Residential net metering customers with less than 10-kilowatt solar systems selling power to the V.I. Water and Power Authority will continue to get maximum full-price net metering payments after 2025, if a bill approved in committee Wednesday becomes law.
The committee also sent on legislation to require notifying utilities before digging for construction.
The V.I. Legislature vetted and voted on the sunset provision and some technical changes as amendments to another bill in 2014, but they were inadvertently not sent to Government House with the approved legislation, said Sen. Sammuel Sanes, the sponsor of the Bill 31-0067. As a result, the governor considered and signed the bill without the approved amendments, so the committee is sending them on now as separate legislation, Sanes said.
"Unfortunately, we dropped the ball and are trying to rectify that now," Sanes said.
WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge Jr. opposed lifting the sunset provision, saying it forces less well-off customers to subsidize those better able to pay their bills.
WAPA "has always supported this program," but "has not seen eye to eye on large commercial producers," Hodge said. "The program was intended for small residential customers," but larger companies rapidly used up the vast majority of the available wattage in both the territory’s districts, he said. While the majority of net-metering customers are small residential producers, the vast majority of the 15 megawatts of net-metering power production is held by large, commercial producers.
When WAPA pays for net metering onto its grid, the utility still has to pay the cost of maintaining its grid and having it ready for use, he said. Those costs are simply shifted onto the remaining customer base, unless the net metering is shifted to a feed-in tariff, Hodge said. It does not hurt WAPA’s bottom line directly, but means the less well off customers have to pay more than they otherwise would.
"We have 40 percent of our population that do not own a roof and have no way of participating in this program," he said.
Sanes emphasized that the committee had previously approved the measures and said there would soon be more committee hearings to address broader concerns about solar power and net metering. He also said the bill only lifted the sunset for residential customers with smaller systems of less than 10 kilowatts.
Some senators expressed concern about subsidizing larger producers but all ultimately voted to send the measure on for further consideration.
"I think there need to be some immediate changes, if people who are struggling to pay their bills are literally subsidizing the District Court with its solar power system," said Sen. Kurt Vialet.
The committee also heard testimony on a bill from Sen. Janette Millin Young to require notification to the public and utility companies before undertaken excavating of public or private lands and roadways.
Hodge, Public Works Commissioner Gustav James and Innovative Corp. representative Jennifer Matarangas King testified in support of the measure, saying it will help preserve and protect the growing amount of underground infrastructure in the territory. James said Public Works would need a "modest investment" of about $500,000 the first year and $300,000 per year for the next two years. James said this would go towards the purchasing of equipment and software and establish a small staff which would gather the existing information on buried utilities and consolidate that information into a territorywide data base.
Several testifiers recommended changes to the bill, particularly to give it more "teeth" by creating a penalty for noncompliance. Young and Sanes said the amendments would be added when the bill is considered in the Rules and Judiciary Committee.
Both bills were sent out of committee without opposition. Voting in favor of both bills were: Sanes, Vialet, Young and Sen. Clifford Graham. Absent were: Sens. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Marvin Blyden and Almando "Rocky" Liburd.