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Oklahoma utility rules keep some solar users in the dark

As the cost of residential solar panels comes down, some utility customers who generate more power than they use find Oklahoma regulations are stricter than those in surrounding states.
by Paul Monies Published: April 12, 2013

Oklahoma solar users could be in the shade when it comes to excess electricity generated from their photovoltaic panels.

Just ask Enid resident Kyle Clark. The Oklahoma Gas and Electric Co. customer spent about $50,000 to install 30 solar panels on his house. Lured by tax credits and the promise of lower electric bills, Clark wanted to be able to reverse his meter and push power back into the grid.

So Clark was surprised to see a $14 bill last May after he'd built up more than 1,400 kilowatt-hours of credits. The typical household uses about 1,100 kilowatt hours of electricity each month.

After making calls to OG&E and solar power experts, Clark found out Oklahoma doesn't allow customers to carry forward credits for excess power for more than one month. That's more limited than OG&E customers receive in Arkansas, which allows credits for what's called net metering up to one year.

“I watched those credits build up through winter,” Clark said. “I know it sounds cheap, but it's the principle of the thing.”

Net metering is available to all electric utility customers, although generation capacity must stay below 100 kilowatts. Most net metering customers use wind or solar, but it's also available for other types of renewable energy such as geothermal electric and biomass.

At a minimum, Oklahoma Corporation Commission rules for net metering allow credits to be built up until the end of the customer's monthly billing cycle. What to do with excess generation after that is left to the “management discretion” of utilities and cooperatives, said Brandy Wreath, director of the commission's public utility division.

Wreath said officials at the Corporation Commission are studying the rules surrounding net metering. He expects a report to be finished by the summer. Any changes likely would involve the Legislature.

“This is becoming more and more of an issue as the costs of solar and wind installations come down,” Wreath said.

Chris Gary, owner of Sun City Solar Energy in Oklahoma City, said the typical customer spends between $8,000 and $12,000 to install solar panels. Energy savings and tax credits for renewable power can mean the investment pays for itself in six or seven years, Gary said. Depending on home energy use, customers can cut their monthly electric bills by more than half.

As the cost of solar panels and equipment comes down, so have the installation costs, Gary said. Five years ago, the average cost per watt installed was about $13.50. Today, it's between $4.50 and $5.50 per watt. A typical residential solar panel can generate 225 watts of electricity, enough to power a window fan or 42-inch LCD TV.

“Solar power is really taking off in Oklahoma,” Gary said. “Five years ago, nobody really cared.”

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by Paul Monies
Energy Reporter
Paul Monies is an energy reporter for The Oklahoman. He has worked at newspapers in Texas and Missouri and most recently was a data journalist for USA Today in the Washington D.C. area. Monies also spent nine years as a business reporter and...
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