Call Kurtis: Power Bill Confusion

A $9.30 monthly energy bill?

As the weather warmed and the sun began to shine in his Sacramento neighborhood last February, the solar panels Edward Robinson had purchased for about $30,000 were finally paying off, saving him about $150 a month.

Or so he thought.

“It’s totally confusing,” said Robinson of his bill — and of the explanation he said he was given by the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District, his energy provider. “It’s as confusing to [them] as it is to [us].”

His February bill actually indicates he used $109.64 worth of energy, but — strangely enough — that amount is credited back to him in full, leaving only the basic service and connections fees due.

That pattern that has been repeated on his monthly bills ever since; the more energy Robinson uses, the more he is being credited back.

His last bill from October credits him about $1,150 — energy he’s using, but not being asked to pay.

Not yet, anyway.

“I wouldn’t say it’s confusion,” said Bill Layne, who oversees the rooftop solar panel billing program for SMUD. “I would say they’re not used to seeing a different bill.”

The bill credits rooftop solar customers with their full energy use until the last month of the customer’s yearly billing cycle. In that final month of the year, solar customers have to pay up — in full.

In other words, credits are actually charges.

Solar customers who generate power can sell it back to public utilities at the end of the year, Layne said — as stipulated by California Bill AB920, which was signed into law January 2011.

AB920 allows rooftop solar customers to choose between paying for their energy use monthly, as has been the custom, or yearly, at which point the customers’ solar energy generation is subtracted from their balance due.

SMUD credits back customers’ energy use each month, so it doesn’t show as due, but Robinson said that means hundreds of solar customers could be in for an expensive surprise at the end of the year.

As of late October, Layne said SMUD had received calls from 40 to 50 rooftop solar customers with concerns or questions about the new system.

“It’s a new program,” Layne said. “We’re going to look at it to see if we can improve it, but right now we’re just working through it as customers call.”

After CBS Sacramento got involved, SMUD said it would be sending out letters explaining the billing to all 2,400 rooftop solar customers Nov. 9.

Robinson told CBS Sacramento he’s made several calls to SMUD for clarification but still doesn’t fully understand the system. In the meantime, he’s sending checks to SMUD now anyway — hoping to reduce his end-of-year bill — something the utility said it welcomes customer to do.

But Robinson is still concerned many of those 2,400 rooftop solar customers will be stuck with a steep bill, just when they think their solar panels are working well.

“If it happened to me, it’s happening to other people,” said Robinson, “and that’s frightening.”

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