Solar reimbursement impact debated

Huffman bill allows credit for extra energy; some question incentives

[caption id="attachment_16404" align="alignright" width="360" caption="Under AB 920 this Real Goods solar installation at Sea Ranch could generate cash returns for the homeowner."][/caption]

NORTH BAY – A long-awaited move by the state to compensate homeowners for excess alternative energy got mixed reviews from the North Bay solar industry.

Written by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, AB 920 requires utilities to pay for or credit energy generated by wind or solar and fed into the grid after the system owner has offset his own utility bill.

Currently, solar systems owners are credited only for the amount of energy that they consume. Anything extra is absorbed by the utilities at no compensation.

Rates will be determined by the California Public Utilities Commission, and most likely will be below retail.

Home and business owners are still subject to a limit on the size of the installation, which cannot generate more power in a year than an energy audit has determined will suffice for their household or business needs.

According to Kent Halliburton, vice president of sales for Real Goods Solar, AB 920 will be a great thing for the solar industry.

"It removes a psychological barrier, makes the economics more palatable," he said. "People are turned off by the idea of paying for a system that could feed energy into the grid each year with no credit."

He spoke of a friend of his who, rather than lose the credits his system had generated over and above what he consumed, threw a huge party at the end of the year and used up all the excess.

"With cash compensation or the ability to roll over the credit, he'd be more likely to conserve," said Mr. Halliburton.

PG&E has opposed the measure.

"We feel it puts an unfair burden on our customers who don't have solar," said PG&E spokeswoman Cindy Pollard.

"People who install solar are already assured of incentives through the California Solar Initiative, and the costs associated with that program will ultimately be paid by our non-solar customers as well. We seek a leveler playing field."

She added that PG&E is, however, a proponent of solar and wind power as part of a larger effort to save energy and reduce carbon emissions.

Lori Houston, associate director of Solar Sonoma County, said the bill will not benefit everyone with solar or wind.

"It's a step in the right direction, but for the average residential or business customer, given all the factors that go into installing and operating a solar system, offsetting one's own energy bill is probably the best goal," said Ms. Houston.

Her group believes efficiency goes hand in hand with alternative energy generation.

"If you build a large, energy-inefficient home and install a large solar system to power it, your getting compensated for extra electricity is immaterial. You're still using too much," she said.

Recolte Energy President Gopal Shanker agreed that AB 920 is a step in the right direction, "but an incomplete step," he said.

"It compensates you for producing more energy than you use but not for changing your energy use patterns, say by shifting operations to off-peak hours."

System owners who are trying to offset 100 percent of their electricity bill are most likely on a time-of-use rate schedule and will produce much less electricity than they consume, so they won't benefit from the bill, he said.

"There is no incentive for you as a solar customer to continue to shift usage to off-peak hours or invest in energy-efficiency measures because the compensation is non-existent or inadequate."

Mr. Shanker expressed concern that the compensation rates would be set to below retail.

"It should be at retail. Some legislators and commissioners believe that alternative energy is strictly a rich man's privilege, and that he shouldn't be subsidized by the poor, non-alternative users. This argument against cost shifting takes a single, albeit important, viewpoint and ignores many other far more compelling ones,” said Mr. Shanker.

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