Utilities

Arkansas's utilities — Entergy, CenterPoint, SWEPCo, and the electrical cooperatives — are essentially monopolies. The agreed upon "check" on those monopolies is the Arkansas Public Service Commission. Periodically, when the energy companies cry for a rate hike, there's hearings before the Commission, with the companies on one side and consumer activists and lawyers from the Attorney General's office on the other. The utilities typically get their revenue bump, but just as typically, they compromise for a lower rate hike than they wanted.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

The Arkansas Public Service Commission is expected to close a docket soon that could substantially lower a cash incentive for Arkansans (and Arkansas companies) who invest in solar and wind energy production.

The commission is the representative authority over investor-owned utilities, sanctioned monopolies. The commission can affect utility rates — that is, bills. The docket’s been open for three years.

At issue is something called “net metering,” the act of sending electricity (generated by solar power system or windmill) out onto the grid from home or business and getting bill credits from the electrical utility. Created by Act 1781 of 2001, Arkansas’s net metering rate structure currently is 1-to-1. 

Anne Cusack / LA TIMES via GETTY IMAGES

Friday is the deadline for two sides to file arguments with the Arkansas Public Service Commission, the state's three-member panel that sets usage and administrative rates for most utilities in the state.

At issue is "distributed energy generation" — private, typically small solar and wind power systems in the state — and the state's net metering program, whereby those systems get credits worth the full retail rate for every kilowatt-hour they export onto the electrical grid.

Utility companies want to make those credits much smaller. Solar power investors, both private and corporate, as well as advocacy groups like Audubon Arkansas and the Sierra Club that celebrate renewable energy, want further examination of the issue (and no immediate change in rates).

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.

OECC

For interested onlookers like Arkansas Energy Office program manager Chet Howland, the filing today by the Net Metering Working Group is a not-unexpected, slight disappointment.

The group is the creation of the Public Service Commission (at the request of the General Assembly) to examine net metering: the practice of pushing the electricity generated by windmills or solar power systems back onto the grid, and getting credit for it from energy utilities.

The Arkansas Public Service Commission hosted a day-long public hearing Tuesday on net metering, the industry term for people and businesses who generate their own electricity, typically through photovoltaic solar systems, and push that power back onto transmission lines.

Carroll County resident Pat Costner walks under her three solar arrays this warm autumn afternoon to a shed where she keeps a collection of heavy-duty batteries.

“They’re fully charged right now,” she says, gesturing at the noontime sun above our heads.

The retired Greenpeace senior scientist operates a grid-tied solar energy system with an unusual electrical utility meter.

“It tells me if I am buying or selling,” she says. “Today is a selling day.”