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Solar energy storage raises questions for California regulators

California solar power regulators are concerned about an aspect of home usage that involves storing solar energy.
January 11, 2014 12:00:00 AM PST
New technology is now available to help home solar users cut costs, but California regulators are concerned about the system's safety and how it could transform power usage throughout the system.

Gardena resident John Terrell was ready to buy a $40,000 solar system. Instead, he joins a growing number of prospective solar customers now in limbo.

State regulators and local utility companies including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Edison are grappling with permit applications for a type of home solar enhancement.

Terrell wanted to include an energy storage system. It's an array of batteries that would hold the solar power he trapped during the day so that he could use it at night or during a blackout. Terrell has a loved one who depends on an electricity-powered medical device.

"It is possible that they could end up with a grand mal seizure. That could be fatal. I am not risking that," said Terrell.

Months passed. The company that he contracted, Ameco Solar, was unable obtain DWP's approval.

"They weren't being specific and they were just couching it as a safety issue," says Ameco spokesperson Alyssa Pacaut.

What Terrell has learned is that while battery technology has improved, utility companies have not kept pace.

DWP says it has approved only a handful of energy storage systems. In this case, it says it wanted a shutoff switch so that during an outage the system would not send out power that could shock a lineman making repairs.

Ameco says DWP wanted more - a design that would make it impossible to hook the battery system to another power source such as a gas generator.

What worries utility companies is revenue loss. An Edison spokesman says a convertible battery would allow the customer to sell their stored energy to the utility for a premium price during a hot spell.

Edison is calling on the Public Utilities Commission to bar energy storage systems from what's called "net energy metering," the program in which the power company pays the solar user for excess energy it sends to the grid.

Meantime, the PUC is assessing the future impact if more customers become more energy self-sufficient. Terrell, though, has given up.

"The way I feel is, like we got slow rolled."


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