St. Croix solar cap nearly met; St. Thomas cap over half full


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ST. THOMAS - The 5 megawatt cap for solar and wind net-metering systems installed on St. Croix has virtually been met, but government entities are trying to find creative solutions to eke out a little more room for pending applications.

The cap for St. Thomas, St. John and Water Island is twice that of St. Croix - 10 megawatts - and has about 5.8 megawatts left available for commercial and residential applications.

Net-metering is a way of feeding excess renewable energy generated by a home or business into the V.I. Water and Power Authority grid for credit. That credit can then be used when the home or business needs to draw power from the utility.

It allows people to invest in renewable energy and save on power bills without having to go completely off the grid and get an expensive battery system to store energy.

The credit can roll over from month to month, but WAPA does not pay customers for the energy they feed into the grid.

The net-metering program was established in 2009 by Act 7075, which dictates that WAPA credit the consumer at a direct ratio, so WAPA customers get credit for each excess kilowatt-hour they contribute to the grid at the same rate that WAPA sells kilowatt-hours.

The program has been popular and created jobs and new businesses specializing in solar system installations.

Net-metering waiting list

Initially, the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources had a system for giving building permits to people putting in solar arrays that was separate from the net-metering application process at WAPA.

In 2011, the application process was streamlined and the two agencies consolidated their applications into one, according to DPNR's director of Building Permits, Bevan Smith Jr.

Smith said as of Thursday afternoon, DPNR has approved 4,378 kilowatts worth of net-metering permits on St. Croix, just under the 5,000-kilowatt cap for the island.

"It was on a first come, first serve basis," Smith said.

However, 1,176 applications currently are pending, Smith said.

If all the pending applications are approved, the island would be over the cap by 554 kilowatts.

The pending applications fall into three categories: applications under review by a DPNR electrical inspector; applications received but sent back for corrections; and applications approved but the applicants never came back to schedule a final inspection.

DPNR and WAPA are trying to work together to include everyone who has applied for the net-metering program on St. Croix.

Freeing up kilowatts

One way to free up some room under the cap is to clarify what figure is used to calculate the kilowatts produced.

The way it has been calculated is based on "consumer generation," which is the amount of DC current produced by the solar panels.

However, that power goes through an inverter and is transformed into AC current, which is required to feed energy into WAPA's grid, Smith said.

Energy is lost in that process, and the amount fed into the grid is typically less than what the system produces.

For example, if a solar array generates 100 kilowatts of power, it might only feed 85 kilowatts of AC power into the grid, Smith said.

If WAPA agrees to use the AC output as the calculation, it could shave off several hundred kilowatt-hours of capacity, Smith said.

"In some instances WAPA has accepted that," Smith said. "They are only interested in AC current that comes on their grid."

If WAPA agrees to the DPNR proposal, it would drop the amount approved to below the cap.

"Our real number would be 4.7 and then we'd have a couple hundred more kilowatt-hours to go," Smith said.

Applications still accepted

DPNR also is seeking out early net-metering applicants to see whether they are still using the system. Smith said there are some wind turbines that were approved early on that are no longer active. If those customers give up their claim to their kilowatt hours, it could free up even more space for pending applicants.

"We're trying to be able to include everyone we have in the office right now," Smith said.

Even though the cap has been met, DPNR is still taking applications, he said.

However, no application fee is being charged, as approval is not guaranteed. Smith said they are taking applications to allow people to get in line, just in case something changes and additional net-metering is allowed in the district.

Reaching the cap

So, what caused St. Croix to reach its cap so quickly?

A number of things, but large commercial operations took up almost half the capacity, according to Smith.

While only about 5 percent of the applications were for commercial systems, 47 percent of the island's total capacity went to commercial customers, he said.

WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge Jr. said the way the law was written, it allowed for government buildings to install systems up to 500 kilowatts. While it may have been intended for local government, the federal government jumped on the opportunity and ate up a lot of the capacity, he said.

The federal courthouse on St. Croix put in a 480-kilowatt system, Smith said.

Residential exemption

"This net-metering program was designed for these small 5-kilowatt systems," Hodge said.

The Senate is considering a measure to protect the residents who want to install a small system by carving out 1 megawatt from the cap and restricting it for residential use only.

Smith said while that would help protect St. Thomas District customers, it does nothing for St. Croix because the cap already has been met.

Hodge said simply increasing the cap for net-metering on St. Croix is not possible because of technical requirements that must be met at the power plant. With net-metering customers, WAPA must have power generating and available on a moment's notice. A passing cloud can cause solar production to slow and require customers to draw power from the grid to maintain a steady flow of electricity to the home or business.

"You have to ramp up and down your generators to meet energy on a second-by-second basis," Hodge said. "The more you have intermittent on your grid, the more you have to regulate."

Future alternative energy

Net-metering is just one type of renewable energy that is coming onto WAPA's grid.

In the next year, about 18 megawatts of solar power will be produced and sold to WAPA by private companies, and legislation has been adopted allowing the University of the Virgin Islands, Home Depot on St. Croix, the territory's two hospitals and the V.I. Port Authority to install major solar systems.

"We have to account for everything that can go to the grid," Hodge said. "It's technically not possible to have anything more. I think we're already in trouble with the limits that have been approved."

Smith said the Home Depot solar project, which is 360 kilowatts, currently is included in the 5 megwatt cap on St. Croix, but he is hoping to separate that project so it will not count against the island's net-metering cap.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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