Ian Anderson 5 p.m., March 23
Utilities, Solar Industry Spar Over "Net Metering"
The California Public Utilities Commission is close to acting on a proposed ruling entered last month which could significantly affect the state’s solar power industry and the number of consumers allowed to participate in a program called “net metering,” a process where electric customers who have installed solar panels receive credit for excess power they generate and feed back into the power grid to offset consumption when they are using electricity but not generating it.
Net metering is primarily beneficial to residential solar customers, who generate the bulk of their power midday, when demand at home is low but instead peaks at area businesses. When power is being generated but not used, their meters effectively “spin backwards.”
At issue is the method of calculating the maximum number of consumers that can take advantage of such a program before investor-owned utilities such as San Diego Gas & Electric can cut off future subscribers from being able to effectively sell their excess power back to the utility.
A “Net Energy Metering cap,” as imposed by the Commission, limits participation in the net metering program on a first come, first served basis to early adopters of home solar technology until the power they generate reaches five percent of “aggregate customer peak demand.” The definition of this last term is a point of contention between utilities and solar power industry groups.
Private state utilities have been using a method of calculating this peak demand by taking the highest one-time system peak demand throughout the system, averaged over a period ranging from five minutes to one hour. Solar advocates including business groups such as the Solar Energy Industries Association, however, favor a measurement consisting of the sum of peak demand levels for all energy customers, even though they might not all be drawing at peak demand at the same time.
Such a difference in calculation could mean twice as many utility ratepayers would be allowed to eventually participate in the net metering program using the formula devised by solar retail advocates as compared to the utilities’ methods.
“The State of California has aggressive and admirable renewable energy goals which will help move us towards a more sustainable future. If we allow the utilities to undermine the legislature by not adhering to the Net-metering rules, our goals will not be reached,” says Dan Sullivan, owner of Sullivan Solar Power, a local solar panel retailer. Sullivan shas appeared several times before the Commission to advocate for the more-generous calculation method, which would provide the net metering benefit to more consumers and, in turn, increase his ability to sell solar systems.
The Commission appears ready to rule in favor of the solar salesmen.
“Southern California Edison Company, San Diego Gas & Electric Company, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company shall calculate their respective caps on participation in the net energy metering program as five percent of aggregate customer peak demand, which is defined as the highest sum of all customers’ non-coincident peak demands that occurs in any calendar year,” reads a draft of the proposed Commission ruling.
Once enacted, a public workshop would convene within 45 days to determine how to properly calculate the aggregate customer peak demand, with instructions on the calculation to be issued to utilities within 90 days. Utilities would then have another 30 days to perform the calculations and report back to the commission.