The New South Wales government has gazetted new legislation that it hopes will address some of the issues facing nearly 150,000 solar households when their premium feed-in tariff ends at the end of this year, but confusion remains.
As flagged by RenewEconomy last month, the NSW government is introducing a range of new measures designed to address bottle-necks and potentially steep fees for solar households which may – or may not – be required to change meters when their “gross” tariff is replaced by a “net” tariff on January 1.
(Gross feed-in tariffs are paid for all electricity produced by solar panels. Net tariffs are paid only for that electricity not consumed on the premises and exported to the grid).
The proposed rule changes were gazetted late last week. They include rules that will accelerate the roll-out of smart meters from the end of 2017 to the start of 2017; allow electricity retailers, rather than network providers, to lead and promote the roll-out of smart meters, and relax restrictions on who is allowed to install those meters.
At present only Level 2 Accredited Service Providers can do metering work (there are about 2500 of them in NSW). The bill also removes the requirement for the ‘sealing’ of customers equipment (including the meter) that has been traditionally used in the industry for safety and revenue protection.
Despite this, confusion remains in the industry about what solar households on the premium tariffs – 60c/kWh plus a retailer bonus for most, 20c/kWh for some – will be obliged to do and what they will pay. A proposed letter to solar households is yet to be sent.
There is fear that solar households will be forced to adopt “smart meters”, and pay a hefty fee of up to $700 unless they sign on for a long-term contract with a retailer. There is confusion about what sort of metering can be adopted. The Level 2 “sparkies” are outraged that their investment in training has been undermined.
Spokesman Geoff Bragg says it’s pretty clear that the NSW government is opting to bring forward the “market-led” rollout of smart meters in NSW by energy retailers, about 12 months earlier than the national plan to make metering an open market in 2017.
“This approach is intended to solve the problem that about 130,000 of the 160,000 Solar Bonus Scheme customers will want to have their solar system Net metered & billed rather than their current Gross metering, to gain the best advantage from their solar PV system when the scheme ends on December 31,” Bragg says.
“Their intent is also not to be seen forcing a smart meter, or even a meter change, on anyone. But there are a lot of unanswered questions.
The first is: Do we need new meters? Bragg says the answer is complicated:
“As some have suggested, we might not need to change meters at all – some gross and consumption meter combinations could in theory be netted off at billing stage, some not, and with varying degrees of accuracy.
“In some meters, the full data set is in the meter somewhere, but existing meter readers don’t collect the full interval data set, just billing period totals. It’s actually very difficult to get any solid answers about what is possible, and what is not, in each network in each metering combination.
“Some have suggested that the upgrade to smart meters will cost up to $700 each, and that consumers will have to foot the bill, either by an up-front charge for the metering, or by being locked into long-term contracts.
“We can assume that energy retailers will compete for customers offering low, or zero cost metering upgrades, but will regional & rural customers get the same offerings, be left waiting, or even have to pay additional charges? Regional & rural customers account for a significant proportion of the solar installed in NSW. Will the offered tariff structures discriminate against solar customers with “free” smart meters?”
The question over Data:
“Data is everything in the world of individual empowerment and disruptive technologies; If access to metering data is the right of the consumer, then having real-time access to both solar production & consumption, can assist households & businesses make smart decisions about when to run appliances.
“As any solar household in NSW with a simple NET meter installed will attest, it’s impossible to know how much of your solar is being self consumed on-site, or being exported, until you wait for the tally at the end of a billing period and try to work it out from inverter and meter readouts.
“There are external metering solutions available to give you this information, but none of them are cheap and require professional installation. It would make sense to have this information available to all solar PV owners. Assessing households & businesses for energy storage is a whole lot easier with accurate consumption & production data.
“There must be IT start-ups waiting in the wings for access to our energy profile data. Can we instruct our energy retailer to give our personal production and consumption data to third parties? The NSW government supports the new innovative sharing economy; they have an opportunity to mandate a data stream that could unlock unimagined economies.
“It is still unclear what the minimum standard for any metering equipment will be. Will the various smart meters offered by different retailers be required to collect a data stream for Gross solar generation, and a separate data stream for Consumption, netting off the 2 data streams for billing purposes? Will the NSW government allow energy retailers to just install smart meters that only record the NET energy data, effectively blind to solar production, short-changing consumers?”
The question of Accurate, Clear Information:
“What the solar industry & consumers need is some answers from the NSW government about what is going to happen & when. They’ve had 7 years to plan for the closure of the scheme.
“We are tired of waiting for accurate, clear information. The NSW Department of Trade & Investment called a workshop meeting for stakeholders on the 2nd November 2015 to discuss the closure of the Solar Bonus Scheme, stating its intent to send a letter with clear information to all SBS customers in Dec 2015 or Jan 2016.
“It’s now mid-March and we are told the draft letter is still waiting for ministerial approval, but should be arriving in households around NSW in a week or so. We hope it is packed with clear, accurate information on what consumers need to do at what cost, and by when.
“Apparently there are separate teams in the departments, one dealing with the closure of the NSW Solar Bonus Scheme, the other dealing with the “market-led” rollout of smart meters. One team doesn’t seem to answer questions about the other team’s project.
The SEIA NSW annual installers meeting will be held in Sydney on Friday, March 18. Bragg says it is a full day conference for members and guests, aimed at PV installers designers and suppliers and this issue will be one of many on the agenda. NSW government representatives have been invited and have agreed to present to the SEIA NSW meeting on Friday.
Giles Parkinson is founder and editor of Renew Economy, and is also the founder of One Step Off The Grid and founder/editor of The Driven. Giles has been a journalist for 35 years and is a former business and deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review.