Here Comes the Sun! A Broad Constituency Emerges in the Battle for Solar.
Solar energy is one of the brightest things going—a booming business sector spawning solid jobs, providing homeowners with local energy options, and saving the earth all at the same time.
At least that’s what people thought.
Early this year you couldn’t get much more bullish than solar, with people reporting a more than 66 percent increase in residential photovoltaic installations in 2015, enabled by a precipitous drop in the cost of technology, and projecting “staggering” growth in 2016. The federal investment tax credit, which provides up to a 30 percent subsidy on all solar projects, was extended to 2019 with some funding through 2022. Solar development even outdid the growth of natural gas, accounting for over 29 percent of new electric generating capacity installed in the United States in 2015. And solar means jobs too, employing over 209,000 workers, mainly for solar installation companies—more than currently work in oil and gas extraction.
A closer look reveals a cloudier picture, however. In Nevada, Arizona, and Florida, people are in the streets protesting new fees on their residential solar arrays. Like a bad case of sunburn, there’s a rash of lawsuits in courts around the country as consumers, solar industry representatives, utilities, and public service commissioners hash out what solar electricity will cost, and who can build, and profit from, renewable projects.
New Kid on the Grid
Why resist something that makes such good sense for the future of the planet?
Solar energy is a new kid on a block that has a long established old boy network—or grid to be more accurate. Distributed sources of energy like residential roof-top solar are introducing big changes to one of our country’s most stalwart institutions: the energy utility. The only way out appears to require a lot of hands on deck—in the streets, public meetings, and courthouses—to change the rules.
There is also a lot of money at stake.
Evidence has been stacking up, including a report in The Progressive, on the role of ALEC and the Koch brothers meddling in politics to confound growth of the burgeoning solar industry.
President Obama has even taken public note, describing such efforts against solar as “not progress.”
“It’s one thing if you’re consistent in being free market,” he said at a meeting last fall on clean energy in Nevada. “It’s another thing when you’re free market until it’s solar that’s working and people want to buy and suddenly you’re not for it anymore. That’s a problem.”
State level legislation to make solar more costly for consumers was introduced in nearly two dozen states between 2013 and early 2015. Some of the proposals were virtual copies of model legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Angry solar customers from across the political spectrum have organized, accusing utility companies of serving narrow, for-profit interests, and pointing to close connections between state politics, the commissions that run utilities, and lobbying campaigns against solar. The people who sit on the commissions overseeing utility companies are elected in a handful of states but most often appointed by governors in the state.
In Nevada more than 15,000 homeowners who had invested in solar rooftop arrays, had a nasty surprise when the Nevada Public Utilities Commission, an “investor-owned utility,” changed the rules. In January the utility levied high fees and also gutted metering payments so that customers will no longer be paid for feeding the system during peak times.
“Net metering” credits solar owners for the electricity they add to the grid. If a rooftop solar array generates more electricity than the home uses, for example, the meter will run backwards to provide credit for when the home’s electricity use is more than the solar array can provide—at night, for example. Any “surplus” solar electricity serves nearby customers’ loads.
One argument utilities make—and it’s an argument pushed by ALEC—is that solar users are “free-riders,” paying less into a grid that utilities still have to build and maintain. It’s true that traditional power is key for providing a steady energy supply, especially during peak times and when renewables aren’t delivering like on dark, windless days (electricity storage remains the Achilles heel of energy supply). But this free-rider argument is routinely challenged by solar advocates, who say that utilities misrepresent the numbers, pointing out, among other things, that solar installations can forestall expensive new infrastructure that may not have to be built.
Net metering, along with the savings in energy costs, is vital to the math used by individual homeowners to venture onto solar territory. Even then, solar panels are a serious investment, taking ten to twenty years to be paid for. Some states, including New York, New Mexico, and California are leaving net metering programs in place. Angry consumers in Arizona and Nevada have responded to the fees and rate changes by taking their utilities to court.
The role of fossil fuel interests in blocking solar doesn’t explain all of the resistance, however. There’s something else going on, and it involves the core mission of utilities. In a nutshell, utilities are in the business of energy distribution, and have invested in a forehead-smacking amount of infrastructure to guarantee an uninterrupted supply. And they bank on being able to sell a certain amount of electricity to customers. Distributed solar, especially individual rooftop arrays and community projects where energy is produced in lots of different places, challenge both the business model and the technical infrastructure of the traditional centralized electric utility. The complexity of merging different systems and moving toward an “energy democracy,” or at least a more flexible system is a real head-scratcher.