California is reconsidering landmark consumer protections and energy conservation measures that were written into residential utility bills during the state’s 2000-2001 energy crisis.
State lawmakers and utility regulators are preparing to restructure utility bills for more than 23 million residents.
In San Diego, proposed changes are likely to spread the pain of pending rate increases to more customers and provide relief for big users of home electricity. They also may usher in an unpredictable era of time-based pricing, in which bills hinge on electricity use during a few hours of the day.
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San Diego Gas & Electric views current rates for high-end users as unsustainable and unfair, warning those customers of pending rate hikes last month in a tailored mailing.
Current rates reward conservation by stepping up the price per kilowatt hour for those who use the most in any given month. The arrangement accentuates the savings from green home investments such as energy-efficient windows and light bulbs to rooftop solar arrays.
And all customers are afforded a modest monthly allowance of electricity at below-cost prices.
The price for that allowance has been frozen or capped since the state’s energy crisis, in which market manipulation triggered rolling blackouts and wild wholesale price fluctuations.
Over time, the discount has thrust cost increases for bundled electrical service disproportionately upon large users of home electricity.
The imbalance is set to tip further in September for utility customers in San Diego and southern Orange County, when San Diego Gas & Electric begins the delayed collection of a roughly $500 million revenue increase for the 2012-2015 period.
The trend, regulators and electricity retailers warn, could ultimately threaten the ability to recover revenues to maintain infrastructure and fulfill energy-policy mandates.
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The first commercial-scale solar energy field in the county was officially opened Friday in Borrego Springs.
The 200-acre solar farm by NRG Energy Inc. consists of 102,000 photovoltaic panels, each one measuring roughly 3 by 6 feet.
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The 26-megawatt Borrego Solar Generating Station can produce enough power to meet the annual needs of about 21,000 homes. The huge field lies off Borrego Valley Road, about three miles northeast of downtown Borrego Springs. It was built last year by contractors Sunora Energy Solutions of Phoenix, which employed 250 workers.
NRG Senior Vice President Randy Hickok said the plant could have been bigger — the company owns 308 acres in the Borrego Valley that decades ago used to be a vineyard — but 26 megawatts is the most that can be transferred through the existing 69-kilowatt transmission lines in the area.
“We built it as big as the power lines can accommodate,” Hickok said.
The energy the farm produces goes to two places. It connects directly to one line that powers homes and businesses in Borrego Springs, with the remainder going in a line that connects to the main energy grid.
San Diego Gas & Electric has signed a 25-year power agreement with NRG to buy the electricity.
The plant is run automatically. The 102,000 solar panels are all connected to a computer that moves them, ever so slightly, all day long to track the sun across the sky.
There is no storage component. When it’s sunny, electricity is produced. At night, the electricity stops flowing.
Only a skeleton crew — a couple of people — is employed at the site. Fencing with barbed wire surrounds the site, and security cameras monitor the area. No security issues have arisen since the plant was completed early this year, officials said.
Borrego Springs is a good place for such a system because the sun shines, on average, 264 days a year.
“It’s intense sunlight and nice flat land and friendly people that were supportive of the project,” Hickok said. “This part of Southern California is one of the best solar resources in the world.”
Friday morning’s grand opening, under a sunny sky and with a 90-degree-plus temperature, was attended by about 75 locals and energy officials.
The event was mostly ceremonial; the farm has been producing energy for several months.
Hickok said the size of the Borrego facility is the future of commercial solar plants.
Although far bigger solar fields exist elsewhere in the country and world, he said, most future solar farms will probably be the size of the Borrego plant or smaller because of transmission issues and because they win approval more easily.
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