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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?” (Vaughn 6/21/2012; Hicks 4/9/2013; Roberts 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; Roberts 5/15/2013)
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