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Council told of solar potential

By Staff, 07/21/20 9:37 AM

PRESCOTT – Solar power could become a reality in Prescott.

Jason Carter, general counsel for the Arkansas Municipal Power Association, spoke to the Prescott City Council at its July meeting Monday night, about solar power, how it can be done and what it could mean.

Basically, he told the panel, Prescott’s agreement with the Southwest Energy Power Cooperative (SWEPCO) means the city can’t set up solar farms and provide electricity to the residents. However, there’s nothing preventing individuals from putting solar panels on their homes and hooking into the city’s electric grid – so long as they follow the rules and do it safely. This, Carter said, is expensive for individuals, but people can form a consortium and build a solar farm to produce electricity for their use.

He pointed out there are 14 cities in Arkansas that own their own electric systems, adding this is a good thing and these cities need to stick together and learn from each other.

Those looking to install solar on their homes, or form groups, have rules they must follow as well, some limiting the amount of electricity they can generate. Carter said current regulations state utilities shall allow net metering facilities to be connected to city systems, but they have to follow the city’s rules and the city will decide how it works. Cities can pass ordinances governing how solar power can be hooked into their systems, but the rules should meet the best interest of the community. He pointed out climate change is a major issue for some, while others couldn’t care less and the rules should be fair to both groups. Others, he added, are focused on their utility bills, while some aren’t, and they should also be addressed. And, he continued, the city’s rules should also be to protect the city itself.

Net metering, he said, ties this together. People can reduce their utility bills this way, and have had the right to use solar power by hooking into city systems since 2001, but it’s been cost prohibitive for most people. Now, though, it’s more affordable and makes sense for both the economy and the environment.

He said the city can follow existing rules about investor owned and cooperatives concerning solar power, but suggested Prescott come up with its own, tailoring them to the needs of the community. Capacity limits will be an issue, he told the council. Some areas have 25 kilowatt hour (kwh) limits for residential use and 300 kwh for non-residential use. Carter suggested Prescott look at 10 kwh for households and 100 kwh for non-residential use.

He pointed out the city can’t reduce the value of the energy below its valued cost, which basically means what the city pays for electricity. The city’s savings, Carter said, should be passed on to its customers.

In talking about Prescott’s contract with SWEPCO, Carter said, the decreased demand from the city’s system by those using solar power will be SWEPCO’s problem so long as the city isn’t setting up solar systems and generating electricity for the public.

The main rule to be followed, he said, is safety. Solar systems are attached to the city’s system and must be safe for city employees. There are protocols in place to protect  them, and the ability to disconnect is important. The city, he continued, needs to be able to manually lock out solar customers when crews are working on the system. There also needs to be a rule prohibiting unlawful interconnection to the city’s system, with an automatic disconnect mandated. All involved must follow the national electrical safety codes, along with those of the state and Underwriter’s  Lab (UL), among others, with solar systems to be tested annually by the owner to make sure they’re working safely and every three years by the city.

Net metering, he said, can’t interfere with the city’s system and specific tests must be done before solar systems can be connected to the city’s grid, including limiting DC injection. The maximum amount of net metered solar energy is to prevent a backflow into the city’s system, but this can be handled by limiting the size of the generation and where the solar systems are installed.

Carter said the city needs a middle ground when it comes to costs and liability, adding the Arkansas Public Service  Commission (PSC) has rules governing how this can be applied based on the size of the solar facility.

Because of the cost of going solar, he told the council, few individuals may be able to put solar panels on their homes. What they can do, though, is to form a group, pool their money and set up a solar farm on a plot of land, thereby reducing the cost of construction and their utility bills. The bills must be based on the lowest monthly use per year, as this can be used to determine the size of a solar farm.

The value of the electricity from solar power must be based on existing rates and the city needs to consider this. If the solar power is overvalued customers not on the solar system will wind up subsidizing those who are on it, while, conversely, if it’s undervalued, solar customers subside city customers.

For net metering, Carter said, customers can earn credit, which can be forwarded to future bills up to three months and can’t be transferred to others or purchased by the city. Larger systems have no such carryover capability. He suggested Prescott adopt a measure with no carryover, but allowing credit to be transferred among the partners of a solar farm. “This isn’t money driven for Prescott,” he said, “but a way for people to save money without hurting the city.”

Meter aggregation, he told the panel, with consumers at one point and generation elsewhere, can be handy to the community as it helps reduce both cost and  risk and most can be done with simple net metering. He added the city many need a wheeling fee for those using solar farms,  something used by large utility companies, or franchise fees. He suggested the city use both where larger systems are involved.

Solar partnerships, he said, must have at least three participants. “I think it will create interest in Prescott. I can see a lot of systems going in. They’ll be healthy for property tax revenue and will get money moving in the economy. The greener you are the better it is for regulatory changes in the future. SWEPCO may not be pleased, but the city will be buying electricity from them.”