Too Much Information? California Wrestles With Solar Data Collection Responsibilities


In October, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) announced its proposed decision to change how the California Solar Statistics website will collect data about the state's distributed generation solar installations.

California Solar Statistics is a public reporting system run under contract by Energy Solutions that allows consumers and others to look up data on a vast array of topics, including many regarding solar power – for example, how much solar each utility administers, how cities compare in the amount of installed solar and which contractors are available in each region.

The CPUC, in its decision to transfer responsibility for collecting solar statistics away from the soon-to-end California Solar Initiative (CSI), has ordered the state's three investor-owned electric utilities to add certain data fields in the customer net-energy metering (NEM) interconnection application. The utilities must then transfer the data to Energy Solutions for posting on the California Solar Statistics website.
While solar data collection is not new, the utilities – and the installer SolarCity – have objected to certain details of the draft decision.

Previously, the CSI collected this data as a function of its mission to provide incentives and other support for photovoltaic systems. When consumers applied for CSI rebates, they would fill out information, such as whether the systems were leased or owned, the cost of systems and their components, the make and model of the PV panels and inverters, and other details. The data were collected and posted to the California Solar Statistics website each week.

The funding for CSI rebates has been depleted and with it went the data collection function. To revive data collection, CPUC issued a ruling in August 2013 proposing minimum reporting requirements. Under the new requirements, the burden for collecting and processing solar data would fall on the utilities.

The three investor-owned utilities, Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas and Electric Co. (SDG&E), and Pacific Gas and Electric Co., filed comments – as did SolarCity, the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA) and others – expressing concerns about the proposed data collection requirements. The utilities said they worried about customer privacy and the added cost of collecting data. SolarCity noted that the requirements would add $7 to $22 per installation.

The CPUC acknowledges concerns about raising costs, but maintains that the value of reporting the information will outweigh them. Also, the commission notes that the amount in question represents a ‘very small fraction’ of a typical solar system's cost. Moreover, it indicated that utility efforts to move to an online reporting system would reduce costs and speed up the process.

Stephanie Donovan, senior communications manager for SDG&E, says the utility has already invested in customer solar data collection and distribution capabilities. The Distribution Interconnection Information System, for example, enables the submission and tracking of applications online. SDG&E also deployed a streamlined process that allows contractors to submit applications and pictures of installations before city or county inspections and get quick authorization.

‘Because we already have an online system in place, we will simply update it to reflect the new information CSI has been collecting,’ Donovan says.

When the utilities implement an online process, paper applications will no longer be accepted.

Another concern was whether the right data would be collected. SolarCity asked the CPUC to reconsider whether to add certain proposed data fields, such as the sale price for third-party-owned systems and the make, model and number of inverters and panels, and the like. Privacy concerns were also raised.

The CPUC noted that customers' names and addresses are not published in the database, and wrote that these concerns were ‘based on a narrow understanding of the data's purpose.’ The information is supposed to let manufacturers, contractors and investors know which equipment is being installed and where, provide academics and journalists with industry information, and help utilities understand more about their distributed generation fleet.

For its part, CALSEIA was not concerned about data collection per se, but on the sort of information that was being collected. Brad Heavner, policy director for CALSEIA, says the association actually wants additional data fields.

‘More information is good for developing the industry, without question,’ Heavner says. ‘That aspect of the decision turned out quite well.’

CALSEIA actually wanted the proposed requirements to go further and produce a unified online NEM portal for collecting and consolidating information. However the CPUC sided with the utilities in asking them to build separate portals.

Still, Heavner says, it will be good to get the database back. ‘It's ridiculous,’ he says. ‘We've had a year without the database. We want to get it up and running as soon as possible.’

Other industry experts agree the database is useful.

‘This information allows us to really know what's happening within the industry and have real data on what systems are sold for, how big, whether they are financed or not financed, and what cities are solar friendly,’ says Randy Zechman, CEO of CleanSolar, a San Jose-based installer.

While data collection is not going to be a game-changer, he says the database is useful for consumers to find out whether they are paying a fair price for their project.

‘It'll certainly help aid in determining what things we may be doing wrong or right from a business perspective,’ Zechman says. ‘I think at the end of the day there is very little reason not to do it for the gain that's going to come from it.’

The CPUC is scheduled to vote on the proposed decision on Nov. 6. The decision can be viewed here.

Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.

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