A Hudson Valley utility company is being asked not to turn out the lights on a growing program that allows customers who own rooftop solar or wind renewable energy systems to get paid by selling back their excess power.
Last month, Central Hudson Gas & Electric announced it would accept no more such customers into its net metering program because the company had reached a state-imposed minimum on how much power the company must purchase.
That prompted Hudson Valley Clean Energy, a Capital Region solar energy installation company, and later a host of alternative energy customers and advocates, to ask the state Public Service Commission to raise that purchase requirement on Central Hudson and other utilities statewide.
Otherwise, potential customers for rooftop solar and wind electrical systems might be discouraged because any excess power generated would go to the utility for free, said Hudson Valley Clean Energy President Jeff Irish on Monday.
His company employs about 40 people in its Albany and Rhinebeck offices. Loss of net metering would "slow down the market and result in immediate job losses," Irish said.
Under net metering, residential and commercial owners of such systems are paid by the utility for electricity created by renewable systems beyond what the customer uses, which is also known as running a utility meter backward.
State rules imposed in 2009 require utilities to purchase net metered power equivalent to 1 percent of the company's 2005 peak energy load; for Central Hudson, that requirement represents 12 megawatts.
In a July 20 application to the PSC, Irish asked that be tripled to 36 megawatts. For comparison, a traditional power plant can be about 150 megawatts.
Central Hudson, which serves about 375,000 electric and gas customers from the southern Capital Region through the Hudson River valley as far south as Newburgh, reversed course Friday, agreeing to accept new net metering customers while the PSC reviews Irish's request, said company spokesman John Maserjian.
The company has nearly 160 customers with pending plans to install solar panels on their properties.
Central Hudson decided to let the PSC determine ultimately whether it must purchase more net metered power "because there is a cost to our other customers and our rate base," he said. That cost is about $810,000 annually, or about 0.1 percent -- a tenth of a cent on every dollar -- of the company's half-billion dollars in 2011 electricity sales.
The company could have continued accepting new net metering customers without any PSC action.
On Monday, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer also urged the PSC to raise the purchase requirement on utilities to be more in line with states like New Jersey (2.5 percent) and California (5 percent).
It was not immediately clear how close other utilities in the state may be to purchase minimums. That information was not available from the state PSC.
Support for Irish's request came Monday from the Albany-based Alliance for Clean Energy New York, which warned that failing to expand the program could drive some solar installers out of business.
Alliance Executive Director Carol Murphy said net metering requirements must rise to help meet the goal of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's NY-Sun Initiative. That program calls for the amount of installed solar power in the state to triple in two years.
Murphy said National Grid, the predominant utility in the Capital Region, has a net metering requirement of 65 megawatts, while New York State Electric & Gas, which also serves upstate, has a requirement of 28 megawatts. She did not know how close either utility is to that figure.
"Without net metering, our ability to sell solar systems is severely reduced," added Shawn Lessord, owner of a Rochester solar installation company, in a letter to the PSC. "A market disruption of this extent will be very difficult to overcome."
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