Complicated Metering May Hamper Solar

By Published On: August 5, 2005

The move away from master meters in multiunit housing was intended to provide consumer protections but now may be making it more difficult to install solar systems on apartments, condominiums, and senior and affordable housing complexes. As the Legislature stands poised to adopt the governor?s and bipartisan legislators? Million Solar Roofs legislation, placing photovoltaic panels on affordable housing complexes and other multiunit housing structures could be important to meeting the state’s solar energy goals. Almost 4 million of California’s 12.5 million homes are in multiunit structures. The bill would set aside 10 percent of the incentive money for installations at affordable housing complexes. In a state where housing prices have exploded, many developers increasingly are turning to multiunit developments in an effort to provide affordable housing, according to Kristy Shelton, planning and development manager for MCM Design Build Group in Napa. Yet the state has moved to all but require individual meters on units, making it more expensive to install rooftop solar systems and in some cases hindering the ability of affordable housing complexes to take advantage of the extra 25 percent solar rebate targeting them under state law. “Rebates have a large influence on whether a project goes through or not,” said Valerie Beck, California Public Utilities Commission regulatory analyst, agreeing with solar installers’ concerns. In situations where each apartment is individually metered and various common areas often have separate meters, it becomes difficult for housing complex owners to capture the benefits of solar, so they have little incentive to install systems, said Tony Brasil, California Energy Commission customer account supervisor. The vast majority of the 13,000 solar systems that have qualified for rebates in California are on single-family structures, he said. Legislation establishing the additional rebate for solar systems in affordable housing complexes required each unit to be individually metered to mirror the Public Utilities Code, Brasil said. That code was changed to protect consumers during the 1980s in situations where owners of housing complexes had master utility meters and paid the electricity bill for the whole complex and then billed residents separately according to submeter readings. Utilities and the CPUC received numerous complaints, Beck said, particularly from mobile home park tenants who claimed that landlords were overbilling them for electricity. Another concern arose when tenants paid their electric bills and then faced power cutoffs when the landlord failed to pay the utility. One project that may lose some incentive money under current state law is a 25-acre affordable housing complex in the San Francisco Bay Area that Cooperative Community Energy hopes to retrofit. Daniel Pellegrini, Cooperative Community Energy president and chief executive officer, said his organization has approached the CEC to try to get it to reinterpret the law to allow the solar system to be hooked into a master meter and have the property manager bill each tenant according to submeter readings. This arrangement would allow for a better and more cost-effective design, Pellegrini said. Brasil said the project could still qualify for solar incentives with a master meter, but not for the 25 percent affordable housing bonus rebate because that specifically requires utility meters on each unit served by any solar installation. Submeters would appear to be precluded under the Public Utilities Code. In Santa Rosa, Friends House also wants to move to master meters to take full advantage of solar power, said Michael Engerman, director of development for Friends House. He said that the senior living center owns a number of separate buildings, many of which contain separate living spaces and common areas as well. Eventually, the Quaker-run center would like to install solar panels on all of the buildings. In its first installation, it found that the need for individual meters added about $1,000 per unit to the cost of the system. In addition, it cannot use the solar power for the fitness center in the same structure because it is not individually metered. Beck compared such complicated metering situations to some of the technical problems the CPUC ran into with direct access. “The Public Utilities Code has not caught up with the technologies that offer direct access,” she said.

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