SolarCity (SCTY), one of the two biggest rooftop solar installers in the country, is now fighting soft costs one utility at a time. Its current nemesis is the Public Service Company of Colorado (PSCo), a subsidiary of Xcel Energy (XEL).
“From an administrative standpoint, the Xcel Energy Solar*Rewards program is the most complex of the programs that SolarCity works with,” said Interconnection Director Laura Hannah. “It is also by far the slowest of the utilities that have comparable volumes.”
Among the most costly of soft costs are the expenses incurred by solar installers due to time-consuming interconnection processes imposed by utilities.
Solar Freedom Now is fighting soft costs at the federal level with a movement of solar advocates pushing Congress to create a national installation standard. Clean Power Finance is fighting soft costs at the jurisdictional level by building a National Permitting Database with which installers can manage red tape in individual jurisdictions.
“These issues with Xcel need to be discussed publicly despite the possibility of retaliation because [the utility] hasn’t shown any interest in fixing its program,” said SolarCity Policy and Electricity Markets Director Meghan Nutting of her company’s struggle with the utility. “Can they make our lives harder? Yes. But not much. Their program is already that difficult. Hopefully other installers will speak out as well.”
By contrast, Hannah said, Bob Warner got the Pacific Gas and Electric solar program “moving twice as fast and doing what we would love to see every utility do, which is see where their program is unnecessarily burdensome and simplify.”
Hannah detailed four of many areas in which she contends that Xcel’s program is “unnecessarily burdensome.”
First, Hannah’s team has asked Xcel to allow electronic signatures on required documents. Having to sign and snail-mail documents slows things down. “Every time we talk to them, they say they are working on it, but it hasn’t happened.”
“In two years, they haven’t been able to implement a process to use electronic signatures in the solar program,” Nutting added, “but they were able to implement that almost immediately for rebates in their energy-efficiency program.”
Second, Hannah said, Xcel could reduce the number of forms it requires the customer to review and sign. Three signed forms are now necessary, each at a successive stage in the process. “Best practice for the industry and the practice of most other major utilities we work with,” Hannah said, “is an interconnection agreement signed by the customer upfront that is submitted when it is needed.”
Xcel’s first form must be returned within seven business days or the application is canceled, and without the others, Xcel will not turn on the system, Hannah said. “Altogether, it slows the process and burdens the customer.”
Third, Xcel requires a lengthy, duplicative engineering review, even for small systems. But it is more common for utilities to have systems under 10 kilowatts reviewed by administrators, Hannah explained.
“Xcel has a very detailed and time-consuming engineering review,” Hannah said. “We are seeing a two-month turnaround for even small systems that are not complex enough to require that type of review.”
Finally, Xcel’s 90-day wait time is the product of a process, Hannah said, that is, “from start to finish, twenty steps too long and is burdensome for the customer, the installer and for Xcel.”
For some Colorado installers, the process can be slower.
“Xcel has a system organized to handle volume,” SunTalk Solar owner John Bringenberg said. “They have a good online dashboard and a set of rules and processes that it is important to follow. But there has been a noticeable slowing in the last few months.”
Bringenberg said the design and engineering review step is a particular problem and, at the end of the process, when a local company takes over the meter installation, it often takes weeks before the installer and the customer are notified it is done. “What should be a 60- to 90-day process, we have seen drag out to four or five months.”
Hannah, focused on administrative procedures, seemed almost baffled by how counterproductive Xcel’s convoluted procedures appear to be. “I don’t know who is benefiting. The utility's own team is struggling to keep up with the volume because there are so many steps to the process.”
Nutting, one of the solar industry’s foremost policy experts, suggested that it could be more than a matter of soft costs. “We’ve seen utilities put up whatever roadblocks they can to slow down the industry’s progress. The net-metering fight is the most visible example of this. But I think the least visible but still critical example is utilities’ program administration."
Note: Xcel Energy was informed of the statements made in this piece and agreed to a follow-up interview to respond.