Important questions to ask your solar installer when net metering
by Sam Brumberg, Contributing Columnist
Net metering continues to offer cooperative members an alternative option for renewable energy at their homes or farms. Net metering is a billing practice that enables you to receive a credit for the excess generation your renewable fuel generator produces in the month.
Your cooperative wants to make sure that you are asking the right questions and getting a fair deal when you decide to go solar. Here are some of the questions you should ask your solar installer.
How much solar can I install?
Residential solar installations at electric cooperatives are limited to 20 kilowatts or 100% of a home’s electricity consumption, whichever is less. This is different from the sizing limitations for customers of investor-owned utilities in Virginia.
What is my electric bill going to be after solar is installed?
Be wary of promises of a “zero electric bill.” By law, the cooperative is required to collect at least the fixed customer access charge each month.
What is going to happen to the solar tax credit?
As you may know, the federal solar tax for residential solar installations does not continue indefinitely. It will expire starting in 2024, unless Congress renews it. Make sure your solar installer is taking this into account.
How will I pay?
Some solar installers require upfront payments; others allow payments over time. Be sure you are clear on how much will be charged and at what intervals. Be sure to compare the cents-per-kilowatt-hour rate from your solar installer to the cents-per-kwh from your electric cooperative.
What is the payback period?
This is how long it will take for your solar panel investment to be paid off or for your panels to pay for themselves by generating electricity. The longer this period is, the worse the deal you’re getting. Cooperative rates generally do not increase 3-4% every year, so be sure that your installer is using a reasonable metric to forecast future energy rates.
When will you talk to my cooperative?
Either you or your installer must apply and be approved for interconnection with the cooperative prior to installing your solar panels. It is critically important that your solar installer not access cooperative equipment, such as the inside of the electric meter or the meter base. This equipment is sealed for your protection; going inside of it is dangerous and illegal. If you have a generator in addition to your solar panels, make sure you understand how it will work, as well. Contact your cooperative when you are ready to install your system. Visit your cooperative’s website to get more information on the process and contact information.
How can I get more information?
As your trusted energy expert, your cooperative is here to help. Please call your cooperative if you have any questions about net metering. The best time to call your cooperative is before you have signed a contract with the solar installer. While we can’t recommend a specific solar company, we can help you through the process and make sure you’re being treated fairly and asking the right questions.
HOW NET METERING WORKS
Net metering is a billing mechanism that compensates consumers who own private solar panels (or other renewable energy systems) for any excess power that is sent back to the electric grid.
1. A renewable energy system, in this case privately-owned solar panels, converts energy from sunlight into electricity.
2. An inverter, which is connected to the electric grid, converts the electricity from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) to make it safe for use in homes.
3. The electricity is used to power the home. (It should be noted that solar panels do not provide electricity during a power outage.)
4. If the solar panels produce more electricity than the home needs, the consumer is compensated for excess electricity sent back to the electric grid.
Sam Brumberg is vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel for the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives.