profit companies. Still, neither of the other two utilities (PNM and Xcel Energy) charge a minimum bill higher than $12. Remember, EPE’s minimum bill is only $7 for its New Mexico solar customers. EPE somehow makes it work for their business model in New Mexico.
So what gives with EPE’s aggressive, $30 minimum bill for us Texas customers?
Balancing two interests
One argument I’ve heard from EPE justifying their $30 minimum bill is that when their customers go solar, it redistributes the cost of maintaining the grid onto the customers who can’t afford to go (or choose not to go) solar. Not everyone can afford to go solar; and it’s not fair for non-solar customers to have to bear the cost of maintaining the grid.
This justification presumes that EPE’s only choice is to pass on the extra costs onto their non-solar customers. Alternatively, EPE could choose to forego some profit and bear this cost themselves – as they do for their New Mexico customers.
EPE is now owned by a privately held investment fund – a multibillion-dollar fund known as the Infrastructure Investment Fund, which is “managed” by JP Morgan Chase. The IIF acquired EPE in 2020 for $4.3 billion. EPE then serves two interests: 1) maximizing investor return; and 2) providing safe, reliable, and clean energy to their customers.
Every decision EPE makes should consider both of those interests, but could these interests potentially conflict? In the case of our $30 minimum bill, it appears there is a direct conflict between: 1) padding lost profits from customers going solar; and 2) encouraging the adoption of clean, renewable energy by its customer base.
What does El Paso want?
Sunrise El Paso and Ground Game Texas are two community-organizing groups working together to gather signatures in support of a City Charter ballot measure for this November’s election.
The Climate Charter, as it’s known, would amend El Paso’s City Charter to emphasize the creation of climate-focused jobs, conserving water resources, and increasing solar power. The charter amendment would also ban EPE’s $30 minimum bill as a barrier to people’s access to solar energy.
The groups have already gathered 15,000 signatures out of the 30,000 needed by the end of May and are intensifying their efforts to gather the remaining signatures in time.
The Climate Charter initiative should serve as a wake-up call to El Paso Electric. Your customer base, AKA our community, wants more clean, green energy and less burning of fossil fuels.
The city of El Paso should be a shining light – an example to the world – of what a modern city can do with solar energy in the 21st century. Let’s get there El Paso. We are overdue for uniting our voices to demand that El Paso Electric:
- Drop the $30 minimum bill! Innovate a way to make your business model work that encourages rooftop solar instead.
- Pay more for solar customers’ excess energy. People over profits please; take a pay cut here.
- Increase the percentage of solar energy in your portfolio. Participate in the namesake of the Sun City.
Sam Silerio is the owner and operator of the solar company Sunshine City in El Paso. He is an Army veteran, UTEP alum, and Texas-licensed attorney.
Disclosure: El Paso Electric Co. is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.