On a visit to his childhood home in England last year, Joe Drury sat on a London bus “being cooked alive” by a brutal heat wave.
“This is not the climate that I grew up in,” said Drury, an associate professor of English at Villanova University. “I came home determined to start making changes to my life.”
Drury decided to install a rooftop solar system on his family’s University City house. He lined up a contractor, arranged financing, and had the 24-panel system installed by March, just in time to capture energy during the spring and summer sunny seasons.
He didn’t count on the coronavirus.
During the pandemic lockdown, Peco was unable to dispatch a work crew to install a new electric meter at Drury’s house because his meter is located in the basement. Drury’s system began generating electricity, but he received no compensation for any surplus production because he needed a new bidirectional meter to measure energy output onto Peco’s system, along with the power drawn off the grid.
Worse, without paperwork showing Peco’s work was complete, Drury was unable to apply for a city solar rebate of nearly $1,800 that would have covered 7.7% of his system’s $23,266 cost. By early June, the opportunity for a rebate was gone: the city fund to incentivize solar installations was exhausted by other customers Peco was able to connect to the grid because their meters are outdoors.
“I was frustrated and increasingly angry because the policy didn’t make sense,” said Drury, 43.
“We care about climate change, but we were also drawing up spreadsheets, carefully calculating how much it was going to cost, how much we would be benefiting, how long it would take to pay off the cost. And the rebate was definitely a big part of those calculations.”
Peco says the delays to complete solar installations affect a minority of customers with indoor electric meters. In order to give credit to solar producers, utilities need to install two-way meters that measure electricity coming and going from their house — not just the billable power that is consumed.
“For the safety of our crews and our customers, we temporarily suspended the installation of all indoor bi-directional meters for all installations, including solar, during the pandemic,” Mayra Bergman, Peco’s spokeswoman, said in an email. “Solar interconnections with outdoor meters have not been impacted as we continue to grow solar across Southeastern Pennsylvania.”
About 25 customers were affected by the delay, she said. “We understand the desire for customers to have indoor meters installed in order to complete their solar interconnections and we are developing a plan to restart this work safely,” she said.
After The Inquirer began making inquiries last week, Peco reached out to several solar customers to schedule long-delayed meter installations. Drury, who had also reached out to State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.), said a Peco crew came on Thursday.
Installers such as Philadelphia’s Solar States have also been pressing Peco to swap out the electric meters for customers whose installations were completed months ago, said Skyler Willman-Cole, chief operating officer. About eight of Solar States’s customers with indoor meters are awaiting new meters, he said.
Peco is still proceeding with caution and has “moved forward with a handful of solar installations over the last few days,” Bergman said. “We will continue to put safety first and carefully monitor governor’s orders, CDC guidance, and other safety protocols as they evolve.”
The meter swaps are happening too late for Philadelphia customers to take advantage of the solar rebate program, which City Council approved last year to spur more customers to install solar systems, and also to compensate for reductions in federal tax credits that went from 30% last year to 26% this year, and are set to shrink to 22% next year.
The city rebates provided residential buyers 20 cents for every watt of solar installed and 10 cents per watt to owners of commercial systems. Drury’s system is about 8,900 watts — or 8.9 kilowatts — and he would have been due about $1,780.
Mayor Jim Kenney’s budget provided $250,000 for the rebates — City Council had set the funding cap at twice that amount, $500,000. Applications opened in March, and all of the money was committed by early June, said Emily Schapira, executive director of the Philadelphia Energy Authority.
No funding was included in the current COVID-19-reduced city budget, Schapira said, though applicants for funds who missed the cutoff are being put on a waiting list, she said.
“I guess the money is exhausted,” said Vu Le, a Philadelphia researcher who commissioned Solar States to install systems early this year at two Philadelphia houses he owns. One, with an exterior meter that Peco swapped, qualified for a Philadelphia rebate. The other home, with an interior meter, is awaiting a new meter, now scheduled for early August.
Bryan Mercer, who hired Solar States to install an 8.9 kilowatt system on his Kingsessing home in February, last week learned Peco has scheduled his new meter installation for early August. He said his main beef with Peco was the lack of communication: “I certainly understand the type of precautions that need to be taken because of the pandemic, but it’s been disappointing that Peco hasn’t actively reached out to tell us what’s going on.”
Mercer, the executive director of a social justice nonprofit, said his system on Thursday produced 40 kilowatt hours of electricity, much of which went back into the grid, uncompensated because of the lack of a bidirectional meter. But the loss of the city rebate hurts more. Like Drury, Mercer estimated his rebate would have been nearly $1,800.