For local residents, it's not a choice whether or not to use Central Hudson, the electric utility, unless you're totally off the grid. Even if you have signed up with, say, Nexamp Community Solar for your electric power, you have to pay CH for providing and supplying that power because CH owns and maintains all the power lines in our region. CH buys the power produced by the community solar arrays Nexamp owns in the Town of Rochester. Nexamp customers have to read two sets of bills. CH bills list all the usual charges but give Nexamp customers "solar credits." Nexamp then sends a bill for kilowatts used, with a "guaranteed discount" of 10% from what CH would charge for the same. (But it's more complicated than that ... the discount varies as the sun shines.)
In the best of all possible worlds, the two companies would send their bills at the same time, covering the same billing period. But in the world where we currently live, CH bills have been wildly erratic ever since the company attempted to make a system upgrade something over a year ago. Nexamp has to wait on CH data before it can estimate what to charge individual customers.
So what's it been like for those who signed on with Nexamp since it went online in Rochester in 2019? People we spoke with were happy to be supporting solar energy. No question about that. The prevailing theme seemed to be the brain-busting complexity of figuring out how much money they are actually spending on electricity.
Bram Kincheloe of High Falls was bothered by a lack of transparency. "Nexamp shows me that I am saving money, it is theoretically 10%. in their online portal, it shows me that I have a lifetime savings of $315 and that I've avoided 25,202kg worth of emissions by using them. I have no way inside the portal of verifying this ... I can definitely agree that the billing process is confusing and obfuscated, and without digging into anything, I have no way of figuring out who is going to bill me and when.
"As we all know, Central Hudson failed to send out real-time bills for almost a year as they worked their way through the failed transition to online billing or whatever they were doing. And Nexamp, in the interim, kept sending out notices basically stating that they were waiting on Central Hudson to fix their issues before they could issue their own invoices, et cetera. Either way, the companies have obviously not figured out how to work with one another. On top of all that, I kept getting notices from Central Hudson that they are no longer accepting credits from a solar company that failed to pass the base level for inclusion into the grid by the state, or something. But the name of the company was not Nexamp, and honestly I didn't have time to look into it. So, long story short, I have no idea what the hell is going on. I just make payments when they come up, assuming it isn't some insanely high ‘estimated’ bill from Central Hudson, which has happened as well.”
Bob Gibbons and Tim Gay, who live on Upper Cherrytown Road, declared themselves to be "bamboozled" by the numbers on their Nexamp and Central Hudson statements.
"We still can't figure out the math," said Gay. "We added up our bills, compared 2021 to 2022, and found that our electricity came to only $734.18 in 2021, and almost doubled to $1,450.70 this year through November. CenHud evidently had a glitch and didn't bill us after November 2021. We finally received a bill in April 2022 for $584.59, but it was impossible to do a month-by-month breakdown of our usage, how much electricity came from the fossil fuel power grid, and what percentage came from Nexamp's solar production ... and we never could figure out how CenHud calculates the delivery charge for bringing electricity up the mountain."
Keith Hevenor, local communications director for Nexamp, did his best to cut through the confusion, at least the part that relates to Nexamp.
"In terms of problems that we have been having with Central Hudson, please know that these are challenges facing the industry, not just Nexamp," he began. "When Central Hudson went through a major systems change last summer it severely impacted our shared customers. For months Central Hudson was unable to generate bills for their customers and was unable to apply solar energy credits for Nexamp customers. This created a very negative experience for our customers ... While we have seen some improvement with Central Hudson, we are still not able to get the information we need from them on a consistent basis ... It has been challenging to deliver a best-in-class customer experience for our Central Hudson customers."
Hevenor then explained each section of a Nexamp bill in depth.
"Value of Credits Applied – this is the sum of the credits applied to a customer’s utility account. We receive this information from our utility partners. A customer could validate this by adding up the amount of solar energy credits that appear on their utility bills.
"Savings to Date – this is the sum of the discount applied to the solar energy credits. A customer could validate this by adding up the cumulative discount amount on their Nexamp bills.
"Environmental Impact Numbers – we leverage data from the U.S. Government (https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/state/) and tie it to state averages. For example, in New York the state average is 300kg/MWh, which is one of the cleanest states; in Alaska it’s over 1,000kg/MWh. We then calculate the amount of amount of carbon you avoided that would otherwise have come out of a coal fired power plant. The way we calculate the trees saved is very similar."
There is hope for the confused customer, however. "The industry is working toward a model of consolidated billing, meaning that you would receive only one bill that reflects both your utility consumption and your community solar energy credits." Yes, that would mean that "the community solar customer would no longer receive a bill directly from the utility, they would only receive a Nexamp bill." That bill, Hevenor affirmed, would still show how many kilowatt-hours you've used and the other details that are seen on CH bills, but you would no longer have to pay two separate companies. "It would make it easier to observe the savings you're realizing ... any of the delivery charges and fees that can't be covered by community solar [credits], charges that CH is issuing, those would be on the bills you'd receive, but you would pay it all through Nexamp."
Of course, this is not around the corner. "What that would require is an open data exchange between the community solar provider and the utility. That's the hard part," admitted Hevenor. "We deal with so many utilities, so many billing systems." Nexamp and other alternative-energy providers are working to create an industry standard, "so that all our systems could talk to each other ... It would avoid all that individual programming with each utility." Not to mention saving the energy currently expended by customers' brain cells.
Sue Horwitz, who lives on Trails End Road, is one customer who is satisfied with the company's communications. She is content to rely on Nexamp's own figures about the discount she's getting per kilowatt. "It's on the account page on the website. It seems significant if it’s accurate." She also gave Nexamp high marks for personal assistance. "I called a while back about very confusing bills and the guy who answered walked me through them. He was super helpful." About the difficulty to keeping track of what has been paid to whom for what specific time period, she said, "It makes sense once you see the connection: CH credits you whatever NA has generated." The only drawback, in her view, is that "I still have to pay CH service and delivery fees. I wish there was a true alternative that cuts CH out."
Kincheloe mused, "Overall, just the knowledge that most of my energy comes from a solar field is reassuring and assuages my guilt over still having my heating tied to fossil fuels (although we are working on shifting those over to a heat pump system asap)... I'm mostly hoping they resolve the billing issues on Central Hudson's side so that everything becomes more predictable, although asking any of these entities to streamline and modernize their operational and billing practices – when they are used to sending out paper bills and receiving checks in the mail for the past 50 years – is akin to slamming your fingers in your car door repetitively and hoping they don't swell up this time." Ouch!
Gay said, "It would be great if Nexamp would tell us how many kilowatts were produced from our town solar fields, how much was paid for maintenance and salaries, and what the total value or loss was for the electricity we put into the power grid. That would give us some clarity and confidence in Nexamp."
"We still haven't used our $25 gift card Central Hudson gave us last March," Gibbons added. "We couldn't get it to work at any local stores."