La. regulators signal halt to net metering as saga continues

Source: Edward Klump, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, November 23, 2015

Louisiana regulators, in the latest flashpoint of a smoldering debate on residential solar, backed a view yesterday that three electric cooperatives have surpassed a threshold to halt expansion of retail net metering under state rules.

The 3-2 vote by the Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) validated the position taken by its staff in a review of calculations related to Northeast Louisiana Power Cooperative Inc., Panola-Harrison Electric Cooperative Inc. and Washington-St. Tammany Electric Cooperative Inc.

The decision could have implications for other power providers, as the state allows a utility with net metering purchases that exceed 0.5 percent of its retail peak load to no longer accept applications using Louisiana’s setup. The PSC affirmed the view of an administrative law judge who considered the methodology used in relation to the cap to be reasonable.

With net metering, solar customers can send extra power to the grid for credits to reduce bills. Net metering users in Louisiana can receive the retail price of electricity for such power, although state regulators could look at changing the rate and removing the cap.

Yesterday, Commissioner Eric Skrmetta made a motion to accept the recommendation that the three cooperatives topped the cap. He added language to prevent rate changes for existing customers until the PSC establishes a new net metering rate, and he indicated that a customer who is selling a house with a solar system would be able to transfer the setup to a purchaser.

Skrmetta sought to define the issue as tied to the methodology for the electric providers in question.

“And as other ones come forward, they’d have to come in,” Skrmetta said. “But at least we’d have the narrow calculation of methodology that everyone … can then rely on to have a uniform approach to this.”

Skrmetta said solar customers potentially could be offered a structure in the future that includes, in part, a rate related to avoided costs. The PSC’s vote occurred yesterday after certain groups previously argued that the calculations didn’t represent a reasonable interpretation of net metering rules.

The Alliance for Affordable Energy, a consumer and environmental group, asked yesterday that the PSC’s vote be delayed as CEO Casey DeMoss sought more time for parties to reach a post-cap plan. She also sought protection for existing net metering customers.

“I am disappointed, but hopeful,” DeMoss said in an interview after the PSC supported the cooperatives’ position while adding some consumer protections.

DeMoss said she hopes to meet with utilities and commission staff to work on a path forward on a rate structure. She said all options could be on the table.

Continuing the conversation

The PSC also discussed a potential technical conference to dive further into net metering.

“We want the commission to have good policy, and we think that this cap and the calculation is bad policy,” DeMoss said, adding that “the conversation isn’t over.”

The PSC action came after state lawmakers earlier this year voted to put caps on a residential solar credit program in Louisiana, which the solar industry warned could hurt its business and affect jobs (EnergyWire, June 11).

Also wrapped up in the state’s net metering debate has been a study from Acadian Consulting Group, which is associated with David Dismukes of Louisiana State University (EnergyWire, March 5). Dismukes said his study found that the current structure creates costs greater than benefits for ratepayers.

But solar supporters have questioned some assumptions in the Acadian study and talked of benefits of solar.

PSC Chairman Clyde Holloway indicated a willingness to continue working on the issue while supporting the move yesterday to support the net metering calculations. One speaker told the PSC yesterday that the sun comes up and is free, while Holloway countered that the sun often is accompanied by clouds.

Louisiana-based Entergy Corp. is a large power provider that will be watched closely as the state considers its net metering structure.

Kacee Kirschvink, an Entergy Louisiana spokeswoman, said yesterday that the company will be involved along with “other utilities in the state and other parties that are interested in net metering.” With yesterday’s decision on methodology, she said Entergy will need to make calculations to see if the cap has been met and file any notices as needed.

Meanwhile, Entergy recently gave a different sign of interest in renewables.

The company told the PSC in a letter last month that it planned to issue a request for proposals for as much as 200 megawatts of renewable resources to find possibly cost-effective options that aid in fuel diversity and provide other benefits.

Entergy wrote that “renewable resources offer a source of zero emission generation and, as cost and performance continue to improve, warrant further analysis as potential economic options for customers.”

As for net metering, DeMoss said she would like to see a policy that offers some consistency for solar users who are trying to pick the right systems.

“I’m just hoping that everyone’s tired of not progressing and … willing to consider new options,” she said.