The State Corporation Commission has granted Appalachian Power Company’s request to be allowed to impose “standby” charges on residential customers with solar systems over 10 kilowatts. The charges can range up to more than $100 per month, regardless of how much electricity the homeowner actually draws from the grid.
In its Final Order in case number PUE-2014-00026, dated November 26, the SCC ruled that APCo’s standby charge complies with § 56-594 F of the Virginia Code, which provides for standby charges for net-metered residential systems between 10 and 20 kW. (The law does not allow for net metering of residential systems over 20 kW.)
Environmental groups intervened in the case and ran a grassroots campaign that generated over 1500 comments to the SCC, opposing what has been dubbed a “tax on the sun.” The result, however, was never in much doubt. The SCC has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to accept without scrutiny utility assertions that solar customers impose costs on other customers.
Attorneys at the Southern Environmental Law Center, who argued against the standby charges on behalf of the Sierra Club and other groups, say the SCC’s reasoning is flawed. According to Cale Jaffe, Director of the SELC’s Virginia office, “Appalachian Power actually conceded during the hearing that it was ‘not in a position’ to determine whether solar customers had ‘a positive or negative impact to the distribution cost of service.’ In other words, Appalachian Power said that solar customers might be having a positive impact in helping to reduce APCo’s distribution costs, but that the power company didn’t have the data and didn’t know one way or the other.”
Jaffe added, “We saw that piece of evidence as a fatal concession, at least with respect to the distribution portion of the charge.” Yet a reading of the Final Order suggests the Commission never even considered the point.
The SCC allowed APCo, like Dominion before it, to consider only transmission and distribution costs, ignoring generation costs for now. Advocates urge that solar systems produce power at times of peak demand, reducing the need for utilities to buy expensive peak power, and therefore actually saving them money. The utilities dispute this, but it is worth noting that APCo’s most recent Integrated Resource Plan from March of this year projects that solar power will be cheaper than its avoided cost of energy by 2019. But of course, the point of standby charges isn’t about the cost of solar, but about preventing customers from generating their own power.
In spite of all the time and money APCo has spent to get approval for the standby charges, the utility has said that only five existing customers will be affected. The real impact will be to limit the number of homeowners who choose to install large solar systems going forward. The prospect of paying high standby fees will likely discourage APCo customers from buying systems over 10 kW, as has happened in Dominion’s territory after the SCC allowed Dominion Virginia Power to impose similar standby fees a year ago.
Although a 10 kW system is bigger than the average Virginia home needs by itself, people with electric cars can find their demand exceeds that limit. Moreover, Dominion Virginia Power has signaled that it would like to impose standby charges on all of its solar customers, regardless of system size.
The actions of Virginia utilities and the SCC put the commonwealth in the thick of a nationwide battle over customer-owned, “distributed” solar. While most studies analyzing the value of solar have concluded that distributed solar benefits the public and the grid, utilities fear it will eat into their profit margins. They see Virginia as a good place to establish a precedent friendly to the utility viewpoint, due to the commonwealth’s history of allowing its utilities to dictate energy policy. So far, this episode proves them right.