NMPP helps members with net-metering service, resource book

If integrating distributed generation is challenging for large utilities, imagine the difficulties faced by rural and small municipal utilities. With 200 member communities located in six western states, Nebraska Municipal Power Pool You are leaving WAPA.gov. (NMPP) doesn’t have to use imagination to identify the needs of its members.

Distributed generation is becoming increasingly popular even in rural communities. NMPP has developed aresource guidebook to help prepare its members to deal with the challenges of interconnection.
Distributed generation is becoming increasingly popular even in rural communities. NMPP has developed a resource guidebook to help prepare its members to deal with the challenges of interconnection.

NMPP is the utility services organization of NMPP Energy, the trade name for a coalition of four organizations based in Nebraska that provide municipal utilities with wholesale electricity, wholesale and retail natural gas and energy-related services. Some of its members serve as few as 200 customers with minimal staff who wear many hats, said NMPP Energy Communications Specialist Kevin Wickham. “We saw the need to help our members with interconnection coming several years ago when some of the states we serve passed net-metering laws,” he recalled.

Building new services
NMPP launched a net-metering service in 2010 that 22 member utilities have used to date. That number is likely to increase as the cost of installing individual solar arrays drops and utilities install community solar projects.

The net-metering program offers members a choice of three options, each for a cost-based, one-time fee. Members may choose from assistance in developing their own policy guideline and procedures, review of customer generation application for interconnection or avoided cost rate development for payment for energy delivered to the utility.

As it developed its net metering service, NMPP was also working on a resource guidebook, Recommended Policy and Guidelines for Interconnection of Customer-Owned Generation Including Net Metering. “The guidebook was six years in the making,” said Wickham. “Initially, we were going to offer it as one of the services available under the program.”

Something everyone needs
In 2015, NMPP and its wholesale power supply organization Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska You are leaving WAPA.gov. (MEAN) partnered to provide the guidebook to all of MEAN’s 54 long-term total requirements power participants. “Distributed generation and customer self-generation has really taken off and we realized that there was a greater need for the information,” Wickham explained.

The guidebook contains policy guidance, sample agreements, industry terms and definitions and case studies from the American Public Power Association. You are leaving WAPA.gov. Members will also find net-metering statutes from the states NMPP and MEAN serve (Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas). That was one of the bigger challenges in putting together the guidebook, Wickham acknowledged. “Each city council and each utility designs and administers its own policies and procedures around net metering,” he said. “We had to make sure the guidebook was going to be useful to all our customers.”

Input from several regional utilities and trade associations helped NMPP compile a comprehensive resource. Otherwise, the net-metering guidebook was a product of expertise within the organization. “The guidebook wouldn’t have been possible without the cooperation from those utilities, as well as the American Public Power Association,” said Tim Sutherland, MEAN director of wholesale electric operations.

Prepared for future
With an estimated 900 kilowatts of solar power on MEAN’s system, distributed generation has arrived, noted Wickham. “Customers have high expectations when it comes to utility customer service. We  stress to our members to be prepared, starting with things like having an interconnection agreement in place before a customer walks in the door,” he said.

MEAN member utilities, especially the small ones, are finding the resource useful in working out their renewable interconnection policies. “The creation of the net-metering guidebook was the result of being responsive to MEAN’s power participants’ needs,” said Sutherland. “It is just an example of seeing a need and trying to assist our member-owners.”

Utilities can expect to be confronting the challenge of distributed generation and other changes in the electric industry well into the future, Sutherland noted. NMPP and MEAN will continue to look for services, programs and tools to help their member-owners provide consumers with reliable, affordable and sustainable power, he added.

Palo Alto honored for successfully streamlining solar permitting process

CPAU_logoAt the 2014 Solar Power Generation USA CongressRedirecting to a non-government site in San Diego, the national Award for Best Collaboration went to the city of Palo Alto, Calif.Redirecting to a non-government site, for streamlining its residential and commercial solar array approval process.

Palo Alto earned the award by bringing together stakeholders from the public, private and government sectors to make it faster and easier to install a photovoltaic (PV) system in the city. The collaborative project reduced the average 122-day wait for a solar permit in Palo Alto to five days, and in most cases the permit can be issued over the counter. The time it takes until final inspection is down to 140 days from the 209 days, with inspection requests being accommodated on the same or next day. As a result of these improvements, the number of solar applications received in city the same three-month period increased by 67 percent.

The best intentions
Standards for solar panel installation vary from state to state, even city to city; and contractor certification requirements are equally inconsistent. A strong approval and inspection process for installations ensures public safety, code compliance and quality work. “There will always be a few bad actors who will take advantage of cities and utilities that are under pressure to meet renewable energy mandates,” observed Peter Pirnejad, Development Services director for the City of Palo Alto. “Ultimately, that hurts consumers, renewable programs and the industry itself.”

But a too-rigorous process can hinder deployment, too, added Pirnejad, making an agency seem excessively bureaucratic and obstructive. In an effort to protect citizens, Palo Alto requirements had mushroomed to include full copies of installation guidelines on all the components of the array. “It is a balancing act, and we had gone too far in the direction of caution,” he acknowledged.

The first step in restoring balance was getting input from the local solar industry. Pirnejad, who joined the city in 2012, brought together a large group of installers to discuss the process. “We received a lot of feedback about our requirements and responsiveness,” he recalled. “It was clear that the problem was systemic.”

Get it done
Overhauling the process was the goal, and the city wasted no time moving forward. “You can’t say you want to streamline a system, and then take a long time to do it,” Pirnejad pointed out.

The Development Services Department assembled a task force of solar contractors, residents, utility representatives and city officials. In three meetings over four months, the group identified ways to create a more transparent and efficient permitting process.

The first round of fixes included setting a flat fee for residential installations, eliminating the requirement to engineer residential PV systems and reducing the number of required inspections. The city standardized a PV permit checklist, modeled on The Solar America Board Codes and Standards (Solar ABCs) Expedited Permit ProcessRedirecting to a non-government site and created a website where applicants can find all the requirements and city contacts.

Not there yet
The initial changes made a big difference in the first six months following implementation. The average number of days the city took to issue a permit dropped 37 percent. Streamlining reduced the number of days to finalize a permit by 15 percent, and cut in half the time it took to complete a review.

The city presented those results to the community for a six-month review, and the community’s gentle, but firm response was better, but not good enough. “The issues were more about efficiency than speed,” Pirnejad said.

In trying to turn around permit requests in three days, the city was stretching its system to the breaking point. The time it took the city to return plan check comments was viewed as less of a problem than how long it to issue the permit to build. People were having trouble meeting the requirements for over-the-counter permitting. Design plan checks had become faster but the number of rechecks and plan resubmittals had climbed. Similarly, contractors were less concerned about how long it took the city to respond to the field inspection request and more concerned about how often inspections were being failed.

The task force reached out to PV designers and installers again for help in refining the process. Pirnejad credits that input with helping the city find a balance between speed and thoroughness. “If I had one word of advice for cities trying to simplify and expedite their PV review and inspection experience, it would be ‘collaboration,'” he said. “To get a process that works for both the city and the designers, both parties have to come together.”

Better than awards

This is the 500th PV system installed in Palo Alto's territory, replacing the first system installed in 1983! The city's streamlined permitting process is helping to increase applications to install solar panels on homes and businesses. (Photo by City of Palo Alto)
This is the 500th PV system installed in Palo Alto’s territory, replacing the first system installed in 1983! The city’s streamlined permitting process is helping to increase applications to install solar panels on homes and businesses. (Photo by City of Palo Alto)

Palo Alto seems to have reached the goal of a process that works for the most people. In last quarter of 2013, the city received more solar permit applications than during the entire year of 2012. In December of 2013 alone, 38 applications moved through the process, compared to 40 in all of 2011.

Streamlining the permitting process will help the already carbon-neutral city increase the amount of clean electricity generated locally. The process for permitting electric vehicle charging stations was also covered in the overhaul, so it is likely to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, too.

Shortly after the improved process went into effect, the Vote Solar Initiative contacted Palo Alto. The nonprofit renewable energy advocate had heard about the collaborative project and wanted to feature it in a webinar about how cities should work. Project Permit, a Vote Solar program that scores municipal solar permitting practices nationwide, has given the Palo Alto permitting process a gold star.

The PV industry has shown its appreciation too, with SolarCityRedirecting to a non-government site and Cobalt Power SystemsRedirecting to a non-government site, two of the city’s largest PV installers, publicly praising the dramatic changes. “The City of Palo Alto deserves a tremendous amount of credit for listening to the needs of solar customers and making direct changes based on those needs,” said Jefferson Silver, senior commercial project manager for SolarCity.

“This type of collaboration between city staff and developers facilitates a deeper level of interaction within our community,” said Palo Alto City Manager James Keene in an interview.

Keep on keeping on
Pirnejad and the Development Services team have not allowed success to go to their heads. “Municipalities need to continuously monitor their requirements to make sure they remain efficient and reflect current best practices,” he explained.

The ties the city built with the community during the streamlining project will help to keep the process from backsliding, Pirnejad believes. “Getting all the stakeholders involved and really listening to them is what gets results,” he declared. “The human touch makes all the difference.”

Calling Minnesota utilities to participate in CARD pilot project

The Minnesota Department of Commerce is seeking utilities with convenience store customers to participate in a pilot project funded by its Conservation Applied Research and Development (CARD) grant Redirecting to a non-government site. The CARD grant program identifies new technologies, strategies and program approaches that help utilities to achieve the annual state energy conservation goal of 1.5 percent. 

The Convenience Store Energy Efficiency CARD grant pilot project focuses on optimizing the performance of existing equipment, lighting, motors, air infiltration and controls, rather than major equipment replacements. Any convenience store with older equipment could benefit from this pilot project.

Michaels Energy Redirecting to a non-government site received the first award in March 2012, and has completed audits on four primary sites. The audits showed opportunities to reduce annual operating costs by 15 to 17 percent per site. The results are being used to develop a template for delivering services in another 46 Minnesota convenience stores. So far, only 20 additional sites have signed on to the project, so the end date for the grant has been extended.

Please contact Ralph Dickinson of Michaels Energy at 651-900-4710 if you have Minnesota convenience store customers that could participate in this pilot. Pilot sites served by municipal utilities are particularly sought, as the grant specifically aims to help municipals stretch limited resources and address a customer type that can be difficult to impact.