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Solar customers turned away by electric co-ops

25th February 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

If you’re a New Orleans resident thinking of installing solar panels, be glad you live here and not in some other parts of the state. Three entities regulated by the Louisiana Public Service Commission are limiting service to solar patrons, saying they’ve reached authorized peak-load caps. They are Washing­ton-St. Tammany Electric Cooper­a­tive, based in Franklinton and Abita Springs; Northeast Louisi­ana Power Cooperative in Winns­boro, serving seven northeastern parishes; and Panola-Harrison Electric Cooperative in Caddo and Desoto Parishes in western Louisi­ana, along with two Texas counties. The LPSC doesn’t have authority over electric utilities in New Orleans, Lafayette and Alex­an­dria.

A process called net metering allows homes and commercial customers producing electricity from solar panels to send any unused juice back to the grid. The state’s solar net metering cap is 0.5% of each utility’s retail peak load. And under LPSC’s rules, a public utility reaching that level no longer has to accept solar applicants. Charles Hill, CEO and general manager of Washington-St.Tammany Electric Cooperative, last week said WSTE had reached its cap.

The co-op ceased accepting net-metering applications for systems installed after August 21, Walt Sylvest, WSTE’s finance manager said. “We currently have 50,474 active accounts, including 301 net metering accounts,” he said.

Louisiana’s net metering cap is below ceilings set by many other states and thus less friendly to solar clients. California’s cap of five percent a year is expected to be raised or scrapped. Vermont’s four percent ceiling will be expanded, and New York’s cap stands at three percent.

But here and across the nation, many utility companies—which sell electricity from power plants—aren’t happy about net metering. They say solar customers avoid paying the grid’s infrastructure costs, including poles, wires and meters. Grid costs are shifted from solar homes to non-solar homes, according to the Edison Electric Institute, a Washington DC-based utility trade group.

At the Alliance for Affordable Energy on St. Claude Ave. in New Orleans, utility policy director Forest Bradley-Wright said electrical cooperatives are taking advantage of ambiguous LPSC language to deny customers access to net metering. Louisiana has some of the best residential solar tax breaks in the nation thanks to the state legislature, but the LPSC’s cap has thwarted customers hoping to go solar. Bradley-Wright says those Louisiana coops using peak load calculations to turn customers away aren’t doing the math right. “They’re dividing capacity or KW by energy sales or kWh, which is nonsense,” he said. Claims by cooperatives that they’ve reached their caps are unfounded, he believes..

The LPSC is responsible for explaining how to calculate a utility’s peak load but it hasn’t provided clear guidelines for doing that, Bradley-Wright said.

Louisiana enacted legislation in June 2003 establishing net metering, and modeled its regulations on those in Arkansas. By law, investor-owned utilities, municipal utilities and electric cooperatives must offer net metering to customers that generate electricity using solar, wind, biomass, hydro-power or geothermal resources.
Last summer, the LPSC voted to maintain its net metering cap at 0.5% of retail peak demand. LPSC spokesman Colby Cook last week said LPSC’s net metering isn’t among the nation’s most restrictive. “Not all states even allow net metering, and far less allow a full retail-credit offset to customers with no additional fee,” as Louisiana does, he said. “The 0.5% cap was voted on last year after a more than two-year rule making, in which multiple rounds of comments were received, along with a staff recommendation that included calculation of where each utility stood with regard to the 0.5% cap.”

Cook said the three electric co-ops that reported they’d reached their caps are part of a court-docketed proceeding in which the Commission will determine whether that’s true. Docket R-31417, which dates back to 2010, is a re-examination of the Commission’s net-energy metering rules under a 2005 general order.

“The procedural schedule discussed today would have the full Commission voting on the matter—whether the utilities have exceeded the 0.5% cap—in the next few months,” Cook said last Thursday.

In addition to deciding whether the three utilities have reached the 0.5% threshold, how they calculated it must be addressed, Bradley-Wright said. “Dividing KW by kWh is fundamentally flawed,” he said. “A ruling will be needed on the calculation methodology itself. This issue has been raised by a number of solar companies but the Commission hasn’t weighed in to resolve the problem.”

Louisiana residents are very supportive of solar energy, Bradley-Wright said. “But the LPSC, rather than showing the needed leadership to prepare for our state’s energy future, has let utilities restrict customer access to solar.”

According to the Alliance for Affordable Energy, of the 43 states in the nation with net metering rules, 20 have no caps. And among the 23 states with caps, Louisiana’s is one of the lowest.

This article originally published in the February 24, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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