Net Metering, a.k.a. the Joy of Watching Your Electric Meter Spin Backward
Am I on or off the grid?
Though homeowners with solar panels are producing their own power, most are still connected to the electric grid through their utility company. That’s what makes it possible to sell energy back to the utility. To be technically “off the grid,” you’d have to have a battery back-up system to store the extra energy you produce; the batteries are expensive, take up lots of space, and have to be replaced every 5 or 10 years. So, most people are tied to the grid (grid tie solar). (Even though our name is “One Block Off the Grid,” that really just means we’re helping communities produce power themselves, not literally come off the grid).
So, what’s net metering?
When the solar panels on your roof pump out electricity, it will be used right away to power whatever’s on in your house, like your TV, computer, or lamps. Extra energy is sent back to the utility, and as that happens, you’ll get to see your electric meter actually run backwards. The utility’s “net metering” program means, in most cases, that they’ve committed to buying power from you at the same rate as they sell it to you. Basically, it’s a credit. While you’re at work during the day, you can be feeding power to the utility, and then when you come home at night (and the sun is no longer shining on your solar panels), the utility will give it back to you at no charge.
Why is this so great?
In states where utilities are required to buy power from you at the going retail rate (most states), you’ll end up saving more money. Some states buy back power at the wholesale rate, which isn’t quite as great a deal.
Is net metering available everywhere?
All public electric utilities are required to make net metering available to customers, under federal law. Bills are pending in Congress to require net metering for all utilities, and the majority of states have laws for net metering. Four states don’t provide for net metering (Alabama, Mississippi, South Dakota and Tennessee). There are differences in the programs in other states; for example, some have a limit on the number of subscribers who can be using net metering at any time. Almost all have a limit on the wattage for each subscriber.
Do I need a special meter?
Most simple meters can run both forward and backward. Some utility companies will set you up with two meters– one for each direction. Others are starting to use time-of-use (TOU) meters, which record the time electricity was used, so that the utility can charge different rates depending on the time of day.
How does billing work?
Your utility will still read your meter every month, but now they’ll only charge you for the net amount of energy used. You may also be able to choose to pay your bill every 12 months, rather than every month.
By Dave Llorens
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