Business, Energy, Environment, State Government

PSC staff ponder net-metering dispute that could affect solar projects across West Virginia

MORGANTOWN – State Public Service Commission staff are puzzling over a complaint filed by the Coalfield Development Corp. that they say could affect the future of solar power across the state.

Its recommendation to the PSC was due Friday, but it said earlier in the week it needs 60 more days – until June 24.

“Staff has been actively investigating this complaint. This case involves complex issues that potentially could have far reaching impacts on utility ratepayers and the roll out of solar in West Virginia. Staff is still trying to obtain additional facts to better understand the facts of this particular complaint. … Until Staff obtains more facts, Staff is unable to come up with a reasonable recommendation.”

The complainant is Huntington-based Coalfield Development Corp., a nonprofit incubator devoted to revitalizing coal communities through renewable energy workforce development projects.

It has installed 120 kilowatts worth of solar panels on its West Edge Factory warehouse roof and wants to begin net-metering service with its power utility, Appalachian Power (APCo), but APCo isn’t cooperating.

Coalfield filed the complaint in January, telling the Public Service Commission APCo won’t “aggregate” the new service with existing on-site accounts because the solar generator’s meter doesn’t carry a load delivered by APCo that the utility can use to measure net-metering credits. Coalfield is using a one-way meter that only measures output to the grid (net-metering customers send any excess power they don’t use out to the grid). APCo wants Coalfield to connect through a different on-site meter.

Coalfield told the PSC this doesn’t comply with state net-metering law.

“Meter aggregation is a vital tool designed to make renewable energy more financially accessible to residential, commercial and agricultural customers,” Coalfield said. “It allows one generator to offset multiple meters, thus reducing the need for additional equipment and associated costs. Not only is APCo’s interpretation of its net-metering tariff contrary to the plain language contained in the tariff, it is contrary to the common practice within the solar industry and will negatively affect the accessibility of renewable energy for West Virginia residents and businesses.”

Connecting to an existing meter will be complicated and expensive, Coalfield said. It references a couple Solar Holler projects: Connecting through an existing meter cost a church an extra $12,000, and a high school project will cost an extra $75,000 if they have to use an existing meter.

Solar Holler is planning projects for 21 Wayne County schools, and another for Mingo County High School, which will save the schools millions of dollars, Coalfield said. But meters aren’t always located where the panels need to go, leading to extra costs and reduced savings.

And Coalfield rebuts APCo’s claim about the lack of a load on the meter it wants to use. The solar inverters and communication equipment will draw a slight load. “Coalfield is even willing to install a light bulb on the meter if that would satisfy APCo’s insistence of a load on the meter.”

APCo wants the complaint dismissed, saying in February that Coalfield’s meter setup doesn’t conform with PSC net-metering rules. Net metering is a means of measuring the difference between the electricity supplied by an electric utility and the electricity generated from a customer-generator used to offset part or all of its electricity requirements.

“Coalfield is not capable of offsetting any of its electricity requirements; instead, it acts only as a generator supplying electricity directly to the grid,” APCo said. “Therefore, under the Net Metering Rules, Coalfield is not eligible for net metering.”

Instead, APCo said, Coalfield could qualify as a small power generator and obtain Federal Energy Regulatory Commission certification; APCo would then work with Coalfield on service options.

APCo pointed out that Coalfield repeatedly references Solar Holler projects. [Solar Holler is the state’s largest solar development company.] “This fact, coupled with Solar Holler’s previous complaint against APCo, give the impression that the driving force behind the instant Complaint is Solar Holler’s desire to increase the marketability of its products.”

Among the documents pouring in from both sides since then, Coalfield sent a series of emails and other items, saying that Solar Holler can confirm that it has installed at least six projects approved for net metering using the same interconnection method as Coalfield’s West Edge project with two additional projects pending. Two of the six completed projects are located in Huntington – APCo’s territory.

Also, Coalfield said, it is willing to replace the current meter with a two-way meter and put a load on it in order for it to be approved for net metering.