Joining power grid no easy switch: 3 with own turbines face hassles as PUCO figures pay formula

ELMORE, OHIO - It sounds so simple.

You make a big investment in wind power, solar power, or some other form of renewable energy that can put a dent in your electric bill. During peak months, you actually generate more power than what you use. So, you sit back and wait with glee for your next bill to arrive in the mail, knowing you're supposed to get reimbursed by FirstEnergy Corp. or one of Ohio's other utilities for the surplus electricity you just put on a regional electric grid.

Who knows? You might even generate enough power to recoup your investment someday, right? Maybe. But like other ventures that require a lot of start-up cash, make sure to do your homework.

And be prepared for some hassles - especially now, while the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio is still trying to figure out the right formula. Just ask Gerald Giesler, Les Lemke, and Brian Mallot. All three have complaints pending with PUCO over what's known as the "net-metering law."

Forty states and the District of Columbia have versions of it, including Ohio and Michigan. The Ohio governor's residence, which had a $90,000 solar power system installed in the fall of 2004, benefits from it. Former First Lady Hope Taft beamed just about anytime she was asked about how much money was being saved on electricity.

But Mr. Giesler and Mr. Lemke, who both live in the Elmore area, and Mr. Mallot, who lives near Bellevue, now wonder if they're in some sort of David-versus-Goliath battle, a tug-of-war with one of America's largest utilities. They believe that FirstEnergy, though probably technically abiding by the law, isn't exactly bending over backwards to make it easy for people to take advantage of net-metering. Installing renewable energy devices is expensive enough as it is, although costs are coming down with economies of scale as more are purchased and produced. Costs depend on market conditions, size of project, installers, and other factors.

Mr. Giesler said a new turbine the size of the one he has now would cost about $70,000 to purchase and have installed by contractors. He said he got his for less than half that amount - "$26,000 and a lot of sweat" - because he did most of the work himself.

"I dreamt about doing something like this for 20 to 30 years, but never had the land," said Mr. Giesler, who moved to his current property in 2004. He said he wants to be more energy self-sufficient because he envisions a day in which soaring energy prices "might make the Great Depression look like a cakewalk." But there's also apparent widespread confusion over how much people are entitled to receive back from utilities for the surplus they put on the grid.

Three components Kathy Kolich, an attorney representing FirstEnergy on all three wind-turbine cases in front of PUCO, said people need to remember their bills have three components: electrical transmission, distribution, and generation. They will only be compensated for generation.

And the percentage of reimbursement is under litigation, she said. Anthony Dill, spokesman for the Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, a state consumer advocate group that is encouraging a broader use of renewable energy, said generation costs comprise 60 percent of a typical electric bill. It is seeking dollar-for-dollar value in reimbursement for all surplus kilowatts of electricity that homeowners and businesses put on a grid.

Mr. Mallot, a NASA electrician, and his wife, Christy, have a PUCO complaint that challenges FirstEnergy's reimbursement formula for surplus electricity generated by the turbine they installed last September. He said they held off filing the paperwork for connection approval after learning about the frustrations that Mr. Giesler and Mr. Lemke had encountered. All three purchased rebuilt, previously decommissioned machines from the Palm Springs area of California, via a Wisconsin dealer. Mr. Giesler, president of Riverside Machine & Automation Inc. of Genoa, put together his turbine by himself in 2005.

FirstEnergy authorized him to connect it to the grid in September of that year, only to revoke that authorization on April 30 with a letter that demanded he disconnect immediately. Hired an attorney He didn't. He hired an attorney and found out, after exchanging a lot of paperwork and phone calls, that FirstEnergy simply wanted to make sure his equipment was in compliance with the latest safety codes. Ms. Kolich said it was an oversight to give Mr. Giesler approval to connect in 2005. She said the utility wants everything up to code for the safety of its line workers. The utility, in acknowledging its own error, has agreed to cover his costs to bring his equipment into compliance.

"Any testing they have to do we'll pay for because we authorized (the connection) when we shouldn't have," Mark Durbin, utility spokesman, said. A similar situation occurred with Mr. Lemke, with different dates. He was authorized to connect his slightly smaller turbine to the grid last October, then ordered to disconnect it a few weeks ago. He said he was "getting nervous" about the situation up until recently.

"Now, it sounds like they're not against the windmill," he said. Although those both have active PUCO cases, they expect - someday - everything will be smoothed out to their satisfaction.

But they wonder what would have happened if they hadn't been diligent in defending their turbines - and if others will be discouraged, out of fear of being hassled. Ms. Kolich said FirstEnergy is not trying to dissuade people from installing renewable energy devices and taking advantage of Ohio's net-metering law. "We are not. There are regulations set up by the state that must be complied with. That is for the safety of the customer, as well as the utility workers," she said. "I think we've been wrongfully accused (of making it hard for people). Part of the problem, Ms. Kolich said, is that there "haven't been that many until the recent push." "The problem is they've just been so few and far between," she added.

"FirstEnergy is definitely not trying to throw up obstacles." Mr. Dill agreed, at least to the extent that FirstEnergy itself is undergoing a learning curve. "In the past, there was a lot of ambiguity in the net-metering rules," he said. "The new rules make net-metering easier to accomplish."


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