Photo: Carol Kaliff / Carol Kaliff
More than a decade ago, the Connecticut General Assembly set a target of 2020 for the state to generate at least 20 percent of its electrical load from renewable sources like the sun.
With that deadline on the doorstep, Connecticut is now wrestling with whether to continue a key incentive toward that goal — electricity credits that homeowners can get on their utility bills by feeding back to the grid the power they generate from their rooftop solar panels.
Under a law passed last year that is the subject of renewed debate this spring, net metering credits are to be be replaced with “tariffs” that utilities would pay solar panel owners, at a formula that has yet to be established by the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority but which would likely have a lower financial benefit for homeowners.
Opponents of net metering argue that it is an inefficient way to generate electricity for the grid, in that it requires utilities like Eversource Energy and United Illuminating to retrofit what have been historically one-way electricity delivery systems for two-way exchanges, with those capital costs ultimately absorbed by ratepayers.
But with only a slim percentage of Connecticut homes having rooftop solar arrays — as of 2017, the state derived less than 5 percent of its electric load from renewable sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration — experts say that any extra costs will be minimal for some time to come for Eversource Energy and the United Illuminating subsidiary of Avangrid. They contend the state should continue to take advantage of homeowner interest in solar energy in the context of overall clean-energy goals.
“I find it hard to think that we are cost-shifting to other ratepayers at this rate,” said Bryan Garcia, CEO of the Connecticut Green Bank which oversees solar incentive programs, during a March hearing by the Energy and Technology Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly. “If we have higher penetration rates — maybe in the 10-to-15 percent range — then we are starting to cost shift, but there are also benefits that these systems are providing as well. We know this past summer, during the heat and humid days of late June (and) early July, that these systems were producing at peak (periods) in Connecticut and collectively reducing all ratepayer costs across the New England region. … Net metering is important.”
Forty percent by 2030?
But the utilities are looking ahead to continued proliferation of solar power, and under Gov. Ned Lamont the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has advocated the state concentrate more resources on commercial and utility solar installations that can be operated more efficiently.
With any lapse of net metering, Connecticut would fall back into the minority of states that lack mandated rules for the technology, which numbered a dozen as of 2017 according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Last month, Maine renewed its own commitment to net metering, with Central Maine Power a subsidiary of Avangrid.
Installers like Danbury-based Ross Solar and its Valhalla, N.Y., parent Con Edison Solutions have been vociferous on the issue, saying net metering represents a major incentive for homeowners to switch to clean energy. Any caps on the technology will result in those companies having to scale back jobs, with the industry’s Connecticut workforce estimated at more than 2,200 people, they say.
“Homeowners need to be aware that it’s premature and unnecessary — and based on faulty logic,” Stephan Hartmann, head of business development for Ross Solar, told Hearst Connecticut Media. “People should be concerned about net metering going away — it’s going to significantly diminish the value of what a solar-power energy system brings to a homeowner.”
Under a revised Renewable Portfolio Standard updated last year by Connecticut lawmakers, the state must derive 40 percent of its electrical consumption by 2030 from solar, wind and other sources of clean energy.
Both the Connecticut General Assembly and the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority have had net metering under the microscope this spring, with PURA holding a hearing this past week in Harford on the issue.
“We know that ‘behind-the-meter’ facilities tend to cost more to install than, let’s say, a grid-scale facility — just given economies of scale, the cost of interconnecting and so on,” said Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, testifying on the issue in early March in Hartford. “At the same time, I think there is a separate question of how do you compensate those behind-the-meter resources. … Is the way that you’re compensating them ensuring them you’re also providing incentive for facilities to be installed in the way that maximizes those benefits? … Do you want them to be trying to time their consumption — right on site — to use the energy that they’re generating on site? Or do you want them to be exporting it to the grid?”
An obvious solution is to store electricity generated by day for a homeowner’s needs in the evening hours. This winter and spring, the Connecticut General Assembly has examined whether to broaden the state’s existing menu of solar incentives to pay for “power wall” batteries from Tesla, LG and several startup, with those systems costing several thousand dollars to install, and having a shelf life roughly in line with a 30-year mortgage.
That feeds into the concept of a distributed power system that proponents of home-based solar generation say has inherent value to the state and region as a whole, lessening the impact of any systemwide power outages and reducing strain on the grid during heat waves when homeowners run air conditioning around the clock.
In Hartford last month, Garcia suggested the best move for now is to extend net metering through the end of 2020 to buy more time to find a formula that works for utilities, homeowners and the solar installer industry.
“We need to figure out how to get from here to there — and what we’re hearing from the contractors is ‘more time,’” Garcia said. “We know we need the metering and billing systems in place to be able to appropriately cost solar PV out to customers. … Net metering to that point would allow us to transition to this new era of pricing and consumer compensation.”
Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman