Net metering debate rages on
Net metering advocates won a victory in California earlier this month, but the debate surrounding the program's costs and benefits for consumers and utilities is far from over.
Net metering -- the ability for customers to be reimbursed for exporting excess solar energy back into the grid -- has been available in California since 1996. Programs in some states date back to the early 1980s and, as of March 2012, 43 states offer some kind of net metering program, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).
In California, the state Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) recently voted 5-0 to expand the availability of net metering, effectively doubling the amount of permitted net metering installation to about 10 percent of customers in a utilities service area.
Defining net-metering costs
But while the process is intended as a way to encourage personal solar generation, utilities remain cautious about the overall benefits of net metering, as well as the impact on the more than 90 percent of ratepayers that don't participate.
"Everybody uses the grid in some fashion. They should all be paying for it accordingly" - David Rubin, PG&E
At issue is the way net metering shifts costs off those with solar and burdens those who do not have personal solar generation. This occurs because not only are net metering customers reimbursed for power they put back on the grid, they also avoid paying for grid services they still use.
David Rubin, Director of Service Analysis at PG&E, said it's important to recognize the economic struggles of many customers and find a way to provide them with clean energy at a fair rate, one that's not inflated by a small fraction of the ratepayer base.
"Everybody uses the grid in some fashion. They should all be paying for it accordingly," Rubin said, adding that net-metering customers actually have two-way interaction with grid while other customers simply receive power.
Still, the true impact of this cost-shifting remains vague.
"The commissioners noted that there is wide disagreement on the issues related to the cost shift between solar and non-solar customers," said Sara Birmingham, the Director of Western States at SEIA, in a release following the CPUC decision.