Set rules to 'unlock' solar, PSC urged

The Arkansas Public Service Commission should eliminate uncertainty in regulations concerning the use of renewable energy in the state, the chief executive officer of solar energy firm said Tuesday.

The commission held a hearing Tuesday to gather information to determine the appropriate conditions for net-metering contracts in the state. Net metering is an industry term for homes or businesses that have a renewable energy generating facility, such as a solar-panel array, connected to a public utility that could transfer surplus power onto the grid.

Bill Halter, the former Arkansas lieutenant governor and chief executive officer for solar-energy firm Scenic Hill Solar, recommended that the commission lean toward making the use of solar and other forms of renewable energy as accessible as possible to businesses and residents.

"I think we need to unlock the enthusiasm [about solar energy], and we need to do it by giving customers some certainty" about the questions regarding the use of solar energy, Halter said.

The hearing is the first phase for the commission to determine how the state should comply with Act 827, which was passed last year to address renewable energy.

The commission is expected to rule on its decisions within a couple of months, said John Bethel, executive director of the commission's general staff.

The second phase of the process of complying with the recent law will come next September when the commission determines what changes are needed in the rate structure for renewable-energy users, Bethel said.

There have been about 1 million solar-energy units set up in the United States, Halter said. In Arkansas, there are about 490 commercial and residential users of solar energy. Just on the basis of Arkansas' population being about 1 percent of the national population, it would be expected that Arkansas would have about 10,000 users of solar and other renewable energy, Halter said.

"We are way behind on the use of this technology," Halter said.

Using solar energy is now economically feasible, where it wasn't several years ago, Halter said.

There were several major issues addressed at the hearing concerning renewable energy -- whether current users of renewable energy should be grandfathered in under the new rules, how large a user's net-metering facility can be and whether the definition of an owner of a net-metering facility can be expanded to include a lessee.

There was some argument that a net-metering facility can be as large as 1 megawatt, which would be about the size to power a Wal-Mart Supercenter, Bethel said.

Jordan Tinsley, who represents large industrial electricity and natural gas users, said the Legislature had no preferences toward renewable energy.

Tinsley said his clients believe that reasonable limits, such as 10 to 20 years, should be set on who can be grandfathered in under the rules.

Entergy Arkansas said it does not have substantive problems with the rules recommended by the commission's general staff.

Grandfathering in principle is reasonable, Entergy said.

But Southwestern Electric Power Co. did not agree.

"I understand the appeal of grandfathering and I understand it has widespread support," said Stephen Cuffman, an attorney who represents SWEPCO. "But it can't be done. It is not permitted under the law. Act 827 is very clear when it uses the words 'a requirement' that the rates charged to each net-metering customer must recover the electric utility's entire cost of providing service to each net-metering customer. There is no room in there for grandfathering."

Also party to the case are more than 20 electric utilities in the state, including the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. and its 18 affiliated utilities.

Business on 10/05/2016