The city of Ukiah prides itself on belonging to a Northern California public utility system that relies on renewable energy sources and hydroelectric plants to provide nearly 80 percent of the power local customers consume.
Ukiah’s progressive energy policies are widely applauded, including its promotion of rooftop solar systems. The city operates Mendocino County’s only customer-owned utility and has since 1968 because of membership in the non-profit Northern California Power Agency, a consortium of public agencies including Healdsburg, Palo Alto, the Port of Oakland, Santa Clara, Redding, and Lodi. Ukiah’s utility department provides electricity, water, and wastewater treatment to more than 15,000 residents and businesses.
But there is confusion surrounding current Ukiah solar power billing practices, and it is frustrating a small but growing base of solar customers. So far, there are an estimated 100 solar-equipped residences in the city. A recent study showed on average, Ukiah homeowners who install solar panels save approximately $1,555 per year, or $29,545 over 20 years after converting to solar generated power.
City representatives blame a software glitch, but they also argue that there is a “common misconception” that solar homeowners will no longer receive a bill, or their costs for electricity will drop to zero. In fact, they say solar customers still have to rely on the city’s electric grid because of weather or the size of solar panels, and that they will be charged if net energy production from the individual system is less than usage.
“The reality is solar power is super-complicated when it comes to usage and production,” said Deputy City Manager Shannon Riley.
Riley acknowledged that the city’s conversion to a new utility billing system a year ago is behind customer frustration. “It was a huge leap for us, and we are still working with the software company to resolve complications.”
Even with that admission, a number of the city’s growing base of solar-based customers are questioning why bills surrounding their individual solar systems a year later remain so “confusing, frustrating, and hardly understandable.”
“My wife and I both have MBAs (master’s in business administration degrees) and neither one of us can understand the city’s billing system,” said Jim Moorehead. The Mooreheads are westside Ukiah residents who invested more than $25,000 in a sophisticated rooftop solar system after remodeling an old craftsman house the couple bought.
Jim Moorehead said he invested in a feature that allows him to monitor individual energy production from 28 panels. “I’ve created my own spreadsheet, and the city figures just don’t match,” he said. Figures compiled by city meter readers in some instances are way off, contended Moorehead.
As a result, Moorehead and other unhappy solar customers are sitting on thousands of dollars in unpaid city energy bills “because we can’t trust the figures, nor understand how they are compiled.”
Ukiah resident Holy Brackman and her husband Roger Foote converted their home to solar in 2015. “At the same time we reroofed our home and installed solar, we bought an electric car. We are trying to be climate conscious,” said Brackman.
Brackman said the billing for their system has been out of whack for the last three years. Typically, utilities ‘true up’ with their customers once a year over how much electricity was generated from an individual solar system, and how much the homeowner consumed.
“The last time our electric bill was ‘trued up’ or the city paid us for excess power we generated from solar was in 2019!’ exclaimed Brackman. “We keep being told there are software issues stemming from conversion to a new billing system, but the issues remain.”
Other solar customers, including retired tech entrepreneur Dennis Yeo, said the billing confusion has been going on for at least a year or longer.
Yeo said he has met with city staff who “acknowledge the billing problems and assure us they are being corrected.” Yet, said Yeo, the confusion remains.
“A year later I think it is fair to ask why,” said Yeo.
Yeo said in the beginning the amount of electricity generated by his solar system was close to usage, and typically “We had to pay a small amount to the city” at the end of any given year.
Then Yeo said he started getting huge monthly bills, and then a letter last Spring contending the proper amount of taxes had not been calculated “so we owed $91 more.”
“I have so far ignored the letter,” said Yeo.
Yeo said the current situation “continues to reinforce to us users that we really don’t understand how the true up/monthly accrual works, or why we are being sent letters saying we owe more.”
In his mind, Yeo said the city’s solar billing process is “clear as mud.”
Moorehead said a year ago billing took an unexpected turn. “Things started going haywire. I was getting statements showing we had consumed as much power in one month as we had in six years.”
Moorehead said after months of trying to decipher how the city processes his electrical consumption, “I have no confidence in the billing system.”
Yes, it’s good the city encourages residents to become more energy efficient, said Moorehead.
“But frankly, they have to have the billing infrastructure to support it.”
Moorehead fears the prolonged billing confusion will scare away potential solar users.
“I can’t imagine anyone getting interested in converting to solar doing it if they become aware of the frustrating billing system currently in place,” said Moorehead.
Deputy Manager Riley acknowledged the billing problems are dragging on and taking up too much staff time. “We are hoping for some resolution. We are actively engaged in trying to get the problems fixed.”
Riley said, however, that some solar advocates and solar installation companies who heavily promote their services are also contributing to the confusion among consumers.
“Some people don’t realize that even with efficient solar systems they are still going to have baseline service fees, that are still using our distribution system, and that there are certain regulatory fees we have to charge,” said Riley. “Zero bills are not a certainty.”
Fair enough, said Brackman. But she countered that customers of the city’s utility need “accurate and transparent billing” that include easily understood power generation and usage figures, clear explanations of all charges and taxes, spreadsheets from the past two years covering the figures under the old and new billing systems, and rectifying delays and backlogs of billing errors and end of year credits from solar systems over the past 3-4 years.
“How else can we be satisfied with a billing process that discourages us, and probably a lot of people considering converting to solar?” asked Brackman.