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Context of 'June 16, 2010: Oregon Pilot Program Offers Solar Producers New Incentives for Solar Development'

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David White, who chairs the Energy Practice Group at Oregon’s Tonkon Corporation, writes in the Portland, Oregon, Daily Journal of Commerce about a pilot program going into effect that affects Oregon solar energy users. The Oregon Public Utility Commission (OPUC) is starting a program that White says “offers a promising alternative to more traditional financing of solar projects.” Traditionally, solar projects in Oregon have been financed with a combination of state business energy tax credits (BETCs), incentives from the Energy Trust of Oregon (ETO), federal tax credits, and credits from the utility based on the energy produced by the solar facility but not used by the customer. The BETCs are set to expire in 2012, thusly the new program offers new incentives for solar energy producers. White writes: “Under the pilot program, solar owners will be able to sell the energy they produce back to the utility at rates more than five times retail electricity rates. They also will be eligible for federal tax credits, but not BETCs or ETO incentives. The program is geared primarily to small (less than 10 kilowatt) and medium-sized (10 kilowatt to 100 kilowatt) solar producers, but systems of up to 500 kilowatts will qualify. That’s pretty big when you think of two acres covered with solar panels.” Net metering will be an option for systems generating 100 kilowatts or less, essentially allowing those producers to receive monthly credits equal to the electricity they generate. Solar producers can even sell excess energy to the utility at market rates. White acknowledges that the reception to the program has been mixed. Supporters say similar programs in Germany made that country the world’s largest solar energy producer; critics say the program has limited capacity and relies on an uncertain bidding process. White says the program “provides financial incentive options for solar owners in the short-term and for Oregon’s solar industry in the long-term.… The pilot program reflects a new public policy perspective. Rather than having solar development hinge on the inherently unstable BETC approach, which is funded by the general public, this pilot program is paid for by utility customers through higher retail rates. Businesses and homeowners should sharpen their pencils and compare the options based on their individual needs.” [Portland Daily Journal of Commerce, 6/16/2010]

Entity Tags: Oregon Public Utility Commission, David White, Energy Trust of Oregon

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

San Antonio electric utility CPS Energy says it intends to cut the amount it pays for solar power generated from residential customers by about half, claiming that some of the city’s power users are not paying their fair share for the utility’s transmission infrastructure. Clean energy activists and system installers say the cuts are intended to cripple the region’s solar industry. Lanny Sinkin of Solar San Antonio says: “There was zero consultation with the solar industry in the development of this proposal. They’re going to kill the solar industry.” CPS, a municipally owned utility that in theory is owned by the ratepayers, wants to end the current system of “net metering,” which allows residential customers with solar panels to use each kilowatt-hour of energy they generate to cancel each kilowatt-hour they draw from the utility’s electric grid—in essence, the residence owners cancel a kilowatt-hour they pay for to CPS (at retail rates) by generating a kilowatt-hour of solar energy. Instead, CPS proposes a system it calls “SunCredit,” which would assign a fixed value to the price of the solar power produced and credit that amount against their accounts. The SunCredit program would give only a little over half of what a kilowatt-hour of solar power is worth under net metering, by crediting residential consumers with solar-produced kilowatt-hours at CPS’s wholesale rate. CPS spokesperson Lisa Lewis says of the existing practice: “I think that it’s not unimportant to recognize that solar customers use poles and wires and the grid. If we move to a situation where more and more customers have solar systems, they leave that infrastructure cost… stranded, and the people who can least afford to pay it are the ones paying for it” (see January 2013). Existing solar power producers would be granted the existing rates until 2023, while new solar producers would begin receiving the new, lower rate immediately.
Decision Already Made? - Although Lewis says the utility is still soliciting feedback on the program and will consider making changes, Sinkin says the utility has already made its decision. Recently, the utility informed the public of its decision during a contentious meeting, when solar installers said the new program would make it impossible for them to sell systems to the public. CPS Energy instituted cuts in its solar subsidies in 2012 when it reduced the size of the rebate it offers to help customers cover the cost of installing their solar power systems at their homes.
Expert Explains Issue - Solar expert David Roberts of Grist explains the issue, writing: “Under net metering, if a rooftop solar customer generates as much electricity as she consumes, she pays nothing. If she generates more than she consumes, the utility pays her. In either case, her portion of the utility’s fixed costs is transferred onto other, non-solar ratepayers. As more and more people opt for solar, fixed costs are paid by a smaller and smaller group of customers, which drives rates up, which drives more and more of them to solar, in a vicious cycle. The utility’s fixed assets are ‘stranded’—it is unable to recover those investment costs because of the shrinking pool of customers. (It’s also worth noting that the first customers to go solar tend to be well-off, which leaves the less well-off paying more, so there’s an economic-justice angle here too.)” Roberts notes that CPS is being ingenuous in its contentions that solar consumers are costing the utility money, as rooftop solar arrays save the utility money in terms of avoided transmission and equipment costs. Moreover, solar power benefits the region in reduced air pollution and carbon emissions. He also notes that CPS did not hesitate to offer its employees $16.4 million in bonuses in 2012 (most of which went to the firm’s top executives), the same year it cut its solar subsidies. Roberts concludes: “The dilemma… is how to align CPS’s incentives so that it can drive rapid solar adoption and reliably recover costs from its fixed assets and protect its lower-income ratepayers from being unfairly burdened. If we can’t figure out a solution to that dilemma, more and more utilities will do what CPS is doing and the spread of rooftop solar in the US, which has barely gotten underway, will slow to a crawl. That isn’t what we want, is it?” [San Antonio Express-News, 6/21/2012; San Antonio Express-News, 4/9/2013; Grist Magazine, 4/12/2013]
Idea that Solar Power Consumers Pay Unfairly Low Share Challenged - Many solar advocates have successfully challenged the idea that solar power consumers cost their area’s utilities revenue (see April 5, 2013).
Utility Agrees to Postpone Implementation - Following the announcement, CPS will agree to postpone implementation of the new policy for a year and to work with solar advocates to craft changes to the policy. [CPS Energy, 5/9/2013; Grist Magazine, 5/15/2013]

Entity Tags: Lisa Lewis, CPS Energy, David Roberts, Lanny Sinkin

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

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