Solar Customers Fuming Over Proposed Fee

Monthly Xcel Charge Would Apply To Solar Users Even If They Use No Electricity

Solar energy customers are worried a new fee proposed by Xcel Energy would punish new customers for getting solar panels.

The monthly fee, which would pay for distribution and transmission of energy, would go into effect in April 2010 and would have to be paid to Xcel, regardless of whether the solar customer used any electricity that month. Customers who got solar panels before April 2010 would not have to pay the fee.

Tom Henley, an Xcel Energy spokesman, initially told 7NEWS that implementing the fee would level the playing field for electricity users who are currently subsidizing connectivity fees for solar users, who sometimes use no electricity in a given month and therefore, pay no electrical fees.

“We just don't think it's fair that customers that don't have solar panels on their homes should subsidize these solar panel customers any further,” said Henley.

But when pressed, Henley admitted that currently, no Xcel electric customers pay extra to fund solar connectivity fees. In reality, Xcel absorbs those fees. The money from the proposed fee would not go into the pockets of electric customers, but would go back to Xcel.

Henley said the fee is a preventative measure to ensure that, down the road, solar customers do not get free rides.

“What we're looking to do is stop that, avoid that occurrence from happening,” he said.

Henley also called the absence of a connectivity fee for solar customers a "double subsidy" because many solar customers receive rebates to install the panels. Amendment 37, passed in 2004, requires that a maximum of 2 percent of all Xcel customers' bills go toward funding the Solar Reward program, which provides rebates for solar installation. Henley said since 2006, the program has given more than $86 million in rebates. The federal government provides tax credits for installing solar panels.

Mike Jacoby, who installed solar panels on the roof of his home two years ago, bristled at the notion that he is not doing his part.

Jacoby said the installation cuts his monthly electrical fee by anywhere from 33 to 50 percent a month. In return, his home acts as a power plant, generating energy for Xcel that can power some of the homes on his block.

“Mine are generating enough to feed five or six houses around me electricity, so there's no free ride,” said Jacoby.

“That's less energy that Xcel Energy has to produce. That's less coal that they have to burn,” agreed Dan Ferguson, a solar consultant with Vibrant Solar.

Ferguson said solar companies planned to speak out against the proposed fee.

In an e-mail, Beth Hart, the executive director of the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association (CoSEIA), called the fee a “misplaced charge,” and said, “What Xcel didn’t include in their cost analysis were the benefits of PV (photovoltaic) to the electrical grid.”

Henley said the fee would add up to, on average, about $1.90 more per month than solar customers currently pay.

But Ferguson, and members of CoSEIA, worried that the fee would be much higher. Ferguson said his understanding of the charge was that it would be a flat rate based on what a solar customer paid in electrical fees in a given month.

Henley disputed that, saying some solar customers who used a sufficient amount of electrical energy each month would never have to pay the connectivity fee.

The Public Utilities Commission will make the final decision about the fee. A public hearing is scheduled from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 5.

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