Although Mississippians will be manufacturing solar panels at Stion in Hattiesburg, they will find it difficult to use the company’s products at home unless the state Public Service Commission adopts a uniform net-metering policy.
Stion touts its residential products on its website: “Stion’s panels can help you save money on your electricity bill, gain energy independence and increase your property’s re-sale value. Stion panels can offset high peak electricity rates …”
Net metering programs enable customers to generate their own electricity, connect into a utility’s transmissions grid, and receive retail prices from a utility for excess power. The Commission already has a rule in place regarding net metering, but uniform utility standards have not been created.
Solar panel users must connect their panels to a utility’s transmissions grid unless they own battery systems that can store the solar-generated energy. Battery systems are costly, require frequent maintenance and must be changed out every few years.
In addition to rates, net-metering issues include safety and liability insurance, connection fees and maintenance of the transmissions grid.
Currently, very few solar users are connected to utility grids in Mississippi: Entergy Mississippi has six self-generating customers, and Mississippi Power Company has one self-generating customer. TVA, the federal power producer serving a portion of northeast Mississippi, has several users as part of its Generation Partners program. TVA is not regulated by the Commission.
The Commission has opened a docket on net-metering and is considering input from stakeholders.
Both Entergy and Mississippi Power have expressed concern about interconnecting customers being held responsible for paying their fair share of interconnecting and also about safety issues.
In a letter to the Commission Entergy said it must address whether net metering is “being used to jump-start commercial enterprises that hope to sell higher priced electricity than the utility can provide to customers” and whether “other (non-net metering) customers (will) have to pay costs caused by or not paid by net metering customers.”
Solar enthusiasts note that investor-owned, regulated utilities make a profit by building energy infrastructure. Solar panel users who generate their own electricity do not add to a utility’s bottom line.
Renewable energy initiative 25 X ‘25 wants Mississippi to join the 46 others states that it says have adopted uniform net metering standards. The initiative, led by Brent Bailey, said in a letter to the Commission that utilities should not be allowed to restrict customer eligibility, charge unclear fees or require unreasonable liability insurance.
The Mississippi Technology Alliance has also intervened in the net-metering docket. The director of Strategic Biomass Solutions, housed under the MTA, Dr. Sumesh Arora wrote that “utilizing renewable energy resources is a way for consumers to reduce demand for fuels like coal and natural gas that are used to generate electricity.”
Solar becoming more economically feasible
While it doesn’t make economic sense for most Mississippians to buy solar panels right now without help from grants, that should change in the future as traditionally generated electricity becomes more expensive and the cost of solar panels decreases due to technological advancements.
Most American states outside the South have renewable energy programs because they are financially motivated to do so, since they have higher electricity rates, said Dr. James Fenton, director of the Florida Solar Energy Center, the state’s energy research institute.
Using summer 2009 numbers, for example, Mississippians paid an average of 10.1 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity, while citizens in New Jersey paid 16.6 cents.
Fenton said of Mississippi: “Your problem is electricity out of the wall is too cheap.”
The Center predicts that prices for solar-generated electricity in some Southern states could drop to the prices of traditionally generated electricity as early as 2015. When that happens, Southern consumers will become more interested in buying their own solar panels.
Fenton isn’t as quick to criticize state or federal subsidies of solar companies.
“It’s hard to say what will be successful,” he said, since the market, the technology and a company’s business plan are all factors in success or failure. However, Fenton believes homeowners will eventually have solar panels on their roofs, but the question is whether they will be made in America or China.