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Advocates say 'SunCredit' flap shows how CPS undervalued rooftop solar

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Solar panels on Hill Electric Co.'s rooftop

While installers decried that CPS’ SunCredit proposal would reduce local demand by millions of dollars, Austin’s tariff sparked a much different reaction, Rabago said. In Austin, the new tariff spiked demand so high the utility dropped its rebate from $2.50 per watt down to $2.00 with little effect.

“The engine kept on chugging and accelerated, so much so that they reduced the rebate again” last week, down to $1.50 per watt. Austin’s value of solar compensation is working so well, Rabago speculated, there will probably be further rebate reductions in the near future.

“If you don’t have fair compensation, the industry will become overly dependent on those rebates … which nobody wants,” he said.

With CPS’ SunCredit proposal, “The behavior indicates they (CPS) view things much differently than we did,” Rabago said. “Being gracious, I’d say they’re showing a traditional utility view at best,” one primarily focused on keeping risk low and power production centralized.

Governance structure could guide that difference in approach, said ­Browning with Vote Solar. Unlike in San Antonio, Austin’s City Council acts as the regulatory backstop to all the utility’s decisions. The city’s Public Utility Commission, which makes recommendations to its City Council, holds little decision-making authority.

That is, at least for now. Austin leaders in recent months have considering changing to the CPS model – an independent board of trustees with sweeping power over the utility’s actions.

“We feel that structure is the source of a lot of problems,” said Karen Hadden with the Austin-based clean energy nonprofit SEED Coalition. In recent weeks, as Austin’s City Council debated whether or not to jump into CPS-style governance (the issue was tabled last week for further discussion) Hadden and others pointed south to CPS’ SunCredit debacle as a warning.

“These are the kind of abrupt decisions that get made when the utility’s leadership can do whatever it wants,” Hadden said. “When you go to a board, they don’t care what you think. You don’t vote for them, they’re appointed. When you can vote for somebody or boot them out of office, you can keep their attention.”

In announcing its decision to delay its SunCredit program, CPS said it plans to have quarterly meetings with local solar stakeholders to tackle the many issues that surfaced during the SunCredit controversy.

“Now the real work begins of choosing a group, setting an agenda, and conducting productive discussions,” Sinkin said in a prepared statement.

“What we’re playing with here is the opportunity for San Antonio to be a leader,” Rabago said. If San Antonio eventually trades net metering for a rate that depresses the local market, “I keep saying installers in Austin will sleep well at night, because in Austin, there will be a stable market, and a strong ecosystem, and there will be jobs every now and again in San Antonio.”

Rabago continued, “San Antonio has the opportunity to create a healthy ecosystem of rooftop solar. That’s what’s at risk with this type of behavior coming from CPS.”

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