Between 30 and 40 St. John residents have joined the civil suit which alleges that WAPA fraudulently charged them for power they produced from their own solar panels.
As V.I. Water and Power Authority electric rates have steadily increased, many residents on St. John have invested in photo voltaic systems as a way to offset costs while using the island’s most abundant free energy source, the sun.
After investing anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, however, many residents who were expecting to watch their WAPA bills drop, were stunned to realize they were in fact charged for the power they had produced.
The problem was so widespread on St. John, Island Green Building Association hosted a meeting with WAPA and net metering customers in December 2013 to discuss the issue. WAPA officials listened to residents’ complaints at that meeting and subsequently changed their net metering system.
What WAPA has failed to do, despite repeated requests from co-counsels Attorneys Clyde Murphree and Raf Muilenburg, is compensate those customers who were wrongfully charged by WAPA for the power they were putting back into the electric system from their solar panels.
“This issue received significant attention some months ago when WAPA officials met with some of the affected folks,” said St. John Attorney Muilenburg. “But WAPA has done nothing since then to ‘make them whole.’ In fact, we have been asking WAPA for many months to compensate our clients and to identify and compensate those other customers whom WAPA cheated and financially injured, but WAPA has made no effort to avail itself of that opportunity.”
While WAPA officials have admitted they made a mistake, customers who were wrongly charged were left with no other choice except to take legal action, Muilenburg explained.
“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,” said the St. John attorney.
As the sole commercial electric provider in the territory, WAPA customers have the right to be treated fairly, explained St. Thomas Attorney Murphree.
“WAPA enjoys a monopoly for commercial electricity production in the USVI,” said Murphree. “In exchange for this monopoly, electricity consumers are entitled to be treated fairly and expect that WAPA operate within the law.”
Governor John deJongh has set a 60 percent fossil fuel use reduction over the next 15 years as a goal to begin in his administration. As a step in that direction, the V.I. Legislature passed the Net Metering Act which was intended to be an incentive for residents to invest in solar energy systems, explained Murphree.
“Consumers whom have elected to participate in net metering, called Customer-Generators by the Net Energy Metering Act, have not been treated fairly nor as required by law,” said Murphree. “Instead, many have been and continue to be charged for electricity they themselves produce, and are not receiving the benefit of their investments in green energy as intended by the VI Legislature.”
WAPA’s fraudulent practice of charging customers for that energy breaks the Net Metering law and acts as a deterrent to the government’s very goal of reducing fossil fuel dependence, Murphree explained.
“As a result, the incentive for private persons to invest in green energy for the long term betterment of our islands is diminished,” said the St. Thomas attorney. “WAPA seems reluctant to correct the errors and compensate those whom have been overcharged. This lawsuit is important as it provides a lever to insist that WAPA comply with the statutory mandates enacted by our elected representatives in the Legislature.”
All WAPA has to do to settle the suit is comply with the Net Metering Act, according to the co-counsels.
“We simply want WAPA to comply with the Net Energy Metering Act going forward and to compensate those who have been overcharged,” said Murphree.
“WAPA could have easily settled this months ago and just compensated their customers who were wrongfully charged,” said Muilenburg. “They have refused to do that.”
If the civil suit against WAPA is successfully settled — with customers compensated for the power they produced and were wrongfully charged for — this case could actually help the territory’s public utility in the long run, Murphree added.
“Success in this case will restore the confidence of those currently engaged in net metering and to encourage others to engage in net metering, which is precisely what the Net Energy Metering Act is intended to incentivize,” said the attorney.
“This case will also benefit the many solar contractors whose potential customers have become leery of making the investment until they are confident they will receive the benefit of their sizable investments.”
The attorneys estimated that about 30 people on St. John are involved with the civil suit and the number is even greater on St. Thomas.
The first step in the suit is having a judge a certify that the group of customers constitute a class, which Muilenburg expected to happen in the next few month.
“The first step is to get the ‘class’ certification,” said Muilenburg. “The court must recognize that there is a group of people with a common interest and they’ll certify that as a ‘class.’ We’ll hopefully see that happen within the next two months.”
It’s not too late for residents who have been charged for their solar energy production to join the suit, Muilenburg added.
“We encourage anyone who has installed solar panels and thinks they may have also been overcharged or otherwise wronged by WAPA’s Net Metering Program to contact us,” he said.
Residents should send an email with their name, WAPA billing address and WAPA electric account number to firstname.lastname@example.org.