AUSTIN, Texas — Energy bills for some Central Texas solar customers may be going up soon.
The Pedernales Electric Cooperative Board of Directors is expected to decide if it'll change the buyback rate for solar members at its meeting on Friday. PEC said it's only trying to make rates equitable for all of its members.
But several members, like Ling Zhu, told the KVUE Defenders that the rate change is unfair.
Zhu believes in solar energy. He first installed 36 solar panels on his South Austin home four years ago.
He added nine in October and he also has two Tesla powerwall batteries at his home. Both store enough energy to run his home for more than a day.
The solar enthusiast also owns an electric vehicle. Inside his house, the IT consultant is trying to reduce his dependence on gas.
Zhu showed us how he tracks the solar power he's producing, the energy he's using and the amount he's sending back to the grid – all in real-time.
"And this green color is charging the battery. And this blue color is our home use, like cooking something. And this gray area is feeding back to the grid," Zhu said.
Right now, that energy being fed back to the grid is converted into electricity, which PEC then sells to other customers.
The electricity solar consumers don't use and sell back to PEC is called net metering. PEC wants to get rid of that process and change the amount they pay for that solar power, from 9 cents down to 5 cents.
Solar members are not happy with the proposal.
"They change the whole game," Zhu said.
Other PEC solar members, like Carlos Santillana, feel PEC is targeting them.
"I see some kind of animus from PEC all of a sudden against solar energy. And they say, you know, that we don't contribute to the infrastructure, and yes we do," he said.
Santillana has had solar panels on his home since the 1990s. The Cedar Park resident said if the rate change happens, his bill will go up.
From Jan. 1 to Dec. 2 of this year, Santillana has paid $230 for utilities. If PEC gets rid of net metering, he said it'll increase to $433.
"One of the things PEC fails to mention is all the money, revenues generated from our roofs with no investment from their part. You know, it's just deducted from what they give us, minus from what they pay, charged to my next-door neighbor. You know, so it's a pretty nice profit to get," he said.
PEC member Kathi Thomas doesn't use solar but is against the proposal.
She said solar makes more sense for the environment and, in the long run, for the nonprofit utility company, especially since PEC is the Lower Colorado River Authority, or LCRA's, largest customer.
"And if we keep growing the way we grow now, LCRA is not going to have enough power, which is what they've got. So if they have to build more power plants, they're going to pass that cost onto us. And it just makes a lot more sense to me that we would have more solar," she said.
This isn't the first time PEC has tried to raise rates on solar members. In January, the PEC board adopted several solar rate increases without reaching out to members.
That's when Kaiba White with Public Citizen got involved. She's the energy policy and outreach specialist for Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.
"When it's considering rate changes, they just post their agenda. And unless you're checking their agendas every month, then you won't know that these kind of changes are coming," White said.
So many members were upset that the board rescinded the rate increases in July.
White points out PEC's Value of Solar Study that the board used to base its proposal on, is flawed.
"So even with net metering, the utility might be getting more than they're paying for, which is great. It's a co-op. It's a good thing for the member to benefit and for the utility as a whole to benefit, and I think they're just not looking at the big picture," she said.
The KVUE Defenders reached out to Randy Kruger, the chief financial officer for PEC, to address members' concerns.
First, Kruger said eliminating net metering is about making the rate fair for all members. He said out of the 364,000 PEC members, only 6,000 use solar power.
"We really only should be compensating our solar members at the cost of the power that they're selling us, which would make our membership as a whole indifferent to where we source the power, whether it's in the wholesale market or whether it's coming from another member's rooftop solar," he said.
Second, Kruger said PEC is not targeting its solar members and that the utility is not anti-green energy.
"We are not trying to single out any particular group. It may feel like that because we're eliminating a subsidy, but the fact is, we're trying to be fair to all of our membership," Kruger said.
The possible solar rate change comes after PEC hit all members with a monthly winter storm surcharge. In October, members started paying between $8 to $12 a month to recoup the $160 million lost in February's winter storm despite tens of thousands of PEC members being left without power.
Stephanie Hernandez lives in Kyle.
"We were without power for about a week and a half," she said.
Ahmed Moledina said this past February was like living in a third-world country.
"...Water was out for about eight days and power was out for about six or seven," Moledina said.
The winter storm surcharge ends in two years.
"That's a tough pill to swallow. The folks went through that freezing weather without electricity, and the utility really hasn't done much to help people," said White.
White said the winter storm surcharge isn't fair.
"Some of the customers that were there during the storm might move away and not pay their share of those costs, whereas other customers may move in that weren't even there. They might not even live in Texas when we had the storm but now they're going to pay this extra fee," White said.
Kruger said they explored other financial options. The surcharge was the last resort, but was one Kruger said PEC had to take to maintain an AA credit rating.
"We are going to need to maintain that access as we continue to fund growth going forward," Kruger said.
As Zhu closely watches his power input and output, he's also monitoring what the PEC board does next.
While the solar rate change may not cost him as much as other members, Zhu said it would still be a setback to the environment.
The PEC board is planning to discuss the net metering change at its Dec.17 meeting.
In the meantime, State Rep. Vikki Goodwin sent a letter to the board members asking them to back off from the proposal.
PEOPLE ARE ALSO READING: