High Desert Hoofbeats: Dec. 5, 2019

We’ve all been warned about what’s in the fine print when it comes to contracts. I’m reckoning with this fact in the wake of a power outage and resulting electrical surge that caused several thousand dollars worth of damage to the solar power generating system on my house.

Rocky Mountain Power is taking no responsibility for the $4,500 of breakages that happened when the lights went out late last summer. That night, when the power went off and on and dimmed and browned, there was a loud bang on top of my roof that knocked books off shelves and blew the circuits to portions of my home. It fried the power strip to my electronics, and it also ruined some of the equipment that runs my solar panels.

Less than two years ago, when my husband and I took the plunge to buy a solar-powered system, we had just returned from Europe and had seen panels on just about every building in sight. As we floated on the Danube River past quaint villages and old cottages, we saw new solar panels affixed to really old homes and businesses. No matter how it changed the look of old structures, it was clear that Europeans embraced the economics and culture of using solar energy.

The U.S. has been slow coming to this comfort level. And it’s mostly due to economics and politics. Big utility companies and big coal companies have ulterior motives in the mix. The move away from extractive resources is costing jobs and revenues to some sectors. State and federal incentives in the U.S. to install solar panels are dwindling, but the energy savings to consumers is evident.

Which is why we took the gamble of buying solar panels for our house. We were tired of huge utility bills, and tired of subsidizing dirty energy. We felt it was the environmentally correct thing to do, though knowing that it would take many, many years to pay off.

We contracted with a small local company to install the project. Although we shopped around to get bids from bigger solar contractors throughout the Intermountain area, we circled home to the Moab business, which came with great reviews from many local customers.

Things went well with our solar system for more than a year. The guy who installed it has the ability to monitor it from afar if things aren’t working quite right. He drives out right away to keep it running smoothly, and does so without my having to call him. Our new low utility bills have been fantastic. And so was a small tax rebate, although we missed some of the incentives that were available under the last presidency.

When our system went down with the big power bump in August, my contractor and I took stock of the damage. He fixed it immediately so that I could get back to using solar energy. He documented the extent and date of the damage; I paid the expenses and then filed a claim with Rocky Mountain Power. Three months later, I finally got a letter back from Rocky Mountain Power saying that they had to “respectfully decline” paying for the broken solar equipment.

In a letter from the monopoly, I was made aware that I had signed an agreement to be completely responsible for protecting my generating equipment from the “normal and abnormal conditions that occur on Rocky Mountain Power’s system in delivering and restoring power.” I admittedly did not fully digest that fine print when we opted to go solar. My mindset was and is that anyone should pay for damage they cause.

But Rocky Mountain Power has little incentive to make me a happy customer. My investment in sustainable energy has cost them a bundle. For example, my typical summer utility bill went from $575 to $75, money the big utility company would rather have.

So here’s a word of warning to anyone thinking about installing solar panels on your building: You’re at the mercy of a bully utility and its “abnormal conditions” that might result in total losses of power for hours on end (which is typical where I live), along with resulting, unregulated power surges. Your investment in sustainable energy could keep costing you money through unforeseen maintenance.

Last Saturday evening the lights flickered off then came back on and then went out again for a moment, with intermittent brown-outs. I grabbed for a lighter and candles and held my breath that our house wouldn’t sustain further damage from Rocky Mountain Power’s abnormal supply of electricity and the utility company’s associated fine print that releases them from liability when they damage people’s property. We have never been more “plugged in” as a society than we are now. Although we have a few options as to how we get our power, some systems are more vulnerable than others.