Victory for Illinois campaigners after ‘unlawful’ net metering policy rejected

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Ameren's new policy was voted out by 4-1 by the Illinois Commerce Comission (Image: Ameren)

Solar power campaigners in Illinois have declared victory after an attempt to block full net metering for new solar customers was overruled.

The Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) voted down power company Ameren Illinois’ calculation of the number of solar energy customers within its territory. This means full retail net metering has been reopened, and new solar customers can gain credit for the excess energy they produce once it is dispatched to the grid.

Ameren, which plans to invest US$8 billion to develop renewable energy projects in the Midwest over the next 20 years, first said it would move away from net metering for new solar customers in March 2020. The utility group claimed that distributed solar generation had risen to make up 5% of its overall load;  the threshold where state law rules net metering should be phased out. Instead, it would introduce a monthly generated distribution rebate, which equalled around half the amount of the original credit rate.

Several renewable trade associations contacted the ICC the following month to question Ameren’s methodology. The Solar Energy Industries Association, Illinois Solar Energy Association, Coalition for Community Solar Access, Environmental Law & Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Vote Solar claimed that Ameren’s calculations artificially inflated the figure. The group then filed an emergency motion with the ICC in September to prevent Ameren from ending net metering for new solar customers in southern and central Illinois.

According to documents filed by the ICC, the Commission issued a temporary order for an investigation to calculate the utility company’s output on 23 September, and urged it to retain net metering until a decision had been made.

Ameren proceeded to file a letter on 2 October, outlining a plan to replace net metering with a rebate system that would amount to roughly 50% of the credit net metering would generate. The company wrote that it “cannot undertake what the Commission urges, as to do so would require Ameren Illinois to disregard its tariffs and so violate the Act.”

The ICC voted Ameren’s calculation down by a 4-1 vote on Wednesday (3 December), a decision which has reinstated net-metering and been lauded by campaign groups.

Nakhia Morrissette, central region director and counsel for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said Ameren’s attempt to block net metering in Illinois was “unlawful” and would have threatened the state’s solar energy sector during an already challenging year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Commission’s decision, Morrissette said, will mean solar energy users are “fairly compensated for the power they produce and value they bring” to the grid as a whole, adding: “We commend the Comission for seeing through this unlawful effort to devalue solar. This is ultimately a victory for consumers and independent clean energy businesses.”

Will Kenworthy, the regulatory director for campaign group Vote Solar in the Midwest, said compensatory schemes such as net-metering “will be key” for ensuring the growth of the renewable energy sector next year.

The order “confirms that Ameren’s decision to end retail net metering in October was premature and unlawful.” said Nikhil Vijaykar, Staff Attorney at the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

“Fair access to retail net metering is a key ingredient in Illinois’ steady clean energy transition.”

A spokesperson for Ameren told PV Tech that it is not clear whether the company will attempt to appeal the decision, but that Ameren Illinois’ tariff was based on “an express reading of the statute”.

“We continue to agree with the underlying policy embedded in the law with respect to the 5% solar penetration threshold,” the spokesperson said.

“The regulatory process is just that – a process.  It continues to evolve and change and there are times when we agree with an outcome and times we don’t – but the underlying policies are important and the debate that surrounds those policies is healthy and will continue.  We are all after the same result – fair and constructive energy policy for Illinois.”

Net metering has become a hotly contested issue in the US as the country's solar market has moved into the mainstream. The US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) dismissed a petition in July which called for US net metering policies to become a matter of federal jurisdiction.

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