United States: Progress On The Western Front In The Solar Net Metering Battle?

The ongoing discussion between solar energy stakeholders and utilities concerning the merits of net metering and the best approach to ensure that ratepayers with installed solar power systems contribute appropriately to overall electric transmission and distribution costs spans the nation,  with state utility commissions from Georgia to California considering this issue.  However, nowhere is that discussion presently more heated and more closely watched than in Arizona and Colorado.

After a day of public comments and a full day of discussions with interveners, the Arizona Corporation Commission (A.C.C.) voted 3 - 2 on November 14, 2013 to modify APS's Net Energy Metering (NEM) program. (A.C.C. Docket No. E-01345A-13-0248)  In brief, the A.C.C. voted to adopt a 70 cent/kW installed monthly charge for ratepayers with rooftop solar.  For the average-sized rooftop installation of 7 kW, this means a monthly charge of $4.90.  The two commissioners who voted against the decision felt that this did not go far enough in addressing the cost shift from NEM.

While the decision is likely to be perceived as a win for the rooftop solar companies, APS and other utilities can take solace in the fact that the Commission recognized that NEM does produce a cost shift and that the grid has value for all customers.  The details of the cost shift, including consideration of the value of the grid, will be the subject of A.C.C. workshops that will take place prior to the next APS rate case.

Prior to the open meeting, it appeared as though the A.C.C. would adopt a solution that would reduce the NEM subsidy based on a formula that took into consideration the lower cost of utility scale solar.  The monthly charge calculated through this formula ranged from $7.00 to $56.00 per month for a 7 kW installation, depending on the individual Commissioner's proposal. 

However, on the morning of the second day of the open meeting, the rooftop solar interveners and the Arizona Residential Utility Consumers Office (RUCO) negotiated a settlement that was the subject of most of the discussion.  This "settlement" proposed a monthly charge of 70 cents per kw installed or $4.90 for a 7 kW system.  While Commissioner Pierce and others mentioned the lower cost of utility scale solar, the final outcome had less to do with addressing the rate-shift and more to do with the amount that the DV industry said that the average customers, who they contend only save $5-10/month, could absorb and still be willing to install a system.  APS opposed the eventual outcome, as did Commissioners Pierce and Brenda Burns. 

The following solution was adopted:

Monthly charge.  New rooftop PV customers beginning after December 31, 2014 will be billed a monthly charge of 70 cents per kW installed to help address the rate-shift from solar to non-solar customers.  For the average-sized system of 7 kW, that would mean a charge of $4.90/month.  The charge can be adjusted by the Commission in the future – either up or down – based on the volume of installations.  Reports of rooftop installation volumes will be provided quarterly.  There is no automatic escalation of the charge based on installation volume.  This charge will be added to the rooftop solar customer's Lost Fixed Cost Recovery (LFCR) fund assessment currently paid by APS customers.  An offsetting reduction will be made to the monthly LFCR assessment currently paid by customers without rooftop solar.

Grandfathering.  Rooftop installations under the current NEM structure will be grandfathered.  There was a long discussion about grandfathering with a general consensus being reached that while any Commission can change any previous decision made, future Commissions were likely to honor grandfathering decisions made by previous Commissions.  Customers who sign up for systems under the new 70 cent charge will be grandfathered if the charge is increased to 80 cents or $1.00, but only until the next rate case in 2015.  Customers who then sign up under any increased charges (e.g., 80 cents or $1.00) will also be grandfathered until the next rate case.  However, all new rooftop customers (post December 2013) will be subject to any changes agreed to in the next rate case.

The NEM issue will be taken up again in the next APS rate case.

While the net metering discussion in Arizona has reached a conclusion – for now, the debate continues in Colorado.

On July 24, 2013, Public Service Company of Colorado (PSCo), Xcel Energy's Colorado subsidiary, filed with the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) its 2014 Renewable Energy Standard Compliance Plan detailing its updated proposal to meet Colorado's requirement that 30% of PSCo's retail electric sales come from eligible energy resources by 2020.  (CPUC Docket No. 13A-0836E)  Long recognized for its substantial commitment to wind energy, PSCo's renewable energy portfolio also includes utility scale solar facilities and various programs designed to facilitate expansion of distributed solar energy installations, including the popular Solar*Rewards® program which has over 15,000 participants and represents more than 160 MW of installed solar capacity.

In its 2014 RES Compliance Plan PSCo proposed adding 42.5 MW of new distributed solar generation, including 36 MW of retail distributed solar generation through the Solar*Rewards® program and 6.5 MW of community solar gardens through the Solar*Rewards® Community program.  At the same time, the company proposed reducing the per kilowatt-hour incentives paid to customers with distributed solar installations.

The more controversial aspect of the utility's filing related to PSCo's call for more transparency in the NEM credit paid to customers with installed solar systems and the costs and benefits associated with distributed solar facilities.  PSCo explains that customers with installed solar arrays receive a 10.5 cent credit per kilowatt-hour of electricity they deliver to the grid, however, that electricity only provides 5 cents in benefits to PSCo systems and customers.  While PSCo acknowledges that distributed solar generation allows for some savings associated with fuel costs, energy losses, and the deferral of new generation resources, the utility argues that the NEM incentive paid to solar-owning customers does not adequately consider other costs related to generation, transmission, and distribution, costs that are presently being borne by non-solar customers.  As did APS in the NEM debate in Arizona, PSCo takes the position that the need for and nature of NEM incentives must be reevaluated as the solar industry moves toward becoming self-sustaining.  If the CPUC does not agree with PSCo's NEM proposals, the utility indicated that it intends to acquire only enough distributed solar generation needed for minimum RES compliance – a total of 12.5 MW.

Solar businesses and trade groups, renewable energy advocates, and environmental groups have strongly opposed PSCo's analyses and have characterized the utility's proposal as declaring war on the solar industry.  These stakeholders argue that PSCo's analyses fail to properly consider distributed solar's grid, environmental, and job creation benefits.  To that end, the Vote Solar Initiative (VSI) filed a motion requesting that the CPUC sever the NEM issue from PSCo's RES Compliance docket and conduct a separate, comprehensive NEM cost-benefit analysis.  While VSI's motion was supported by various other stakeholders, it was opposed by PSCo and CPUC Staff, and was ultimately denied.

An evidentiary hearing on PSCo's 2014 RES Compliance Plan, including consideration of PSCo's proposed NEM changes, is scheduled for February 3-7, 2014.  Until then, it is likely that the NEM battle in Colorado will continue both in the CPUC docket and in the public debate concerning the costs and benefits associated with distributed solar generation, how those costs and benefits should be accounted for and allocated, and the continued need for incentives related to this distributed energy resource.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Thomas H. Campbell
Thomas J. Dougherty
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