California regulators put off a decision on solar rules, again
California utility regulators are taking another two weeks to decide the fate of a much-criticized plan to regulate solar energy on properties with more than one electric meter.
It was the third time regulators had put off making a decision on the controversial proposal.
The revision of Virtual Net Energy Metering (VNEM) rules was part of the legislatively-mandated review of all of the state’s solar tariffs.
That review led to new rules for single-family homes, which resulted in a drastic cut in the value of electricity sold back to the grid by residents who install new solar arrays after April 15 of this year.
The new proposal addressed VNEM rules when one large array served more than one electric meter.
“It doesn’t make sense to put solar on every individual apartment unit,” said Brad Heavner, policy director of the California Solar and Storage Association. "You want to be able to install one, big solar system and have the credits, a portion of those credits applied to each of those customer’s bills.”
The current rules allow apartment complexes to offset energy use when the sun is shining and sell excess electricity back to utility companies. Credits would be shared by landlords and renters.
The newest proposal was released this past summer and would rewrite the rules to eliminate that option.
In fact, the proposed decision does not allow new solar systems on multi-metered complexes to offset electricity use when the solar cells generate their power, in the daytime.
“Even when you’re using the electrons from the solar system on your roof,” Heavner said. “From a billing perspective, you have to sell those electrons to the utility at a low price and buy them back at a high price. It would ruin the economics.”
The California Public Utilities Commission’s Public Advocates office said the delay likely means changes are coming.
They argue that the current VNEM system is unsustainable, pushing grid maintenance costs onto those who do not invest in solar arrays.
The office’s director, Matt Baker, said only a small fraction of the multi-metered complexes that used virtual net metering actually serve renters. He said commercial companies gobble up the benefits.
He agreed with the proposed decision where it reserved VNEM setups for low-income renters.
“We believe that virtual net energy metering (VNEM) will have a much more limited role as an equity program in the future,” Baker said. “And that’s kind of why we would like to see almost all the emphasis on (the state’s Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing Initiative) SOMAH and the emerging community solar programs.”
Community solar projects would sell shares to renters and those residents would get a credit from the solar project they invested in. Share sales would pay off the cost of construction.
The Public Advocates Office said the CPUC is having trouble making a decision because the issue is complex and they are trying to be fair.
“There are customers who engaged in these programs in a kind of a good-faith way. There are people who have projects in the pipeline right now. And I think the commission is trying to come to an equitable solution for it,” Baker said.
The state’s investor-owned utilities — in legal filings — argue developing a new VNEM system would be too complicated and expensive.