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What you should know before going green with solar panels

John Austin, a Spokane Valley resident, says he saw higher fees after installing solar panels. This is due to companies charging for backup service.

SPOKANE VALLEY, Wash. — You might be thinking about installing solar panels on your house to save on your power bill. 

That is what one Spokane Valley man did but he actually saw an increase in his power bill.

John Austin had solar panels installed on the roof of his Spokane Valley home in the winter. He wanted to go green and save some money at the same time.

"The advantage of saving helps out a lot because as a disabled vet you don't have a lot of income. State and federal rebates that you got could make it affordable,” Austin said.

State and federal grant money covered most of the $40,000 tab.

He soon found out he was not going to save as much as he thought right away. He said his power company Vera Water and Power raised his monthly connection fee from $13.65 to $50.

Vera Water and Power is a non-profit power company that is customer-owned located in Spokane Valley.

A Vera Water and Power spokesperson said he is still on the company’s grid for backup power even though he is producing his own power. They raised the fee to meet the costs to read and maintain the equipment.

The $50 base charge is laid out in the contract for net metering provided by Vera Water and Power. It says the base charge is $50 and is subject to change annually.

The contract also says on April 30 of each year that “any remaining unused kilowatt-hour credit accumulated by the customer during the previous year shall be granted to Vera, and the customer will be reimbursed at the average BPA Tier I wholesale cost in effect May 1st of the previous year."

Austin said he did not see this contract until after his panels were installed.

"They gave us this afterwards and say, ‘You have to do this.' But I already have forty thousand dollars’ worth of panels on the roof. What are my choices?” Austin said.

A spokesperson with Solgen Power, the company that installed Austin’s panels, said they were unaware of the fee as well. 

The spokesperson said they must get permission from the customer’s utility company before installation and apply for an interconnection agreement.

There are other utility companies in the country which charge fees to remain on the power grid, while others have different policies in place to address customers with solar panels.

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Avista customers, for example, are eligible for net metering benefits. 

According to an Avista spokesperson this means they will continue to receive their basic charge. When they use up their own generated power they are billed for what electricity is used beyond that amount each month.

At certain times of the year, a customer's system may generate more electricity than they use. If that is the case, they will receive credit back on next month's bill.

Each utility company has different regulations for customers with solar panels. Those in the utilities industry recommend people connect with their own utility company before installing solar panels.

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