Net metering and utility charges

Thursday, March 29, 2012

As more electricity customers are installing solar panels and other distributed generation, many are participating in net metering programs under which they can run their utility meter backwards -- but utilities are complaining that net metering customers don't pay their share of the grid's operating costs.

In states and utility territories where net metering is allowed, customers can use eligible distributed generation (typically renewable generation like solar photovoltaic or small-scale wind, or micro combined heat and power) to offset their consumption of electricity from the grid.  Even if the customer draws power from the grid at some times and injects power back onto the grid at other times, net metering or net energy billing allows the customer to offset distributed generation against purchases. 

While many states embrace net metering as a policy, some utilities complain that net metering customers can be free riders.  If a customer's solar panels produce as much power in a month as the customer consumed, net metering could credit that customer with a zero utility bill - even though at various times times, the customer relied on the grid for imports and exports.  As a result, some utilities are seeking to impose new charges on customers for net metering.  For example, last fall Virginia regulators approved part of utility Dominion's request to impose "standby" charges on certain net metering customers.  Solar advocates and other distributed generation interests typically oppose such charges as roadblocks to achieving the societal benefits of net metering.

The issue continues to simmer around the country.  California utility San Diego Gas & Electric Co. recently proposed adding a "network use charge" onto customers' bills.  SDG&E's concept was that the charge -- about $22 per month for the average net metering customer with a solar PV system -- would properly allocate the cost of maintaining the grid to these customers.  The utility argued that without the charge, net energy metering customers were being subsidized by all other customers.  Earlier this year, California regulators rejected the idea (see the 16-page order at the California Public Utilities Commission website), noting concerns that the proposed charge "may be inconsistent with current law, regardless of whether it is justified by cost causation principles or an analysis of the crosssubsidies inherent in current policies."  As a result, SDG&E refiled its rate application without the charge.

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