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Frontlines

Fortnightly Magazine - February 15 1999

rule, effective Dec. 31, until the PRC zapped it two weeks later, would have required utilities to interconnect with fuel cells, windmills, photovoltaic arrays, gas-fired turbines or other customer-owned generation. To gain that right, the customer would need to satisfy "all applicable safety and performance standards" set by the National Electrical Code, Underwriters Laboratories and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Hagan adds that PNM remains concerned about threats posed to power quality by distributed generation, as PNM serves electric customers like the silicon giant Intel, whose manufacturing processes require dependable power quality.

"It also bothers me," he told me, "that the Santa Fe New Mexican [a local newspaper] bought into Althouse's argument as if it were a realistic alternative." (In her front-page article, "First PRC Action Energizes Critics," published Jan. 13, reporter Nancy Plevin said the PRC had suspended the rule "at PNM's urging.")

"PNM WAS WILLING TO WORK WITH ME," said Mark Sardella, an independent engineer who installs 1-kW PV systems for self-generation. "But all I ever got was a temporary interconnection agreement, never a final. For a solar contractor, that's a little unnerving."

Sardella also is president of the Southwest Energy Institute, a non-profit research group begun in December. His group had hailed the PUC net metering rule as the most forward-thinking in the country, and lamented its demise.

"We see utilities putting up barriers to interconnection and net metering," Sardella adds. "Every other net metering rule allows the utility to impose its own set of safety standards. But you don't need that. The IEEE developed its draft standard 929, the PV interconnection standard, so if you comply with that, and the UL guidelines and the National Electrical Code, you should be OK.

"Here we have a customer who wants to raise his energy efficiency to about 80-90 percent, by capturing the waste heat, and the utility wants to discourage that and force him to burn coal."

"BOY IS THAT A BUCKET OF WORMS," said Jerry Stevens, senior member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories, when I called him in Albuquerque and asked about the net metering fight. "I assume you've heard all about our political problems here in New Mexico, with the new elected PRC taking over.

"Yes," Stevens continued, "I'm the chairman of the committee working on IEEE standard 929, Recommended Practices for Utility Interfaces for Photovoltaic Systems. It sets standards for the internal technical connection, making sure of the technical aspects of tying the facility to the utility grid. There is a perception that the standard applies only to facilities smaller than 10 kW. For that size and smaller, you can easily get a UL stamp of approval and boom, you're ready to go. But actually, 929 will work for any size of PV facility.

"Usually it takes about four to six months after you send the draft to ballot before it works its way through all the committees for approval. I thought I was ready to send 929 to draft in December, but now I think that's still several weeks off.