Indiana solar installers knew their customers would be worse off when new, reduced rates for surplus solar generation took effect on July 1.
But changes being ushered in by utilities go far beyond what the industry had been bracing for, say solar and consumer advocates who are now challenging regulators’ interpretation of a 2017 law that gutted net metering.
All five of Indiana’s investor-owned utilities have won approval to not only slash the rate paid for customers’ surplus solar power, but also change how solar output is calculated in a way that drastically reduces the payments.
Utilities say they are protecting other customers from subsidizing those with solar panels, but advocates say the outcome threatens to put rooftop solar out of reach for all but the wealthiest customers.
“Unfortunately, utilities used the opportunity to completely change the policy, and [state regulators] went along with what utilities wanted,” said Ben Inskeep, program director at Citizens Action Coalition, a consumer and environmental advocacy group based in Indianapolis.
Indiana solar customers until now have been paid for extra solar generation at the end of each billing cycle. The amount of electricity sent back to the grid that month is subtracted from the amount of power the customer used from the grid, and any extra is paid out at a rate lower than the retail rate but robust enough to make solar panels financially viable for many customers.
The arrangement allows a homeowner, for example, to use extra daytime solar generation to offset evening grid power use, but they can’t bank solar credits in the summer to reduce their electric bill during the darker winter months.
A bill (SA309) signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb in 2017 put the state on a path to phasing out net metering by 2047. Meanwhile, it let utilities begin paying solar customers a lower rate when solar penetration reached 1.5% of their summer peak load, or by July 2022.
CenterPoint, previously known as Vectren, was the first utility to reach that benchmark and early last year filed a request to institute the new, lower rate — known as the “excess distribution generation” or EDG rate. CenterPoint also proposed switching from monthly net metering to a new model known as “instantaneous netting,” in which customers pay the full retail rate for all power used from the grid, and all solar power sent back to the grid is paid at the much lower EDG rate. The arrangement turns out so badly for customers that advocates like Inskeep refer to it as “no netting.”
The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission approved CenterPoint’s full request in April 2021 despite arguments from consumer and solar advocates that the plan oversteps what’s called for in the 2017 law.
“SA309 does not authorize instantaneous netting. It made no mention of changing the netting interval,” Inskeep said.
In March 2021, NIPSCO had submitted testimony seeking an EDG tariff with monthly netting. But NIPSCO withdrew that proposal and sought instantaneous net metering after the commission’s decision on CenterPoint. Utilities AES, Indiana Michigan (I&M) Power, and Duke Energy also sought the same instantaneous netting arrangement. The commission approved all of the proposals — most recently Duke’s on July 6.
The Office of Utility Consumer Counsel, a governmental office set up to advocate for consumers, joined solar advocates in arguing against instantaneous netting, saying it would be inconsistent with SA309.
But the commission has argued, including in its Jan. 26 approval of I&M’s proposal, that the intent of SA309 was to end net metering, and instantaneous netting would basically be a way to do that. The commission acknowledged that customers would save less money through instantaneous netting, but invoked an argument long used by utilities against solar energy: that the savings of customers with solar would be costs shifted onto customers who don’t have solar.
Duke Energy echoed this sentiment in response to Energy News Network questions about the change to instantaneous netting.
“The intent of the legislation is to help ensure that customers who do not own solar generation are not subsidizing those who do,” said Duke spokesperson Angeline Protegere, noting that 2,600 customers in Duke’s Indiana service territory have solar.
“Even though they generate some of their own power, solar customers still rely on electric infrastructure such as power lines, and the new rate reflects the costs of that. It’s important to realize that customers ultimately pay for the credits we give to solar customers.”
Advocates including the Indiana Distributed Generation Alliance and Citizens Action Coalition appealed the commission’s decision on CenterPoint’s proposal and won a favorable ruling in the Indiana Court of Appeals.
But now the matter is before the state Supreme Court, and the appeals court decision is negated until the higher court hears the case, with oral arguments scheduled to start Sept. 15.
“This is a matter of law,” said Laura Arnold, executive director of the Indiana Distributed Generation Alliance. “The commission and CenterPoint have been trying to portray that the General Assembly intended to allow instantaneous netting, but that is just not true.”
Under SA309, the EDG rate paid for energy from solar is equivalent to 125% of the average hourly market rate during that month. Using this calculation, CenterPoint originally proposed to pay their customers 3.1 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar, and NIPSCO proposed 2.6 cents.
Utilities have increased the prices they plan to pay customers for solar as market power prices have risen due to the war in Ukraine, to the 4 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour range; meanwhile retail prices customers pay for power from the grid have also risen. Duke’s retail rate is 16 cents per kilowatt hour for an average residential customer, Protegere said. (CenterPoint and NIPSCO did not respond to requests for comment.)
Brad Morton, founder and CEO of Morton Solar, told the commission that the switch to instantaneous netting and EDG rates “grossly lengthens the customer investment pay-back period,” with instantaneous netting at the 3.1 cents per kilowatt-hour originally proposed by CenterPoint changing the typical residential solar payback period from the current 7- to-10 years to 21 years.
The 3.1-cent payment rate alone, without instantaneous netting, would result in a typical payback period of 14 years, he testified. When the phaseout of the federal Investment Tax Credit is added to instantaneous netting and the EDG, it would take 25 years for a typical solar system to break even, Morton said.
Crushing a bloom
Morton was the first to install solar in Vectren (now CenterPoint Energy) territory, he told the commission, and among the first to do grid-tied solar in Indiana. His family members had worked in Indiana’s coal mines, and he wants to help transform former coal mine land into solar fields, replacing declining coal mining jobs and revenue with a solar economy in the process.
Last year Morton did $2.5 million worth of solar installations in Vectren’s service area, and $3.1 million in Indiana as a whole. If the instantaneous net metering goes forth, he said he might have to stop doing business in Indiana altogether, and lay off some of his 17 staff members.
“This will be devastating to Indiana’s fledgling solar industry and result in job losses and probable market contraction to an industry that was just beginning to blossom,” he testified.
Customers who have recently installed solar are exempted for a decade, governed by the old terms through 2032. But that just barely covers a typical pay-back period, so right when customers would have hoped to start reaping the savings of solar, the opportunity will stagnate. Customers — like Arnold herself — who installed solar before SA309, can net meter under previous terms until 2047.
Arnold said that if utilities get their way and institute EDG plus instantaneous metering, solar would only make sense for most customers if they have a battery system to use all their energy themselves rather than sending it back to the grid for pennies. But batteries cost thousands of dollars and make the already slim margins on solar unworkable for many customers.
She noted that if “no netting” takes effect, customers would rarely install solar systems that generate more power than they need at any given time, wasting the chance to get more clean power on the grid by installing larger systems.
Arnold added that on top of the gloom facing the solar industry for years to come, there is debilitating uncertainty for customers who’ve signed solar contracts and hoped to install them by the end of the year. Duke Energy and NIPSCO have told customers they could qualify for previous net metering terms if their solar is contracted now and installed by the end of 2022. Protegere confirmed that is Duke’s plan.
But Arnold said solar developers and lenders are worried that the commission might block this arrangement, perhaps if another utility complains.
Arnold said that months ago, advocates had asked the commission to issue an opinion clarifying the deadline, to provide certainty for developers and customers, but the commission has not done so.
Inskeep noted that the changing price of power — and hence the 125% EDG rate people are paid for solar sent back to the grid — means uncertainty for anyone who is considering solar.
“It’s hard to say what your compensation will be in the future — it will change every single year,” said Inskeep, who was principal energy policy analyst at EQ Research, a clean energy consulting firm, at the time the commission decisions were playing out.
“You’re making a 25-year investment, but the value is updated on an annual basis. You have no ability to see if your investment will pay off. Utilities never make large investments for 30-year assets without having certainty for that cost recovery. Now they’re asking residential customers to take that risk — with no ability to understand when their investment will pay off or if it will never pay off.”