Op-ed column: Utilities drag their feet on homeowners using less public electricity

I accepted an offer for a free energy audit a few years ago and thought it was nice that an employee

I accepted an offer for a free energy audit a few years ago and thought it was nice that an employee of the electric power company would spend half an hour in my house, measuring the efficiency of my furnace, dispensing a water heater blanket and some pipe insulation, all to help me save money on my energy bill. It took me years to wonder why a company that sells power might be interested in helping me use less. When I did think about it, I decided that they probably got a tax break or some similar financial advantage for it.

Can a company that sells electricity possibly benefit from consumers using less? How does that company react to a consumer that actually manages to use less?

Those questions have been on my mind lately: My wife and I researched and ultimately purchased a photovoltaic electric array for our home. We are not guaranteed to use less power, but we are guaranteed to produce a quantity of our own and we will, therefore, not need to purchase as much from the utility serving our area.

Is it possible that the utility will benefit from our investment? How will the utility react to us?

Given that a public electric utility can make money in two ways (selling and delivering electricity it produces; delivering electricity somebody else produces), I’d call it logical that the company would oppose efforts to use less or produce your own.

The public relations hint otherwise. Utility literature urges us to tighten up our homes, use energy-efficient light bulbs and end waste. But a business model based on the delivery and sale of a product must also include a vested interest in customers using more, not less.

There is support from both state and federal government for consumers to invest in alternate energy, including solar electricity. Solar panels and all the associated installation pieces are too expensive to pay for themselves, at least now. When there is enough business in the solar trade, the enterprise will benefit from the economy of scale. Until then, government support in the form of grants and tax credits is helping homeowners get started.

Mixed signals

But what about the utility? I had to sign for a piece of certified mail from the utility company one day and the postmaster joked about me trying to put the utility out of business. “Are they cooperative and supportive?” she asked.

Well, yes and no.

Legislation that provides the grants and tax credits requires the public utility to cooperate. I must be provided an electric meter that is capable of going backwards (a net meter) on the chance that my solar panels produce more electricity than my home can use. This happens for many hours on every sunny day. The legislation further requires that the utility purchase any electricity we generate in excess of what we use.

Proposals for electric systems are evaluated to prevent a consumer from intentionally becoming a competing power producer for profit, underwritten by the government. My system is sized to my home, based on two years history of electric use. All things being equal, my panels should produce 90 percent of my electricity, give or take a little. However, in the event that our system actually produces more than we use, the utility must buy the excess. Annual net use/production will be calculated and in the event of a net overproduction, kilowatt hours will be purchased at a wholesale price. I have a contract with the utility company.

And I will always have an electric bill. The photovoltaic system works in total cooperation with the grid (think night time) so I still pay the basic fee for “delivery” (think utility infrastructure — wires, poles, trucks).

The company installed the meter and signed the contract. These are official indicators that they are cooperative.

Do I think they were supportive? Little things make me say no. I thought it was interesting that they got around to installing the net meter on the last possible date they could and late in the afternoon, to boot. It’s a quibble, nothing big.

Then there’s the utility’s response to my questions over a period of a month about my best use of use of potential excess kilowatt hours. If they come to exist, I don’t think I want to sell them. I think I will want to use them.

My system has been operating all of 96 hours as I write this and I have been very attentive to all things electric in those hours. On a sunny Saturday (really sunny), we cooked on an electric range, ran two vacuum cleaners, washed clothes in warm water and operated a dehumidifier, all at once. Our panels were working perfectly and our net meter said we were using no power from the grid. Neither were we returning power to the grid. Our panels were producing exactly the electricity we were using and I consider that to be a period of very heavy use. Awesome.

And when we were done cleaning the house, the balance shifted and the indicator arrows said we were sending power from the sun out to the electric grid itself. Also awesome. When the sun went down, we got our kwh’s just like everybody else.

I won’t bore you with my knowledge of kwh’s used overnight (I do know) and all the rest, but the point is that my wife and I are very attentive to electric use and, by extension, conservation. As the solar contractor predicted, we are so tuned in to our consumption that we are very likely to use less, thereby putting us into overproduction.

Evasive response

Anticipating that, I’ve asked the utility to help me pinpoint the anniversary date on which the net accounting will occur and to change it to a late winter date. My reasoning is that if our combination of production and conservation results in a net gain of kwh’s, I would like the option of closing down part of my oil heating system and substituting electric heat. I’d prefer to conserve oil and use home-grown solar kilowatt hours. I consider that smart and environmentally responsible. For me, cutting oil use is preferable to being reimbursed for kwh’s by the electric utility.

The utility has been unresponsive and then evasive to my many inquiries. By making a poor effort to assist me, they are revealing an uncooperative attitude that says their support will be limited to exactly what they are required by law to do, not more.

It’s too bad. I’ll figure out how to make best use of my kwh’s with or without their help, but my view of the company is cynical. Maybe that matters, maybe not.

One of the electricians who worked in my cellar on the solar project told me that the lobbying effort of the large utility companies limited all grant- and tax-supported solar electric systems to less than 1 percent of all residential power requirements in the state. That is to say that all solar power combined may not exceed 1 percent of electricity required. If that’s accurate, it also reveals an attitude about energy use and consumption that it’s not enough for the company to assess its fair “delivery” charge . . . it must also hold its virtual monopoly on the product itself.

I attribute that attitude to a weak business model, akin to that of auto makers who struggle to get themselves into the new century. I’m probably oversimplifying, but some force appears to be pushing the utility to resist attempts to reduce consumption and be creative about production. That’s what I’m trying to do and the message to me is one of bureaucratic run-around and no cooperation beyond that which is legislatively required.

Chris Claus lives in Gallupville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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