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    Eager for cheaper electricity, solar customers face delays


    October 3, 2022 - Shawne Wickham, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester

     

      Oct. 2—With demand for solar power soaring, some Eversource customers in New Hampshire are seeing "painful" delays in getting their solar projects turned on — even as they watch their electricity bills spike to record levels.

      Because most solar customers want to remain connected to the grid, homeowners have to file an "interconnection" application with their power company. It's those applications that are backlogged at the state's largest electric utility.

      Sam Evans-Brown, executive director of Clean Energy NH, said his membership includes numerous solar installation companies. "I've heard from a number of them that, frankly, Eversource has been driving them up the wall this summer," he said.

      The delays have real costs for homeowners, Evans-Brown said.

      "Imagine you've just spent over $10,000 on a solar array on your roof ... and it's ready to be turned on and you're just waiting for Eversource to respond to the paperwork," he said. "The production of that system that's lost while you're just waiting for the OK to turn it on can also be in the hundreds of dollars.

      "There are customers out there that are in that situation."

      Amanda Noonan, consumer services director at the state Department of Energy, also has received complaints about how Eversource has been handling those applications. "We have received a number of calls from people who say they had submitted their pre-applications and have had delays in processing," she said.

      Some customers who submitted their applications in early July are still waiting, she said.

      Earlier this month, Noonan contacted Eversource to find out what actions the company is taking to address the problem. "Eversource has implemented a corrective action plan to provide additional people and additional resources to clear up that backlog and get these applications moving in a more timely way," she said.

      Problems in the process

      William Hinkle, spokesperson for Eversource, acknowledged "temporary longer wait times" for customers trying to hook up solar power.

      A "perfect storm" has led to the delay in processing customer requests for interconnection, including "a dramatic increase" this year in the number of applications, Hinkle said. "By mid-year, it was the same number as we had received all of last year," he said.

      But at the same time, he said, "We've also seen an increase in the number of applications that need revision."

      Some of that is a result of "human error" in filling out applications, but supply-chain issues also can affect project timelines, and that means applications have to be updated, Hinkle said.

      "So not only have the applications dramatically risen, but there's an increase in the work that needs to be done on the application as well," he said.

      "All of those things add up and contribute to the longer timelines that we're seeing this year," he said.

      To address the situation, Hinkle said, Eversource has been adding staff to process applications and updating software. In addition, the company is working with applicants "to improve the quality of the applications that we receive so when we receive those applications, they're closer to complete," he said.

      "We do know that these delays can be frustrating, and we're doing everything we can to help address them on the Eversource end,'" Hinkle said.

      The Department of Energy's Noonan said it rings true that many applications have to be corrected or updated, and supply-chain issues have plagued nearly all industries. "All of those things do sound like they've converged to create a not-that-great situation for customers right now," she said.

      Prices motivate consumers

      Making matters worse is the fact that New Hampshire electric utilities have more than doubled the energy supply rates customers have to pay, citing record-high natural gas prices and global energy supply pressures.

      Noonan said the increase in electricity costs is making the delays for solar customers more painful. "Even if the process moved along smoothly in a quick and efficient way, it still might not be quick enough for people these days, because the electric prices are very high — higher than we've ever experienced before," she said.

      The spike in electricity costs since summer is driving more New Hampshire residents to explore solar.

      "We have never seen this much demand," said Dan Weeks, vice president and co-owner of ReVision Energy.

      Nearly 1,000 requests for solar installations came in August alone, Weeks said, "and that trend has been holding in September."

      Availability of new federal rebates is also driving increased interest in solar, Weeks said. "So those factors — on the positive side the expanded incentives, and then on the not-positive side, the spiking electric rates — are definitely causing the phones to ring off the hook," he said. "We are trying our best to serve everyone who calls."

      ReVision can't hire and train enough electricians to keep up with demand, he said. It's now taking "at least a few months" for ReVision to do site visits for prospective customers, Weeks said, and "from the time of contract signing, our installation queue is around six months."

      The delay in processing applications by Eversource is making things worse.

      "We see delays on both ends," Weeks said. "On the front end when we submit the initial application, and on the back end, when we've completed the instal lation and are waiting to connect."

      "We trust Eversource will make the necessary changes to process customer interconnections in a timely manner," he said.

      Weeks said his company is also eager to work with utilities and state leaders to expand access to solar power for low-income residents "who can least afford the cost of electricity."

      Utilities' motives questioned

      As New Hampshire's consumer advocate, Don Kreis's job is to represent the interests of residential utility customers. He said his office has not received any complaints about delays getting solar applications processed.

      "This is the first I've heard of that being a problem, but I'm not surprised at all," Kreis said.

      Utilities should have anticipated the increased interest in solar power and the rise in interconnection applications, he said.

      "When you're talking about an energy price increase like that, then solar panels on the roof start to look a lot more cost-effective for everybody," he said. "People have figured out that solar panels are getting cheaper, and so the economic proposition becomes more and more compelling."

      Kreis said he plans to look into the reported delays in processing interconnection applications. "It should be very swift and efficient, because this is one of the basic services that a utility like Eversource should be expected to provide to customers in the year 2022," he said.

      Kreis said Eversource has historically been "hostile" to net metering, which allows ratepayers to transfer the excess power they generate for themselves — up to one megawatt — back to the energy grid to lower their energy costs.

      For now, electric companies have to pay retail rates for the power that customers feed back into the grid, Kreis said, so there's no incentive for them to encourage customers to go solar and participate in net metering.

      "If anything, they lose revenue over it," he said. "It is not in the best interest of the company to make it as easy as possible for customers to participate in net metering."

      Last week, the state Department of Energy unveiled a long-awaited study to determine the value of net metering energy to the grid and to set rates accordingly. Until that study is finalized and new rates are approved, Kreis said, the utilities "have every reason to drag their feet."

      It's not only residential customers who are waiting. In August, ReVision Energy finished installing a ground-mounted solar array for the town of Newbury at its wastewater treatment plant, but the town is still waiting for the connection from Eversource, according to Weeks.

      That means Newbury is still paying for power from the grid instead of generating its own.

      "What is obviously most painfully felt is when the system's sitting there," Weeks said. "All you need to do is flip the switch."

      If these kinds of delays persist, Evans-Brown from Clean Energy NH said, lawmakers may need to take action to protect consumers looking for alternative-energy solutions to their high electric bills.

      "Do we need to start looking to a change in law to ensure that the utilities are carrying out their duties here and doing so in a timely fashion?" he asked.

      swickham@unionleader.com

      ___

      (c)2022 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)

      Visit The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.) at www.unionleader.com

      Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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