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Solar Flare Between CPS and Local Industry

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A report this year from the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group of investor-owned utilities, spells out how rooftop solar could lay waste to the utilities’ century-old business model. The group argues that, as ratepayers opt for rooftop solar (or any other type of so-called distributed energy resource), the cost to maintain “fixed assets” — like power plants, power lines, transformers, and meters — gets pushed onto a shrinking pool of non-solar customers. As rates rise, solar becomes more attractive and more customers choose it. Under that vicious, self-perpetuating cycle, utilities lose clout (and business) as power generation grows increasingly decentralized.

Last week CPS Energy — a publicly owned utility, unlike those involved with the EEI report — chose to heed EEI’s warnings, announcing plans to nix net-metering for solar customers, a scheme in which every kilowatt-hour of power solar customers produce cancels a kilowatt-hour they consume (their bill is the remainder). Under a new program, which CPS calls “SunCredit,” CPS would reimburse solar customers the flat rate of 5.6 cents for each kilowatt-hour they produce, a little more than half what they currently get. Any solar customers that sign up after April 27 would be under the new program.

Existing solar customers would be grandfathered into the new rate in 2023.

Naturally, the local solar industry feels burned.

Cutting the incentive stunts a growing industry, insists Lanny Sinkin, director of Solar San Antonio. “We had more than $5 million in contracts that were canceled or suspended just in the days after CPS made their announcement,” Sinkin said. The way CPS made the announcement only further fueled discontent, Sinkin continued. CPS informed its solar customers of the proposal before telling installers. During a contentious meeting on April 9 with CPS and local solar stakeholders, installers suddenly began fielding phone calls from confused customers.

“There was this real stunning moment in that meeting when, right in the middle of everything, every cellphone in the room just started lighting up,” Sinkin said. “There were all these confused customers calling, saying, ‘But, didn’t you tell me 9.7 cents? CPS is telling me I’ll get half that.’”

“My week has been a nightmare,” said Margo Robertson, who works with Freedom Solar. “I now have all of these clients that are on the fence, and that paperwork — and there is a lot of paperwork that goes into each of these contracts — is due April 27,” she said. “Plus, CPS did this right around Fiesta. You know what this town is like during Fiesta. Everything’s slow.”

CPS argues that as solar customers pay less to the utility, lower income ratepayers that can’t afford solar installations bear the burden. “From our perspective, we just know that we cannot continue net-metering the way that it is,” said CPS spokesman Lisa Lewis.

Local installers say CPS isn’t considering all the benefits of solar.

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