Aggregate net metering issue in Florida January 11, 2010Posted by Laura Arnold in Uncategorized.
By Zac Anderson
Published: Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 at 9:02 p.m.
But instead of cutting her monthly energy bills from roughly $5,000 to $1,000, Mary Clark’s 300-panel solar array has saved little. Florida Power & Light buys the excess energy from Clark’s ranch and sells it back to her for twice as much.
Though legal, the charges reveal flaws in a new state law designed to promote solar power by reimbursing private producers for their excess energy.
Clark’s experience underscores the influence big utilities wield in Florida, as the state moves tentatively to diversify from fossil fuels into more renewable energy sources.
It could also discourage the grass-roots investment in alternative sources that advocates say is crucial to adoption of emerging sources and energy independence.
Clark’s difficulties have implications for farmers, homeowners’ associations, condominium and motel complexes and anyone else seeking to share solar energy between multiple buildings, electric meters and accounts.
“Instead of looking at this thing with pride, I get sick to my stomach,” said the 88-year-old Clark. “I stepped up. I put up the biggest rig of anybody and I had visions of being a model that people could learn from. But that isn’t the case at all.”
Clark is fighting with the power company and writing state legislators for help. But power company officials blame Clark’s solar contractor for a flawed design in her system and say there is nothing they can do. State regulators side with FPL.
“These aren’t rules that we made up,” said FPL spokeswoman Jackie Anderson. “We’re just following the law.”
10 barns, 11 wells
Ranches and farms have extensive roof space and open land that could help boost solar energy production around the state. But, as in Clark’s case, many have more than one meter to measure power use.
A 2008 solar law fails to account for homes, farms and businesses with multiple electric meters. And that creates a potential barrier for people to profit from installing panels.
“If we’re going to get where we need to be with solar we’ve got to make it as easy as possible for people like this,” said Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota.
The problem stems in part from the fact that energy consumption on ranches such as Clark’s cover a large area, while the solar panels are more concentrated.
The 300-acre Triple J Ranch has 11 wells with electric pumps to distribute water. A big free-standing feed grinder uses electricity to ration food for 130 horses and 120 cows.
Ten barns, three show arenas, two bunk houses, a chow house and RVs also need power. Many of the buildings have separate electric meters.
But instead of spreading Triple J’s solar panels across the ranch so they would feed into each of nine electric meters, Greenlaw Solar Group installed the panels in clusters of 150 on two horse stables with low-pitched roofs, feeding into two meters.
Simple and efficient, thought Greenlaw owner Doug Greenlaw.
He and Clark thought FPL could combine her nine meter bills into one and deduct from her total power bill the solar energy she produced at the retail rate of 12 cents per kilowatt hour.
‘It has to be easier’
However, an archaic 1969 law generally prohibits combining multiple electric meters under one bill. That skews how rates are calculated and hurts other ratepayers, according to state regulators with the Public Service Commission.
Clark could save more if the solar panels were tied into meters for facilities that use a lot of power, instead of the low-consumption horse barns. The only way she can directly tap the energy is to run expensive wiring across the whole ranch.
Instead, all of the excess energy Clark is generating — in just the last month alone, the two meters her panels are tied into have racked up enough extra power to run an average house for a year — is sent to FPL.
But rather than crediting her at a rate of 12 cents per kilowatt hour, FPL buys her energy back for just 6 cents per kilowatt hour. It gives her a check at the end of the year, instead of deducting the amount from her monthly bills.
Greenlaw faults FPL, saying the power company opposes solar energy and is “doing everything they can to stop it.”
“The design of the system is not the problem, it’s the way FPL does billing,” the solar contractor said.
Rex James of Solar Direct in Bradenton said the problem could have been avoided, but said the law makes it tougher to implement smaller-scale solar projects.
“It’s a logistics problem,” James said. “I’ve anticipated it and avoided it in projects but it shouldn’t be such an issue. They need to change the law.”
But FPL contends it is simply following the 2008 law regulating “net metering” of solar operations.
“The key is to put the renewable energy generation on a meter that’s using a significant load,” said FPL’s Anderson.
Private solar producers can get only 6 cents for their energy because that is the “fuel” price FPL charges if the cost of providing transmission lines and other infrastructure is factored out, regulators say.
If Clark got the 12-cent rate, she essentially would be using FPL’s transmission lines to spread the energy around her property for free, said Public Service Commission spokeswoman Cindy Muir.
Adding insult to injury is the different treatment given to farmers generating excess energy from anaerobic digesters, which burn methane from cows. These farmers are allowed to combine their bills under the 2008 law, and deduct excess energy from one bill.
The irony for Clark is that some utilities actually pay solar producers a premium for their energy. Gainesville pays 32 cents per kilowatt hour because solar power is considered a public benefit that should be encouraged and subsidized.
“When you look at it that way, I’m taking a real licking. But I don’t regret it for a minute,” said Clark, an ardent environmental advocate who spent five years in Newfoundland tagging humpback whales before moving to Florida. “No matter how you slice it, it’s the right thing to do. But if they want more people to get involved, it has to be a lot easier.”