Elon Musk and his cousin Lyndon Rive have warned utilities that they must adapt to growing pressures for renewables or face existential declines.
Now their firm, SolarCity, is coming forward with statistics they say show that the utilities are, at best, completely befuddled by the challenge — and, at worst, may actively be throwing up obstacles along the path to connecting solar customers to the grid.
So far, out of the 100 customers who’ve had units installed at their homes since they went on sale at the end of 2011, just 12 have been hooked into their local grid, SolarCity says. The firm now has a backlog of 500 applications for connections, and have had to stop adding to their queue.
“We’re trying to drive down the road, but there’s a roadblock,” said SolarCity spokesman Will Craven. “We’re not going to drive through a roadblock — we’re just waiting for roadblocks to be removed.”
If certain steps in the installation process are not completed within a given period, they say, the customer must re-submit his or her application with a new $US800 fee. They are calling this “illegal,” arguing the fee itself violates a California statute governing enhancements to distributed solar.
For many customers, the delays have dragged on for years.
“It’s not only arbitrary but punitive,” Craven told Business Insider. “We try to be a good partner. We wanted to give utilities the benefit of doubt in the first year — it’s a new technology, we wanted to collaborate on how to go about this. But as time has gone on, we realised we may not have good-faith partner.”
The most stubborn utility, Craven said, has been Southern California Edison, which is seeking to charge a $US2,900 net metering fee on top of other costs it is seeking. That figure approaches a quarter of the cost of the total system cost, according to SolarCity.
The other major California utilities — Pacific Gas and Electric and San Diego Gas and Electric — are only charging $US600 for the net metering cost. SolarCity says it’s willing to eat that amount the $US600 for now, but is rejecting the $US2,900 figure.
In a statement, Securities and Exchange Commission said it is “working to address many of the complex issues raised by emerging technologies, including the additional costs of these interconnections.”
Pacific Gas and Electric acknowledged there may have been some delays, but said they would have mostly been customer-specific. San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) says SolarCity has submitted just two completed applications, and that it is awaiting a third.
SolarCity counters that SDG&E has, like the other firms, continually changed its requirements.
“It was only when SDG&E notified us that they were considering charging our customers a monthly standby charge that things ground to a halt — we didn’t want to burden our customers with a charge they hadn’t considered, and that we didn’t believe was legal in the first place,” Craven said in a follow-up email to Business Insider. But he said the firm would continue to work with SDG&E toward hooking up more customers.
California just approved a new mandate that utilities must install 1,325 megawatts’ worth of electricity storage capacity by the end of 2020. Craven says it is thus even more inexplicable that they’d throw up what he calls “roadblocks.”
Joel Eddins, who with his wife and three children live in San Bernardino County near Los Angeles, says he’s been waiting since August 2012 — when he purchased his battery unit — to get his system connected by Southern California Edison.
“They’re not very helpful — they just don’t care,” Eddins said. “It’s like when a kid rides a city bus — if he jumped out in front and the driver decided they didn’t feel like picking the person up. I feel like I’m being treated like that as adult.”
He sent along a photo to illustrate the almost comically absurd situation he faces: SCE has installed two different meters (left) on the side of his house, in addition to his regular home meter, as part of their grid connection process.
The California Public Utilities Commission, directed BI to comments made by its president at a recent panel on which he sat with Musk and Rive in which he expressed sympathy with SolarCity’s case. Craven says the commission should make a final ruling in the coming weeks on net metering costs and application fees.