Amy Oliver Cooke, Business/Economy, Economy, Energy, Environment, Featured, Politics, Sherrie Peif

Bipartisan bill would allow home owners to store energy hassle free

DENVER – A bill that will make it more cost effective for Colorado residents to store energy on their property is headed for committee with some unusual alliances.

When SB17-089 goes before the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee, it will have a Boulder progressive, a Northern Colorado conservative and a member of President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency’s transition team all fighting in favor of the bill.

According to the bill, residents could store up to 25 kW of power on their property. The power could then be used as a backup generator in case of a power outage, a life saver for some who rely on oxygen and other electricity-driven medical equipment, the bill’s sponsor Sen. Stephen Fenberg, (D-Boulder) said. It can also be used as cost savings device during high peak times in the summer months.

At maximum storage, 25 kW will power a family room, home office, kitchen, laundry room and an air conditioning system.

The bill ensures:

  • Approval process of such battery storage must be simple and streamlined so that it’s no more complex that current solar installation standards.
  • Only a single revenue meter required unless the battery exceeds 25kW.
  • Any standby charges, minimum charges, additional meter charges or other fees are identical between customers with electricity storage systems and those without.

It gives state-regulated utility companies until Oct 1, 2017 to compile rules and implement the plan.

“It has wide-range bipartisan support,” Fenberg said. “I think it appeals to most everyone, but for different reasons.”

Some, like Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Kevin Lundberg, (R-Berthoud), like the bill because it keeps quasi-governments like Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy from dictating how off-grid consumers like Lundberg can use their energy.

Lundberg has generated and stored 100 percent of his own energy on his property in Northern Colorado for decades.

Fenberg said conservatives like it because it supports a free market and personal property rights principal. Liberals like it because has a renewable-energy appeal, and still others like it for the pure economic benefit it has because they will no longer have to sell their wind and solar power to companies like Xcel to power their homes.

For individuals generating their own power, storage means they can store power during the day and then turn on their air conditioning when they come home without using the grid. That would save them money on costly high-demand peak-time electricity, but it would also save that same utility-generated, high-demand power for others to use.

However, companies like Xcel have put up roadblocks to the technology.

Aurora resident Matt Smola has been trying for two years to put up his battery. Something he said should have taken three months, has seen one denial after another from Xcel.

Smola, whose background is as an electrician, said the first four denials from Xcel dealt with connections and auto disconnects, so he hired a company that specializes in battery storage at $90 per hour to help him with the installation, but Xcel denied their configurations twice more.

“We just kept going back to the engineers,” Smola said. “They didn’t like anything we came up with. They were just stalling.”

Smola said in addition to the electrical savings he’s out for the past two years, he is also out $1,500 for a special panel they made him install that he really didn’t need, and the cost to rip off and replace drywall on his home. Xcel also wanted him to purchase a double meter, but when it became apparent things weren’t going anywhere, he decided to wait.

“I can’t park my car in my garage anymore because my battery is in there,” he said. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. When you do a battery backup system, it makes your house into like a mini grid. And that doesn’t fit (Xcel’s) business plan.”

Amy Cooke, Director of the Energy Policy Center for the free market Independence Institute, said it’s time to deregulate energy in Colorado, calling for reform to both investor-owned utility companies and the Public Utilities Commission.

“It was created nearly 100 years ago when it was believed that a sole provider was the best way to deliver phone and electric service to an area,” Cooke said. “We’ve since deregulated phone service, but not so with electricity.”

Cooke, who also served as a member of Trump’s EPA transition team, used Houston as an example where the deregulation of electricity providers gives consumers options based on location, cost, resources, and volume. The zip code 77015 in the Houston area listed 352 different plans to choose from.

Despite the positives on all sides of the political spectrum, Fenberg said it still has its critics, who wonder if the legislature should get involved in these types of decision.

“It’s not really all that complicated an issue,” Fenberg said. “But the utilities very quickly make it one. They convince (legislators) who don’t understand that it’s too complicated, and they buy into the idea that they are in over their heads and should look to the experts to decide these matters.”

In fact, since July, Xcel has paid Denver-Based 5280 Strategies $87,000 to lobby against the bill.

Fenberg plans to introduce amendments into the bill on Wednesday that will clarify that the bill applies only to state regulated utilities – not cooperative energy suppliers like United Power in Brighton and Poudre Valley REA in Windsor — among other concerns raised by stakeholders.

Xcel spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo said Xcel is already working on new battery initiatives to benefit its customers.

“We are pleased with the result of a recent industry-wide agreement that will increase customer access to battery technologies, enabling customers to use batteries not only for back up but also in parallel with the energy grid,” Aguayo said. “It is critical for the safety and reliability of our system to properly inspect the installation of these private batteries.”

It is that installation that is keeping customers from actually purchasing the technology, Fenberg said.

Fenberg first thought of the legislation after several of his constituents came to him complaining about fees, surcharges and other expenses Xcel was charging them for purchasing a battery backup.

“Some of the installers who used to install a ton of them, have said their business has gone way down since the new regulations at Xcel went into place,” Fenberg said.

Over the past year or two, Xcel began requiring more complicated configurations for installations, despite the fact it’s a very simple process, Fenberg said. They also want to charge for additional meters and storage costs.

“Ever since it became more cost effective Xcel saw more and more people wanting to do this, in my opinion, that’s when they started to make things more complicated,” he said.

Fenberg joked that his liberal views don’t usually show him to be a personal property rights activist or a defender of the free market, but that is exactly what this is about, he said.  It’s a consumer rights issue.

“It’s the little guy against the big guy big guy.  They are bullying and dictating how consumers can use energy for themselves. The fact is, this is a monopoly utility with a guarantee return rate, and they are requiring things and not allowing people to do what they want on their own property,” Fenberg said. “Overall, what’s wrong with energy, and what’s wrong with how it’s regulated is they are dictating what individuals can do on their own property. This is important for the renewable side of things. The storage is that missing piece of the puzzle. It’s sort of the holy grail people have been waiting for, for a long time.”

Xcel’s spokeswoman said this bill would drive prices up.

“While we support the bill sponsor’s intent to promote the use of new technology in homes and businesses, the outcome of this this bill produces safety concerns as well a higher cost of service burdened by all customers – a burden particularly impacting those unable to afford private battery technologies.”

Fenberg disagreed, adding that Xcel is looking at changing the existing rate structure to a price differential plan with peak and non-peak prices for energy consumption, a plan he agrees with as it would place the higher cost on those who use it most.

“This can save people a lot of money in the long run,” Fenberg said. “If the price differential between peak and non-peak is a couple of cents that’s not that bad, but I think it will get to a place where it will be a substantial amount and this will save a lot of money.”

Fenberg added this bill would lower the cost of energy for all customers, not just those who chose to store energy.

“By no means will everybody be interested in putting a battery in their house,” he said. “But there are a couple days a year where we reach maximum energy use, usually in July when everyone’s cranking up the air conditioning. Xcel has to be ready to accommodate that every time.”

When that does happen, Xcel uses it to justify building a new power plant, he said, driving up the rates to all consumers.

“So even if a small percentage of people invested in batteries, it would shave off the grid power, and we wouldn’t have to build (new plants) off the backs of everybody,” he said. “Those people in a way are helping subsidize everybody. We don’t need government to subsidize for the technology. We need government to get out the way. Obviously there is a time and place for regulation, but this is one of those areas where I’m convinced over regulation is keeping the market from working itself out.”

 

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