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A Ray of Sunshine on Subject of Electric Bills : A new law will allow residents to juice up their own air conditioners and sell excess power to Edison.


This month Gov. Pete Wilson signed into law a bill that will allow more Californians than ever before to profit from this state's sunshine--particularly Californians living in this county. The measure is intended to clear out some regulatory snarls that now prevent environmentally conscious electricity consumers from getting a fair deal in the marketplace.

Officially called "Public Utilities: Net Metering" and co-sponsored in the Legislature by Oxnard Assemblyman Nao Takasugi, the bill mandates that utility companies give folks who install solar photovoltaic rigs on their roofs an even break on their electric bill.

Quite literally an even break.

Before this month, if you were already hooked up to the utility but went to the trouble to put up a really good solar rig just to fight smog and save on power bills, it was punishingly expensive.

Further, if you generated more than enough juice to keep your home cool and lighted, say 350 kwh (kilowatt-hours) a month, the law required you to sell the excess power to Edison for two or three cents per kilowatt-hour. The rub was that, if you didn't make enough juice for all your needs and had to draw on power from Edison--the company sold it to you at four to five times that figure--12 to 15 cents per kilowatt-hour.

But Takasugi and state Senate colleague Alfred Alquist reasoned that juice is juice, and thus all parties generating electricity should be equal.

Takasugi wrote to the governor, reminding him that Siemens Solar Industries, the world's largest manufacturer of solar cells and modules, is situated in Takasugi's district in Camarillo. He went on to point out that the bill "will allow PV (photovoltaic) technology to penetrate into this emerging market of grid connected applications." By this he meant that lots more Californians could become power generators--rather then just consumers--by installing this technology, even if they were already hooked up to the electric company's power grid.

But only if they can get a better break on their electric bills. "Net Metering" means that you get the full retail value of the electricity you generate. Your electric meter already notes every little bit of juice you draw from Edison. It is also capable of noting every little bit your solar rig might produce in excess of your daily needs.

According to the California Solar Energy Industries Assn., this could mean getting your electric bill down to zero on hot summer days. Nice idea, because that's when bills usually go the highest.

According to the association's spokesperson, Cathy Murnighan, "On sunny days, a three-kilowatt PV system will satisfy the electricity requirements of a three-bedroom home." During the day, she explained, an air-conditioner gobbles up lots of power, but on that same day a solar rig on the roof could generate even more power, so much so that you could be selling it to Edison. Your electric meter could be running backward in the daytime. At night, when you've got no sun pounding on your rooftop but you need juice for lighting, your meter would begin running the other way--drawing from Edison.

But this bit of solar give-and-take didn't make financial sense for consumers as long as utilities bought cheap and sold dear. A rooftop rig such as Murnighan mentioned costs over $20,000. Paying for it out of avoided electric bills would have taken forever--until now.

"It's like an energy bank--you pay in during the day and draw out at night," said Ojai environmentalist Conner Evarts, who has been waiting for a law like this one.

"Now you can afford to hook up, put in solar, pay it off and be down to having almost no electric bills in about five years," he said.

According to Edison, you don't have to be an environmentalist living in a remote location to be a likely customer for solar power. If the company can get approval from the California Public Utilities Commission, it will be allowed to offer customers a solar rig--installed with no upfront cost--payable as part of their monthly bill.

Evarts thinks all these recent solar energy developments could be a boost for local real estate values. He put it this way: "I think it's going to be a prime sales feature in the future if you can say your house has zero electricity bills for air-conditioning in the summer."


* FYI: For information on recently enacted legislation that creates financial benefits for homeowners who install solar-powered photovoltaic electric equipment, call the California Solar Energy Industries Assn. at (800) 225-7799

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