If you’ll overlook some plagiarism, we can call this: “Solar Adventures with San Miguel Power.” Perhaps you picked up on a recent Watch story that explained a new problem our local power coop was having with the way it calculated how much sun-generated power its grid-connected solar customers were putting in the main or “grid” system. Well, I’m one of those SMPA members who’s a relatively new solar array owner, and in our household, it’s been pretty confusing trying to keep up with the twists and turns of SMPA’s so-called net-metering system.
Last December, with the new nine-panel solar array all hooked up and standing proudly in our barnyard – facing the sun, of course – we hooked into the SMPA system. Or thought we did. But we soon discovered that we needed to purchase a new “net” meter, which would accurately show the difference between the solar power we were putting into the grid, and the actual amount of electric power we’d used during a single billing period. So, it was a couple of months after we’d hooked into SMPA’s distribution system before we had what was supposed to be a true reading of our new solar energy input. (SMPA had charged us some $240 for that new net metering setup, but SMPA policymakers have since decided to wave that cost for others – presumably, I suppose, to encourage other electric power consumers who are contemplating a solar installation.)
After the new net metering box was installed on our big power pole, we were a bit nervous about what our next bill would show. Would this $20,000-plus solar array result in a substantial drop in our electric power bill? I’d cashed in the last of a very small inheritance to pay for our very modest part in advancing renewable energy and thus, doing our small part to help “save the planet.” Then, Hallelujah! Our next several SMPA power bills – March and April – showed that we’d cut our monthly bill by $50 or so.
We happily spread the word. It looked like we’d make a noticeable savings each month on our electric bill, we crowed to friends and family, some of whom had wondered if, at our advanced age, solar power was indeed a wise investment. We delighted in displaying our SMPA bills this spring, with the little graph and its tall, black upright bars showing the comparison between the amount of grid power we’d used B.S.(before solar) to the tiny short bars, rather dramatically demonstrating what we’d saved.
But, that period of euphoria soon collapsed with the arrival of a lengthy letter from SMPA in mid-June. Signed by SMPA’s General Manager/CEO Kevin Ritter, the letter advised all 26 of SMPA’s solar power customers that the coop “discovered we had an error in how the electric meter was being read.... The error led to net metering accounts being billed for as little as 25 percent of their actual consumption from the grid, and being credited for as little as 75 percent of the energy their system produced...”
Well, swell! The coop apologized for the mistake, saying that SMPA’s board of directors had generously decided not to bill any of its consumer-owners for billing mistakes which favored the users. When our July bill arrived, the graph showing our actual June power use had shot way up to it’s pre-solar levels. But it also said that, in fact, our balance showed an $86.27 credit. We scratched our heads, made a few phone calls, and gaining zero insight, decided to wait and see what the next SMPA bill revealed. Then, lo, in an August 4 explanation that arrived with our bill this month, Frances Crowell, SMPA’s very helpful billings and net metering accounts expert, advised us that: “For the June-July meter reading period you used 261kWh from SMPA and you generated 287 kWh that you supplied to San Miguel Power. A credit of 261 kWh has been applied to your account by adjustment.”
The newest little graph still shows July’s “actual” power use as a tallish black bar. But as of August 21, the bill says we have a $113.84 credit. We still don’t know whether we’re gaining or losing. Clearly, we generated more solar power than our actual power use. That’s a really good sign. Long summer days, and an amazing tracking system which keeps the solar panels “tracking” the sun, surely contributed to this solar gain. But, despite some directions from SMPA’s net metering expert, Lester Oltjenbruns, neither Steve nor I have become accomplished in decoding the new meter, with its several numerical displays and semi-cryptic signs.
For now, we’ve decided to put our faith in glorious Apollo, the mythical Greek Sun God who drives his golden charriot across the sky each day. And SMPA billing expert Frances Crowell, who seems to understand the whole thing.