Appalachian Power Company (APCo) is seeking permission from utility regulators to impose new “standby” charges on residential customers who install solar systems over 10 kilowatts (kW). The fee is included in the company’s latest rate proposal, now before the State Corporation Commission.
According to the filing, the transmission and distribution charges would add $3.77 per kW to the monthly bill of a customer who goes solar with a large residential system. That means homeowners with 10 kW systems would pay an added $37.70 per month. Charges would escalate to $75.40 per month for homes with 20 kW systems, the largest size allowed under net-metering rules.
So the potential is there for a solar homeowner to owe over $900 per year in new charges on his electric bill. But according to APCo, only three customers in all of its Virginia territory have systems large enough to qualify for a standby charge, with no additional big systems in the queue.
That’s right: APCo is spending many, many thousands of dollars on lawyers and consultants so it can change rules that affect three people.
Ahem. Lest anyone think APCo is worried about cost. APCo’s decision to move now proves this is not about freeloaders on the grid. This is about protecting the corporate monopoly on electric power by shutting down the independent solar industry while it is still small.
In this, APCo is following the lead of Dominion Power, which got the SCC to approve similarly onerous standby charges on its own large residential solar customers in 2011. The utility’s ability to do so was authorized that year by a bill amending section 56-594 of the Virginia Code. The statute leaves it up to utilities and the SCC to determine the amount.
The Virginia solar industry acquiesced to the standby charge language as part of a deal that raised the residential net metering limit from 10 kW to 20 kW. Industry members assumed any charges the SCC approved under the law would be modest, given the many benefits solar brings to the grid.
Their assumption proved spectacularly wrong. The SCC bought Dominion’s arguments about solar homeowners not paying their “fair share,” dismissing expert testimony and findings from other states that solar enhances grid security and offsets peak demand.
The result has been a clear setback for the solar industry’s ability to sell larger home systems. Dominion’s steep standby charges “are forcing the solar industry to take a step backward when we’ve worked so hard to make positive steps forward,” says Andrew Skinner, Project Manager with Prospect Solar in Sterling, Virginia. “Working with several small farms and residences in rural VA, we have had to design right up to the threshold of the standby charge to make the economic case most compelling.”
Dominion and APCo are following the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a secretive corporate lobbying organization that seeks to roll back pro-renewable energy laws across the country. The parent companies of both Dominion and APCo are members of ALEC, and Dominion’s president, Bob Blue, served on ALEC’s energy and environment task force with representatives from the American Petroleum Institute, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, the science-obfuscation shop Heartland Institute, and other champions of all things fossil. (Greenpeace recently announced that six utilities have resigned from ALEC; unfortunately our guys were not among them.)
Given that APCo’s proposed standby charges are so similar to Dominion’s, APCo probably figures its request is a slam-dunk at the SCC. And given how few people are affected, it may be tempting to ignore it. But just last summer Dominion signaled its intent to try to extend its own standby charges to more solar customers, which makes the issue relevant to everyone who owns a solar system, wants one, or supports the rights of others to buy them.
Whether utilities should be loading up their solar customers with added fees is also at the heart of two studies getting underway in Virginia this year examining the costs and benefits of solar, one of them under the auspices of the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy and the Department of Environmental Quality, and the other by the SCC itself. With a consumer backlash growing nationwide against utility efforts to “tax the sun,” APCo’s move looks like a way to lock in a rate increase on solar owners before the data is in—and before its customers catch on.
It’s especially unfortunate that the utilities’ push against net metered solar comes at a time when we are beginning to see a flourishing of the solar market. Total installed solar in Virginia has leapt from under 5 megawatts just a couple of years ago to perhaps 18 megawatts today. Okay, that’s a paltry figure compared to, say, North Carolina’s 557 megawatts or New Jersey’s more than 1200 megawatts, but starting from next to nothing gives us a really fantastic growth curve.
The rapid drop in solar prices has been a major factor driving Virginia sales. Says Skinner, “With the advancements in the solar market over the past couple years, even here in Virginia, we have been inching closer to the 10 year or less payback period. We talk to people every day that tell us they’ll go solar here when the payback is less than 10 years. A standby charge reverses that trend based on an argument with flawed economics. While other states are making progress on the true value of solar, we’re here with our head held under water.”
He concludes, “Even while holding our breath we are still creating jobs and installing solar arrays all over our beautiful state. I was born and raised here, and I’m proud to work for a VA based company; we just need to get rid of these backward policies so we can keep moving forward.”
APCo’s rate case is PUE-2014-00026, which can be found on the SCC website. For a discussion of the standby charge proposal, look for the exhibit containing the testimony of Jennifer Sebastian. The deadline for submitting comments on APCo’s application is September 9, 2014, and a public hearing will be held on September 16 at the SCC offices in Richmond.