CHICAGO -- 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.”