This is a complaint that has rippled through the state and into Sacramento. Many homeowners taking advantage of bright sunlight are pumping out more energy than they're currently using, but then they are practically giving away their surplus and that is very upsetting to one man who spent $18,000 for his solar panels.
"The reason I got them was because of this pitch that they had on going green, number one," said Harry Trayer.
Trayer, 92, is talking about the solar panels he installed on the roof of his Petaluma home, 18 in all. They get so much sunshine, Trayer is often generating way more electricity than he uses.
"I like a little bit of the independence," said Trayer.
He sure got independence. On one summer day his electric meter was running steadily backward. That means he's sending electricity onto the PG&E power grid, instead of taking it off the grid. Trayer received a $94 credit on his electric bill for June alone. It all seemed terrific, that is until he received his year-end electric statement from PG&E.
"It doesn't seem fair to me. They're taking what I generate and selling it someplace else," said Trayer.
Here's why he's upset. Trayer's annual true-up statement tells him how much electricity he generated and how much he used during the 12 previous months. It shows he used more power during the winter months than he supplied, while in the summer he put out more electricity than he used. All totaled up, he generated 310 more kilowatts than he used over the course of a year. He ended up with a credit of $279.98. However, Trayer found out will not get that $279.98 and he won't get the credit either. What he will get is $10.35.
"So we come to the end of the year and I'm shown with a $200-plus credit and I get $10 and something for it. Where's all the rest of it going?" asked Trayer.
He called 7 On Your side and we checked into what happened to his credit.
"The program is not designed to help customers make money. The program is designed to help customers reduce their electric bill," said Lynsey Paulo from PG&E.
She points out, the solar power rules are all guided by a 1995 state law. So 7 On Your Side took at look at Public Utilities Code 2827. It created what's called "net energy metering." It lets homeowners receive credit on their electricity bills for energy they send to the grid. If they used more than they generated, they must pay the difference at the end of a year. However, if they supply more energy than they use, their credit is actually wiped out. There's no rolling over, it's just gone.
"Once a year, their bill is reconciled in what we call a true-up and what that means is any outstanding charges are owed, and any remaining credit is zeroed out," said Paulo.
Trayer says that doesn't seem fair that he gave away his extra energy to the power company. However, PG&E says, the law intended only to let homeowners generate as much power as they use, not to become mini power plants.
"Under the net metering legislation, customers are required to size their systems to their annual usage," said Paulo.
The California Public Utilities Commission declined an on camera interview for this story and referred us back to PG&E saying, "It is their customer and their billing issue."
The California Energy Commission said it lacks jurisdiction over the net energy metering program.
So Trayer is left without the credit, though he did get that $10.35. So why that amount? It turns out other homeowners complained about giving away surplus energy too. Now a new state law does provide a small payment to homeowners for their extra energy. It is paid at a wholesale rate set by the state PUC. That rate is now about three cents per kilowatt hour, based on current spot market prices. Consumers are not entitled to be paid at full retail rates for their surplus electricity under the law. Trayer had a hard time seeing it. But we did show him, but still, it didn't make him happy.
"Yes, don't say I have a credit, and then tell me I don't have a credit. That's what started the whole thing," said Trayer.
Trayer is also upset because PG&E charges him about $12 per month for distribution of electricity and other charges he thought were included in his credits. We reported that to the state PUC and it has agreed to investigate. Also we'll be talking to the state lawmaker who wants solar power customers to get paid more for their surplus electricity.