Solar blues 

For small consumers, it's a one way grid

When Ken Goralski and Steve Simpson bought a solar power system large enough to supply their entire house during the summer months and sell the surplus back to the grid, they thought their greatest investment would be the $35,000 ticket price. Instead it was their patience.

Their commitment to solar power never depended on dollar signs or convenience, Goralski says. They knew the system wouldn’t eliminate their electric expenses altogether nor pay for itself over any tangible time period.

But the long-time domestic partners were committed to a philosophy of self-reliance and sustainable living and they decided to act once they learned about grant money supplied by Northwestern Power customers and administered through the National Center for Appropriate Technology. This was two years ago, during the time of the California energy crunch and power deregulation in Montana.

“We both agreed it was something we wanted to do in our hearts,” Goralski says. “It’s the kind of thing that’s for the collective good. It’s like ‘why I should pay for your kids to go to school. I don’t have kids.’ But I think it’s a good thing. [Renewable energy sources] are the future. What else is there going to be? There won’t be any more rivers to dam. There won’t be any more coal to mine. And we’re not going to hold our breath for fusion.”

With a green philosophy supporting them and a $5,000 grant behind them, Goralski and Simpson had sufficient motivation and finances to proceed. But what they didn’t account for was a series of minor but irritating stumbling blocks in their way.

First, there was the financing method. The amount of money they spent wasn’t the issue, Goralski says, but the kind of money was. Because they took out a home equity loan, the interest was tax deductible but the rate wasn’t as favorable as they expected for a purchase that would improve their property.

“[Renewable energy equipment] really should be in a special category,” Goralski says. “You can buy things that increase in value like real estate and you can buy things that decrease in value like a car. This is something that will firmly increase in value. [But] it’s treated as a consumer loan. It may as well be a stereo as far as the bank is concerned.”

Then they had to sign a contract with Northwestern Power as a power producer, albeit a very small one, and install a net meter, which can record electricity flowing both directions. Thus they can contribute power during the day when their consumption is low and their production is high. And during the evening, they can reverse the flow. Goralski scoffs at the contract as incomplete and incomprehensible, but reserves harsher scorn for the net meter, which was installed at their expense three months after the system was ready and, he claims, running backward just fine during peak sunlight hours.

From March through May, when Goralski and Simpson used more electricity than they produced, the system worked fine. But during the longer daylight hours of summer, a final problem arose.

From July on, they noticed their utility bills were wrong. They weren’t getting credit for the power they were sending back into the electrical grid. The meter peaked at 143 kilowatts in June, and the bill was right about that. But as the meter slowly unwound to zero through the summer, the bills continued to reflect a starting and ending amount at 143 kilowatts.

That meant Goralski and Simpson had not consumed any energy, and consequently, their bills included only the standard $4.60 service charge each month. But the bills did not reflect the credit part of the equation and when the meter momentarily passed beneath zero in September before starting to climb again in October, they racked up 43 kilowatts of consumption and found themselves facing a utility bill with $2.91 in electrical charges.

It was as minor as it was irritating. As if in a Kafka novel in which the main character wanders the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the state, the bill dramatized the struggle of conscientious energy consumer in a centralized system of energy production. Most galling was the profit Northwestern Energy was able to earn on their raw electricity and the small dollar figure only highlighted the principle of the matter.

“Not only does it not cost them anything to produce, but the transmission and distribution is almost free because it’s just going next door,” Goralski says. “Essentially this says if the meter runs forward, you pay, and if it runs backward, thank you very much. This will happen more and more. If we just ignore it and pay the damn bill, nothing will change. Someone has to scream at some point.”

This isn’t the first scream Dave Ryan, a representative of Northwestern Power, has heard this year regarding the 120 net-metering agreements the utility holds in Montana. When meters actually run backward for an extended period, the bills have to be adjusted by hand. It’s a simple thing to correct, Ryan says, as long as there aren’t too many people like Goralski and Simpson in the system.

Actually, Montana is on the vanguard of solar power, according to Ray Schott at NCAT. Montana is behind only a few sun-drenched states like California in per capita installations, he says, and a new revolving loan program funded by pollution fines will provide better financing in the future. But Goralski and Simpson demonstrate that the rhetoric of solar power still outpaces reality enough to strain the patience of even those who enter the game with low expectations.

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