Farmington faces lawsuit based on standby service riders for solar customers

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
The Coliseum is one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the City of Farmington. The plaintiffs allege Farmington has unfair charges for customers who have solar panels. The Coliseum has an approximately 11 kilowatt solar array on its roof.

FARMINGTON — Several Farmington electric customers are alleging the City of Farmington is discriminating against commercial and residential solar customers by charging a standby service rider.

The residents and business, as well as nonprofit Vote Solar, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court against the City of Farmington.

Lawyers from the nonprofit environmental law center Earthjustice are representing the plaintiffs.

“This case is currently in litigation and therefore we are not able to go into great detail about the specifics but can say the City of Farmington and the Farmington Electric Utility System completed a full cost of service study to determined rates and assign cost recovery,” said Farmington spokesperson Georgette Allen in an emailed statement to The Daily Times.

More:Farmington City Council raises electric rates, institutes standby service rider

She said a qualified, experienced company with knowledge of rates and rate designs completed the study. Allen said the study examined all types of utility customers.

Mike Eisenfeld shows his solar panels, Friday, Dec. 1, 2017 at his home in Farmington. Eisenfeld is one of several Farmington residents suing the city based on a standby service rider charged to customers with solar panels. Eisenfeld has a 4.7 kilowatt rooftop solar array that was grandfathered into the system. He plans on installing a 7.89 kilowatt ground-mounted solar array, which would terminate the grandfathered status of his rooftop system, according to court documents.

"The multi-month process was vetted through the Municipal Public Utility Commission and approved by the Farmington City Council," Allen said.

In 2017, the Farmington City Council approved a standby service rider for electric customers that generate some of their own electricity.

The standby service rider pays for the Farmington Electric Utility System to have grid capacity to provide power to the customers. That means if the solar array stops working, the city will have the infrastructure and electricity available for the customer to use.

Standby service riders are not unique to Farmington. Utilities nationwide have implemented them for more than a decade.

Earthjustice has similarly challenged other utilities' standby service riders over the years.

The plaintiffs say it discourages investment into solar power.

This is because customers who can generate some of their own power pay the same rates for the power they receive from FEUS that other customers pay. However, only the customers who can generate some of their own power must pay standby service charges.

Solar developer Richard Chacon, left, and Farmington Electric Utility System Director Hank Adair discuss solar energy during a January 2017 City Council meeting in Farmington. The Farmington City Council voted in January 2017 to institute a standby service rider.

"The Farmington utility is imposing an anti-solar charge similar to those that were rejected when tried by other utilities," said Dave Bender, an Earthjustice attorney, in a press release. "The utility incorrectly presumes to be entitled to more of its customers' money, even when those customers produce their own electricity instead of buying it from the utility. That's wrong. What's more, it's illegal. We're asking the court to stop the anti-solar discrimination."

The court documents use an example of customers purchasing 500 kilowatt hours of electricity in a month.

A customer without solar panels would pay $56.80.

More:Proposed rate changes concern solar proponents

If a solar customer has a six-kilowatt fixed solar array and purchases 500 kilowatt hours of electricity, that customer would pay $100.48. This is because the solar customer would pay a $43.68 standby service rider.

That standby service rider allows Farmington to have capacity on its grid to provide the customer with the electricity generated by the solar array, city officials have said.

When the City Council approved the standby service rider in 2017, officials said the Farmington Electric Utility System must provide that power if the solar array fails, or intermittently when the sun isn't shining.

The utility must invest in infrastructure as well as purchase power contracts to have that capacity.

The amount of kilowatt hours a six-kilowatt fixed solar array can generate depends on the time of year and location. A fixed array that does not move to track the sun will generate less power than a tracking array.

More:Solar proponents concerned about rate proposals

Online solar calculator PVWatts estimates a six-kilowatt fixed solar array will generate between 600 and 1000 kilowatt hours of electricity monthly in Farmington.

The amount a customer pays in standby service riders depends on the size and type of system.

A residential customer will pay $7.01 per kilowatt for a tracking solar array and $7.28 per kilowatt for a fixed solar array.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at

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