Farmers and solar owners fight limits on power generation

Solar enthusiasts might have spotted the issue first but when farmers found out their efforts to turn manure into energy might be at risk, they came out in force to oppose a new regulation proposed by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

The rules under debate could change who can sell alternative energy into the grid through net metering.

Net metering allows utility customers to apply electricity generated by their own alternative energy systems against their electric bills. It has allowed Cliff and Andrea Sensenig to save their dairy farm in Kirkwood, according to a letter Ms. Sensenig wrote to the PUC.

A few years ago the couple installed a methane digester to process food waste and manure into electricity. They did it as a way to generate money. The digester makes far more power than the farm uses and the revenue the couple generates by selling the excess to the utility has kept the facility afloat, she wrote.

If the PUC regulations are enacted as written, the electric checks would likely stop. The agency is proposing to cap electricity production from such sources at 110 percent of the owner’s demand.

It is also looking to require customer generators to have something, such as a house or equipment, to power on the site where they are proposing to put an alternative energy system. In other words, if there’s no pre-existing demand, there can be no net-metered alternative energy generation to offset it, the agency claims.

The PUC estimates about 100 alternative energy system development and installation companies would be impacted by the regulation, but that “the costs and impacts on small businesses are expected to be minimal.”

Many of the costs and impacts will be offset by more regulatory clarity and certainty, which should reduce development costs, the PUC said in a supporting document for its proposal.

The agency has maintained it is not attempting to change the laws that established net-metering and mechanisms to promote small-scale alternative energy generation, but simply codifying the way it has been applying those laws for some time now.

But nearly all the comments submitted so far claim the PUC is overstepping its authority and disregarding both the letter and the intent of such laws.

“Is the intent of the PUC with this order to limit the amount of alternative energy produced and made available to the consumers when the rest of the world is looking for every kilowatt of alternative energy that can be created?” asked the Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania. “Why does the PUC seek to limit the free market/income of dairy farm families?”

The 110 percent proposal is particularly problematic because alternative energy systems such as digesters, solar panels and landfill-to-energy projects are expensive commitments, most of which would not be justified if the utility’s payout was capped at 10 percent of the energy produced, commenters said.

The matter even rose to the attention of Christopher Abruzzo, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, who warned the PUC that “any factor that deters Pennsylvania’s farms from pursuing [anearobic digesters] as a means of manure management does a disservice to the farming community and the environment.”

The PUC has indicated it wants to set a limit to prevent merchant generators from masquerading as customer generators, but opponents note that the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards law of 2007 already has limits on the size of systems that customers can net meter. For residential customers, it’s 50 kilowatts or less. For small commercial is 3 megawatts, or, in some cases, 5.

“By increasing the burdens and barriers for using net metering, the commission is disregarding both the intent but also the clear language of the AEPS Act itself,” wrote Granger Holdings, a company that develops landfill-to-energy projects and has two such projects at Pennsylvania landfills which it hopes to expand.

If the regulations are adopted, Granger and a number of other parties asked the PUC to grandfather all existing and pending net-metering facilities.

The Office of the Small Business Advocate has been a lonely voice of support for the regulations thus far.

The group welcomed the proposed rules saying they are necessary to protect small business customers from bearing the cost passed down by utilities that have to pay retail price for net-metered generation.

The PUC’s public comment on the proposed rules closes Sept. 3. 

Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455.

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