Lawsuit centers on alternative energy insurance

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 | 5:53 p.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — A legal center in St. Louis has filed a lawsuit against a Missouri commission, saying it believes a new insurance rule will discourage people from trying to produce their own solar or wind power.

The Great Rivers Environmental Law Center filed the lawsuit Monday against the Missouri Public Service Commission in Cole County Circuit Court.

The PSC regulates investor-owned electric companies as part of its duties.

The lawsuit says a PSC decision that people must carry certain levels of liability insurance if they want to produce power and feed it back to an electric utility is illegal.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Renew Missouri, a citizens’ group that worked to get a law commonly known as the “Easy Connection Act” passed last year. It allows those who generate alternative energy a way to feed it back to their power utility.

Under the law, utilities must give credit on the bills of customers who generate excess electricity using renewable sources, like solar or wind power, and supply it to their utility during a billing period. The customers do not get cash from the utility.

This fall, the PSC issued an order that customers who produce 10 kilowatts or less of energy need to carry $100,000 worth of liability insurance, and that those who produce more than 10 to 100 kilowatts of energy need to carry $1 million worth of liability insurance, the lawsuit said.

The Great Rivers center says there was no requirement in the “Easy Connection Act” that customers needed to purchase insurance.

“The PSC’s rule will discourage people from producing their own electricity,” lawyer Henry Robertson with the Great Rivers center said in a statement. “The Easy Connection Act is supposed to make it easy to do that. This rule negates the spirit and the letter of the law.”

An attorney for PSC, Kevin Thompson, said the agency acted within its authority when it set the insurance requirement. In fact, he said the commission was doing exactly what it is supposed to do.

“When you grant rule-making authority, you’re telling the agency to fill in the gaps,” he said. “That’s the purpose of the administrative agency.”

He said utilities felt the insurance was necessary, so they wouldn’t be held responsible for death or injury if someone was “messing around with a generation unit.”

P.J. Wilson, founder of Columbia-based Renew Missouri, said renewable energy systems in use in households have safeguards that automatically keep them from feeding electricity into the power grid when necessary.

Wilson said he hadn’t found one instance of an insurance claim for one of the small, residential systems. He called them as safe as owning a television and said renewable energy systems should be “treated like other appliances in the house.”

It wasn’t clear how much the liability insurance coverage would cost a homeowner, with a range of estimates given Tuesday.

Wilson said that’s part of the problem, as those using renewable energy systems have a hard time figuring out where to get the insurance coverage and receive estimates that can vary greatly.

He estimated that thus far the rule might affect about 200 Missouri households that are generating renewable energy. He said the insurance requirement could make it cost-prohibitive for people to produce their own power or feed excess back to the grid.


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Dale Dermott December 24, 2008 | 5:54 p.m.

I've recently built an off-grid house despite the lack of good renewable-energy incentives in Missouri. Local, state, and federal incentives in Colorado, for example, would have covered most of the cost of the system, except for installation. The cost of going green in Missouri is already exceptionally high compared to that in other states.

With millions of renewable energy jobs in our country's future, Missouri needs to become more friendly to wind, solar, and other alternative energies in order to attract companies that will provide these jobs. Instead, actions like this will discourage renewable energy companies from coming to Missouri.

The recent action by PSC illustrates one more reason to be completely free of utility companies, at least until their attitudes and actions change. They should be encouraging lower demand on their systems so that they won't have to build new, extremely costly power plants. Instead, their actions actually discourage individuals from producing their own, clean energy while they encourage the continued dominance of existing utility companies.

In my case, the local utility company -- which had no renewable-energy incentives -- was going to charge me about $12,000 to run an electrical wire to my house, plus a $25/month fee to "maintain the lines" of their system. If I had done so, this $12,000 line would have been considered the property of the cooperative. If they needed to run a line from my house to provide service to a nearby resident, I would have been expected to share this line for free. All this was enough, by itself, for me to go off-grid. I considered the $12,000 saved as my solar-energy incentive.

To go off-grid and be free of utility rules and regulations, all you have to do is buy batteries to store your alternative energy when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow. As a bonus, you won't be supporting the utilities continued reliance on a fossil fuel -- mostly coal -- to provide electrical service to your home.

(Report Comment)
Mark Burnett January 8, 2009 | 11:32 a.m.

How much extra did this battery system add to cost of your off-grid system?

I live in the St. Louis area, I've considered going solar, and off-grid, but always thought it wouldn't be cost effective considering Missouri's lack of incentives.

(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand January 8, 2009 | 12:03 p.m.

And what are the batteries' life span and replacement cost?

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking January 8, 2009 | 1:02 p.m.

I'm not Dale, and don't know what his system is like, but I can give you some information on mine.

There are two types of lead acid batteries used in these systems. One is flooded deep cycle (similar to a car battery, but with thicker plates), and the other is AGM. Flooded batteries need water periodically, AGM batteries don't. AGM's cost about twice what flooded batteries do for the same KWH capacity.

You can only use about 50% of the total capacity of a deep cycle battery (regularly) if you want the best life.

My system has 35 KWH (total) of which I can use about 18. They are 14 Trojan L16H floor scrubber batteries costing about $300 apiece locally. So that is about $4,200 of batteries for a per (useful) KWH cost of $2,300/KWH.

To size a battery bank, you look at your usage (on your electric bill), and divide that by 30 for a per day usage. You then multiply that by 3 (to give you a buffer against cloudy days). In my case, I used about 6 KWH/day on the average, so I needed about 18 KWH usable. That is then multiplied by 2 to give a bank that will supply the needed power at 50% depth of discharge.

These batteries, if maintained properly, will last between 7 and 10 years. Replacement cost is the cost of buying new (they are recycled by the vendor).


(Report Comment)
Dale Dermott June 12, 2009 | 3:13 p.m.

Sorry for the late response. I don't regularly read the Missourian.

Similar to Mark, I use the Trojan L16HC (High Capacity), 6-volt batteries. I have 24 of them, arranged in three strings of 8 batteries for a (6vx8=48v)48 volt system.

It properly maintained, they should last 10 years.

In my case, getting on the grid would have cost $12,000 + $25/month. For most people, it's easier and less costly to hook up to the nearby power pole, sell electricity to the power company during the day and buy it at nights.

I went with the Trojan batteries because there's no replacement for old lead-acid batteries when it comes to energy storage. Easily within 10 years, we should have many less costly, more efficient, and much more environmentally safe storage technologies.

(Report Comment)

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