Peco reboot: No $45K bill for homeowner to connect solar

Not long after Peco told Kevin Dunleavy it would cost about $45,000 to hook his proposed backyard solar array into the electric grid, Dunleavy told the Inquirer and Daily News all about the problem for an August article.

From there, he said, it wasn’t long until he heard from Peco officials, who told him they had formed a new group in September just to address such issues with alternative energy hookups.

“They said, ‘We have some good news for you. But we can’t promise you anything until the end of September,’” Dunleavy said Tuesday. “I had no idea what that meant.”

Now he knows:  One day this month, two Peco officials and two engineers came to his home, explained some issues and presented him with a new estimate: $4,500. That’s one-tenth the original price tag.

“It’s definitely good news,” says Dunleavy. However, he is waiting until he sees the details in writing before he celebrates.

Chalk it up to a new initiative by Peco’s new Distributed Energy Group, says company spokesman Doug Oliver. The Distributed Energy Group, which the company began to assemble in February, is composed of 14 employees from a range of fields and includes engineers and designers.

Oliver said he can’t speak about an individual customer’s issues.  But he alluded to some cases as “an easy win.”

Oliver said Peco recognized it had problems addressing the needs of an increasing number of customers who want to produce their own solar energy.

The trouble, Oliver said, is that Peco was structured to be the distributor of energy. Now, it is seeing more customers acting as their own distributors.

“This DEG group has worked really hard to look at our own internal process, including for solar,” Oliver said.

Dunleavy, a 49-year-old roofing contractor, wanted to install a solar array on a hill in his Chester County yard.  He received local approval and spent almost $8,000 on permitting, an online solar class, site preparation and then put down $1,000 deposit for $19,000 worth of solar panels.

He didn’t want to place the array on his roof, believing it wasn’t as cost effective, and would be easier to install and maintain on his 1.6 acre lot.

His goal was to connect his 16.08 kilowatt hour (kWh) system into the utility grid. Dunleavy said the electrician designed the system to only meet his current needs averaged over a year. The connection would generate excess power to the grid on sunny days, but draw from the grid on cloudy days.

However, Dunleavy’s neighborhood is in one of Peco’s older 4,000-volt distribution circuits. Peco’s newer distribution circuits run to 13,000 volts.  So, the distribution system he would hook into couldn’t handle the amount of energy his backyard array could potentially push into the grid.

Camera icon Frank Kummer
Kevin Dunleavy of West Bradford Township, Chester County, on his front porch, holding up plants for a solar array he wants to install.

Initially, Peco gave him until September to come up with a $4,500 nonrefundable deposit just to begin work.  Now, the company says that’s about the final price.

Oliver, the Peco spokesman, said the DEG group applied a new company philosophy — as well as technology — that slashed the cost.  Previously, a customer essentially had to pay for all upgrades, even those down the line, that would be needed for Peco to handle more voltage.

Now, the company is working to see if a customer might have to pay only a portion, with the understanding Peco would likely have had to make upgrades down the line anyway to accommodate future requests.

Oliver also said Peco can now get a much more nuanced view of how much power a customer is using through its new smart meters installed on homes.

He said the company is committed to meeting consumer demand for solar.  To date, the company has received 9,500 applications for solar installations.

“When we first got calls from people interested in solar, they were pioneers,” Oliver said. “We didn’t have a system in place to handle that. It might be a week or two before they heard from us. But we learned, we want this.

“Now we can’t really deal with these requests as one-offs,” he continued. “You need someone to deal with those requests directly.”

Originally, Peco planned to charge Dunleavy for six separate upgrades.  It has dropped that to just the three for his immediate hookup on his property and a nearby transformer.  Peco will handle three other upgrades up the road.

After the initial story on Dunleavy’s plight, he was flooded with emails, he said, “some good, some bad.”

Many suggested he go completely off the grid and install a Tesla Powerwall battery that would store the energy from his solar panels for use on cloudy days and in the low winter sun.  It was something he had considered, but decided would be too costly.  The battery would require him to generate 30 percent more energy than planned, he said, because there’s an energy loss in the process.

“I don’t want to backtrack,” Dunleavy said.  “I’ve spent money on municipal permitting, solar panels, electrical design — I would have to start all over.”

This story was updated to clarify that four Peco employees came to Dunleavy’s home and the amount he has spent out-of-pocket to date.