Farmer Perspectives on Renewable Energy Program, New CalCAN Report

Click to view the report.
       Click to view the report.

California farmers and ranchers produce more renewable energy than their counterparts in any other state in the country. On-farm solar, wind and bioenergy production offer agricultural producers the opportunity to offset their energy needs, save money and contribute to the state’s energy and climate goals.

CalCAN recently interviewed farmers and ranchers who have installed solar, as well as solar industry representatives involved with agricultural projects, to better understand what’s working and what can be improved in the state’s efforts to encourage on-farm renewable energy.

Today, we are releasing a progress report that uses their experiences and insights to tell this story from the field level. We specifically look at one program intended to make it easier and more attractive for California farmers and ranchers to produce renewable energy: Net Energy Metering Aggregation (NEMA).

A brief summary of our recommendations for improving the program and accelerating the successes of on-farm renewable energy in California can be found below. The full report is available here.

Background: Net Energy Metering Aggregation (NEMA)

Net Energy Metering (NEM) enables customer-generators (i.e., energy customers who generate their own renewable energy like solar, wind or bioenergy) to receive credit for the renewable energy they produce. Such customers are only billed for the net difference in value between the kilowatt hours (kWh) they produce and those they consume (plus applicable charges and fees).

Net Energy Metering Aggregation (NEMA) is a variant to this program, allowing renewable energy generators to distribute the energy credits they produce on one electrical meter (the ‘generating meter’) across their other meters and contiguous properties. CalCAN played a key role in supporting the creation of NEMA through Senate Bill 594 (Wolk) back in 2012, and helped to usher it through a complex implementation process at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

Recommendations: Improving NEMA

Improve Outreach and Education. After more than two years of NEMA, many growers still lack access to reliable information on the program and its benefits. The CPUC and/or the California Energy Commission (CEC), working with the utilities and partners in the solar industry, should develop farm-focused materials on NEMA to increase outreach and education on NEMA in order to better reach more growers throughout the state.

Fix the Confusing, Outdated Billing System. Agricultural customers are confused (and occasionally frustrated) by kinks in the utilities’ NEMA billing procedures, which are prone to errors and delays. Utilities should invest in efficient, automated, user-friendly billing practices to simultaneously avoid customer complaints, improve program transparency, and enhance customer confidence and satisfaction with the program.

Map Local Grid Infrastructure and Share Upgrade Costs. Farms interested in going solar can be hit with exorbitant grid upgrade costs they are unable to predict due to a lack of granular information about the current grid setup. The CPUC should increase grid transparency by requiring utilities to provide easily-accessible mapping tools that show the available capacity on existing grid infrastructure near their customers. Additionally, the CPUC should develop policy on how to fairly distribute ad hoc local grid upgrade costs among the customers, utilities, and state.

Build Flexibility to Address Changing Management Needs. NEMA requires customers to lock in to a static meter arrangement, whereas agricultural management is highly dynamic year-to-year. The CPUC and utilities should establish an option for NEMA operators to adjust an existing arrangement (such as adding or deleting a meter) to avoid inefficiencies and suit customers’ needs.

Allow Operations with Non-Contiguous Land Holdings. The current CPUC rules exclude operations from aggregating meters between land parcels that happen not to touch one another. This ‘contiguous’ rule seems to run contrary to the reality that California farms often grow crops on unconnected pieces of land in the same geographic region. The CPUC should consider what changes to this rule could induce farms with disconnected parcels to make use of NEMA without unfairly burdening the utilities or other customers.

Facilitate Technical Assistance to Ensure Accessibility and Success. On-farm renewable energy decisions are complex, while growers lack guidance on who to trust and what to do. The CPUC should provide a directory of recommended solar consultants/advisors for growers to reference, and establish a fund through which farmers may apply to receive free or discounted technical assistance services. The CPUC should also develop an online self-calculator tool to estimate savings under NEMA, giving farmers an objective baseline when discussing options with solar installation companies.

Moving Forward

NEMA is shining a new light on agricultural renewable energy production, encouraging more California farms to install solar and increasing the efficiency of on-farm systems—all while helping the state meet its aggressive climate change goals.

After two years of implementation, now is the time for the utilities and the CPUC to make important improvements to meter aggregation to ensure NEMA achieves its full potential.

Read the full report at: http://calclimateag.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Shining-Brighter-NEMA-report.pdf

USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) is currently accepting applications for grants and/or loans for renewable energy production and energy efficiency improvements. Read more at the NSAC blog here: http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/reap-energy-fy2017-nosa/

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