Modesto Irrigation District reopens solar rebate application period

06/02/2014 5:32 PM

06/02/2014 9:27 PM

Uproar from would-be solar customers and their vendors has caused the Modesto Irrigation District to reopen a rebate application window.

It will stay open only until noon Friday, however, because MID wants to accommodate only those left in limbo when the district abruptly canceled rebates for the rest of 2014.

Some solar vendors are glad to have a brief second chance, while others fear that many customers will be too disillusioned to pursue contracts.

The district “apologize(s) that the sudden program shutdown created issues for our customers and participating contractors,” reads a notice posted Monday on MID’s website.

The same webpage had advertised solar rebates until the third week of May, but MID startled many by saying no application received after May 1 would be considered. When questioned by The Modesto Bee, management apologized for providing no warning.

Backdating the deadline left about 75 applicants on ice, MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said. Outcry from livid vendors suggests they could submit 100 more by the new deadline, she said, totaling 175. The extension is expected to cost $1 million on top of $4.2 million already set aside for installation and performance rebates, she said.

“I think it’s the right move” to reopen the application window, said board Chairman Nick Blom. It was unfair to pull the plug with no notice, he said.

Board member John Mensinger said he used the fumble as a case study in a University of Phoenix course he teaches part time called Business Communications and Critical Thinking.

“I asked students, ‘Is this the ideal way to communicate with customers?’ They found the process had been deficient, and it was,” Mensinger said.

Mensinger has been an MID solar customer for four years, long before he was elected in November, and powers his Modesto home and Nissan Leaf electric car with rooftop panels. Justin Krum of Manteca-based 1st Light Energy, which installed Mensinger’s system, approached him, he said, and was among several contractors who complained about the sudden shutdown.

“In a perfect world, staff would have been on top of this thing,” Mensinger said. The district depleted its annual rebate fund after only four months this year, which it never had done before.

Krum said Monday that he is “very pleased” at the change of heart, which should allow his company to close about 70 deals. He praised MID management for “making the best of a tough situation.”

Brent Medearis of The Solar Company said, “This is going to help a lot of people get the money that was promised to them.”

However, Todd Filbrun of Kurios Energy in Manteca said some customers became “disenchanted.”

“It’s a pretty tight window,” Filbrun said. “We’re frantically notifying customers to see if they want to move forward and working in overdrive to get completed applications in under the deadline.”

The MID board has not met since The Bee’s May 24 story, and California’s open meetings law prevents them from collaborating outside public session. Some board members said they were in touch individually with management before Monday’s reversal.

“On something as high profile as this, they’re definitely kept in the loop,” Williams said.

The district will cover the estimated $1 million cost for additional rebates by postponing two other projects until 2015, Williams said. Not helping small businesses become more energy efficient will allow an $818,000 transfer, and an additional $250,000 will come from holding off on automating substations’ ability to regulate voltage levels.

If the board approves rebate money for 2015 in coming weeks, the district would take new applications in January.

MID takes some money from each customer’s bill for solar rebates. The subsidy comes to nearly $46 this year.

“A lot of ratepayers are paying for that solar (and getting no benefit),” said board member Larry Byrd. “But in all fairness, if you’re under the assumption (a rebate) is going to happen, we can’t stop in the middle of the stream.”

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