Imperial Irrigation District sues Riverside County over net metering ordinance

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In the entire United States, it is unlikely that any county has as many MW of solar installed as Riverside County. The land is flat, open and, most importantly, sunny. These factors have made Riverside a hotspot for utility-grade solar projects, going back to the building of the Solar Energy Generating Systems (SEGS) in the mid-1980s.

Not only is the county home to solar farms, but traditional farms, as well as desert resorts. One would think that the two would be chomping at the bit to develop their own on-site solar installations and wipe out their monthly energy costs. That’s where the issue arises.

A significant portion of Riverside county falls under the coverage of Imperial Irrigation District (IID), a utility company that covers water for irrigation as well as electricity. In 2016, IID discontinued its net metering program.

Fast forward to last Tuesday, when the Riverside County Board of Supervisors passed Ordinance No. 943. Under Ordinance 943, IID would have to restore their net metering program within the county  “To offer an net metering (NEM) program to County residents that is as expansive but in no event more restrictive than the rules, regulations, and orders of the California Public Utilities Commission applicable to SCE for SCE’s NEM customers under NEM Successor Tariff Decision.”

What the above quotation is outlining is the requirement that IID establish a net metering program reflective to the one that customers of Southern California Edison (SCE) are eligible for. Why is this such a big deal? Remember those farms and resorts? Those use a substantial amount of electricity and, unlike many other net metering policies, SCE’s “NEM 2.0” net metering policy has no wattage cap, outlining only that “the system must be sized to the customer’s onsite load.”

The absence of caps, coupled with the fact that the more solar they install, the less IID’s customers need transmission and distribution system upgrades (which utilities profits from) naturally pits IID and other utilities against distributed solar.

IID quickly filed a lawsuit against the ordinance, which the utility claims “unlawfully erodes the regulatory authority of both the California Legislature and the California Public Utilities Commission as to subsidized mandatory solar tariffs for customer-generators.”

The use of the word subsidy, in this instance, is a chosen editorial stretch by IID, as multiple studies have shown that net metering provides a net benefit to other ratepayers.

With this lawsuit, IID has entered into a battle with not only Riverside County, but with one of the largest rooftop solar companies in Southern California. Riverside County has come to an agreement with Renova Energy to allow the company to lead the county’s defense, which has meant the use of Vincent Battaglia’s legal team. Battaglia is the founder and CEO of Renova and was one of the largest proponents of Riverside County’s ordinance.

Battaglia spoke with pv magazine, sharing his belief that the IID is “suing its own ratepayers.” He also shared that the foundation of the ordinance comes from California Water Code 22123. The code outlines that “Any district providing electric power to areas outside its boundaries shall be subject to reasonable rules, regulations, and orders of the governing body of the city or county area being served.”

Battaglia stated that IID’s lawsuit against the ordinance is essentially a statement to its ratepayers “we’re gonna prove we are not subject to 22123.”

IID has been less than thrilled at the appointment of Renova and Battaglia to the county’s defense, due to Battaglia’s financial stake in the ordinance. IID outlined their disdain in their lawsuit filing, noting

“The board attempted to insulate the county from legal liability for enacting the Ordinance by obtaining the Agreement from Battaglia and/or his affiliates to idemnify the county for expenses relating to the Ordinance. On information and belief, the Board of Supervisors knew at the time the Agreement was made that any action to adopt or otherwise implement the Ordinance would violate Art. 11 § 7 of the California constitution and thus said agreement is unlawful.”

This filing of this lawsuit proves, yet again, the correction of an easy misconception. Utilities don’t oppose solar power, they oppose solar power they can’t profit off of.