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Utilities discuss how to make sense of solar for them and customers

The Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) held a webinar discussing how its 2012 Utility of the Year Award Winners have integrated solar projects and programs into their electric pipeline in way that works both for their customers and their bottom lines. The utilities, Trico Electric Cooperative, Tucson Electric Power (TEP) and Austin Energy, have each developed beneficial methods for integrating more solar into their service territories. The utilities represented a variety of utility types from cooperatives to publicly-traded companies.

The cooperative winner, Trico, services Pima, Pinal, and Santa Cruz counties in Arizona. The organization’s strategy is to increase the energy produced by renewable resources, according to Trico’s Renewable Resources Director Laree St. Onge. One of the ways the organization is accomplishing growth in renewables is by reducing reliance on nonrenewable resources at levels that meet or exceed regulatory requirements by using resources and programs that are economically neutral or positive and otherwise provide benefits to Trico members, she said.

The organization offers a number of opportunities under its SunWatts program. The program offers a variety of opportunities, including a green energy purchase program, under which members can purchase a 50 kilowatt-block hour of green energy for $2 or $2.50 a block. It also offers incentives for residents, businesses and schools to go solar, St. Onge said.

But the utility also built a solar farm for members in 2012. The members can choose to purchase even a piece of a panel in the farm to offset their energy use. People are able to buy a quarter of a panel for $230 and a full panel for $920, she said. Proceeds are used to expand the program in the future.”

Austin Energy, a public utility, is increasing its solar presence rapidly. The utility has 7 megawatts of distributed generation and a 30 megawatt plant under a power-purchase agreement, according to Austin Energy’s Leslie Libby, project manager. “Our rebate is $2 a watt for residential rebate and our current average installed cost for solar is $3.75 a watt,” she said. The utility also has worked to design a more fair production incentive for solar installation owners that went beyond traditional net metering. “We were looking for something fair to the utility.”

Under traditional net-metering, for instance, the utility was not collecting the cost of service. It developed a credit that reflected the value of the energy brings to the utility while also incenting system owners. “The credit is based on actual production,” Libby said. It also accounted for excess generation, which she contended was commonly undervalued.

Ultimately, after all charges and fees are considered for the solar array, it bills customers for consumption. “Austin then credits the customer for the solar production at the value calculated using our value of solar algorithm. Currently it is set at 12.8 cents per kilowatt hour and that value changes year to year,” Libby said. It changes as the value of fuel changes on an annual basis.

TEP, as an investor-owned utility, has evaluated a number of solar technologies in an attempt to figure out which solar is most beneficial to its region. It’s partnered extensively with the University of Arizona to test different solar technologies, explained TEP’s Director of Renewable Resources and Programs Carmine Tilghman. Beyond the company’s work with installing solar its also surveyed its customers to learn more about what they need to know about how and what the utility is doing. 


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