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Solar Energy Battery Backup Under Attack in California?

California is no stranger to rolling blackouts. When Charles and Elke Hewitt installed a solar electric system with batteries for emergency backup power on their home this April, they were shocked when Southern California Edison rejected their application for grid connection under their net metering program. And the Hewitt family was not alone. Soon all homeowners with solar electric systems with battery backup in California could be affected by Edison’s stance on backup power.

Edison informed the couple their application for grid connection was denied because the batteries they used to store energy for emergency backup power when the grid went down were considered “power generators” and not energy storage devices, said Charles Hewitt. Edison said Hewitt did not qualify for their net metering program because the utility could not distinguish between power produced by the solar panels and power produced by the batteries, which it considers a nonrenewable source of power, he said. Edison explained their policy had not changed. It was the equipment that had changed. Members of the solar industry refute Edison's position.

“We were excited to use our system and stop paying electric bills,” he said. “Summers are peak production for solar and now we are told we can’t use our system. I have thousands of dollars of PV system sitting on my roof that now I can’t use.”

The 3.7 kilowatt solar electric system installed on the Hewitt home in Santa Barbara uses an Outback grid-tied 48-volt battery system for backup power. Hewitt said his battery bank only stores power; it doesn’t produce it. The problem is, the system uses an inverter/charge controller design that does not allow batteries to be separated from the system, he said. In other words, if he disconnects the battery bank from the system, the system won’t work.

When asked if the utility could be worried homeowners will charge batteries during off-peak hours and then sell excess power back to the grid during peak hours (buy low/sell high), Hewitt rejected this idea. “This is a pretty small battery bank,” he said. “Our batteries are metal nickel hydride batteries. There aren’t a whole lot of kilowatts you can pull out of those batteries before they are ruined and they are very expensive. If Edison thinks homeowners will be using these batteries to cheat a few dollars off our electric bill is nonsense. The main reason people get backup systems is for emergency backup power only when the grid goes down.”

The Outback inverter Hewitt uses has been on the California Energy Commission approved equipment list for eight years and hundreds of these systems have been approved, he said. Now Edison is saying all battery backup systems need more review. Homeowners with battery backup solar electric systems are being asked to pay $800 as part of that review, he said. “Edison is sending small systems through the same review process as large megawatt systems,” he said. “Apparently other utilities are jumping on the bandwagon and they plan to go back and remove credits from all homeowners with backup systems.”

Hewitt filed a complaint with the California Public Utility Commission, but the complaint was rejected. He filed an appeal in mid-July.

Other homeowners affected by Edison’s stance on backup power are Matthew and Elizabeth Sperling of Santa Barbara. The couple’s 1.8-kW solar electric system with battery backup uses eight Sunpower solar panels (230 Watts each) with eight Concord batteries for backup power when the grid goes down. “The Chief Electrical inspector for the city of Santa Barbara inspected our system and said it was best he had ever seen,” said Matt Sperling. The inverters and panels were all approved by the California Energy Commission as part of the California Solar Initiative, he said.

“There is no science to support SCE’s claim,” said Sperling. “For me this is personal. I invested $21,000 in this system that is not usable. The company that installed the system can’t solve it. I’m stuck as a customer. I will get about $9,000 back from the government for a system that is not usable. I might as well have donated the system to someone because I’m not getting the benefit of a usable system. SCE is claiming the solar manufacturers are to blame because they changed the equipment.”

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Solar Businesses Fired Up

Edison’s position on battery backup systems has some solar installers and manufacturers in California worried. One of those companies is family-owned solar installer Sun Pacific Solar in Santa Barbara.

“We are a small solar company that has been designing and installing this exact same system Matt has for the last eight years,” said co-owner Cecilia Villaseñor Johnson. “We never had a problem with local jurisdiction or utility approval until three months ago. After we did Matt’s installation and another customer with a similar system, the SCE decided it was not going to allow them to be interconnected under the net-metering program because the batteries could back feed into the grid. Now all three utilities in the area are saying they are not going to approve any grid-tied backup systems until further notice,” she said.

For Villaseñor Johnson, the real issue is fear of the future. “They are feeling threatened by people being independent to them. The field engineer told us that SCE was going to go back through old customers with battery backup systems and negate their renewable energy credits. They want to stop the NEM program because it’s not working for them. “Instead, utilities should embrace solar power," she said. A recent consulting firm study shows that programs for people with PV systems that include battery backup are actually beneficial because they help stabilize the grid, she said. They are working against their benefit by making it more difficult for people to use them. Also, the utilities haven’t had to build another power plant in California because of all the people going solar, she said.

Manufacturers of solar-related equipment, such as inverters and batteries are also concerned. One such company is Outback Power Technologies, which specializes in solar electric systems with battery backup.

“California mandated that energy storage be part of the grid. That is the growth area of renewable energy and beyond,” said Philip Undercuffler, Director of Product Management and Strategy for Outback.  “I think everyone — utilities included — is struggling to understand how to make that happen, find out what’s required, and what technology is available. That future is being hammered out right now.”

Grid-tied solar electric systems with battery backup have existed since the very beginning of solar, he said. The systems are simple with batteries to provide backup power to homes if a drunk driver knocks out a utility pole or the grid goes down due to earthquakes or wildfires. “We are seeing a huge demand for customers who just want to incorporate part of a PV system with a little bit of extra reliability and ability to provide backup for those critical needs.”

That huge demand is becoming a challenge for utilities, he said. “Utilities are seeing this coming — they may want to eliminate options for net metering, I don’t know. Whether this is intentional or they just don’t understand, I don’t know, but they are putting up roadblocks for customers.  It’s not that this is new technology. It’s not that the systems have changed, because they have been used for years. All of a sudden, the utility is saying it has changed, and it hasn’t. It doesn’t make sense. It’s [Edison's position] also not supported by Rule 21 or the RPS guidebook.”

Undercuffler is also concerned about Edison applying a multi-tariff program to the simple battery backup systems his company offers. Multi-tariff programs are for large systems that use multiple sources of power. “They are forcing a multi-tariff program when there is no second source of power. The only thing that crosses the meter is green energy.“

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Edison’s Position

In a letter to Charles Hewitt dated June 28, 2013 (copy can be found in the image gallery to the right), Southern California Edison stated the following reasons for rejecting the Hewitt application for grid connection of their solar electric system:

“Your application was returned to your solar company on April 15, 2013 because the proposed installation is not eligible for SCE’s Schedule NEM under the Multiple Tariff Generating Facility provisions. The Multiple Technology Tariff provision allows NEM and Non-NEM generators to be installed behind a single billing meter if either a Net Generation Output Meter (NGOM) is installed on the NEM generator or a non-export relay is installed on the non-NEM generator to ensure that NEM credits are appropriately applied under SCE’s Schedule NEM. SCE treats battery storage systems as non-NEM generators.

Your solar installation is configured to have the Photovoltaic (PV) and storage system combined behind a single inverter (Outback GVFX3648) and does not allow electricity exported from the inverter to be metered in such a way as to separate renewable energy from non-renewable energy as required under the Multiple Tariff Provisions described above. Under the current configuration, the battery could potentially store excess energy taken from SCE’s grid and then export that energy back to the grid mixed with the renewable energy from the solar system, which would cause the non-renewable energy to inappropriately receive NEM credits.

SCE is willing to approve the current configuration, if 1) the battery storage is programmed to not discharge to the grid or 2) the storage only stores energy produced from the renewable resource. If these technological options are not feasible, or if you choose not to comply with these tariff requirements, SCE will allow your generator to operate under Schedule NEM but your generator will not be eligible for the NEM excess credit offset, should there be excess energy generated.”

After receiving this letter from the utility, the Hewitt filed a complaint with the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC).

The CPUC responds

In a letter to Charles Hewitt dated July 03, 2013 (copy can be found in the image gallery to the right), the CPUC stated:

“Per Southern California Edison, the issue is with a battery pack that renews itself via Edison’s grid, which would allow that energy to export back to the grid, which would cause you to receive an inappropriate NEM credit.

Southern California Edison also clarifies they never changed their tariff/requirements, and that while your system may be approved by the California Solar Initiative (CSI), their requirements are separate from Edison’s. It is Southern California Edison’s position that you either make the necessary modifications to the system, or they would allow the system, but not issue credit for any excess energy generated.”

The response upset the Hewitts because they believe an issue such as this should have come up for public review before being accepted by the CPUC. The couple filed an appeal with the CPUC in mid-July. The company that sold the Hewitt’s their system, Sun Pacific, was also shocked this issue was accepted by the CPUC without public review. “We sell to elderly people who can’t be without power,” said Villaseñor Johnson. “For Edison to decide one day that they will no longer approve this is wrong because they should be contacting the CPUC first and saying they need to modify the law. They can’t just decide that they are going to change the rules. If that’s the case, then why does the public utility commission exist?”

Citizens Take Action

Filing a complaint with the CPUC is the first step in the process, but the homeowners aren’t stopping there. The CPUC is now becoming a target of the frustration. Matthew Sperling and Charles Hewitt recently co-founded the group BACKUP (Better Action by Citizens for Kilowatts of Uninterruptible Power). The group is calling for the immediate resignation of CPUC President Michael R. Peevey stating that his appointment to the position is a conflict of interest since he is a former President of Southern California Edison.

“This is yet another example of a powerful corporation thinking they are above the law and can do whatever it wants,” said Sperling. “They are stopping people from connecting to the grid in the middle of the night when they have already done this for 10 years. The CPUC has done nothing. We pay money for their support as customers and they don’t protect us.”

Read more solar energy news here.

Lead image: Battle via Shutterstock

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