New Net-Metering Program May Find Few Takers

This is the sixth installment in an ongoing series on issues facing the Water and Power Authority.

Energy Office technician Carl Joseph inspects a net metering site in 2010 on St. Thomas in the territory's previous program. (Source file photo by Don Buchanan)
Energy Office technician Carl Joseph inspects a net metering site in 2010 on St. Thomas in the territory’s previous program. (Source file photo by Don Buchanan)

The new proposal to allow residents to sell the excess energy their alternative energy systems produce to the Water and Power Authority is not nearly as generous as the original policy was.

The new net-metering proposal by Gov. Albert Bryan will have residents selling their energy to WAPA at a third of what the original net meters receive. The original net meters’ status won’t change in the new proposal. At the present rate they are selling their excess energy at 43 cents per kilowatt hour. New energy producers would receive less than 15 cents per hour. New net meters will also be charged a monthly hook-up charge ranging from $20 to $50 depending on the size of the system.

The charges and the selling price affect the key number residents use when determining whether to invest in an alternative energy system tied to the grid. The number is how long it will take to save enough on energy costs and sell enough back to WAPA to pay for the system.

The measure does address a major concern of WAPA and some residents. The concern is, as more and more residents net-meter, those who could not afford to invest in a system would be burdened with ever rising WAPA costs.

Bevan Smith Jr., energy office director when the first net-metering proposal was adopted, said in a statement to the V.I. Source he was pleased that “the concerns that the current net metering rate subsidizes net metering customers to the detriment of non-net metering customers is no longer an issue.”

He also noted that the new policy would allow participants to add battery storage to allow their systems to operate during power outages. In the previous net-metering policy customers could not run their systems during power outages because of the fear they would put power back into lines that WAPA workers were working on.

Gary Udhwani, owner of Eco Innovations, told the Source the best part of the new proposal was the allowance of the installation of a battery backup system. He said, however, the monthly charge and the lower buy-back rate would probably discourage participation in the program. Eco Innovations V.I. is presently working on the solar streetlight project involving 3,000 solar panels for 6,000 lights. It was also responsible for the cleanup of the Donoe solar farm on St. Thomas.

Udhwani added that it was hard to convince residents to install net-metering systems in the more generous program.

“The consumer, instead of installing a larger grid-tied system in the same money can today install a small off-grid system which will offset the bill and guarantee continuous power.”

Former St. Thomas resident Michael Bumba, who has sold alternative energy equipment for two decades in the Virgin Islands, told the Source the proposal “seems in line with what all utilities are doing with net metering.” However. he added, the fee is “questionable.”

According to a news release from the governor’s office, the proposed grid access charge will be based on the size of the system installed and would be as follows:
– 2 to 5.9 kilowatts would be $20 per month.
– 6 to 8.9 kilowatts would be $35 per month.
– 9 to 11.9 kilowatts would be $50 per month.
– 12 kilowatts and higher will require a supplemental review on a case-by-case basis.

Ken Haines, who in the original program had the first residential net metering system on St. Croix, said he would need a little clarity in how the fee structure was arrived at before he could comment on it. However, he said he hopes the utility in the process simplifies its bills for net metering customers and makes them more understandable.

Smith pointed out that, although the proposal changes the original program, it would remain faithful to its original goal.

“Its implementation will once again allow residents and businesses to offset their electricity costs by selling back excess energy generated from their onsite renewable energy system back onto the utility grid,” he said.

Tim Brown who has put up and maintained wind turbines on St. Croix, said, “What I am telling prospective clients is, if you have the desire to invest in renewable energy they need to think long term, a battery-storage system is the way to go. No grid tie. Use good equipment, invest in good batteries.”

He plans to disconnect from the grid on his property.

“In short I feel the less dependent you are on WAPA the better,” he said.

According to the news release, the primary focus of the program “is to foster the deployment of distributed generation of renewable energy throughout the territory and foster greater energy independence for property owners.”

The Net Energy Billing program, according to the governor’s release, is designed to allow the territory to aggressively pursue its renewable energy goals in a sustainable fashion that does not harm the economic viability of WAPA or adversely impact those ratepayers who choose not to participate in the program.

The previous net metering program ended in 2017 after reaching the 15-megawatt cap territory-wide.

The Public Services Commission held a hearing on the proposal on Oct. 3 and, according to Executive Director Donald Cole, the commission has authorized the program to go forward.

For Udhwani, the issue is a simple one.

“It’s up to the consumers to decide if they want green power or to continue abusing the earth,” he said.

Melee and Missed Opportunities: A Short History of WAPA Part I

The Power Players: A Short History of WAPA Part II

Fact and Reality Check: A Short History of WAPA Part III

After Alpine: A Short History of WAPA Part IV

Businesses Lose When WAPA Goes Down