The Arkansas Public Service Commission can be thankful this season for some very outspoken electricity customers. More than 200, mostly private residents have published comments ahead of a public hearing Nov. 30 on Docket 16-027-R, proposed changes to net metering.
Net metering is a utility industry term. When big electricity providers like Entergy, SWEPCo and the electrical cooperatives send electricity into a home, it's "metered," typically by the kilowatt-hour. The transportation lines between power plants and customers is called the grid. When customers with solar panels or windmills produce more electricity than they consume, they can push electricity back out onto that grid and get credits from the power company. Thus, consumption may be offset by contribution.
Since net metering went into effect (in 2000), customers have been credited the retail rate of electricity, or one-to-one kilowatt-hour.
But in 2015, prompted by industry complaints, the Arkansas General Assembly directed the Public Service Commission the review net metering. The commission created a net metering working group comprised of everyone from utility representatives to solar industry entrepreneurs to environmental groups.
The working group in September submitted to the commission a split decision.
Now, it's on the three-member commission to decide whether to keep the retail rate for net metering, or reduce the size of the credit back to consumers who generate.
Chairman Ted Thomas said earlier this week that, to his mind, there are two tiers of what he calls "evidentiary value," and public comment is a part of the bottom tier.
"The general staff of the Arkansas Public Service Commission and the Attorney General's office are supposed to represent the public interest, which is similar to what the commission is supposed to find. That is the highest level in terms of evidentiary value, and then below that are public comments."
(Staff of both the attorney general's office and the commission have given evidence that they support a change to net metering: They would support seeing a reduction in the credit for producing electricity from solar or wind.)
If that sounds like a paradox — that public comments may not represent the clearest evidence of the public interest — Thomas says that’s because people don’t understand utilities very well, even though we all use them.
“There’s been a lot of attention focused on this issue, and folks, they still participate, and are entitled to under the law," Thomas said.
Some of those folks exercising their rights include letter writer Brayden Kennedy of Bella Vista, who says, “Any action that would strip Net Metering from the citizens of Arkansas is as irresponsible as it is immoral.”
Robert Nagy of Hot Springs says, “The collection of a few thousand dollars a month from the .004% of Entergy's customers who have solar systems will have no effect on Entergy's bottom line,” but it will discourage energy consumers.
Thomas says it’s prudent to keep a “broader look,” and when you take a broader look, "I mean we’re in the bottom five [of states] in terms of energy costs, which is good, we have to be, because we’re in the bottom five of income."
Thomas says the matter should be decided with the broadest possible consideration of the players and factors and consequences — "take a broader look, but most people don’t take that look, and most people's eyes glaze over when I try to explain to them what I do."
The commission meets Nov. 30 inside its hearing room. It may last more than one day. A decision isn't expected before February, Thomas says.