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Springfield Adopts New Solar Rules

Courtesy of John Schafer
Solar panels installed on Shafer Architecture Building on South Sixth Street.

Springfield city council members, utility officials, and clean-energy advocates reached an agreement on new rules for rooftop solar panels on Tuesday.

The new policy guarantees that households with solar panels will continue to get credited the same amount for a kilowatt hour of electricity they contribute to the grid as the utility charges for energy it gets from its coal-fired power plant or on the open market. This is known as retail net metering.

The policy comes after the city-owned utility – City Water, Light and Power – last year began requiring two meters for new solar installations. Green-energy advocates worried the system could discourage investment in solar.

Ward 6 Ald. Kristin DiCenso helped negotiate the policy, which keeps favorable metering rates for residential and small commercial solar installations.

“We're just hoping to encourage renewables and hoping that this is a step forward and that people are encouraged that now that they know what the rules are, that they're just not going to change on a whim,” she said.

CWLP Chief Engineer Doug Brown said the rules leave open the possibility of lowering what solar customers get paid in the coming years.

“In the future, rates will have to change,” he said. “But at least right now — when people are trying to invest, trying to grow the solar footprint — we're trying to allow that to happen.”

He said net metering is unsustainable in the long-run and that non-solar customers subsidized solar customers because they don’t use as much electricity, and pay fewer of the fixed costs. But there is debate over that argument.

The City Council adopted rules Tuesday that allow the utility to study and propose changes to the net metering rate after solar capacity reaches 3 percent of the city’s peak energy demand. It’s currently at less than one percent. This requirement is similar to statewide rule for investor-owned utilities.

The new policy allows existing installations less than 100 kilowatt capacity and any installations put in before February 20, 2020 to keep retail metering as well.

The rules also keep a two-meter requirement, but change how those meters are connected.

Up until last year, customers would use just one meter, which measured both the energy their solar panels produced and what they drew from the grid.

Last year, CWLP began requiring new installations to have two meters – one that fed all the electricity from the solar panels to the grid and the other that pulled electricity. This is sometimes called a buy all-sell all model. Utility officials said the two-meter system was needed for safety, as well as accuracy in calculating supply and demand in the future.

But Michelle Knox, a solar developer and head of WindSolarUSA, argued that the buy-all, sell-all approach would prevent customers from enjoying the full financial benefits of their solar installations. This is because the system does not feed the customer’s electricity need first, thus lowering what they used and paid for from the grid.

Under the new rules, new solar customers will still use two meters, but they will be connected differently. The second meter will simply measure what the solar panels produce.

“Now I feel like for those systems that are 25 [kilowatt hours] and less, we're back on track,” Knox said.

Small Commercial Customer

John Schafer, who owns an architecture firm, installed new panels on the roof of his office building South Sixth Street last year. He was required to put in two meters.

When he got his first bill, he said he was surprised because it wasn’t saving him as much money as the solar panels he installed on another building he owns downtown a few years ago.

Under the new rules, he said he will be able to have the meters changed, and save more than he is now.

“It seems like they've struck a pretty fair balance, to them as a utility provider and a fair balance to small users like myself, who are really trying to do energy efficient buildings, and use solar,” Schafer said. He built the building on Sixth Street eight years ago with the goal of making net-zero energy user. Installing solar panels last year was a big step towards that goal.

He pointed out the renewable energy could also benefit the utility because it decreases the amount of electricity his building needs on high-demand days.

“If I'm using solar panels, and let's just say, it's August and one of the hottest days of the year, and my load is cut,” he said. “Well, then they don't have to run at peak capacity with their [coal] plants.”

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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