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Solar panels are seen on the house of Sloan Lake resident Paul Aldretti on July 14, 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Those speaking for tens of thousands of Colorado solar panel owners found it blindingly unfair that Xcel Energy could charge customers 17 cents a kilowatt hour for electricity at the same time it was paying solar homeowners only 8 cents an hour to generate it

Staff at the Public Utilities Commission thought so, too. 

Now the PUC staff is asking the commissioners this week to declare whether Xcel has the right to keep delaying installation of the smart meters solar owners need to get paid or charged fairly, and whether Xcel should be compensating the homeowners for any money they lose in the years-long wait. 

The detailed 21-page request by the PUC staff warns the state could lose ground promoting more clean solar generation if potential customers are wary of Xcel and “know the proverbial rug might be pulled out from under them due to problems over which they have no control.” 

Xcel for two years neglected to tell the PUC that new “time of use” rates tracked on smart meters were too complex for the company’s old billing software, so that solar customers could not benefit from smart meters before 2023, the staff filing says. 

MIke Kruger, president of Colorado’s Solar and Storage Association, which represents the solar installation industry and solar panel owner interests, hailed the PUC staff demands for an accounting by Xcel. 

“Solar customers are being penalized for being early movers to adopt green technology,” he said. “I hope for a swift resolution, so that solar customers can be fairly compensated and are no longer discriminated against.”

Xcel was offered a chance to respond to the PUC staff questions but did not respond to the Colorado Sun. 

Paul Aldretti, a northwest Denver resident with solar panels who carefully tracks his generation and use on spreadsheets, views himself as an ally in Xcel’s attempts to reduce emissions from power generation. 

“I think it’s important that Xcel sees those of us who are in the program not as liabilities, but as their greatest fans, the people who want to help them to get to that place” of cleaner electricity generation, Aldretti said. “And this is not the way you treat your fans.”

Aldretti and more than 60,000 Colorado homeowners with solar panels on their roofs don’t yet have access to the smart meters that allow Xcel to charge varied rates for peak or off-peak times under the “time of use” system approved by regulators.  

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Xcel says it is installing the smart meters for its 1.5 million Colorado electric customers at the pace of about 500,000 a year. 

Time of use encourages customers to use less electricity at peak times. Xcel in June told the solar association and regulators that it would have to push back its billing system for solar customers one more time, and that most of them would not come online with time-of-use smart meters until late 2023. 

That means two summers of lost generating cuts for solar owners like Aldretti, the solar trade group says, and their claims are backed up in the PUC staff’s request for a judgment by the commissioners.

The new delay is “unjustly discriminatory and shortchanges solar customers,” COSSA officials have said. Xcel had been working with the PUC, consumer advocates and solar interests for years on the time of use and smart meter changes, and never warned that old billing systems would put solar homeowners last in line. 

The PUC staff’s questions for the commissioners to resolve this week include whether delaying all net-metered solar customers as a group “runs afoul of the statutory prohibition on subjecting any ‘person to any prejudice or disadvantage’ with respect to ‘service,’ or ‘facilities,’” the filing says. 

Xcel officials say the change in rates and billing amounts to a complete overhaul of how people can interact with utilities, and it can’t happen overnight. Solar owners at some times of the day are buying Xcel electricity, and at other times are generating more than they need and selling it to Xcel to push out across the grid. Net metering allows panel owners to get credit for what they produce. 

Xcel has also noted that while some solar owners might benefit from higher time of use payments at their peak generation, others could benefit from the smart meter delay. They might be generating more than they need at times of the day when Xcel is paying them 8 cents and charging non-solar neighbors less than that for electricity. 

Net metered solar panels and Xcel’s smart meter program have many of the same goals. Colorado law mandates that 80% of electric utility carbon emissions be cut by 2030, from a 2005 baseline. The state’s utilities are switching from coal and natural gas to cleaner solar and wind generation. 

Grid-connected solar panels on homes can both lower the amount of electricity they draw from the grid, and can boost clean energy back to the grid at times of the day when solar panels generate excess power. 

Smart meters and time-of-use systems, meanwhile, help utilities avoid using fossil fuel backup plants to meet demand during peak hours, such as when customers get home from work on hot afternoons and flip on their air conditioning and ovens all at once. Xcel and regulators want to educate customers to shift electrical use, such as running dishwashers or charging electric cars, to off-peak hours when possible, and to use countertop appliances instead of heavy duty electric ovens. 

Shifting use to cheaper electricity hours — Xcel’s lowest overnight rate is nearly two-thirds lower than peak rates — also gives customers more control of their bills, particularly attractive as inflation persists across the U.S.

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver