One of the challenges of writing about net metering, as I have been doing the last few days, is trying to figure out why the issue has become so fiercely controversial.
On the face of it, the idea behind net metering seems pretty much a matter of common sense. People or businesses or even schools with solar panels on their roofs will not, to varying extents, be using all the power they generate, which can then go back into the grid and be used elsewhere. If you’re feeding power into the grid, you should get some kind of fair and reasonable compensation for it.
The more power going into the grid from rooftops, the less need the utilities might have for other sources of power – like fossil fuel-burning power plants.
A February 2012 study from UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment also points to additional benefits arising from the local generation of power that is the foundation of rooftop solar and net metering.
“. . . on-site solar generation has substantial benefits for the electric grid. By producing energy on-site, transmission and distribution losses, wear and tear on utility equipment, and vulnerability to fuel cost increases are all reduced.”
Yet, since California passed its first net metering law back in 1995, any advance or expansion of the program has always been a battle against utility opposition. In the first law, for example, the cap on the amount of power the utilities would have to accept from net metering was set at .1 percent.
A bit bewildered by all this, I asked Southern California Edison officials why it seems in principle the company opposed net metering.
Now, I have to say that usually, the media folks at Edison are straightforward and as helpful as they can be, working for a major private utility; we know each other and have cordial, professional relationships.
But on the net metering issue, I ran into the proverbial brick wall. Questions were either not answered at all or answered with statements so broad and vague as to be virtually meaningless.
Thursday morning, as soon as the California Public Utilities Commission voted on the net metering issue – expanding the program cap and ordering a study of economic impacts – I was on the phone to my contacts at Edison asking for a comment. I joked around, saying, “You knew I was going to call.”
That was around 11-11:30 a.m., and I told them I had a 5 p.m. deadline. It took them all day to send me a five-line statement – at 5:25 p.m. — that did not even mention the main issue of the net metering cap while making only the most general remarks on the need to analyze all the impacts of the program.
From a reporter’s point of view, this is totally bush league behavior. As a major corporation with a large media department, Edison must have known the decision was coming and should have had a press release with some kind of reasonably substantive statement ready to go the minute the vote was taken and a point person ready to handle media calls.
The Solar Energy Industries Association sent out a statement by email within minutes of the vote, and I was quickly able to contact the group’s West Coast representative on her cell phone.
Clearly something bigger is going on here.
At this point, it seems germane to point out that of California’s three private utilities, Edison has so far lagged behind the other two – Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric – in the amount of net metered power it is getting onto the grid.
One of Edison’s filings on the net metering issue incuded a chart showing that as of June 30, 2011, the utility had reached 1.06 percent of its 5 percent net metering cap, compared to 2.36 percent for PG&E and 2.2 percent for SDG&E.
My question to Edison about this was one of the ones that went unanswered, along with my request for more recent figures.
I did ask some other solar folks for their thoughts on these figures as well. Most answered off the record, pointing to things like the cultural differences between Northern and Southern California. We have all those tech folks in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area who are generally more environmentally aware and more likely to try out new technology. Same with San Diego. I don’t know that I completely buy that — particularly in the Coachella Valley where we have Edison’s summer electric bills as a major incentive.
Another possibility might be how long it takes the company to set up net metering accounts. In recent weeks I’ve heard from two local residents who installed solar and had to wait months for Edison to sort out their net metering accounts.
Ed Trost of Palm Springs installed his solar system last summer and, he reported, by September, he still wasn’t on net metering.
“We were able to generate some free electricity and not get credit,” he told me.
My own personal and no doubt way oversimplified theory is that Edison and the other utilities struggle with small rooftop solar because, while publically they must appear supportive, it’s something they can’t control and it’s cutting into their business. They’re still trying to figure out a way to make money off it and so far, they haven’t.
That said, large utilities have a tendency not to give up and should never be underestimated. They got the power.
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And before everyone takes off for Memorial Day, here is something totally cool and inspiring – a solar-powered airplane flying around the world.
Called the Solar Impulse, the plane is the product of a Swiss team led by Bernard Piccard, who made the first around-the-world balloon flight, and Andre Borschberg, an engineer and management expert.
The plane has a wing span of 63.4 meters — 208 feet – covered in 12,000 solar cells. Its next stop is a solar plant near Rabat in Morocco. Needless to say, you can follow the trip online, either on the Solar Impulse website or Twitter feed.
The team’s statement of principles is worth reading.
The ultimate goal of Solar Impulse, beyond the adventure of flying a solar airplane round the world, or rather thanks to it, is to express a humanistic vision which devotes a major place to the pioneering spirit, to the questing mind and to innovation in our everyday lives. For this purpose, we want to bring together and give a voice to all those who share our beliefs – that the survival of our planet depends on sustainable development; that nature can be protected without fanatical environmentalism; that individual initiative cannot be dissociated from social responsibility; that ethical values and respect for the environment must prevail in the worlds of commerce, finance and politics; that respect is not an outdated moral precept; and that spirituality does not necessarily entail dogmatism.
God speed, ladies and gentlemen. Have a sustainable weekend.