Utilities are botching shared solar program in Washington D.C., Virginia

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By Elizabeth McGowan May 6, 2022 View Profile

Via Energy News Network: Solar advocates within the nation’s capital and Virginia declare Mid-Atlantic utilities are squandering the promise of shared solar applications designed to profit low-income prospects. District of Columbia officers allege that Pepco’s program for low-income prospects has shorted enrollees and the town by as a lot as $665,000 during the last couple of years. That potential deficit prompted the town legal professional common to file a criticism this spring, accusing the investor-owned utility of failing to “properly implement community solar projects.”

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Meanwhile, throughout the Potomac River, Dominion Energy’s continued pursuit of excessive double-digit charges for 2 separate shared solar applications in its Virginia territory may put the kibosh on these nascent initiatives by discouraging builders from setting up arrays.

Stephanie Johnson has been monitoring these clashes since she was employed as the chief director of CHESSA, the Mid-Atlantic-based Chesapeake Solar & Storage Association, in late February.

“Unfortunately, we fear that if left unchecked, Pepco’s mishandling of the District’s community solar program could send the message to other utilities that they can undermine solar access through death by a thousand cuts,” Johnson mentioned in an interview.

In D.C., ‘enough is enough’

Washington, D.C.’s local weather targets embody a dedication to halving greenhouse gasoline emissions beneath 2006 ranges by 2032 and changing into carbon impartial by 2050. Legislation handed in 2013 created a mannequin for group solar initiatives. Three years later it shaped Solar for All, an environmental justice program open to subscribers in low- and moderate-income households.

Roughly 5,000 of the 6,800 households signed up for group solar citywide are enrolled in Solar for All. Its legislative mandate is for 100,000 enrollees to save lots of 50% on their month-to-month electrical payments by 2032.

In the criticism filed towards Pepco on March 23, each the D.C. legal professional common and the Office of the People’s Counsel allege that “Pepco’s pattern of systemic violations” is undercutting all facets of group solar by weakening public confidence and inflicting monetary hurt.

Violations comparable to failing to supply promised reductions on energy payments to market-rate and low-income enrollees, not compensating group solar homeowners and operators, and undercounting energy being generated by the arrays have compromised the District’s potential to satisfy stringent requirements geared toward lowering greenhouse gasoline emissions.

D.C. officers mentioned they had been pressured to take authorized motion after at the very least 23 conferences with Pepco between July 2020 and February yielded no viable resolutions.

“Enough is enough,” Attorney General Karl Racine mentioned upon submitting the petition. “We have heard from numerous D.C. residents who are rightly fed up with Pepco’s seeming inability, intentional or otherwise, to allow for consumer choice and transition to clean energy, as required by law.”

Racine and Sandra Mattavous-Frye, the individuals’s counsel, are calling for District utility regulators — the three-member Public Service Commission — to analyze the extent of Pepco’s mishandling of group solar initiatives, power the utility to supply restitution and sanction Pepco for violating District legal guidelines.

Additionally, each metropolis workplaces need the fee to acquire an impartial third-party audit of Pepco’s metering and crediting processes.

An in-depth investigation, they mentioned, is required to determine who was shorted and by how a lot.

Pepco, quick for Potomac Electric Power Co., was bought by Exelon in 2016. The firm responded solely broadly to particular questions from the Energy News Network concerning the criticism.

“We take the issues alleged in the filing … seriously, and we are reviewing the specific claims raised in the complaint,” mentioned Pepco spokesperson Addie Kauzlarich.

She mentioned the utility can be responding to the Public Service Commission on or earlier than May 9.

While noting that Pepco performed “an important role in helping to connect our customers to community solar options,” she supplied no particular cures to the persistent points specified by the criticism.

More vaguely, she mentioned by way of e-mail that the utility is “committed to identifying innovative solutions to help more customers connect their [distributed energy resources], such as solar, with Pepco’s system and to further enhance the solar customer experience.”

Initially, the legal professional common gave Pepco 10 days to reply to the petition. However, the Public Service Commission granted Pepco a deadline extension.

Such leniency feeds into fears of native observers that Pepco will keep away from harsh punishment due to a standard cozy relationship between regulators and the utility. The fee didn’t reply to a request for remark.

“The petition won’t fall by the wayside,” CHESSA’s Johnson mentioned. “But the next steps hinge on the May 9 Pepco response.”

Johnson mentioned she is hopeful regulators will proceed with the audit. She added that the town workplaces concerned have “additional options to pursue” if the fee fails to “pursue the audit, investigation and holding Pepco accountable for their mismanagement of the Solar for All program.”

District solar advocates say they aren’t shocked by Pepco’s fumbling of group solar. They level to a November 2020 doc by which Pepco outlined to utility regulators the way it was higher suited to handle and put into place group solar and different distributed energy sources.

“We believe they have chosen to intentionally undermine the program after being denied the opportunity to expand their monopoly to include community solar in the District,” Johnson mentioned.

Page 17 of the Pepco doc said that “To accelerate clean energy deployment in the District, the Commission should consider allowing Pepco to procure, own, and deploy various [distributed energy resources] that could include investments, such as community solar projects, that support the distribution system.”

It goes on to state that such an association wouldn’t solely quickly develop renewable era amenities within the metropolis, but in addition present higher entry to low- and moderate-income prospects.

“Cities and states around the nation have found that utilities have a direct role in [distributed energy resource] development to achieve the ambitious clean energy goals and ensure that all customers at various income levels are able to participate and benefit.”

Eager to develop in Virginia

The destiny of the Virginia shared solar provisions — one geared for single-family properties, the opposite for duplexes, residences and condominiums — is within the fingers of the State Corporation Commission as utility regulators are tasked with setting minimal costs in addition to administrative charges for enrollees. Rulings may come any day.

Silver Spring, Maryland-based Neighborhood Sun is certainly one of a handful of regional solar firms that’s taking part within the District’s group solar program and can be desperate to develop into Virginia’s shared solar market, if the value is true.

“Virginia could have a thriving market for community solar because plenty of developers are looking for opportunities there,” mentioned Armando Gaetaniello, vp of enterprise growth. “One of the biggest hurdles is the minimum bill Dominion wants to include. We’ll see how that plays out.”

He’s referring to Senate Bill 629, signed into regulation in 2020 by former Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and set to enter impact subsequent yr.

That residential shared solar laws included the power for utility regulators to set what’s referred to as a minimal month-to-month price — a fixed-cost cost to subscribers — to account for the prices of implementing this system and to be used of the utility’s grid infrastructure.

The Virginia fee rocked solar advocates in mid-February when a listening to examiner advisable that Dominion can be inside its bounds to cost shared solar prospects a $55 month-to-month minimal price. It’s a volumetric price, primarily based on a 1,000-kilowatt-hour subscription by a residential buyer.

On high of that cost, Dominion additionally has said that it could have to tack on a month-to-month administrative price, which the utility has estimated may very well be within the $10 to $20 vary.

Low-income members wouldn’t be saddled with the minimal or administrative charges, irrespective of their collective value.

Despite that, solar firms say double-digit further charges which are as massive as a median family’s electrical invoice will discourage market-rate subscribers from signing up.

Why, builders ask, ought to they danger setting up what possible can be an orphaned array?

“The whole purpose of community solar is to make it accessible and equitable, and to have people transition away from fossil fuels,” Gaetaniello mentioned. “Otherwise, you would have to be a super-privileged household to pay for it. Solar will be an exclusive product that doesn’t work for the masses.”

If group solar proceeds in Virginia, it’s timed to roll out with Dominion’s unveiling of a brand new buyer info system in 2023. It’s designed to accommodate shared solar billing.

What’s at stake

Alexandra Fisher, a D.C. Department of Energy and Environment coverage analyst, mentioned that her company carried out an inside audit of group solar billing after receiving complaints from Solar for All enrollees. That audit was incomplete as a result of her staff didn’t have entry to finish knowledge units, she testified.

However, the audit raised severe issues inside the division that Pepco’s billing and different group renewable energy facility practices are out of compliance with a number of statutes and Public Service Commission rules, Fisher mentioned in her affidavit included within the criticism.

In the submitting, the Department of Energy and Environment estimated that Pepco undercounted Solar for All era by 5,000 megawatt-hours between January 2020 and September 2021. That interprets to five million kilowatt-hours, the items that utilities use for billing.

The “dollar value” of that 5 million kWh determine — the roughly $665,000 cited by District officers — is calculated by multiplying it by the residential retail charge for renewable electrical energy within the District, which has constantly hovered near 13 cents per kWh.

Pepco’s constant failure to use credit on electrical payments in a well timed and correct method has a ripple impact on the District’s group solar program.

  • If the solar farms are absolutely subscribed every month, it’s Solar for All enrollees who’re straight shorted.
  • If these farms aren’t absolutely subscribed, the town loses out. That’s as a result of District regulation requires Pepco to pay the subscriber group — on this case, the Department of Energy and Environment — for any unsubscribed energy. When Pepco doesn’t pay, the division is shorted cash it could reinvest into Solar for All.

These discrepancies are particularly detrimental to low-income enrollees as a result of they have a tendency to have larger energy burdens and are extra possible topic to the specter of power disconnection if their credit are misapplied.

“Understandably, these incorrect bills cause anxiety for consumers and undermine their faith in community solar programs,” CHESSA’s Johnson mentioned.

A 3rd-party audit additionally would make clear what impact Pepco’s billing strategies had on D.C. residents who enrolled within the market-rate group solar program and the businesses that supplied the subscriptions.

Shared solar on Biden’s radar

In early October, the U.S. Department of Energy mentioned it desires to allow group solar techniques nationwide to power the equal of 5 million households by 2025, creating $1 billion in energy invoice financial savings. That milestone would assist the Biden administration obtain its goal of a decarbonized grid by 2035.

At the state degree, shared solar can also play a big position in curbing emissions of carbon dioxide and different heat-trapping gases.

For occasion, the 2020 Virginia Clean Economy Act changed the state’s voluntary renewable portfolio commonplace with a compulsory one. Dominion is required to attain a carbon-free grid by 2045 and Appalachian Power, the state’s smaller investor-owned utility, should observe go well with by 2050. The act consists of a number of different carbon-cutting provisions.

Gaetaniello, of Neighborhood Sun, famous that there’s nothing inherently improper with the design of the District’s shared solar program, which is why his firm branched into the town with two arrays totaling 97 kW.

However, he mentioned, the dearth of transparency from Pepco signifies that managing small installations serving about 20 solar prospects has develop into a time-consuming headache.

CHESSA’s Johnson is hopeful metropolis watchdog businesses can proper what’s damaged with Pepco’s dealing with of group solar so D.C.’s program could be a beacon for the Mid-Atlantic area.

“I find it encouraging that the attorney general and the people’s counsel are investigating this,” Johnson mentioned. “I do think utilities watch what other utilities do.

“If it’s undermined in the District, then it could undermine the ability for community solar to take hold in Virginia. It’s our job to get ahead of these issues.”

ELIZABETH MCGOWAN is a longtime energy and surroundings reporter who has labored for InsideLocal weather News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideLocal weather News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” gained a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her e-book, “Outpedaling ‘The Big C’: My Healing Cycle Across America” is out there from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.

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