Batavia, Illinois Rethinks Solar

Batavia City of Energy - Rethink Electric

Article by Jen Banowetz

Thanks to an outcry from its solar citizens, Batavia, Illinois. (ironically dubbed “The City of Energy”) is seriously rethinking its recent ordinance that dings solar customers and effectively discourages sustainable energy use.

The problem is that Batavia is entangled in an excess of energy from the dirtiest of fossil fuels–coal.

It’s such a big problem that if it were up to Public Works Director Gary Holm, residents of Batavia would “keep their toasters warm and leave their lights on,” as he told a roomful of people at the Oct. 18 meeting of the City Council & the Committee of the Whole.

Yes, he really did utter that!

But the painful reason behind his anti-conservation comments is that Batavia is shackled with a 30-year agreement with NIMPA (Northern Illinois Municipal Power Agency) and Prairie State, the moniker for a coal-fired power plant in southern Illinois. As a result, Batavia has an excess of coal-produced power that it must contractually peddle to its residents for decades to come.

Specifically, the ill-fated contract has put “intense pressure” on Batavia electric rates, with the city burdened each month with “its share of loans, its share of the cost of power produced by Prairie State, its share of any power it is required to purchase in the market, if any, as well as the cost of getting the electricity delivered through the national electric transmission system, owned by different companies, in our area, Com Ed. There are also fees associated with transmission.”

That’s a lot of costs.

In addition to that, if Batavia’s electric use is less than that purchased from Prairie State, it must sell that power to the market at either a profit or a loss. (You can read more about Batavia’s situation here.)

With that heavy coal-firing cross to bear, Batavia has not exactly been keen on encouraging renewable energy sources. In July 2016, it passed Ordinance 16-40, amending its electric service rates and metering code, which basically pulled the rug out from under its ten existing residential customers with solar-power systems that pushed surplus power back on the grid.

“The City had been issuing a credit at the retail rate for excess power sent back to the grid for the handful of customers that the City had,” wrote Batavia Finance Director Peggy Colby in a city memo. “The City is now crediting customers for solar power generated by self-installed systems that is not used and pushed back to the Batavia grid at 90% of the average the City received for the sale of excess power over the prior year.”

That is a big financial blow for these solar customers who have invested thousands of dollars in their residential systems with the understanding that net metering would continue to be honored. (In net metering, 1:1 credits are generated from excess power sent to the grid and are used to offset power that the customer draws from the grid.)

How Net Metering Works

In defense, Batavia resident Bob Flora filed a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General. While Flora has one of the largest residential solar systems in the city (22 kW), he also happens to be a retired engineering physicist from Fermilab.

“Prior to the installation, during my fiscal considerations, Batavia Electric clearly indicated that they would give me credit, on a 1:1 kilowatt-hour basis, for energy that I supplied back to them. They don’t dispute this,” Flora wrote in the complaint to the AG. “However, after the solar installation was complete, they categorically refused to do so, offering me only 20 percent of what was promised. The financial harm over the life of the system could easily exceed $20,000.”

The Illinois law (Illinois Net Metering Statute: 220 ILCS 5/16-107.5  Section 465.50) regarding net metering requires full (one-year rollover, kWh for kWh) retail net metering for all residential customers. While this law applies to all public utilities and not to city-owned (municipal) utilities, Flora said he originally was told by Batavia they would follow this practice—until the new ordinance was passed in July, which offered significantly lower credits.

“They clearly don’t understand the purpose, nor comprehend the value of the Illinois net metering law, which is to ‘encourage private investment in renewable energy resources, stimulate economic growth, enhance the continued diversification of Illinois’ energy resource mix, and protect the environment,’” Flora wrote.

In response, the City scheduled Flora to give a presentation on net metering at its Oct. 18 meeting, which brought the actual fairness of Ordinance 16-40 into question.

“Were customers consulted when the ordinance was being researched?” asked Alderman Kevin Botterman at the meeting. “I’m curious of the due process. We altered the arrangement without consulting [our solar customers]. These customers were entitled to the same type of courtesy. It seems we shouldn’t change without letting them weigh in on the change.”

Several solar customers and professionals spoke at the meeting, answering council members’ queries and clarifying points, including Mike Nicolosi, owner of Rethink Electric in Wood Dale and the installer of Flora’s system.  His insight as a NABCEP Certified Solar Installer was integral in conveying the technical side of the argument for solar to the council.  Solar electric systems are not solely a benefit to the homeowner, but to the municipalities grid as well.

“With the current ordinance, right now Batavia is discouraging growth,” Nicolosi said. “Solar actually could help the city load-shave by shouldering some of the burden at peak times.”

For example, think of all those sunny summer days with air conditioners blasting—that’s when solar systems work their best. Under current circumstances, it’s also unfortunately when Batavia often must buy more power at a higher cost to meet demand.

“Currently the city is paying a lot extra by paying for power on the open market,” Nicolosi said. “At peak times, solar customers can put energy back on the grid and free up capacity.”

To the Batavia City Council’s credit, the city now plans to re-examine Ordinance 16-40 and hopefully come to a compromise with solar users who currently represent a mere 0.01 percent of all energy customers in Batavia. In fact, Colby said she is working on a new ordinance to restore net metering for solar customers.

As far as the City of Energy’s future goes, perhaps change is on the way.

“We are in a tough situation as a community; I understand we have contractual obligations,” said Botterman, referring to what he called Batavia’s “bad decision years ago” and “rotten deal” with Prairie State. “But I’m disappointed in 2016 we are discouraging people from adopting alternative energy forms. It’s exactly the type of path we should be heading toward.”

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