WAPA accused of charging customers to sell it power
Published: September 10, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - A class action lawsuit claims that the V.I. Water and Power Authority billed net metering customers for electricity they produced and fed back to the grid from their solar panels instead of crediting them.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in V.I. Superior Court, also claims that WAPA violated the act establishing the net metering program by charging illegal application fees and making customers pay installers for an unnecessary "knife switch," a redundant safety mechanism, prior to approval for the program.
Attorneys Rafael Muilenburg and Clyde Murphree wrote and filed the suit after net metering customers on St. John met with WAPA officials in December to air these and other grievances. Residents complained that the utility, through its policies and practices, actually is discouraging Virgin Islanders from investing in solar energy and depriving those who had of the cost-savings involved, according to Muilenburg.
WAPA spokeswoman Cassandra Dunn said Monday that WAPA officials could not offer comment on ongoing litigation.
The net metering program was established in 2009 by Act 7075. Gov. John deJongh Jr. signed it as part of an initiative to reduce the use of fossil fuels in the territory by 60 percent by 2025 and replace them with renewables. The program allows customers to store excess electricity generated during daylight hours and receive credit for it if their energy consumption is less than what their system generates. That credit can be used when a customer's energy consumption exceeds their system's output, essentially using the WAPA grid as a back-up or battery to ensure a smooth supply of electricity to homes and businesses.
The credit can roll over from month to month, but at the end of the year or with termination of service, WAPA does not compensate customers for credit.
Act 7075 dictates that WAPA credit the consumer at a direct ratio, so WAPA customers get credit for each excess kilowatt-hour they contribute to the gird at the same rate that WAPA sells kilowatt-hours.
Because of the one-to-one rate of exchange, WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge Jr. has called the program "one of the most generous in the nation and the Caribbean region."
Currently, the program has 428 customers, 221 on St. Croix and 207 on St. Thomas or St. John, according to Dunn.
Muilenburg said Monday that the suit only had one plaintiff signed onto it but that it still is being certified by the court as a class action suit. Once that happens, any Virgin Islander affected by the activities in the suit can sign on. About 30 people, most of them St. John residents, had expressed an interest in joining into the lawsuit, Muilenburg said.
The nine-count suit charges that WAPA is guilty of deceptive and fraudulent business practices, specifically that WAPA knowingly used meters that incorrectly led to the billing of net metering customers for power they consumed and power they produced and that WAPA failed to refund or reimburse customers when the double-billing was brought to its attention.
The suit states that WAPA installed a meter in September 2012 at the home of the plaintiff, a St. Thomas man named Thomas Klotzbach, and that for the next three months, because of the meter, WAPA billed Klotzbach for all the electricity he generated in addition to electricity he took from the grid.
"As a mathematical example, if Plaintiff in total consumed 100 KWh of electricity in a month, but produced 30 KWh of that electricity himself, Plaintiff should only be billed for 70 KWh if measured by an accurate 'net metering' meter," the suit states. "However, though Plaintiff consumed only 100 KWh of electricity during the example month, he was billed for a total of 130 KWh" instead of a net charge of 70 KWh.
WAPA has done nothing since the December meeting to "make them whole," Muilenburg said of customers who believe they are owed money, some of them thousands of dollars in false overcharges.
"It is apparent that only a court order and civil judgment will motivate WAPA to right this wrong, and we expect to obtain both through this lawsuit," Muilenburg said.
Muilenburg said WAPA had been contacted by customers in early 2012, possibly in 2011, about the faulty meters that totalled and billed for electricity in both directions.
"They were advised of the problem quite a long time ago, at least early 2012, probably 2012," Muilenburg said. "The problem has been going on for a while, and they continue to install these meters."
The suit also seeks that WAPA reimburse customers for the $30 fee it charges new net metering applicants, saying that Act 7075 prohibits the utility from "unjust or unreasonable or discriminatory" charges.
For customers entering the net metering program, WAPA lifted the requirement for the "knife switches" which allow WAPA personnel to shut off a customer's electric feed to the grid during a power outage in March, citing new regulations from the Underwriters Laboratories and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the entities that certify the equipment, according to Dunn.
Each switch costs about $275 to $400 plus installation and service fees, according to Kelly Gloger, managing partner with Solar Delivered, LLC on St. Croix.
The suit also seeks that WAPA reimburse customers who had their systems attached to the program before the revision was made, calling the expense unjust and a violation of Act 7075.
- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email email@example.com.