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WAPA Eases Net Metering Switch Requirement for Systems Smaller Than 10kW

(Thursday, March 21, 2013)

WAPA Eases Net Metering Switch Requirement for Systems Smaller Than 10kW

Dispelling rumors that the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA) is terminating its net metering program, Executive Director Hugo V. Hodge, Jr. has declared net metering “alive and well” in the Virgin Islands. Net metering allows utility customers who generate their own energy using solar or other renewable sources to bank excess electricity on the grid. Customers receive kilowatt hour (kWh) credit which can be used against their monthly bill when their system’s output has not met their needs. WAPA implemented its program in 2007, shortly after the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 required net metering for public utilities.

The Authority is working with Toshiba, Lanco Solar V.I. and Sun Edison, the companies contracted to bring 18MW (megawatts) of solar energy to the grid this year, while also closely working with customers who choose to produce their own power. In a recent move to assist customers installing systems under 10 kilowatts (kW), the utility will no longer require an external manual disconnect switch, provided the equipment meets Underwriters Laboratories (UL)-1741 and Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE)-1547 standards and complies with the National Electrical Code. The switch, a safety device for power line workers, provides an additional means of disengaging a customer’s installation that may cause instability in the utility’s distribution or generation systems. Such instability can damage the Authority’s equipment or interrupt service to other customers. A manual disconnect switch will be required for systems exceeding 10kW and must be installed in areas accessible to WAPA personnel.

WAPA’s net metering customers receive per kilowatt hour credit for what they send to the grid at a rate equal to what they consume from WAPA. “WAPA’s net metering program is one of the most generous in the nation and the Caribbean region,” said Hodge. “It is uncommon for net metering customers to get dollar for dollar credit for the energy they put on the grid,” he said. When net metering customers are sending to the system, they don’t incur costs for energy delivery, or infrastructure maintenance but do reap the benefits of such expenses covered by the utility. Those costs are borne by all customers through the base rate charge on the monthly bill. V.I. legislation Act 7075 signed into law in 2009 provides the framework for net metering in the territory.

Potential net metering customers should consider the waiver of the manual disconnect switch requirement for smaller sized systems as a great advantage. Customers will save a “substantial amount” of money when purchasing a system, says Transmission and Distribution Director Clinton T. Hedrington, Jr. The waiver results from new safety standards established for inverters which convert the direct current (DC) generated by the renewable systems to alternating current (AC) required in most homes and businesses. As part of the net metering application process, however, electrical inspectors from the V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources will confirm that a system is properly installed before issuing a permit for interconnection. Hedrington cautioned that customers desiring to net meter should fully comply with the law and not make an undocumented connection. The digital meters which WAPA currently installs are factory designed to avoid revenue diversion or tampering. Unless programmed for net metering by a WAPA technician, the meter will only register usage as if the customer is purchasing from the utility.

While the legal and safety factors are important, there are also technical considerations, said Hodge. WAPA will closely monitor for when the 5 and 10 MW net metering caps are met in the St. Croix and St Thomas districts, respectively. The limits, determined by various studies and supported by local law, are set to insure that WAPA maintains stable output while the utility is also installing larger scale renewable energy systems to benefit all customers. “We continually perform laboratory modeling--statistical analysis and grid operation simulation studies--to assess the impact of net metering along with proposed and qualified industrial solutions like wind energy and biofuels. We cannot stress enough how critical it is to maintain system integrity by seeking a workable balance of all renewables, especially as customer peak load demand decreases.” Hodge said the utility is treading into unknown territory. “We have stand-alone generation systems in each district, so we must be very careful to protect what we have. Any missteps will have tremendous repercussions on our reliability,” he said, adding that WAPA’s planned interconnection to Puerto Rico’s grid will ease the necessary restrictions that now govern the penetration levels of renewables on the local grid.

WAPA has 285 net metering customers primarily generating solar power. St. Croix is close to 1 MW of the allowable 5 MW capacity and the St. Thomas district is just over 1MW of the 10MW allowable. In accordance with Act 7075, systems can have a generating capacity of not more than 20 kilowatts residential, 100 kilowatts commercial and 500 kilowatts for a public facility. Any excess kilowatt hours the customer generates carries over as a credit from month to month. At the end of each calendar year, or after termination of service, remaining kWh credits are granted to the Authority without compensation to the customer.

Design and Construction Manager Melton Smith, WAPA’s in-house net metering engineer, says that selecting the appropriate system requires a lot of homework. “Only do business with a reputable company and certified installer. Ask questions about efficiency levels and warranties, inverter specifications, and if the system will be properly sized for the energy you’ll need for lighting, appliances, air conditioning, and electronics,” says Smith. Confirm the wind or solar system will be placed in the best location to maximize production at various times of the year. Improper sizing or output may not yield the expected return on investment on a system which is generally priced per kilowatt installed, advises Smith.

For customers planning to generate their own energy, WAPA recommends a careful review of their monthly kilowatt hour consumption first to be certain they are already practicing energy conservation and efficiency. Make a change to more efficient lighting and fixtures, install Energy Star appliances, use solar water heating, energy efficient air conditioning, etc., and then consider the bigger investment if more savings are desired. After installing a net metering system, it is still wise to conserve energy for maximum savings, Smith concluded.

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