Customers upset over low solar energy payment


An estimated 65,000 PG&E customers have solar panels on their rooftops. The power they produce offsets their electric bills. However, many are producing much more energy than they use and by law their credits are wiped out at the end of the year. So some homeowners say that's a giveaway and now they're plugging in more appliances in an effort to use up their excess energy.

Mary Minton makes good use of the sun that beats down on her Sonoma house. With 18 solar panels, she's producing enough power for her house and someone else's too.

"I'm thinking about advertising for somebody with an electric car and an extension cord. They can sit out in my driveway and charge," said Minton.

Her neighbor Alan Piotter has 16 solar panels that also crank out more energy than he uses. He said, "Whatever surplus we had we just signed it over to PG&E without so much as a thank you."

Previously, I told you about Harry Trayer of Petaluma. His solar panels feed surplus energy to the power grid too.

"It doesn't seem fair to me. They're taking what I generate and selling it someplace else," said Trayer.

However, PG&E says it isn't making money from selling that excess solar power.

"There's a decoupling between electric use and our profit and that's not very well understood," said Denny Boyles from PG&E.

Here's how it works: by law, homeowners in California can offset their electric bills by generating their own solar power, but if they produce more than they use, the credit on their bill is wiped out at the end of each year. A new state law does give homeowners a small payment for that surplus energy -- about four cents per kilowatt hour, but customers say that's practically a giveaway.

"I think they're being very stingy about it," said Minton.

Minton's solar panels produced an extra1,600 kilowatt hours last year-- enough to power another house for three months. For that she received $57.61. Trayer's system produced 310 extra kilowatt hours. He got $10.35.

Piotter took a different route. Instead of taking a small sum, he's using up his electricity. He said, "It would be a lot smarter for us just to use our electricity rather than sell the surplus to PG&E." Piotter replaced a gas heater with this electric one. It devoured his surplus and he cut down his gas bill.

St. Assm. Jared Huffman, D-Marin County, says he's hearing from many unhappy solar customers. He told us, "Well, there was a lot of resentment. People felt that if they were generating more power than they were using, and not getting anything for it, it was kind of a windfall to PG&E."

However, PG&E says homeowners do get paid and the rates are set by the California Public Utilities Commission based on spot market prices.

"The idea you're giving anything away at the end of the year is inaccurate. If you're a net surplus generator you're paid the spot rate, the same as we would purchase the electricity anywhere else," said Boyles.

However, Huffman sponsored the bill that provides that payment and he said he intended for folks to get more. He said, "I would like to at least double if not triple the amount that they're currently getting. Nobody's going to get rich from the net surplus power they generate, but that would at least be a more meaningful incentive."

Huffman says other homeowners are thinking like Piotter. Instead of taking a small payment, they're plugging in more stuff.

"People would string extra Christmas lights or leave the hot tub on, and obviously you don't want any policy that encourages waste of energy," said Huffman.

PG&E and other utility companies say paying more to solar customers will result in higher rates for the rest of the ratepayers to cover overhead costs. Still, Huffman and many homeowners want policies that encourage more solar.

"There's too many reasons why this is a good thing. It makes us more energy independent, makes us less reliant on far flung energy sources," said Huffman.

PG&E says seven percent of solar customers are producing surplus power. Boyles could not say how much energy these customers actually supply to the grid. However, a CPUC report says homeowners in 2009 added 5 gigawatts to the grid, about enough to supply 1,000 homes with power for one year.

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