SMUD opens 1.2-MW Solar PV "customer-driven" array

LOS ANGELES, July 14 Mon Jul 14, 2008 9:10pm EDT

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LOS ANGELES, July 14 (Reuters) - The Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California on Monday electrified a 1.2-megawatt photovoltaic solar panel array that it says is the first U.S. project to offer customers without solar panels the chance to sell renewable power back to their power company.

Sacramento Municipal Utility District Executive Director John DiStasio said the project is the first to be built based on a voluntary "green pricing" effort, in which customers bet that in the long run the price of electricity rises while their charges remain flat.

SMUD will purchase power in a 20-year agreement from enXco, the builder and owner of a seven-acre, 17,172-panel solar array in Wilton, southeast of Sacramento. The company is a unit of EdF Energies Nouvelles Co EEN.PA of France, which is half-owned by EdF (EDF.PA) of France.

SMUD customers who enroll in the "Solar Shares Program" will have an extra charge on their monthly electricity bills. They will get pro-rata payments for the solar power sold by the 1.2-MW solar array in Wilton.

DiStasio said SMUD hopes to expand the Solar Shares program in phases, depending on customer demand. Therefore, SMUD is calling it a "customer-driven" enterprise.

SMUD officials said it expects the program to be fully subscribed in a month.

Many utilities pay for power put on the grid by homeowners and businesses that have solar panels installed on their properties. This is different because it offers a chance to be green to renters and consumers who either don't want panels or don't live where it is sunny enough to make power, said DiStasio.

"The original model is focused on customers with rooftop solar panels," he said. "This type of distributed photovoltaic has not been a model that's gotten traction. But if you consider how to expand solar power, you have to consider the people who rent."

Unlike the state of California solar subsidy program, this one favors customers who use less power, said Rachel Huang, project manager at SMUD.

A customer using 6,000 kilowatt-hours a month -- a small user -- has $10.75 a month added to the bill. On average at first, that customer will have about two-thirds of that monthly charge returned because of solar power sales.

Over time, as the cost of power increases, the customer may get more than the full fee back, Huang said.

SMUD figures that during sunny summer months, the payback will be higher than winter months.

Mark Tholke, director of utility-scale development for enXco, said all panels for the array in Wilton for SMUD were made in the United States.

SMUD is the sixth-largest municipal power utility in the United States with about 580,000 power customers. (Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Gary Hill)

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