SANTA CLARA – Residents literally applauded a revised solar power policy approved Wednesday at a regular Santa Clara City Council meeting.
“It’s a win-win,” Santa Clara resident Sam Davis said, “and that’s all we wanted.” Davis was one of the first Santa Clara residents to install solar panels on his house almost two years ago.
The new policy is a “180-degree turnaround” from the first solar policy that was proposed, Davis said, which would have severely affected solar owner’s return on their investment.
Santa Clara homeowners with solar systems were unhappy with the city’s previous feed-in tariff policy, passed in July 2015, which reduced the amount residents were paid for solar power fed back into the city system from $.085 to $.05 per kilowatt hour. City officials believed the move was necessary to cover the cities costs and prevent non-solar customers from subsidizing solar power, however the feed-in tariff was put on hold in September after residents complained.
When Davis installed his solar panels, he expected the move would pay for itself in 15 years. Under the feed-in tariff policy which the city passed and then suspended, that figure changed to 20 years.
“What changed (in the city’s policy) was, they don’t want us to lose our entire investment,”Davis said. “We all bought those solar panels outright, and that would have been a fairly huge impact.”
Concerned residents just kept going back, talking to the city and keeping a dialog open, Davis said. “(We) had a meeting last night with the mayor, went through all the issues.”
Half a dozen residents spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. All of them thanked the city council and mayor for the work that went into developing the new policy and for being open to residents’ concerns. Some even said the process renewed their faith in government.
A resolution to approve the new policy passed unanimously and prompted applause from members of the audience.
City officials have wrestled with finding a solar policy that is fair to both residents with solar panels and those without. Originally, the city was operating on a simple net metering policy. In July 2015, a feed-in tariff policy was passed, but then put on hold to take a closer look after residents complained.
An outside consultant was hired to study the city’s costs of maintaining the existing electrical system, which includes substations, power lines, transformers, maintenance and tree trimming. After months of study and discussion with interested residents, the new solar policy was finalized.
“It’s been a long process,” Santa Clara Public Works Director Jack Taylor said. “It hasn’t been fun.”
Santa Clara’s new Renewable Net Metering and Interconnection Agreement will charge a ‘solar reliability fee’ of $4.05 per kilowatt of installed solar panels per month, Taylor said. A kilowatt is the amount of energy produced by three to four solar panels, depending on the type and brand, Councilman Jarrett Waite said.
The average solar user in Santa Clara has seven kilowatts of solar panels installed, so the average fee each month will be $28.35.
Electricity use by residents with solar panels will be net metered – if a resident uses more electricity than they produce they will be billed at the same rate as other residents. If they produce more than they use, the city will pay residents $.06 per kilowatt hour. Currently, the city charges residents between $.0845 and $.0985 per kilowatt hour, depending on total usage.
The new policy estimates one kilowatt of installed panels will output 149 kilowatt hours per month, Taylor said. Different communities use different estimates, Waite said, and that can have a big impact on the viability of solar power for residents.
The new policy should allow companies selling solar systems in Santa Clara to give customers accurate estimates of the long-term costs and benefits before they buy, Taylor said. The policy will be re-evaluated in three years and the monthly reliability fee may be adjusted up or down based on data collected from residents.
Taylor recommends that homeowners considering a solar installation be cautious to make sure they are getting a good price for the equipment.
“They, at least, should get three bids from different solar companies so that they know they are getting a fair price,” Taylor said in an earlier interview. Homeowners should also consider the length of time they plan to be in their homes.
“It may not always make financial sense,” Taylor said.
Residents who are considering purchasing solar panels are welcome to talk to city officials first, to make sure they understand the city’s policies.
“I just like to meet with them before they sign the contract,” Taylor said. The Santa Clara Public Works Department can be reached by calling 435-656-4690.
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