Renewable-energy advocates have cranked up the outrage machine at a surcharge imposed by Oklahoma on homes that connect rooftop solar panels or wind-turbine generators to the grid.

Ten days ago, the Oklahoma House passed S.B. 1455 without debate, and Governor Mary Fallin is expected to sign it.

The bill provides that by the end of next year, customers who want to connect new renewable energy to the power grid (and be paid by the utility for the power they generate) must pay a surcharge of unspecified amount.

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The amount of that surchage has not yet been determined, though a similar fee on homes with grid-connected solar panels in Arizona last year was set at $5 a month.

Photovoltaic solar panels on roof of Honda Smart Home at UC-Davis, California

Photovoltaic solar panels on roof of Honda Smart Home at UC-Davis, California

Customers with existing grid-connected renewable power sources would not be charged.

The bill was backed by the state's electric utilities, Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. and Public Service Co. of Oklahoma. A representative of PSO said the bill "levels the playing field, where one customer class was subsidizing another.”

Seeing the growing spread of dispersed renewable energy, the utilities effectively say that those homes benefit from access to the power grid as a backup, but will not pay their full share of the costs of maintaining it if they buy only a fraction of the electricity they used to.

The new rule came in an amendment to an unrelated bill, an increasingly popular way for a variety of interests to get legislation passed with little public debate.

(Some of the state laws, backed by auto-dealer lobbies, that forbid Tesla Motors from selling cars directly to buyers have come via similar tactics.)

The bill was opposed by a coalition of state clean-energy and environmental advocates, who point out that solar panels generate power during peak-demand periods--helping the utility avoid the use of expensive auxiliary generators.

Smart wind turbine

Smart wind turbine

Electric utilities in general recognize that distributed renewable energy poses a huge threat to their existing business model of charging a single price for both selling electricity and building and maintaining the distribution system.

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Some states, including New York, already break out charges for those two functions separately on electric bills--but others do not.

The issue of renewable energy has become further politicized by a push to repeal net-metering laws altogether by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

That group has called homeowners with renewable power sources "free riders"; it is backed by fossil-fuel companies, among others.

When renewable-energy advocates fight such surcharges, they face off against utility efforts to recover the significant costs associated with maintaining a grid that benefits those households with distributed generation.

How utilities will maintain enough revenue to support their grid as the trend of distributed renewable power continues to strengthen remains unclear.

But in an industry with 50-year time horizons, it's a deep concern--or a threat. It's likely that further sporadic fees, laws, and other efforts to pay for grid maintenance will arise in the months and years ahead.


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