BATON ROUGE -- The Louisiana Public Service commission stepped in Wednesday to address a problem exposed a few weeks ago by Eyewitness News, directing utilities to allow people who had already bought solar panels to get the special meters that give them credit for electricity they produce and feed to the grid.
Public Service Commission Chairman Eric Skrmetta issued the directive to help consumers left in limbo when their utilities suddenly announced they had reached a solar energy threshold imposed by the commission back in 2011.
The commission’s rule says that once a utility determines that 0.5 percent of its peak electricity load is going to solar customers, it no longer has to offer so-called “net meters.” Without such meters, solar power becomes much less attractive to consumers.
Along with grandfathering in those who already had ordered panels, Skrmetta said utilities need to do more to let solar companies and their customers know when they are about to shut off net metering.
“This is about notice and it's about accepting people in the gap and that this directive is effective immediately, today,” Skrmetta said.
Retired police officer Carl Perilloux breathed a sigh of relief when the commission issued the order. He spent $28,000 to get solar panels for his home in Folsom only to learn that his utility company, Washington-St. Tammany Electric Co-op, had just hit the net-metering cap.
“I'll be able to go forth with my project and it makes me sleep a little bit easier at night the fact that the money I've already spent out of my pocket, eventually I will see some return from it,” Perilloux said.
WST and two other co-ops were only doing what the Public Service Commission’s 2011 rule change allowed —discontinuing the use of net meters once the 0.5 percent threshold was reached.
“We've followed everything the commission has said and plan to follow this, just as they have said,” said Charles Hill, WST’s chief executive. “Whatever they tell us to do, we will do.”
There’s a lively debate about whether solar customers are a drain or benefit to the rest of the grid. Commissioner Clyde Holloway, who is running for U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander’s congressional seat, says net metering costs the 99.5 percent of customers who don’t have solar panels.
But solar-industry advocates say the commission hasn’t done enough to study the benefits of more solar customers, who can provide energy directly to their neighbors and reduce the load on power plants during sunny days.
The industry also questions whether the co-ops are even correct when they say they’ve reached the 0.5 percent cap.
“There is a formula that has to be put in place and all the utilities, the commission and our industry need to agree upon it,” said Tucker Crawford, head of the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association. “The formula they’re using now, we’re not really sure what they’re using. We believe they’re using a formula that doesn’t apply.”
Commission staff attorney Melanie Verzwyvelt acknowledged the issue at Wednesday’s hearing: “There are concerns and some people think we did not calculate the numbers properly.”
So New Orleans area commissioner Lambert Boissiere III said he wanted to revisit the way the threshold is calculated at the commission's September meeting.
“And I don't want to see any other company walk in here and stop taking customers for the next 30 days till we get this motion done right, so don't do it to me now,” he warned.
Also at Wednesday’s hearing, the commission heard about the results of a pilot program to encourage utilities to increase their use of all renewable energy sources, including solar, wind, biomass and thermal.
SWEPCO, the big utility in northwest Louisiana, bought large amounts of cheap wind power from Kansas and Texas, but Cleco and Entergy Louisiana did little with renewables.
That angered Commissioner Foster Campbell, who represents the area served by SWEPCO. He blasted the other large utilities for failing to follow through on renewable energy goals, particularly Cleco.
“I am for this program (becoming) mandatory,” Campbell said. “The company that did it (SWEPCO) has the cheapest rates in the state. And Cleco has the highest rates and they didn’t do it.”
But Cleco attorney John Shirley took offense, saying Cleco did comply and attempted to begin a biomass project. The other commissioners voted to give Cleco credit for meeting its obligations under the pilot program.
Louisiana is one of eight states with renewable energy goals but no minimum requirements. There are 29 states that require their utilities to maintain a minimum renewable energy portfolio. The other 13 states have no renewable energy goals.
Skrmetta said he hopes that by joining the Midwest region energy distribution network known as MISO in December, Louisiana utilities will be able to buy cheap renewable energy without committing to long-term contracts.
The commission staff reported the state has increased its own renewable energy generation by 12 percent since 2009.