This morning, in a round room that affords glorious panoramic views of the city and the St. Johns River, a packed house amassed on the nineteenth floor of JEA headquarters for the utility’s board meeting. Nearly the entire audience was there to voice concerns about potential changes to JEA’s net metering policy.
The utility has traditionally given equal credits for energy that is put back into its grid by customers with solar panels who are on the net metering system. Solar units produce the most energy throughout the day, when residential users' demand is typically lower; in the evening and at night, when demand peaks, solar units produce little to no energy. When their supply of renewable energy exceeds demand during peak daylight hours, the excess is sent to JEA’s grid and they receive an equal credit for any energy they withdraw.
Today JEA’s board began officially considering cutting these credits by nearly a third.
For local renewable energy advocates, the proposed changes came as a huge surprise. David Shacter, owner of energy-efficient homebuilding company TerraWise, wryly noted during public comment, “We did not know about this meeting until yesterday.”
Still, somehow, advocates succeeded in creating a substantial presence. A guard in the lobby told Folio Weekly Magazine that this morning approximately 75 people arrived at once; a steady procession took the microphone for well over a half an hour during public comment.
This morning advocates spoke passionately and eloquently about their concerns that JEA is rushing to make sweeping changes to its net metering system, changes that will substantially increase costs for those who have already invested in renewable energy sources, and may stifle local investment in renewable energy. Solar units are an expensive investment – it can take decades for solar units to pay themselves off in energy savings – so, giving equal credits for the energy they produce over and above the individual’s needs helps consumers justify the investment.
At the meeting, Kim Jowers, chair of the Northeast Florida division of the U.S. Green Building Council, said she understands the utility’s position, but, “We also believe it would be prudent to take a little more time.” She urged JEA to talk to stakeholders, look at the approaches of other utilities around the country and take the time to appoint a task force to analyze potential changes from every angle.
Mike Antheil, Executive Director of Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, said, “This amounts to an attack on residential solar.” Antheil said that it might make sense for an investor-owned utility to take such profit-creating measures, but not for a public-owned utility. “There are more than just the eyes of the people in this room [on JEA],” he warned, before telling the crowd that he was launching a Twitter hashtag, #JEASolarFriendorFoe.
JEA justifies the change by pointing to the fact that net metered customers are not charged a fee to use the electric grid. But just how they arrived at the 30 percent reduction in credits has many in the renewable energy advocacy world scratching their heads. Several speakers pointed out that studies have disproven claims that typical utility customers subsidize net metering. Others asked why the utility thinks these changes are necessary in light of the fact that less than half of 1 percent of its customers participates in net metering. Still others suggested that the utility look towards the future, which is indeed very grim if humanity continues its reliance on carbon-based energy sources, when it decides whether to continue to give equal credit to net metered customers.
One of the first slides JEA’s CFO, Melissa Dykes, used in her presentation this morning, presumably meant to make the utility’s case for changing its net metering system, was a color-coded map of the United States. The map showed that the greatest potential for solar resources is in the Southwest, not Florida as some might presume. It was probably intended as a joke, but no one laughed when Dykes quipped, “The sunshine state isn’t all that sunny.”
Dykes went on to say that the utility had engaged numerous stakeholders, nearly forty, in the past thirty days before deciding to consider drastic changes to its net metering system. But the many local renewable energy advocates in the audience seemed completely blindsided. They believe that JEA is joining the chorus of utilities across the country that are striking back at solar by charging exorbitant fees to those who use renewable energy.
JEA insists it is trying to find a way to charge a reasonable fee to users who pay little, or nothing, to be hooked up to the electric grid. It costs many millions every year to upkeep the grid, so it does seem fair that all customers, including those that are net metered, should bear their fair share of this cost.
But what was missing from JEA’s position, at least at first glance, was any accounting of how they calculated the proposed reduction in the net meter rate.
The utility’s website vaguely says of the proposed changes to its net metering system, “To support the [renewable energy] technology, JEA chose to pay more than twice our normal costs for solar customers’ excess generation. Those higher costs — though small in the beginning — must be passed on to our non-solar customers, ultimately increasing our non-solar customers' bills. With solar power now more affordable, changes are needed in the policy so that infrastructure maintenance costs and power costs are appropriately shared.”
(Twice the cost to the utility should not be confused with twice the rate the consumer pays, however. Net metered customers receive a one – to – one rate for the energy they supply to JEA.)
At least one of the utility’s thousands of employees must have calculated precisely how much it costs to keep customers hooked up to the grid. Why not simply charge net metered customers a fee based on that?
These and many other questions are certain to be asked at the next public meeting about net metering.