Homer Electric Association has seen a sharp increase in the number of its members wanting to hook up their own renewable energy setups into the grid this summer, and is planning to ask the state Regulatory Commission to increase how much renewable energy it can buy back from them.
This summer alone, central peninsula residents have installed more than 140 kilowatts’ of solar panel capacity, with more planned for Homer. That adds to the number of people who already had renewable energy capacity at their homes or businesses who can generate their own energy and feed some back into HEA’s grid when they make too much. At the same time, they can also draw off the grid when it’s not sunny enough for their panels or not windy enough for a wind turbine.
HEA helped pioneer this hybrid system with micro-renewable generation and grid ties through a program called net metering. Now with renewable energy growing, the cooperative is looking at expanding how much renewable energy it allows to be fed back into the grid.
Net metering is essentially using the grid as a battery—when you produce enough power on your own, you can power your own needs and sell some back into the grid. When you don’t, you can turn a switch on and get power the same way anyone would. Susan Oliver with HEA said as of July, there are about 270 members participating in net metering, and they have a variety of reasons for choosing to do it.
"Some of the reasons are to reduce their carbon footprint, reduce their reliance on fossil fuel, financial, to lower their energy costs, but the most heartfelt reason that was shared with me by a member is she stated she made her investment in her solar system because she wanted to model a different way of living, to consume less, and be mindful of how our actions can affect our community and our planet, and each family can make a difference," she said.
Tyler Cheatwood, who manages the net metering program, said this year has seen a big increase, which has increased the demand on HEA’s staff to help get them on the grid. In the past, they’ve been mostly individual members dealing directly with the cooperative, but now professional electricians are doing a lot of it, he said.
"The amount of new systems being brought online and the total capacity of the systems being brought online has started increasing very sharply," he said. "That added a couple of challenges. We went from having one of these a month to having multiple installations eery single week. So there’s significantly more time being spent trying to help people get systems online."
But one of the challenges is that HEA is limited as to how much power it can buy back from those renewable sources by regulation. The cooperative applied and got approval to double its limit from 1.5 percent of average demand to 3 percent in the past. Brad Janorschke, HEA’s general manager, said the number of systems being installed pushes HEA toward that 3 percent cap.
"As of the end of June, we’re about 96 percent of our cap already installed, and I know Matanuska Electric and Chugach are both looking at their programs," Janorschke said.
During its meeting Tuesday, the board passed a resolution asking the RCA if HEA could raise its net metering cap to 10 percent. Member relations manager Bruce Shelley said that now has to go before the RCA, which can approve, modify or reject it.
Cheatwood told the board that one reason the net metering cap is in place is to protect the grid infrastructure.
"There’s protective equipment and fuses out on the lines so that when there’s an issue that causes an outage, the appropriate fuse blows or protective device trips, and it protects the line and causes as small of an outage as possible, because all of the power primarily is being sent from the substation down to the end consumer. But now we have multiple power sources, and large power sources, feeding from multiple directions and something falls on the line, it could potentially start tripping the wrong protective devices and blowing fuses in the wrong directions."
Renewable energy generation has been growing massively on the peninsula over the past decade. In 2010, members generated about 36,767 kilowatt-hours of renewable energy. In 2018, that had increased to more than 277,000 kilowatt-hours, according to HEA.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.