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Class Action mooted on NSW solar metering “scandal”

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The rapidly escalating outrage around the NSW solar metering scandal is growing by the day.

Consumers are potentially being forced wear the costs of upgrades (to meters that are only six years old) and as it stands, there isn’t a hope of getting them all replaced in time for the cut off.

The potential for discriminatory new metering fee’s looms over their heads, although many don’t even know it’s coming.

And to make matters worse, the changes are not even necessary.  If there was an unavoidable technical reason for a new meter, it could be a multi-channel gross meter once again, Netted off during billing.

The issue is actually about net billing, and reinforcing the power of incumbents. It is not about net metering.

Earlier this week I talked to a packed room of potential and current solar owners. Before I even had a head of steam in my presentation, one savvy solar owner asked for advice on what was going to happen with metering and tariffs. Around 30 per cent of the room has solar and the remainder want it.

“Well” I said “It’s going to go like this, based on current public information”.

“The solar meter which you paid to have installed six years ago will be removed and thrown in a pile. Then, the Government owned network company will specify a new meter in collaboration with your retailer, charge you up front for its supply and installation, possibly also replacing your consumption meter if it’s separate.”

 

Either customers will be billed, or locked into lock term contractors.

I go on: “You will then be net metered and net billed. Your new meter will be programmed only to read the difference between consumption and generation in the same way it is done for non FIT customers. It is unlikely to record interval data or have smart access to the data.  Importantly, you need to understand that this means you will no longer be able to see your actual energy consumption or actual solar generation on your bill.”

Stunned silence.

“I must be misunderstanding you,” said a punter. “Are you telling me that I am being forced to discard a near new meter, replace it at a high cost and that the replacement remove the ability to understand what I have used and generated??…– how is it possible that will be forced to purchase a new meter that doesn’t provide me with metering?”

This is inevitably the reaction from every solar owner that solar providers talk to. Industry has just gotten used to it.

“Smarter customers already install sub metering” was my response. “It sounds a like a sales pitch, but we strongly encourage every customer to install additional metering to address this issue because we haven’t had a choice.

“Crucially, if you are considering storage you really should be installing sub metering because we can then accurately see your demand profile, which is needed to size your storage. It sucks, you are paying twice but it’s the only way we can solve it right now”

A growing number of Australian solar owners already deal with this issue every single day. My newer customers are already confused as hell and I’ve presented case studies over the years like many others of what a nonsensical and disempowering approach it is.

However, the NSW situation is entirely different. It’s 2016 and technology has come ahead leaps and bounds. There is an opportunity to stop the momentum of the status quo and not penalise solar owners with a dumb, expensive solution.

The metering impetus

The sole impetus behind replacing up to 150,000 solar meters in NSW is the change from net to gross billing.  How it’s metered is arguably a separate and distinct issue. Do you have to Net meter to Net bill?  Hell no!

The currently installed Gross metering provides high grade data on two or more channels which is fed into a billing system. The billing system ID’s you, aggregates your data, applies any applicable Retail tariffs and produces a bill.

The billing system is already doing a myriad of backend calculations and to Net bill (with Gross metering) the difference need only be subtracted. It is that simple.

If there was an unavoidable technical reason for a new meter, it could be a multi-channel gross meter once again, Netted off during billing.

That’s why this issue is actually about net billing, not net metering.

Motivation

Why on earth would the Government owned networks and the private retailers be talking about doing this meter swap then?

Largely, I think it’s because they haven’t caught up with what’s possible and are just following the status quo without genuine thought to alternatives. Perhaps that’s too generous.

Would the networks benefit if consumers didn’t actually know how much energy they were using and generating? Arguably. I have met plenty who wish they knew how much energy they used in their business, but don’t because since installing solar they have been forced onto net metering.

Do the networks benefit by writing off current meter assets and, purchasing, on-selling and profiting on new meters? Yes. They will purchase $30M or so of meters, on sell them to us at a profit and depreciate them as assets, even though we have been charged for them. It’s the only I product I know of that you pay for in full in advance and yet don’t own.

Does this help solar consumers? No. They will be financially worse off and will not have access to data that they currently have. They will not be advised how much energy they use or when.

Does it improve the vision of household demand profiles and access to detailed data for networks and consumers? No. In many cases, it will diminish it.

Culpability

The NSW 60c Solar Bonus scheme was launched with an end date. During planning for the metering rollout networks had explicit, concise vision towards the end of the scheme and that Net metering was probable at the schemes end, given its popularity elsewhere.

They made a choice to deploy these meters with this knowledge and I would thus purport that they are culpable for the decision by failing to include the ability to adapt at the schemes end. Time has passed and the market has changed but this crucial point remains.

The ask and the class action

To be clear, 150,000 solar homes are very aware of the implications of this issue. So, here’s my ask on their behalf.

Dear Premier

We call on you to immediately and rapidly resolve the impending solar metering issue that looms over the head of 150,000 NSW solar owners.

In the vast majority of cases there is no justifiable or reasonable excuse to discard and replace existing metering.  Being forced to replace a near new meter at significant cost is an outrage because this is a billing issue, not a metering issue.

I accept that I am scheduled to change from Gross to Net billing on December 31st this year.

However, I do not accept that a new meter is required to achieve this because existing metering data can be netted off at the billing stage.  A net meter is not required to Net bill.

Further, by forcibly changing my meter configuration to Net, I will lose access to valuable information about my energy consumption and my energy generation. Neither my bill nor my meter will show what my energy consumption is if it is Netted off at the meter which will prevent me from taking action to reduce my demand.

My ask, on behalf of NSW solar consumers is:

  1. To immediately call a halt to solar meter changeovers in NSW
  2. To mandate that Networks NSW use their billing system to Net off solar, rather than using metering to net it off
  3. To ensure that my visibility of consumption and generation meter data is improved, rather than diminished

This approach resolves a myriad of complex issues not least of which is the needless deployment of $30M of meters. It is simple, effective and can empower energy users in NSW to continue to minimise their impact on the networks of NSW.

Sadly we advise you that should you continue down the current path, we intend to launch a class action against Networks New South Wales and its owners.

I refuse your new, dumb, expensive, metering demand. I won’t pay it and I’m pretty confident that the remainder won’t pay it either because adequate metering infrastructure is already in place. You have an opportunity for a number of imminently more intelligent solutions. I don’t believe that you have the right or the mandate to diminish my access to data.

Signed

New South Wales Solar Owner

Nigel Morris is chief executive of solar installer RoofJuice.

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