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Watt a deal
"Homeowners' solar power enters PSE gridPhoto: Jay Freundlich (right) explains the inner workings of his solar power collecting station as Doug Shepherd takes digital pictures of the hardware.Matt Johnson/staff photoWhen the sun is shining, Jay Freundlich and Lea Kouba are saving money. At the same time, Puget Sound Energy is losing it -- albeit with a cheerful attitude.This month the two Clinton residents -- who live across the street from one another in a co-housing development on Midvale Road -- officially became the first PSE customers to hook their electricity-producing solar panels into the utility's power grid.Although that sounds technical, what they are doing has probably been the dream of anyone who has ever paid an electric bill. They get to run the electric meter backwards.We're the first in our region to do this, Kouba said last week.Freundlich and Kouba are the only PSE solar customers now on a net metering program. For the past year-and-a-half, both have stored the solar energy they collected in batteries or used electricity as it was being generated by the solar panels that sit atop poles outside their homes. On Feb. 11, a PSE line crew hooked their panels and associated hardware into electric meters. From now on, PSE will credit Freundlich and Kouba for every kilowatt they produce. Instead of drawing stored power from their batteries after the sun goes down, the two local residents will get it from PSE on an even exchange of power for power.The new arrangement is far better than the old, said Freundlich. Although he could run his home on the four 6V batteries he has attached to his solar panels, he could not store all the electricity the panels could produce. Now he can, by feeding it into the PSE system, then using it as he needs it.I'll be able to use all the energy I produce, he said.In fact, Freundlich said his family will probably stay a little ahead of the electric company through most of the year, producing more power than they use. The only part of the electric bill they will pay will be the monthly service charge.While working to hook Freundlich and Kouba into the grid, PSE senior engineer Doug Shepherd noted that his company will never actually have to pay out for home generated electricity. In fact, PSE may actually get some electricity for free. All the electricity Freundlich and Kouba produce will be recorded as credits toward their total power use. But at the end of the year, any credits they have left over will be wiped out. That means the two households may have to pay for power in January and February, since those months are almost the darkest and coldest of the year.The net metering contract Freundlich and Kouba signed with PSE is the first of its kind for the company. The 18 months of work it took to write it will pay off for other solar customers who sign on in coming years, Freundlich said. Both homeowners said they were satisfied with how the contract turned out, but the annual credit loss will stretch the payback period on the solar equipment payback.It will take eight to 10 years to recoup the costs, Kouba said.Freundlich's household has run largely off stored battery power for the past year-and-a-half, so his family has learned to conserve power. They use a high-efficiency refrigerator and have consciously cut down on ghost loads -- appliances such as clock radios and instant-on televisions that constantly draw power. He said his family does not necessarily plan on using more electricity now that they can take advantage of the solar panels' total capacity.Freundlich and Kouba control their power production and output through devices called inverters. The inverters, in addition to mechanisms installed by PSE, will prevent their solar electricity from backfeeding through power lines during outages. Backfeeding can injure workers repairing downed lines.The computer-controlled devices did impress PSE's Shepherd. He remarked on the steadiness of the power feeding through it from the solar panels.The Puget Power guys were very impressed with the quality of electricity, Freundlich said, referring to PSE by its old name.PSE is required by Washington Utilities and Trade Commission to offer net metering to anyone who co-generates renewable electricity. Co-generators may produce power with wind, water, or solar devices."