HAYWARD -- A PG&E customer has learned the hard way how the utility company bills for power generated by solar panels and how asking a few questions can save thousands of dollars.

After John Church had solar panels put on his roof last year, he installed a swimming pool, figuring the alternative power system would help with the cost of heating it. When his monthly PG&E bill never exceeded $35, he thought his solar system was working pretty well.

Then, in July, he received a notice saying he owed $7,228.32.

"I almost had a heart attack when I opened my bill. How am I going to pay this? I'm on a fixed income. A lot of this should have been disclosed to me," he said. "I was very confused."

John Church, of Hayward, points out the current use of wattage at his home in Hayward, Calif. on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. Church had solar panels installed on
John Church, of Hayward, points out the current use of wattage at his home in Hayward, Calif. on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. Church had solar panels installed on his roof last year to cut down on his electric bill. In June, his PG&E bill was $34.20. In July, it was $7,228.32. PG&E told him the bill was cumulative charges he should have been assessed for the past year, which would mean he has been using $595 worth of power each month after he installed solar. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)

What Church didn't realize was the monthly bill he had been receiving represented gas usage only, plus a fee to cover the cost of reading his meter. He didn't know that solar customers get a yearly electric bill, called a True-up bill, and the $7,228.32 represented his electricity usage for the past year.

Church also didn't realize that his pool heater was using much more electricity than his solar system was producing.

PG&E and the company that installed his solar system say that the alternative energy billing system is explained to customers before their solar panels are hooked up to the grid. Church said that never happened.


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Church, 56, who is disabled, lives in a 1,200-square-foot house. He installed a heated pool for therapy last fall at his doctor's recommendation. Before the pool was built, he had 18 solar panels installed on his roof, which he believed would be more than enough to run his pool's heater.

It turns out, his system is nowhere near what he needs for his 28-foot-by-32-foot pool, especially since he was running the heater from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., said Jessie Chambers of Solar Universe of Fremont, which installed the solar panels. Church was keeping the water at 85 degrees, she said.

Solar Universe put in a system that would produce enough power to cover Church's pre-pool electrical use, which averaged $200 a month, Chambers said.

"He never told us he planned to install a pool," she said. He would need a system two to three times as large to offset the pool heater's energy consumption, she said.

Church now runs the pool's heater only for an hour in the morning and an hour at night and plans to power it with a generator. "I would have cut back long ago if I had known how much it was costing me," he said.

Solar customers are billed differently than other consumers, said Denny Boyles, PG&E spokesman.

Solar panels commonly produce more energy than a homeowner might need in the summer. In the winter, less solar power is produced, so traditional power sources kick in. Ideally, at the end of the year, all the energy used and produced are close to the same, with a zero balance.

But in Church's case, his solar system was not covering his energy usage. The swimming pool heater was using about $550 of energy each month, and his home electricity needs were about $200 a month. His solar panels were working as designed, offsetting his home usage, but not the power needed to heat the pool.

So PG&E sent him a bill equal to what the panels didn't cover -- approximately $550 a month for the pool heater, Chambers said.

Boyles explained that PG&E customers with solar systems receive two statements each month. The first, which looks like a regular bill, lists gas and meter charges. The second shows electric power consumption versus production, Boyles said.

"It's like a progress report for their solar installation for the year to date," he said. "It will show if you are running behind or running a credit. It will show you what you owe to that date, so customers aren't taken by surprise."

But because the second statement says "This is not a bill" at the top, Church said he ignored it, and he didn't really understand the figures.

"I was never told I would be billed yearly," he said. "PG&E later sent out a guy who showed me how this True-up works. Now I understand. But they should have explained it to me before. I'm new at this."

After this newspaper contacted PG&E, Boyles put a hold on Church's account, and the utility company will be working with him to devise a payment plan.

"We have a bunch of different programs that we can use to help customers who are struggling to pay their bill," Boyles said. "The simplest thing is to give us a call."