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Small Solar Advocates Worry State Decision Will Limit Access

Advocates worry the PSC's decision will make small solar projects less viable.

The New York Public Service Commission could make a decision this week that would have a big impact on the state's solar industry. Advocates for small solar producers worry they’ll be left behind.

Big Pay Back For Small Producers 

Meredith Kohn-Bocek has had solar panels on her house for about five years. She seems to be the only one in her small Tioga County neighborhood who has them.

"I’m not aware of anyone else in the terrace that has solar,” she said.

Bocek likes that it’s a greener energy, but she really enjoys the effect on her wallet. “Today, I finally looked up on my electric bill to see how I was doing," she explained.  "The credits that you build up during the summer were able to pay for all my electricity during the winter. So I have not paid an electric bill, except for the $15 surcharge.”

Bocek gets a cheap electric bill because of what’s called net metering. The excess energy she collects from her solar panels is sold back to a utility company. That company then credits her for that energy.

“I believe in net metering because that’s what makes this possible, basically," she said.

States Shift Away from Net Metering  

New York could move away from net metering. It's public service commission, which regulates utilities, may decide to stop the process at its meeting on Thursday. And New York isn't alone, a lot of states are considering this move.

“It was too successful in some states," said Gary Radloff, an energy policy researcher at the University of Wisconsin. "Where you started to see a lot of individual homeowners and businesses installing solar PV panels on their roofs and then it became kind of a market competition issue for utilities.”

Essentially, the credit the utility gives to the person with solar panels is sometimes worth more than the money the utility can get for the energy it’s purchased.

So, we’ve reached a tipping point. Solar panels have multiplied and that’s driven the price of solar power down. But utilities are still giving out credits on energy bills. Now, there's a feeling among those that work at utilities that net metered customers like Bocek are no longer paying their share thanks to the benefit of solar.

That, they say, hurts other customers. “Non-participating customers see their bill go up a bit because net metered customers are not paying a proportionate share of the cost of our infrastructure," said Stephen Wempel, General Manager of ConEdison's Utility of the Future team.

New York's Big Energy Goals 

New York needs utilities like ConEd to buy and sell solar power. The state has a goal to get 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

Smaller projects are great, but Wempel said hitting that energy goal means means thinking big. “More large scale wind and solar farms that might be 30 megawatts, 50 megawatts, 100 megawatt projects that are more large in scale and also more cost effective.” he added.

Adam Flint works to bring solar to small communities. He worries about a path that focuses on large-scale projects. He thinks the little guy will get left behind.

“You’d have people who can get access to solar and people who can’t," he said. "And people who get access to solar will be the people who get access to most things: middle- and upper-income people who have decent credit and property.”

And then long term, the jobs and health benefits of the solar industry will go to the “haves," instead of the “have-nots.” So, how can the Public Service Commission reach large scale energy goals and allow any New Yorker access to solar?

Radloff says the commission needs to remember its job is to serve the public good. But agreeing on what is the public good can be difficult.

“That always depends on where you sit," Radloff said. "If you’re a solar advocate, if you’re a large solar company, if you’re a utility; you all have a somewhat different perspective of what’s the public good.”

And solar advocate Flint says if the decision sets small solar back, his group will look for other avenues to ensure people can still afford solar at a smaller scale in their communities.