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Solar Flare Between CPS and Local Industry

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“This new rate doesn’t truly value what solar is contributing to the grid, and that’s what is so unfair,” said Cathy Redson, who works for Longhorn Solar.

Solar power peaks at midday, which means it’s strongest right at the point of highest electricity use. Not only do solar-powered homes and businesses reduce demand on the grid — they cut demand for utilities’ most expensive product, peak energy, which accounts for a large percentage of most utility companies’ profits.

And the protect-the-poor-ratepayers argument might just be hot air to protect those profits. As David Roberts first wrote in Grist last week, Crossborder Energy carefully studied California’s net-metering policy and tallied up a number of other ways rooftop solar provides savings for utilities, like in avoided energy costs, and avoided transmission and equipment costs, not to mention broader social benefits like reduced pollution, which CPS says is accounted for in its new reimbursement rate. When all was considered, the benefits of net-metering in California outweighed the cost, according to the Crossborder study.

“Massive rate increases on non-solar customers are its (utilities’) way of scaring policymakers into action to protect utility profits,” Roberts wrote.

Sinkin says he understands CPS’s concern, and that local installers are willing to work with the utility; he asks that CPS give installers a year to work out a more amenable reimbursement rate. “There’s no crisis here,” Sinkin said, pointing to studies that indicate that if distributed solar puts any burden on utilities and non-solar ratepayers, that only occurs when solar makes up about 20 percent of the market; in San Antonio, the roughly 1,000 rooftop solar systems make up about 0.2 percent of the market. With CPS continuing to pay out fat bonuses, the timing of the announcement feels particularly tone deaf, Sinkin says.

Regarding CPS bonuses, Lewis said, “We’re talking apples and oranges,” and defended the utility’s incentive pay. She added, “We’ve also had 937 percent growth in rooftop solar since 2009. We need a viable structure for the program that works in the long term. Now is as good a time as any to create that — before it becomes an issue.”

Sinkin says the dustup with CPS highlights a deeper conflict with the local solar industry that’s been bubbling beneath the surface for months. Installers, many of which opened up San Antonio offices and invested locally because of CPS’s promises, grew angry last year when CPS announced plans to roll back investment in the rebate program that helps subsidize rooftop solar installs. The rate was eventually cut from $2.50 per watt to $2.

CPS used to provide bill inserts advertising Solar San Antonio’s Bring Solar Home program, which connects solar-curious customers with three local installers who offer the customer competing bids. “Almost all of our inquiries came from people who saw that bill insert,” Sinkin said. “And last month, CPS decided, for whatever reason, they weren’t going to do it anymore.”

CPS’s announcement last week to do away with net-metering — a decision made without the consultation of the local solar industry, Sinkin claims — just breeds more discontent.

“The local installers, they feel like they’re in an abusive relationship,” Sinkin said.

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