By The Desert Sun Editorial Board
Imperial Irrigation District has taken a lot of heat lately.
The community-owned utility that provides electricity to customers across a significant portion of the Coachella Valley – including Mecca, Thermal, La Quinta, Coachella, Indio, Bermuda Dunes, Thousand Palms, Indio Hills and Sky Valley – has drawn fire for its handling of rooftop solar.
In February, IID abruptly announced it had reached its cap and would not be enrolling new customers into its net energy metering program, which pays for excess electricity generated by home and business solar arrays that is sent to the grid. That action left in a lurch hundreds of customers who had already installed arrays or who were in the process of doing so.
During a recent meeting with The Desert Sun Editorial Board, General Manager Kevin Kelley acknowledged that IID’s handling of the situation was “ham-handed” at best.
IID, California's third-largest public power utility, can go a long way in making amends for what has been a public relations nightmare by following through on creation of a new, robust solar incentive program.
The plan – which will be the focus of public hearings next month -- should make whole those customers who were prevented from going forward with their attempt to help the environment and better manage their electricity costs. It also must offer a real incentive to motivate more to make this “green” power shift.
IID officials acknowledge that rooftop solar must be a key component of the utility’s future. Kelley and Energy Manager Vicken Kasarjian told the editorial board that they would like to see IID’s Board of Directors approve a new, “unlimited” net energy metering program, but with much lower compensation rates for those who enroll.
Under its previous NEM program (which has terms that continue for those already taking part), customers with solar receive about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour for the excess electricity they send to the grid. Kelly and Kasarjian say the new program IID staff will push for approval likely will set the compensation rate at closer to 4 cents per kWh.
IID should approve a NEM plan with an incentive that goes beyond merely paying a wholesale rate for the power it buys from rooftop solar customers, but offers them a reason to make the personalinvestment in their properties that the utility itself acknowledges is beneficial to the entire system.
Officials from California's solar industry, which employs thousands, say the 4 cent rate being considered doesn’t “pencil out” and leaves rooftop solar in IID as attractive mainly to the altruistic wealthy.
“That would significantly slow down, if not pretty much kill the rooftop solar market. You can't take the economic profile of solar and reduce it by a third, and expect the market to just rebound overnight," Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association, told The Desert Sun’s Sammy Roth.
Ideally, IID staff will work closely with industry officials to develop a new NEM program -- perhaps with additional layers such as system maintenance and access charges -- that offers a compensation rate to spur continued solar acceptance while it equitably supports the IID grid for all customers moving forward.
Finally, Kelley, Kasarjian and their staff must convince the agency’s board that solar is a boon for IID. While the board has given its OK for IID staff to develop a new NEM concept, some board members have been dismissive or even openly hostile toward solar.
“If we dropped all tax credits and everything else, it would go away. That's where I stand,” board member Stephen Benson said at the panel’s May 10 meeting. “I'm up for re-election in December. You can vote me in or vote me out.”