WAPA eliminates requirement for net metering
Published: March 22, 2013
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
ST. THOMAS - V.I. Water and Power Authority customers joining the net metering program that allows them to contribute solar energy into WAPA's grid for credit no longer will have to install an external manual switch if their system generates less than 10 kilowatts.
Solar energy installers rejoiced that the requirement was lifted, as it will reduce cost to customers and allow crews to complete jobs much faster.
However, the solar installers also worry that the net metering program will soon reach capacity and squelch the solar industry in the Virgin Islands before the interconnection with Puerto Rico's grid becomes a reality.
The net metering 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. The program currently has 285 customers, most of whom have systems operating at below 10 kilowatts, according to WAPA.
The framework for the net metering program was established with the passage of V.I. Code's Act 7075 in 2009. The code 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. called the program "one of the most generous in the nation and the Caribbean region."
The manual switches WAPA is no longer requiring for small systems allow WAPA personnel to shut off a customer's electric feed to the grid during a power outage. They are a secondary safety feature to protect workers from being shocked by currents from solar panels when working on power lines, and they prevent instability in WAPA's distribution and generation systems.
The waiver was created in response to updates in the safety requirements for the switches from the Underwriters Laboratories and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the entities that certify the equipment, according to WAPA spokeswoman Cassandra Dunn.
"Customers will save a substantial amount of money when purchasing a system," WAPA's Transmission and Distribution Director Clinton Hedrington Jr. said in a statement WAPA issued about the change.
The manual disconnect switch, which previously was required for all net metering customers, costs about $275 to $400 plus installation and service fees, according to Kelly Gloger, managing partner with Solar Delivered, LLC on St. Croix.
Gloger said his company has been asking WAPA for years to scrap the requirement because all current inverters in solar systems have had a failsafe feature since the 1970s that makes manual switches redundant.
"They all have this feature. It is a very robust, very reliable, very sophisticated technology that protects the grid from power being back-fed," Gloger said. "Being double-safe means that the customer was paying a lot more money than they should have in terms of installation and hardware."
In addition, WAPA required that the switches be installed in areas accessible to WAPA personnel, which presented a problem for customers with gated properties.
"With the permit, if you had a gated property, you had to dig a trench and run a wire to that manual disconnect outside the fence," Gloger said. "With some customers, that discouraged them from doing solar, but for the ones that did, it cost them a pretty penny," Gloger said.
Gary Udhwani, owner of Eco Innovations on St. Croix, said the cost-savings from eliminating manual switches will not be a major incentive to new customers because the average residential system costs between $7,000 and $16,000 to install.
However, the move will free up Udhwani's crews from doing unnecessary work during the installation process, and allow them to add at least one more job per week, he said.
"I can now have a crew that would do two 3-kilowatt jobs a week do three 3-kilowatt jobs a week," Udhwani said.
To maintain a proper balance of energy sources on the grid, Act 7075 also sets caps in the territory on the amount of solar energy residents can sell back to WAPA.
WAPA customers on St. Croix, where the cap is 5 megawatts, are generating about 1 megawatt of power back to the grid, according to WAPA.
On St. Thomas, which has a cap of 10 megawatts, customers are generating a little more than 1 megawatt, according to WAPA.
The caps are a concern for the solar installers and the territory likely will reach the maximum capacity within the next two years, according to Udhwani.
When that happens, customers installing new solar arrays will need battery systems, which doubles the cost of a solar system and renders its return on investment almost negligible, he said
"It's going to kill our business," Udhwani said.
Dunn said it probably will be several years before the interconnection with Puerto Rico happens. She said she could not project when the caps would be reached as WAPA could not predict what customer demand would be in the next few years.
"We don't know. We would need to have information on customer's intended behavior and the size of systems coming on," Dunn said. "We don't see that cap being met in the near future."
- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.