Sunday, July 21, 2024

Ukiah Solar Users Unhappy With City Billing Practices

Ukiah resident Jim Moorehead is showing on his iPad data he collected from his home solar system. [Photo by Mike Geniella]

The city of Ukiah prides itself on belonging to a Northern California public utility system that relies on renewable energy sources and hydroelectric plants to provide nearly 80 percent of the power local customers consume.

Ukiah’s progressive energy policies are widely applauded, including its promotion of rooftop solar systems. The city operates Mendocino County’s only customer-owned utility and has since 1968 because of membership in the non-profit Northern California Power Agency, a consortium of public agencies including Healdsburg, Palo Alto, the Port of Oakland, Santa Clara, Redding, and Lodi. Ukiah’s utility department provides electricity, water, and wastewater treatment to more than 15,000 residents and businesses. 

However there is confusion surrounding current Ukiah billing practices, and it is especially frustrating for a small but growing base of solar customers. So far there are an estimated 100 solar-equipped residences in the city. A recent study showed on average, Ukiah homeowners who install solar panels save approximately $1,555 per year, or $29,545 over 20 years after converting to solar-generated power.

City representatives blame a software glitch, but they also argue that there is a “common misconception” that solar homeowners will no longer receive a bill, or their costs for electricity will drop to zero.  In fact, they say solar customers still have to rely on the city’s electric grid because of weather or the size of solar panels, and that they will be charged if net energy production from the individual system is less than usage.

The graph shows how Moorehead can track hourly energy production.

“The reality is solar power is super-complicated when it comes to usage and production,” said Deputy City Manager Shannon Riley.

Riley acknowledged that the city’s conversion to a new utility billing system a year ago is behind customer frustration. “It was a huge leap for us, and we are still working with the software company to resolve complications.”

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Even with that admission, a number of the city’s growing base of solar-based customers are questioning why bills surrounding their individual solar systems a year later remain so “confusing, frustrating, and hardly understandable.”

“My wife and I both have MBAs (master’s in business administration degrees) and neither one of us can understand the city’s billing system,” said Jim Moorehead. The Mooreheads are Westside Ukiah residents who invested over $25,000 in a sophisticated rooftop solar system after remodeling an old craftsman house the couple bought.

Jim Moorehead said he invested in a feature that allows him to monitor individual energy production from 28 panels. “I’ve created my own spreadsheet, and the city figures just don’t match,” he said. In some instances, figures compiled by city meter readers are way off, contended Moorehead.

As a result, Moorehead and other unhappy solar customers are sitting on thousands of dollars in unpaid city energy bills “because we can’t trust the figures, nor understand how they are compiled.”

Ukiah resident Holy Brackmann and her husband Roger Foote converted their home to solar in 2015. “At the same time we reroofed our home and installed solar, we bought an electric car. We are trying to be climate conscious,” said Brackman.

Brackmann said the billing for their system has been out of whack for the last three years. Typically, utilities ‘true up’ with their customers once a year over how much electricity was generated from an individual solar system, and how much the homeowner consumed.

“The last time our electric bill was ‘trued up’ or the city paid us for excess power we generated from solar was in 2019!’ exclaimed Brackmann. “We keep being told there are software issues stemming from conversion to a new billing system, but the issues remain.” 

Other solar customers, including retired tech entrepreneur Dennis Yeo, said the billing confusion has been going on for at least a year or longer.

Yeo said he has met with city staff who “acknowledge the billing problems and assure us they are being corrected.” Yet, said Yeo, the confusion remains.

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“A year later I think it is fair to ask why,” said Yeo.

Yeo said in the beginning the amount of electricity generated by his solar system was close to usage, and typically “We had to pay a small amount to the city” at the end of any given year.

Then Yeo said he started getting huge monthly bills, and then a letter last Spring contending the proper amount of taxes had not been calculated “so we owed $91 more.”

“I have so far ignored the letter,” said Yeo.

Yeo said the current situation “continues to reinforce to us users that we really don’t understand how the true up/monthly accrual works, or why we are being sent letters saying we owe more.”

In his mind, Yeo said the city’s solar billing process is “clear as mud.”

Moorehead said a year ago billing took an unexpected turn. “Things started going haywire. I was getting statements showing we had consumed as much power in one month as we had in six years.”

Moorehead said after months of trying to decipher how the city processes his electrical consumption, “I have no confidence in the billing system.”

Yes, it’s good the city encourages residents to become more energy efficient, said Moorehead.

“But frankly, they have to have the billing infrastructure to support it.”

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Moorehead fears the prolonged billing confusion will scare away potential solar users.

 “I can’t imagine anyone getting interested in converting to solar doing it if they become aware of the frustrating billing system currently in place,” said Moorehead.

Deputy Manager Riley acknowledged the billing problems are dragging on and taking up too much staff time. “We are hoping for some resolution. We are actively engaged in trying to get the problems fixed.”

Riley said, however, that some solar advocates and solar installation companies who heavily promote their services are also contributing to the confusion among consumers. 

“Some people don’t realize that even with efficient solar systems they are still going to have baseline service fees, that are still using our distribution system, and that there are certain regulatory fees we have to charge,” said Riley. “Zero bills are not a certainty.”

Fair enough, said Brackmann. But she countered that customers of the city’s utility need “accurate and transparent billing” that includes easily understood power generation and usage figures, clear explanations of all charges and taxes, spreadsheets from the past two years covering the figures under the old and new billing systems, and rectifying delays and backlogs of billing errors and end of year credits from solar systems over the past 3-4 years.

“How else can we be satisfied with a billing process that discourages us, and probably a lot of people considering converting to solar?”  asked Brackmann.

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  1. Software problems get blamed for a lot things when it comes to public government financial snafus. It’s a wonder the various applications are not road-tested before they get put into service, often at considerable expense. A rhetorical question: Who makes these bonehead decisions?

  2. I have a 25 panel system and I was happy and confident I was being billed properly until the new billing took over. Every month my electric bill goes up even though most of the year I produce more than I use. Trying to get a understandable answer is a waste of time.

  3. The new billing system seems to have affected all the utilities being billed by the city. There seem to be ongoing problems with electricity, water and sewer with bills skyrocketing. I know the estimated increases were highly under the actual increases. Perhaps they could hire a consultant to audit their software and processes and do something to actually benefit the city residents. You know we will not be getting any refunds for overpayment.

  4. HA HA These people talk about having an MBA and being so intelligent. Yet they spend upwards of $25,000 to put solar up, to save ??? Their normal bill is the lowest in California. Half the price of PG&E. Then they spend thousands of dollars to “Feel Good” and then complain when they aren’t saving pennies.
    $25,000 divided by 10 years = $2500 a year… That divided by 12 months = $208.33. A new inverter has a 5 to 10 year warranty or micro inverters which have generally only 5 years. Then they need to pay more to upgrade. So now you look at $35 to $40K.
    Or….. Monthly average Ukiah bill… $125 X’s 10 years is 12,500 half the price without the waste of solar panels or inverters or the awful lithium battery that is non recyclable and TERRIBLE for our climate. Not to mention how lithium is produced.
    I am so happy these guys are so smart to have spreadsheets. Maybe start from the beginning.
    Build a spreadsheet that calculates the waste of money solar really is. Calculate the amount of lithium waste over 30 years of household batteries.
    Remember when everyone was crying about radiation coming from Smart meters, and then jumped and started buying Smart phones, tv’s, and even cars…. I guess radiation only comes from the things we don’t want. Or maybe the radiation rocks I sell actually work.

  5. Wow…you are either really confused OR willfully full of shit.

    At the least you are working with some absolute technical and financial/mathematical falsehoods.

    Near all String inverters have 10yr+ warranties…the only ones that don’t are crap anyway.

    Try finding a quality micro-inverter with less than a 25yr warranty…good luck won’t help you.

    What upgrade?
    Are you high Joshua??

    10yrs @ $125/month= $15,000.
    FYI, the Khan Academy offers free courses on Arithmetic.

    Over a period of 25yrs (minimum life of a Solar PV Array) @ $125/month =$37,500 (assuming rates don’t increase, which they will).
    $37,500 – $25,000 = $12,500 saved.
    That is technically called a “profit”.

    All lithium battery chemistries are recyclable.
    The cobalt containing chemistries (NMC & NCA), primarily used for vehicles) are very problematic for recycling.
    Most home batts are LiFePO4…easily recycled.

    Knowing at least some actual facts about a subject goes a long way toward supporting an argument.

    I rate your statements as nearly 100% false.
    Most lies have just a thread of truth.
    Try facts…

  6. Even without solar, Ukiah’s billing system is less than understandable. Some months I don’t receive a bill and other months I get bills for two months. On the portal website I can’t see my historical bills, or payments. I receive bills from other city entities in CA and they provide way more information about my prior usage, billing, and invoice copies.

  7. My solar system outside of city limits works great. We have power all the time. It’s awesome. Don’t blame solar. Blame the idiots trying to control it


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