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Correcting record on solar

Ernie Haberkern, Berkeley
Wednesday December 05, 2001


While I have appreciated Ms. Alice LaPierre’s articles on solar power she failed to mention one extremely important change in PG&E regulations effective Jan. 1, 2001. From that point on net metering – the practice that allows consumer generators who supply power from solar panels, wind turbines or fuel cells to the grid to be compensated for the power they produce – has been compensated, not at the average price of electricity (12 cents per kWh), but at the rate determined by Time of Use.  

In PG&E’s territory power is sold at two different rates. The peak rate is charged between noon and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Other hours are charged at off-peak rates. In summer peak rates are 32 cents a kilowatt hour and off peak rates are 8.5 cents a kilowatt hour. In winter rates are 12 cents and 8.8 cents respectively.  

What this means for consumer generators using solar, or other renewable resource generated, power is that excess power generated at summer peak rates can be used to pay for power used at lower off peak and winter rates. This savings depends, not on the absolute value of the rates, but on the ratio between peak and off peak rates. This ratio is not likely to change since it is based on several hundred million years of human evolution which have made us a species adapted to daylight hours. (This despite the best efforts of Taylorite personnel managers.)  

The main problem with solar power (which I have installed on my own home using the Alice-in Wonderland mechanism of refinancing my mortgage) is the upfront cost. Even though over a 20 or 30 year period these systems will pay for themselves (and reduce the load on the environment) the individual home owner or apartment owner often cannot afford to take this long range view. There is also the complication that solar power in particular depends on arbitrary factors like which way your roof faces.  

The obvious solution is a collective one. Why doesn’t the Berkeley City Council or the Alameda Board of Supervisors consider the possibility of setting up a Coop or Municipal Utility District which, using funds raised by a bond measure, would buy the solar panels (or fuel cells, or wind turbines), contract to install them, and charge the property owners a pro-rated fee based on the average use of the participating members? This would get around the problem of the upfront costs since the public entity would still be around in 20 or 30 years even if the original participants were already pushing up daisies. It would also mean that individual home or apartment owners could participate even if the orientation of their roofs was not such as to make it economically feasible for the as individuals to install solar power.  


Ernie Haberkern,