Two public electric utility companies, one in San Diego and one in Virginia, recently proposed usage charges for net-metered customers who have solar energy systems. These are designed to spread the infrastructure costs of solar powered systems more equitably, according to the utility companies. Dominion Virginia Power, the Virginia monopoly utility provider, and San Diego Gas & Electric, the San Diego utility provider, claim that they incur costs for infrastructure maintenance for solar customers, but solar industry representatives doubt the actual amount of cost incurred and bring up a law that prevents utility companies from targeting net-metered customers.
Dominion in Virginia, recently requested a "standby fee" of up to $60 per month for residential and small businesses that have installed solar energy systems between ten and twenty kilowatt-hours. Legislation passed by the Virginia General Assembly last year which explicitly allowed such a charge for people who generate between 10 and 20 kilowatt-hours. David Botkins, a spokesman for Dominion, said the charge was a matter of fairness: "The sun doesn't shine at night; the wind doesn't always blow. It would be unfair for customers who don't have these systems to have to pay the infrastructure costs for those who do. The charge lets Dominion recover costs for serving the customers whose alternative energy system does not provide the power they need."
The Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association requested a hearing, which was held on November 3, and called into question the methodology of the charges. Questions were raised pertaining to the sufficiency of data collected by Dominion to show that the proposed rates accurately represent infrastructure costs caused by 10kW-20kW solar energy systems. These numbers also do not take into consideration the benefits the utility company receives during peak hours, when solar installations generate electricity at the location where they are used, displacing the need for high-cost power generation by Dominion. In addition, this standby charge would result in higher charges for a net-metered customer than a customer with a similar load profile, which might be in violation of the Virginia statute requiring utilities to provide uniform rates to similarly-situated customers. Finally, solar advocates add that the proposed charges could make solar uneconomical in the state, adding six to eight years to the time it would take to pay off the system. This charge could scare off potential solar customers afraid of a precedent, effectively freezing the solar market in Virginia.
Similar fears and questions have been raised in San Diego, where San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) is proposing a "network use charge" to "recover all customer use of the distribution grid on an import and export basis," costs incurred because of infrastructure maintenance, according to Cynthia Fang of SDG&E. In this case, too, the costs incurred are unclear and it is not sure whether the charge is legal or not. In addition, the charges would potentially cripple the solar industry and could establish a dangerous precedent in the region and the nation.
Both cases are being reviewed by the respective state commissions, and are being closely watched by utilities and solar advocates across the nation.