Going Solar Isn't Easy in The District

Sunday, February 11, 2007

On Dec. 5, the D.C. Council passed a measure to require certain large commercial buildings in the District to meet "green" environmental standards. Seven days later, Pepco asked the D.C. Public Service Commission (PSC) to approve an increase of roughly 8 percent in residential electricity rates.

Sadly, though, it is not easy for District residents to use solar technology. As a result, these residents are being denied opportunities to make their houses green and to reduce their exposure to rising electricity prices.

Why? Perhaps ineptitude, perhaps something more sinister. But the bottom line is that, although the D.C. government professes to want to promote solar energy, progress seems to have been thwarted by the PSC and Pepco.

The root of the problem is net metering. Or, more precisely, the lack of an easy process for customers to enter into a standard net-metering contract in the District.

Net metering is designed to allow individuals to sell their excess energy to their utility company. In February 2005, the Public Service Commission joined more than 40 states by adopting generalized net-metering rules. In practice, such rules require utilities to buy, via credits to a customer's utility bill, electricity that is produced by a small-scale facility generating renewable energy -- such as a rooftop solar photovoltaic system -- at a home or business and send it back into the grid.

Net metering allows consumers to sell electricity to the grid at times when demand in their home is low. These times often coincide with times of peak demand on the grid (e.g., late afternoon in summer when air-conditioning systems are running at high loads). Net metering is a critical policy tool for solar homes, and it benefits not only homeowners but the entire power grid.

Yet, two years after the PSC's initial action, net metering is only beginning to look realistic in the District. Here and elsewhere, a renewable generator (homeowner) must sign a contract with the utility before he or she may interconnect. The contract typically specifies safety and technical standards for interconnection to the grid; most commercial inverters (the part of a household photovoltaic system that enables a renewable generator to feed electricity into the grid) meet such standards.

For the past two years, the PSC has failed to approve a standardized contract for consumers to interconnect to the grid, and Pepco had threatened to disconnect the systems of homeowners who expressed their intention to interconnect without a contract -- even in cases where Pepco's technical staff approved these specific systems for interconnection on safety and technical grounds.

In what seems like obstructionist behavior, Pepco has repeatedly delayed the implementation of net metering in the District by filing standard contracts with the PSC that included completely unacceptable provisions (even by the PSC's lax regulatory standards). Mixing ignorance, complacency and incompetence, the PSC has allowed Pepco to use this tactic to paralyze solar installations in the District. Last summer, Pepco flagrantly missed a filing deadline related to net metering without penalty (and, when asked, one PSC commissioner did not even know that Pepco had missed the deadline).

Perhaps the most exasperating part of this is that some of these solar systems were partially funded through grants via the D.C. Energy Office, and they sat unused for almost two years.

Two weeks ago, after prompting by the Office of People's Counsel, the PSC finally directed Pepco to allow customers to interconnect with the grid, but Pepco remains unresponsive to customers who wish to formalize the interconnection with a contract.

Net metering is a simple, no-brainer step toward the greater use of renewable energy sources in our local system. If it took the PSC and its staff two years to approve a contract, they are clearly not up to the larger task of putting the interests of the public and the planet ahead of those of a monopolistic industry. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the D.C. Council should replace the three appointed commissioners and 60-some PSC staff members with people who will help make renewables a reality in the District.

-- Michael Cummings -- George Sterzinger


Michael Cummings fought for more than a year and a half to interconnect his rooftop solar system. George Sterzinger is executive director of the Renewable Energy Policy Project.

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