Public Citizen News / September-October 2021
By Kaiba White
This article appeared in the September/October 2021 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.
Near the start of 2021, Public Citizen’s Texas office got word that the board of directors for a large electricity cooperative in Central Texas had quietly approved punitive new rates and fees for customers using solar energy to power their homes. The vote by the Pedernales Electric Co-op (PEC) happened in December, after a cursory “study” and with no effort to gather input from co-op members.
Of the co-op’s approximately 350,000 members, only about 5,000 have solar at their homes. That number has grown significantly over the past few years though, and it seems that PEC’s leadership saw this as a threat. The co-op justified its rate increase by pointing to a cost-of-service study that claimed members with solar were underpaying by 17%. But that same study failed to account for most of the benefits that solar provides. Their solution? Raising rates and imposing a new $600 fee just to connect a solar installation to the grid.
Not only were the new rates intended to make solar users pay more, they were also incredibly complicated. Instead of fixed per kilowatt-hour rates, these solar users would have time-of-use rates that varied depending on the time of day. On top of that, they would have two different demand charges – a type of fee that is generally only imposed on commercial customers. The demand charges would be added to the customer’s bill, based on the greatest amount of energy they used at one time. As if this wasn’t confusing enough, the two demand charges would be calculated differently.
All of this added up to a significant deterrent to anyone wanting to use solar at their homes. The time it would take to pay off the cost of investing in solar would be extended, that was certain. But how these changes would affect any given customer would depend on how and when they used energy. Determining the eventual cost would be nearly impossible. When someone is thinking about making a big investment, the last thing they want is uncertainty. These new rates would have been a death knell for residential solar in PEC territory.
With the help of some dedicated and concerned PEC members, Public Citizen’s Texas office, the Texas Solar Energy Society, Clean Water Action, and Solar United Neighbors stepped up to fight back against the unfair and punitive rate increases on solar users. And it wasn’t the first time Public Citizen stepped in to help PEC members. Public Citizen and Clean Water Action have a history of engaging in PEC policy and politics that dates back at least 15 years to when we helped PEC members wrest control from a corrupt board and general manager.
This summer, Public Citizen helped co-op members get the information they needed to make their case to the PEC board and staff and voice their concerns. Some board members quickly realized that a mistake had been made – at least in making this change without consulting affected members. In April, we got our first victory, when the board instructed staff to host three townhall meetings and committed to reconsider the rate changes in July. While the online “townhall meetings” left a lot to be desired (co-op members couldn’t speak and couldn’t see who else was attending), they garnered even more input from members. We worked with our allies to assist members who had attended the annual meeting in June to show up and speak out against the unfair rate changes at the co-op’s annual meeting in July.
The outreach worked. In July, the PEC board voted to reverse the rate changes and reduce the solar connection fee by $150. The PEC staff is now working with a consultant to conduct a value of solar study that will inform any future rate changes.
Public Citizen’s Texas office is keeping a close eye on that process. We will work to ensure that the study is fair and comprehensive and that co-op members have a chance to weigh in again before the PEC board makes any other changes to rates or fees.