Print This Page

DayCreek Journal

March 27, 2004

A Lesson in Utility

It's been three months now since I began the quest to install a solar electric system and since that time I have learned a lot. I have learned about the technical details of installing the system and I have also learned about utility companies that distribute power.

I've also been given a lot of advice by phone or email. Here's some of the advice I have received: "I'm really not suppose to say this, but off the record I would take your case to the Utility Commission.", "Your better off just going with what the utility is offering you. If you try to fight them on this, they'll make things difficult for you.", "Why are you installing this thing anyway?", "You are setting the Standard", "Don't you care about the environment? I'd never use electric to heat my house. ", "In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.— From the Great Law of the Iroquios Confederacy."

Seven generations is a long time from now. I have no idea what our energy grid will look like that far out. I think I'll just stick to our "current generation". Thanks for the advice though.

I am amazed by the variety of the opinions people have about their local utilities and electricity. There is a lot of "us vs. them" mentality. I'll admit that at times I feel this way too. But there are two sides to every story and I have been trying my best to understand "them".

Up until our meeting on Tuesday, I had thought that we were in agreement to use an average retail rate that reflected the usage of the Dual Fuel program. The CEO of our local utility had agreed to allow the issuance of a certificate of liability insurance and the only remaining issue was the amount per kW that the utility was going to pay for any surplus power that I may generate.

Unfortunately, the meeting did not go as I expected. I was told that I had two options: remove the Dual Fuel service or install a second service to the house and pay an additional monthly facility charge, along with the cost of trenching in a second line.

We had now made a full circle and excluding the insurance issue, my options hadn't changed from when we first started discussing this matter back in January. I was quite upset by this turn of events and I informed the utility that I would be filing a complaint with the Minnesota Utility Commission. (I was now in the "us vs. them" mentality.)

I made numerous phone calls on that morning. I contacted the utility commission like I said I would and I also contacted a lawyer who specializes in environmental cases. (Yes, I was very serious about going through with this.)

That afternoon, I received phone calls from the utility commission and our local utility's CEO. Based on conversations that they had, they felt that this could be settled without going through the formal process. It appeared that again, I could keep the Dual Fuel service and the utility would purchase my surplus at a negotiated retail rate that was reduced because of the Dual Fuel service.

That evening I did my homework. I read through all of the Minnesota statutes on cogeneration. (Great for insomniacs.) I tried to find a clear definition as to what "average retail rate" meant. There was no clear definition that I could find.

The next morning I spoke with our utility's CEO and he had computed an average rate based on my usage for the last two years. I told him that I would crunch the numbers and call him back. I sat down at the computer and put together a spreadsheet based on my own data. The numbers that I came up with were similar to their numbers.

There was something though that was nagging me. I know with great certainty that the boiler attached to the Dual Fuel system, NEVER comes on during the day. For sake of argument, if the boiler came on during the day, the amount of energy that would be in conflict was infinitesimally small. There's only 1.5 to 2 hours per day that the boiler consumes power. The boiler consumes 9kW/hr. and the solar electric system can only produce 3kW/hr. This means that during daylight hours, I can only use 20% of the dual fuel program, and only a third of that could be in potential conflict with the discounted rate meter. But this scenario is a moot point because the boiler never comes on during the day.

Why was I being penalized for this? The bottom line was that this would never be a fair deal at any discounted average utility rate.

I went back over my notes and found a paragraph that caught my attention. In a separate, but related document to the cogeneration statute, I found a sentence that described the average utility rate in greater detail. It said that computing the average utility rate must exclude special rates based on income, age or energy conservation. It seemed to me that the Dual Fuel program was a special rate based on energy conservation.

I called our cooperative's CEO and explained why I didn't think the average rate that he had computed was fair. I also read to him the paragraph about special rates. He suggested I contact the utility commission.

I called the utility commission and read to them the same paragraph. I asked them to call our utility's CEO and see if this might clarify things. About an hour later, I received a phone call stating that I would be compensated for the average utility rate.

At the beginning of this "lesson in utility" I only wanted to tie my solar electric system into the grid. That's all I wanted. I didn't care how much I got for the surplus power. But at some point, it became a matter of principal as to what was fair. The Minnesota statute on cogeneration states that the intent of the rule is to give maximum possible encouragement to cogeneration and small power production. Unfortunately, there's a lot of "wiggle room" in the Minnesota statutes and this leads to various versions of interpretation.

In closing, I do want to mention our local utility was very responsive. I never felt like I was being ignored. I always received return phone calls from the CEO and although we had our disagreements he was always professional and polite. I hope he takes me up on the offer to see the system once it is up and running.