Virginia considers net metering and utility standby charges

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Virginia, like many states, allows grid-connected electricity customers to use customer-sited generation to offset its electric bill.  This practice is called net metering.

Virginia regulators are now considering a proposal by utility Dominion Virginia Power to impose two “standby” charges on net-metered solar photovoltaic systems larger than 10 kW.  The policy questions raised by this case appear in other contexts where incentives for clean, distributed generation run up against utility ratemaking considerations.  Utilities typically argue that they need to allocate costs fairly among their customers, while customer-sited generation advocates point to both the value of distributed generation and the array of incentives promoting customer-sited generation.

In June 2011, the Virginia legislature enacted House Bill 1983, directing Dominion to allow residential customers to net meter solar photovoltaicsystems between 10 kW and 20 kW.  Dominion responded by petitioning the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) for approval of tariff changes that it argued are necessary to reflect its actual costs in supporting these customers’ peak loads.  The utility proposed to add monthly standby charges for transmission and distribution service based on each net-metered customer’s highest 30-minute demand.

Utilities often argue that their fixed costs in serving net-metering customers – maintaining wires, transformers, and other infrastructure – are the same as if the customers had no generation.  If a customer can be self-sufficient most of the time, the utility grid must still be of a sufficient size to deliver the customers’ peak demand when it is needed, such as when customer-sited generation fails.  Dominion requested approval of its standby charges to ensure fair cost allocation among customers.

Distributed generation advocates, on the other hand, argue that the standby charges would result in overcharging net-metered customers.  In Dominion's case, a witness for the Maryland, District of Columbia and Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association testified the standby charge would result in higher charges for a net-metered customer than a regular customer consuming the same amount of grid-purchased electricity.  The witness also testified that net-metering customers should receive credits for generating cost-effective energy, and for reducing the utility’s transmission line losses.  Diverse distributed generation may also reduce utilities’ distribution costs.  The solar association argued that Dominion's standby charges ignored these benefits, and would chill distributed solar development in spite of Virginia's net-metering policy.

The Virginia State Corporation Commission held a hearing on Dominion's request last week, and is expected to issue an order resolving the matter.

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