Net metering: Groups say new rules must work for agriculture


Issue Date: November 25, 2015
By Christine Souza

With a deadline to create new net energy metering rules for California fast approaching, agricultural organizations have urged state utility regulators to consider the unique characteristics of farm and ranch customers in developing new net-metering contracts.

Net metering allows people who have installed renewable-energy facilities to receive a financial credit for power generated by those facilities that is fed back to the utility company. The credit is applied to a customer's energy bill.

A state law that took effect in 2013 requires the California Public Utilities Commission to finalize new net-metering rules by Dec. 31. The existing program is slated to end when the capacity of net-metered generation exceeds 5 percent of a utility's electricity demand or July 1, 2017—whichever comes first—so the CPUC is finalizing rules that would govern net metering after that.

In a letter to the commission, 35 agricultural groups outlined aspects of the program they consider "critical" for farmers and ranchers participating in net metering: meter aggregation, annual true-ups, long-term program certainty and the ease and affordability of connecting power facilities to the electrical grid.

Karen Norene Mills of the California Farm Bureau Federation, one of the groups that signed the letter, said it culminated an 18-month proceeding during which CFBF submitted a variety of documents focused on maintaining net metering for farms and ranches.

"It has been important to get agriculture's views highlighted, to ensure the new rules don't eliminate the benefits for agriculture," said Mills, who is associate counsel and director of public utilities for CFBF.

A key element of the program, Mills said, is called aggregated net-energy metering, which allows generation from one solar installation to be credited to more than one meter, a program developed under Senate Bill 594 by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis. Wolk and 22 other legislators urged the commission to shelve a proposal that would eliminate net energy metering aggregation.

Since the commission allowed aggregation in 2014, customers of Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric Co. have been able to aggregate electrical accounts to save on their energy bills. Previously, power generated from an onsite renewable facility could not be counted against other meters for utility customers, meaning that farmers had to install a separate facility for each meter, Mills said.

Farmer Steve Wilbur of Tulare, who runs a diversified farming and dairy operation, installed a solar system that went online in early February. He said he expects the system to generate more than 1.4 million kilowatt-hours annually, covering up to 90 percent of his energy use. Being able to aggregate the meters, Wilbur said, is what sold him on the project.

"You don't want to generate more than you consume, and aggregation allows you to add multiple meters, which allows you to offset more. That's why dairies have taken advantage of this: because dairies have continuous usage—365 days a year, dairies are consuming power," said Wilbur, a Southern California Edison customer. "With aggregation, if you've got a dozen meters spread across 600 acres, that's more kilowatt-hours that you can generate and apply against your bill, so it is appealing to growers."

Walnut grower Russ Lester of Dixon Ridge Farms in Yolo County—who now relies exclusively on renewable energy after having incorporated biomass and solar systems at his farm—said use of the net-energy metering program is the reason that photovoltaic systems have done so well in California, especially in agriculture.

"Net energy metering has allowed us to balance out our high-month usages with our high production months, and that is a benefit," Lester said.

Net metering aggregation allows him not to take land or other resources out of production to use for renewable power, he said.

"We can utilize a roof space and aggregate in an area where we have the resources to power the grid and not have to misuse resources to produce renewables," Lester said, adding that that benefits farms such as his that combine net metering with solar photovoltaic power, "because we can better balance our electrical demands so that we have less impact on the grid."

He said net-metering aggregation could become even more valuable in the future, if farmers were allowed to aggregate on properties that are not contiguous; the current program limits the aggregated meters to contiguous properties.

"With agriculture, most properties are scattered over some area and opening this up would allow renewables to do even a better job," Lester said.

In their letter to the CPUC, the farm groups said programs such as net-metering aggregation will help agriculture to play a significant role in reducing greenhouse gases and other pollutants while producing renewable energy to assist in meeting statewide goals.

"The agricultural community can be part of the solution if you retain program elements that ensure its continued participation in the net energy metering program," the letter emphasized.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.