City Commission makes more capacity available through solar feed-in tariff

Published: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 4:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 7, 2012 at 4:52 p.m.

The Gainesville City Commission will make more capacity available through the solar feed-in tariff in 2013 by putting back into the program allotments approved for projects that were not built this year.

Between 1.85 megawatts and 2.53 megawatts could be available for award and installation through the tariff program's lottery. Combined with 2.5 megawatts of projects approved in 2009 for construction in 2013, a total of as much as 5.03 megawatts of new solar energy could be added to grid in 2013, which is above the city's target cap of 4 megawatts annually.

Established back in 2009, Gainesville's solar feed-in tariff pays a premium price for electricity generated by solar power as an incentive to promote installation of solar systems and renewable energy sources.

Through September, arrays generating 14 megawatts of electricity have been installed through the program.

The City Commission's decision to make additional capacity available in 2013 passed 5-2 with Randy Wells and Todd Chase in dissent. Chase has frequently voiced concerns about the rate increases when the biomass plant comes online late next year and said he wanted to avoid anything that will push up rates further.

“At some point we have to stop putting upward rate pressure on our utility,” Chase said.

The cumulative monthly rate impact from the program was an additional $2.40 per 1,000 kilowatt-hours usage. It could rise to $2.57 per 1,000 kwh if 2.53 megawatts are awarded and built, Gainesville Regional Utilities spokesman Lewis Walton said.

While she voted with the majority to make additional capacity available next year, Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls pointed to an “inequity” in the program. The feed-in tariff, she said, impacted the electric rates of residents in her east Gainesville district who do not have the financial resources to afford solar installations and participate in the program.

“It's an inequity when someone pays for something they have no access to,” Hinson-Rawls said.

Commissioners voted unanimously to refer a discussion on how to provide low-income households access to the solar program to their Regional Utilities Committee.

In another unanimous vote, they referred to the same committee Chase's request for another GRU customer survey to measure the continued willingness to fund the feed-in tariff.

There was also significant debate on a motion by Wells to assign all unbuilt capacity from this year exclusively to arrays built on public buildings. His rationale was that would raise money for local government coffers.

But the motion, which Wells eventually withdrew, raised concerns of a possible lawsuit against the city for abruptly changing the rules of the program to limit eligible participants.

Already, an active lawsuit against the city filed by Khepera Solar, a company that twice lost the lottery to enter the feed-in tariff, alleges favoritism to other firms in the application process, including Solar Impact, the largest solar electric company in the area.

At Thursday's meeting, Barry Jacobson, the president of Solar Impact, said his firm had the vast majority of installations with public governments and “would probably benefit the most” from Wells' suggestion. But Jacobson spoke against the move in part because of the potential for litigation.

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