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Solar Advocates Fight Utilities Over Grid Access

Vera Cole is president of the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Association, a group arguing against proposed rules in Pennsylvania that would put stricter limits on how much grid-connected solar power homeowners can produce on their property. (NPR )

The solar power business is growing quickly in the U.S. More than 500,000 homeowners and businesses installed solar panels in just the first half of this year, according to a Solar Energy Industries Association report.

When people get electricity from the sun, they don't buy it from their local power company. But that utility still must have the generators and power lines to provide electricity when the sun is not shining. That's creating conflicts across the country.

At issue is something called "net metering" — a benefit designed to encourage homeowners to pay the upfront cost of installing solar. When the panels produce more electricity than the homeowner uses, the excess is pushed back to the grid where the local utility buys it. In some cases you can actually see the meter going in reverse.

Vera Cole is an enthusiastic solar supporter and president of the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Association, a nonprofit educational organization. Outside her house north of Philadelphia are 40 solar panels facing south. They supply about half of what her home and electric car use.

Proposed regulations before the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission would limit how much solar a homeowner could install to 110 percent of what that house uses in a year. While Cole's solar power system would be allowed under these restrictions, she's still opposed to the change.

"Why would we want to limit clean energy and private investment in clean energy?" asks Cole. To combat environmental problems like climate change, she says, "We need to do everything we can to get as much clean energy installed as quickly as we can."

But regulators say some are abusing the net metering benefit in Pennsylvania.

"We're seeing people who are installing electric generation equipment only to sell it back to the grid for profit," says Public Utility Commission spokeswoman Robin Tilley.

The number of people doing this is small.

"It's not a huge problem yet — the commission just wants to get in front of this before it becomes a larger issue," Tilley says.

Other states are considering changes to net metering regulations too.

"I'm watching very closely California," says David Owens, executive vice president of business operations and regulation at Edison Electric Institute, an association for investor-owned utilities.

Owens is also monitoring debates over regulations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Idaho, Hawaii, South Carolina and Massachusetts.

Regulators have to balance two objectives. They want to allow individuals to install solar panels that are connected to the power grid, but they also must make sure local utilities have the money necessary to maintain a reliable infrastructure.

Owens says utilities are looking at what's happened in Germany. Rooftop solar grew quickly and utilities there were caught off guard by the expensive upgrades the power grid needed.

"We want to learn from the experiences of Germany and say, 'Let's deal with these issues early on, rather than after the fact,' " Owens says.

As regulators decide how much more people with solar panels will have to pay to ensure a reliable electricity grid, renewable energy advocates hope they will factor in the societal benefits of their cleaner source of power. Beyond that, the benefits solar currently enjoys here were hard won by advocates in the past. And they won't let regulators reduce those financial benefits without a fight.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're now going to explore a conflict that's coming up with the expansion of the solar power business. More than 500,000 homeowners and businesses installed solar panels in just the first half of this year. When people get electricity from the sun, they don't buy from their local power company but that utility still has to have the generators and power lines to provide electricity when the sun isn't shining.

NPR's Jeff Brady has more.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: North of Philadelphia, Vera Cole is an enthusiastic advocate for solar. Outside her house in a sunny yard there are 40 panels facing south. They supply about half of what her home and electric car use. Cole is president of the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Association. She's opposed to new limits Pennsylvania regulators are proposing on how much electricity a homeowner can generate with solar panels.

VERA COLE: Why would we want to limit clean energy and private investment in clean energy? We need to do everything we can to get as much clean energy installed as quickly as we can.

BRADY: That issue is called something called net metering. It's a benefit designed to help homeowners pay back the cost of installing solar. When the panels produce more electricity than the homeowner uses, the excess is pushed back to the grid, where the local utility buys it. In some cases you can actually see the meter going in reverse. But some are abusing this benefit, according to Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission spokeswoman Robin Tilley.

ROBIN TILLEY: We're seeing people who are installing electric generation equipment only to sell it back to the grid for profit and they're stretching some definitions to collect more money.

BRADY: That's a problem for utilities because if too many people do this, the power company cannot do enough to maintain a reliable electricity grid. One change Pennsylvania regulators are considering - homeowners can install only enough panels to generate 110 percent of the power used in that house each year. Across the country, regulators are proposing a variety of similar changes.

DAVID OWENS: I'm watching very closely California. I'm watching Minnesota.

BRADY: David Owens is an executive vice president at the Edison Electric Institute, an association for investor-owned utilities. His list of states goes on - Wisconsin, Idaho, Hawaii, South Carolina, Massachusetts. Owens says utilities are looking at what's happened in Germany. Rooftop solar grew quickly and he says utilities were caught off-guard by the expensive upgrades the power grid needed.

OWENS: We want to learn from the experiences of Germany and say, let's deal with these issues early on, rather than after the fact.

BRADY: Owen says people who use solar panels also rely on the grid at times and many of these regulatory battles happening around the country are about how much solar customers should pay to help maintain a reliable grid. Solar advocates want to make sure regulators factor in the societal benefits of their cleaner source of electricity. Beyond that, the benefits solar enjoys now were hard won by renewable energy advocates. Any discussion of changing or limiting those incentives is going to be met with plenty of opposition.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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