Missouri net metering bills could aid battered solar industry

A pair of bills introduced in the Missouri General Assembly could give a lift to a solar industry battered by the termination of utility rebates in late 2013.

One bill, introduced in the Senate, would allow solar installations up to 1 MW to qualify for net metering (the current cap is 100 kW). That change would open the net metering door to a wide range of commercial entities, according to one Kansas installer who also works in Missouri.

Another bill, introduced in the House of Representatives, would eliminate the cap altogether and would institute a yearly, rather than monthly, “true-up”– allowing solar customers to bank credit for excess generation for a full year rather than a month.

It would be in March, a time of year that is fairly advantageous for solar generators. It also would require that excess power be carried over from month to month and compensated by rolling back the meter on a one-to-one basis until March, when any excess would be written off. Presently, excess generation results in a credit against the next month’s bill at the much-reduced avoided-fuel cost, about 2 cents per kilowatt hour.

“I’ve been working on solar legislation for the last four years, trying to find something that helps to grow the industry,” said Republican Rep. T.J. Berry, who introduced the House bill after consulting with the solar industry. “I’m trying to find some place that is workable for a new industry and workable for how the current power producers work.”

As the new chairman of the House Select Standing Committee on Utilities, Berry said he feels “better positioned than last year” to make changes in the state’s net metering policy.

“Last year, I had no ability, no leverage. This year, with my position it should get a much fairer discussion.”

Missouri’s solar installers took a big hit when the state’s two major investor-owned utilities, Ameren and Kansas City Power & Light, told the state just over a year ago that they had reached the state-mandated 1 percent cap on expenditures on solar rebates. The state’s Public Service Commission allowed them basically to suspend their rebates. The issue has been in litigation since then.

While the proposed legislative changes would not compensate for the loss of utility rebates, they “would definitely be a step in the right direction,” said Aron Cromwell, who with his wife, Sarah, owns Cromwell Environmental, based in Lawrence, Kansas. The proposed changes to net metering “would be communicating across the state that this is an industry that the legislature cares about creating jobs in, and that it is trying to create some new ones after so many were lost with the loss of rebates.”

A yearly, rather than monthly, true-up “would be a good improvement in net metering in Missouri for sure,” Cromwell said. “While it doesn’t help everyone tremendously, it helps a few people tremendously, and everybody a little bit. We can size a system a little bit larger, but not a tremendous amount – except for certain customers that use a lot of power in the winter.”

Among them, he said, might be people with electric heat pumps that both heat and cool space. And farms with stock tanks.

A once-yearly March true-up means “You can produce more power in the fall and be using it for the next few months,” he said. “If you have winter demand, this allows you to take advantage of that.”

Increasing the cap on system size from 100 kW to 1 MW would open up net metering to many large electricity consumers that now are prohibited from net metering.

“That’s going to be very helpful for commercial customers,” Cromwell said. “Anybody with a large box – a grocery, a Walmart store. But you particularly might think of a manufacturing operation or a warehouse. All those places have very large roofs, and some have fairly large electric demand.”

Berry knows that the proposed enhancements to net metering will be a hard sell in the Missouri General Assembly, which hasn’t shown a lot of support for renewable energy. He expects plenty of resistance from the state’s large utilities, which pushed hard to stop paying rebates to customers installing solar panels.

But he forecasts that solar energy is becoming “market-rate competitive, and as it does that, I want people to be able to take advantage of their own ability to produce. If you set the groundwork it becomes a reality, I think that’s a good thing.”

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