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Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission proposal to cap solar power puzzles

| Sunday, May 31, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Fred Kraybill uses only solar power to provide electricity for his building in Point Breeze. Portrait taken on Thursday, May 28, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Fred Kraybill uses only solar power to provide electricity for his building in Point Breeze. Portrait taken on Thursday, May 28, 2015.

Fred Kraybill uses solar energy he generates at home to charge his electric car and power five apartments in his subdivided red brick house in Point Breeze.

He would like to add more panels, to use more solar power to heat his home, too, but a cap proposed by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission on how much extra electricity customers like Kraybill can generate and sell back to their utility gives him pause.

“The concern is well, how are they going to limit it next? What are they going to do next?” he said.

There is no cap in Pennsylvania on how much surplus electricity customers can sell to their utility at retail prices. The PUC is proposing to cap the amount of excess power customer-generators can sell at 200 percent above their annual consumption. It is more generous than an earlier proposal that would set the cap at 110 percent.

The cap is meant to discourage residential customers and small non-utility generators from using their solar panels as a money-making venture and prevent them from free riding on an electric grid built and maintained by commercial power producers.

Critics say it will confuse solar owners and discourage clean energy production.

Pennsylvania is not alone in looking to regulate independent, non-utility electricity generators like Kraybill and maintain an even playing field for utilities, said Robin Tilley, a spokeswoman for the PUC.

“It is happening in other states, and people are catching onto the possibility,” she said. “I think it's more of a proactive ‘Let's prevent this from happening [change].' ”

There are bans or caps similar to what the PUC is proposing for Pennsylvania's renewable customer-generators in other states. New Jersey allows no overproduction, Maryland has a 200 percent cap, and Delaware has a 110 percent cap, according to the PUC.

Forty-four states and Washington, D.C., allow people to sell excess electricity they produce to a utility, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The PUC ended public comment on the rules Friday, and the draft will be subject to 18 months of reviews by state lawmakers and regulators before it is finalized — at least by September 2016.

Solar advocates don't understand what's driving the proposed changes. It's unlikely that scores of independent solar owners are using their systems to squeeze money from utilities, said Evan Endres, solar project manager at Penn Future.

“We're still not sure what problem the PUC is trying to fix,” Endres said. “There's not a lot of evidence out there to suggest that there's a considerable number of people ... masquerading as merchant generators, trying to game the system.”

Utilities are required under state law to buy a certain amount of solar electricity to sell to customers each year. That amount progressively increases through the next several years under the law.

PUC commissioners declined to comment on the proposed changes while they are under review, but in a statement released last month, Commissioner James Cawley said that if more people begin generating their own electricity, it could lead to an overburdened electric grid and additional maintenance costs for utilities.

Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy, which owns four utilities that operate in Western Pennsylvania — including Penelec, West Penn Power and Penn Power — and Downtown-based Duquesne Light declined to comment on the proposed changes, saying any comments before rules are finalized would be premature.

Critics of the proposed changes — including PennFuture Energy Center, Pennsylvania Solar Energy Industries Association, Sierra Club, and the Clean Air Council — argue the rules make it more complicated for local solar installers to figure out how big of a system to install for a customer to produce power that is no more than is allowed under the proposed cap.

“You're really limiting their options as a consumer. And to what end, for what reasons are you doing that?” Endres said.

Kraybill usually does not pay for his electricity, but doesn't get paid either. He banks credits he earns from generating surplus electricity in the summer to pay for the winter months when he generates less energy from the sun. His system, along with all other existing systems that may exceed the proposed cap in the state, will be grandfathered in under any rules implemented.

He has 74 solar panels, a 19-kilowatt system, that has grown as he has decided to transition more of his electric load to solar and rely less on his utility and its dependence on fossil fuels. He installed 34 panels in April 2012 and added 40 in December 2013. He would like to add more but is not sure how, or whether he could, if the PUC's changes are finalized.

“They're basically saying you have to put your system in and know how much electricity you're going to use in the future. And some people are saying, ‘Wait a minute, I'm using this much now, but down the road I may need to increase,' ” he said.

The proposal can be found on the PUC website under Docket No. L-2014-2404361: http://bit.ly/1FcDd5j

Katelyn Ferral is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5627 or kferral@tribweb.com.

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