PG&E Snafu Stalls School Solar Program

PG&E deals a blow to solar in a small Redwood Country town | Photo: Scott Schrantz/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The handwriting's on the wall: The future of California power generation is rooftops. Large investor-owned utilities face the prospect of rewriting their business plans to reflect that fact. It's pretty much inevitable that they'll be leaving the power generation business and becoming power brokers, selling each of us power generated in our neighborhoods by our neighbors. But change comes slow to big companies, and a Mendocino County school district is paying the price -- literally.

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According to reporter Jennifer Poole at The Willits News, an acre of solar panels installed by the Willits Unified School District at four locations earlier this year have been sitting idle due to bureaucratic mixups at Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). The utility's Net Energy Metering office approved the six installations, but then PG&E's newly formed Generation and Interconnection Services (GIS) group revoked the approval.

The school district serves 1,900 K-12 students from Willits, a city of about 4,500 people in central Mendocino County, as well as from surrounding areas.

District officials say PG&E's GIS office has been less than forthcoming with information that might help the project hook up to the grid, at one point telling Josh Margarison, foreman of the district's solar contractor Fort Bragg Electric, that the office was too busy to get back to him. Fort Bragg Electric has installed school solar systems elsewhere in Mendocino County.

Margarison told a meeting of the Willits Unified School Board that the GIS office had asked for some equipment upgrades, which his company provided. The GIS office also asked for additional documentation of the system in a new format, which Margarison's firm provided. "That's when it got real quiet at PG&E," Margarison told the board.

According to the Willits Unified board, the school is losing $13,600 a month in energy savings and net metering sales for each month the panels remain unhooked from the grid. The board had allocated some of those projected savings toward long-deferred maintenance at a number of school facilities. Willits Unified will be filing a complaint against PG&E with the California Public Utilities Commission over the delay in tying the solar panels into the grid.

If PG&E's having this much trouble getting an acre's worth of PV panels hooked up to its grid, it's hard to imagine that a smaller commercial or household array wouldn't wait much longer in the queue. Whether delays like this are a result of utility obstructionism or bureaucratic inertia, they stand in the way of California's distributed renewable energy future.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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