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BPU draws solar supporters

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By Arin McKenna

A special Board of Public Utilities meeting held Friday to discuss proposed changes to the electric rate structure drew approximately 15 members of the public.
Most of the public comment centered on a proposal to charge customers with home photovoltaic systems a $10 distributed generation fee beginning in January, increasing to $12 in July, in order to recover infrastructure costs.

Solar supporters asked BPU to take a broader look before agreeing to that rate structure, such as analyzing cost/benefits and looking at alternatives such as selling Renewable Energy Credits from home PV generation to recover costs.

"I think it's important that the board realize that this is not simply a simple economic calculation that you can use to calculate a rate structure. What you are really facing is a matter of public policy in this county as to how we're going to treat distributed power production, green energy, etc," Mike Wheeler said.
So while I understand your concerns and dilemmas on the rate structure, it's most important that this board consider the public policy that comes about because of your decision."
Several citizens asked the board to delay implementation until options were thoroughly evaluated, since the number of home solar households just recently increased from 36 users to 44.
"This does not have a huge impact on the utilities budget over the next year," said Mark Jones, chair of the Pajarito Group of the Sierra Club. "It does have a huge impact on people deciding whether or not in the next year to install PV on their roof. And I think there's no argument that the fee would tend to discourage that."
Regina Wheeler, chief executive officer of Positive Energy Solar, proposed that the introduction of solar into the system demands a thorough restructuring, such as the one necessitated when the landfill was closed.
Wheeler suggested the board follow a similar procedure to one used to address the landfill issue, in which 25 stakeholders came together to look at the challenges, defined the goals in implementing a new system and evaluated options based on those goals.
Will Fox questioned the flat rate structure, since it would unfairly impact those with only minimal PV systems. BPU Chair Tim Neal raised a similar issue.
The board seemed open to exploring alternatives, such as asking whether different rates could be assessed for differently sized systems. Robert Westervelt, deputy utilities manager for finance and administration, said that it could be done but that it would be very difficult.
Vice Chair David Powell asked whether costs were being fairly recovered from high electricity users, and whether a demand charge similar to that paid by commercial customers could be implemented.
Westervelt said that would require that every home have Smart Meters installed, but that Smart Meters technology could provide several options for more fairly distributing costs in the future.
Westervelt also noted that several options that could be considered now for how to distribute costs to ratepayers, but he did not elaborate.
BPU member Stephen McLin focused on what PV users cost the system, asking questions such as whether the technology used to connect units to the grid increased the risk of fire.
"There are 8,300 other residential customers, and these 36 SV users are asking 3,800 other users to pay their share for being hooked up," McLin also said.
"When I drive my car around, there's a little bit of resentment on my part. I still yield the right of way to a bicyclist, but it's my road tax on gasoline that enables him to pedal on my road. In effect, that's what you're asking. You'e asking me to pay for your backup."
Utilities Manager Tim Glasco admitted that the small number of PV users is not having a significant impact at this point and that DPU is trying to "get ahead of the curve" before "400 or 4,000" PV systems come online.
"Eventually we'd like to have a rate structure that is better able to recognize the value of the photovoltaic customers in reducing our peak demand and environmental aspects...This is kind of the expedient at the time to propose this type of rate structure, recognizing that in the future we will be modifying that somehow when these other values become a little better defined."