Utilities Getting Regulatory Support for Screwing Solar Customers

Yves here. The OilPrice original had a more anodyne headline. Utilities, with regulatory backing, are working hard to turn homeowner investments in solar into economic white elephants.

By Nick Cunningham, a Vermont-based writer on energy and environmental issues. You can follow him on twitter at @nickcunningham1. Originally published at OilPrice

Now that solar power is reaching prime time, the fossil fuel industry is doing all that it can to stop its growth.

For many years solar was on the periphery, installed by early adopters and helped along by government subsidy. But over the last several years, solar has emphatically become mainstream. It is still growing from a low base, but it is now one of the most preferred sources of new electricity generation. The cost of residential solar have been cut in half since 2010, and utility-scale solar has achieved even greater cost declines.

In 2015, the U.S. saw 16 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity installed, which accounted for two-thirds of the total. Solar alone accounted for about one-third of new capacity last year. Natural gas only captured 25 percent of the newly installed capacity despite several years of incredibly low prices. The banner year for clean energy occurred while 11 gigawatts of coal-fired electricity came offline as old plants were retired amid rising costs and stricter environmental regulation. The clean energy transition is very much underway.

But the backlash from incumbent industries has also sprung to life. With solar and wind suddenly eclipsing fossil fuels as a preferred option for new power plant capacity, utilities and other fossil fuel interests are moving quickly to disrupt the progress of clean energy.

The industry argues that homeowners with solar must pay fees to cover their costs of using the grid. Solar proponents dismiss that argument, pointing to the costs saved by not needing to build new power plants.

However, the threat that solar poses to the utility industry is deeper than customers no longer needing to purchase electricity. Building new power plants and other large infrastructure is at the core of utility industry’s business model. Since those costs can be passed onto the ratepayer in the form of regulated rates, building expensive infrastructure is actually a source of profit. Customers switching to solar ends up hitting the utility’s bottom line twice by no longer buying as much electricity and upended the utility’s case for costly new power plants and transmission lines.

That is why utilities have become much more aggressive in beating back solar. One of the most high-profile cases is in Nevada, where a NV Energy, subsidiary of Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, convinced the Nevada Public Utilities Commission to abruptly and harshly alter the rules of the game for solar power in the state.

Not only did state regulators gut the net metering payments to homeowners with solar on their rooves, but they also refused to grandfather in those that have already signed up or purchased solar panels on the basis of the net metering rule. Homeowners with solar will now see their electricity rates increase in the coming years. Some residents may see their electricity bills spike by 300 percent above what they likely would have been had they not purchased solar in the first place. Under the net-metering rules, purchasing or leasing solar made sound financial sense for more than 17,000 homeowners. Now, all of a sudden, it doesn’t.

The move sparked outrage from both homeowners and the solar industry in December when the PUC made its original decision. SolarCity immediately announced its decision to pull out of the state and lay off most of its Nevada workforce. On February 12, the PUC upheld its decision, although it slightly delayed the rate increase for solar homeowners from 4 to 12 years, which was still much quicker than the utility industry had even asked for. NV Energy proposed rate increases for solar customers to be phased in over 20 years.

By the stroke of a pen, Nevada just became a much more difficult place to do business for solar companies. SolarCity’s share price has plummeted by more than 60 percent since the December ruling.

But Nevada is not the only state where the fight to block solar’s rise is taking place. The signs of obstruction abound. In 2013, Arizona regulators slapped a fee on solar customers of $5 per month after a campaign by the state’s utilities. The fee was lower than what the utilities wanted after protests from a collection of solar companies and conservative groups advocating for freedom of energy choice. That fee remains in place, but the state’s largest utility is reportedly looking to submit a request to regulators this year to raise the fee to $21 per month.

Rolling Stone just published a long article on the monopoly power held by the utility industry in Florida, where they have succeeded in keeping Florida a solar backwater, despite the state having the third-best solar generation potential in the country. Unlike most other states, nobody except the utility is allowed to buy and sell electricity, so the power-leasing model that SolarCity has made popular is illegal. “We live in the Stone Age in regard to renewable power,” said Florida state Rep. Dwight Dudley. “The power companies hold sway here, and the consumers are at their mercy.”

The anti-solar initiatives are spreading around the country. Oklahoma’s utility industry is proposing new fees, which sparked protest in December. Renewable portfolio standards are being rolled back in Ohio, Kansas, and other states.

The fight will only escalate moving forward as solar makes further inroads. Worldwide, the clean energy sector enjoyed a record year in 2015, attracting $329 billion in investment, a staggering figure that is set to rise.

Utilities may be able to buy themselves some time, but as solar continues to see costs decline, more and more people will want to defect from the grid.

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81 comments

  1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

    Amazing momentum for the industry despite low/crashing oil prices, and so heartwarming to see Grandpa Buffet mentioned, the sooner people figure out he is a complete fascist carpetbagger the better (and a big Hilary supporter). Between his slumlording, insider Goldman preferred stock deals, and now this, when is someone gonna throw a pie at him? Kinda like Bill Gates trying to help the people of Nigeria…by making sure they have a Mastercard account (Better Than Cash Alliance)

  2. David Jacobs

    Hawaii has also changed its net metering program to reduce the buy back of energy to subtract out grid maintenance costs. People who got in before the change were grandfathered.

    Hawaii probably has the highest penetration of solar in the country, and we are pushing the limits of grid stability in many neighborhoods. As an example, I have been waiting for more than 18 months for approval to put up my solar. If the HECO would actually upgrade their grid to handle more solar, I think making net metering more “fair” (i.e., get paid of generation not grid maintenance) is reasonable. And continue to use tax credits and municipal financing plans to incentivize individuals.

    1. Gio Bruno

      David, why wait for the electrical utility grid to get up to speed? Install a stand-alone system. The battery bank needed for the Hawaiian climate (minimal heating, use LED lighting) is readily available (lead-acid L-16’s). The modular solar array control systems have 3kw embedded storage (Li-ion), if that’s what you want.

      The price of installing solar PV has never been lower.

      1. David jacobs

        Batteries add significantly to the cost. It would make the system around a third more expensive. Lead acid also takes up significant space and is more maintenance than I wish to have. My guess is we are around 5 years from battery costs coming down to be competitive with grid hookup. If HECO delays long enough, that will be the solution though.

        1. Gio Bruno

          Certainly they do. However, the Trojan L16E-AC 6V Deep Cycle Battery (@$215 ea. FOB) is widely used in various applications and have value when you become grid ready–they have resale value. I don’t know enough about your electrical load and inverter requirements, but two L16’s would get you going forward, now, with solar PV.

          Depending on how reliable your grid service will be, having some battery backup is a good thing. Lead-acid batteries are not that dangerous, if you properly vent the battery location to a tall outside vent. (Hydrogen gas, while highly flammable, is very light and dissipates quickly.) Use plastic vent piping; hydrogen corrodes metal.

  3. jgordon

    This will probably be an unpopular opinion but utilities are correct to do this. While it’s true that they are parasitic monopolies, operating and maintaining the electric grid is not cheap even so. And while the infrastructure buildout argument above may be true, it’s also true that even if every utility customer went 100% solar and all fed energy surplussed back into the grid, the power utilities would still have to operate and maintain power plants that produced steady, reliable electricity–because it gets dark sometimes.

    Well-meaning activists are going to be disappointed when their efforts to keep the evil utilities from surcharging solar customers fail. And they’ll certainly fail because the utilities will be explaining to the legislatures that if they can’t charge then they are simply going to close up shop when too many people on their grids start using solar.

    The alternative, which I think is preferable anyway, is to simply buy and maintain your own energy storage solutions and forego interacting with the power utility entirely. Yeah, it’s expensive–but that’s the point. Energy, and especially energy storage, are not cheap and the convenience and (relative) low cost provided by power utilities is inducing some pretty unhealthy and unsightly tendencies towards magical thinking in their customers. Yeah damnit. Buy your own batteries and stop whining about not being able to get free stuff. And if batteries are too expensive for your use, then maybe you should look at radically cutting your energy needs before you go on your battery buying spree. That’s what I did.

    1. visitor

      you should look at radically cutting your energy needs before you go on your battery buying spree. That’s what I did.

      Care to give some figures so that readers get a sense of what this implies? For instance, by how many % did you have to cut your electricity consumption to avoid ruining yourself in batteries?

      My understanding is that, in the vast majority of cases, batteries do not make any economic or technical sense anyway. The cost of producing and replacing them is higher than the cost of buying electricity from utilities to compensate for missing solar energy (during nights, cloudy days, etc) because it means that batteries are used frequently (going through discharge-recharge cycles) and must be replaced rapidly. Batteries as an infrequently used backup (as in some industrial installations) may make sense, though.

      1. Clive

        The economics of:

        1) battery storage to provide supply when your PV array goes off line

        vs.

        2) grid supply

        vs.

        3) “do it yourself” domestic peak-lopping such as adjusting as far as possible when you run big loads

        … is awfully complicated. I tried to work it out but — in the absence of all the data or data which soon got very multi-dimensional — ended up concluding that there wasn’t a single “right” answer. To illustrate, my 3kW PV array satisfies my fairly low summer peak (which occurs mid-afternoon) but does not satisfy my larger winter peak (which occurs after sundown). So I need to buy from the grid or install a battery to meet the winter peak.

        But I get 22.86 pence per kWh at any time for energy I use from my PV — and only 3.48 pence per kWh for what I sell to my utility for energy generated but not used. So it makes a lot of sense to use a pre-cooling or pre-heating strategy to get the fabric of the building to act as a thermal mass if I don’t mind overshooting the set point (which I don’t if I’m not occupying the space, but I do if I am in the house) thereby utilising as much of the PV generation as I can. So I do have some, albeit limited, choice about what load profile I present to the grid.

        However, I also have a time-of-use tariff. I pay 9 pence per kWh “off peak” between 00:00 and 05:00, 13:00 – 16:00 and 20:00 – 22:00 then 16 pence per kWh at all other times. So the “balance point” at which it might make sense to have battery storage depends on the time of day when I might want to draw from the battery. The balance point is also affected by the amount of charge I could put into the battery from the PV and the run time I’d be able to achieve before the battery was depleted and I’d have to draw on the grid. This would in turn depend on my thermal storage strategy.

        Then it gets realty complicated. Stage 1 heating is by an air source heat pump. But I do have natural gas available which is used when stage 2 heat is called. My heat pump is sized to be bivalent — it should satisfy the heating load about 90% of the time in terms of heating capacity. But stage 2 is hydronic heat from an oversized boiler so I can move to monovalent at any time and could, therefore, theoretically divert up to 100% of the PV output to battery charging and/or selling to the utility. I pay 4.18 pence per kWh for gas and the boiler is rated as 90% efficient. But then that is the potential efficiency, I don’t achieve that all the time.

        Then we have domestic hot water generation. Again, gas or electricity as the heat source, some degree of thermal storage possibilities (a 200 litre tank) with some time-of-day run time flexibility but I don’t want a cold shower in the morning so there are limits.

        In the end, I gave up trying to work out whether it would be better to install a battery, install more thermal storage, change my electricity tariff, burn more gas, burn more electricity, sell more or sell less surplus electricity to the grid… and so on. Those are just the variables under my control — natural gas prices are sinking but (here in the UK anyway) electricity prices are fairly flat because the input energy costs for our electricity generation are minor (less than 40%) of what the billed rates are due to transmission network maintenance and, commendable, renewable levies to pay for investment in wind powered generation for which the country could eventually be self-sufficient in. But if natural gas continues to fall, then the economics of solar become just too painful to withstand.

        And I am the very living embodiment of a “sophisticated consumer”. I know the technology backwards. I not only am able to, but I also quite enjoy, working out tricky financial calculations.

        If I can’t work out whether or not battery storage is a sensible investment, no-one can. And that’s before I have to try to make an allowance for what a pick-pocketing utility might try to lobby the state regulator to do with pricing. Expecting this to all be left to “consumers” with the only justification being “because markets” is a complete abdication of the responsibility of governments to their citizens.

        And I’m not at all keen on this constant reliance on pricing signals to change our behaviours. I can stump up the capital to invest in lower carbon energy and I do so for that reason alone. Saving money is not my main objective. But I do get some reward in the process. However, for those who can’t afford the sort of capital outlay required, to end up with a situation where they have to pay more than others simply because they haven’t got the funds to join the party is in effect a regressive tax on the poorer members of our society.

          1. Clive

            Mine too. I need a coffee. But should it be heated in the electric percolator or boiled on the gas hob ? :-)

        1. visitor

          Quite interesting. Beyond the variable costs/prices, the capital outlay and the depreciation for photovoltaic cells, heat pumps, thermal storage, boilers, etc, seem significant.

          Anyway, your comment brought to my mind the old observation by Herbert Simon that in most practical matters, optimization is impossible and satisficing is the way to go.

        2. Steve H.

          Wondering what your thoughts on direct passive solar heating of water or air might be. I’m assuming the cost of moving the fluid is very low, with fans being low draw, and water having already been pumped high to provide force.

          1. Clive

            It’s one of those technologies which sounds good on paper, but in practical use there’s drawbacks (I’ve read far too many real-life case studies from actual users — not system installers — where there have been problems with solar tube failures, heat transfer fluid issues and system complexity).

            This was a good write up of the issues (as the author says later, the title was provocative and it is a reasonably fair assessment) http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/musings/solar-thermal-dead

            I think if it wasn’t for PV, then solar thermal product development would be given more attention and some, if not all, of these issues would be fixed. But of course, you can’t pretend PV doesn’t exist, so given a finite amount of roof space and budget for most people, PV would seem to be set to corner the market.

            1. PlutoniumKun

              That article on solar thermal is interesting, but I think the overall answer to the question depends on where you live. Simple solar thermal (think of those tanks you see all over rooftops in countries like Turkey or Morocco) work well, although aren’t particularly efficient. From what I know, they are far more problematic in countries with extremes of heat and cold – very hot days blow them out, cold days freeze the fluid. But in more moderate climes they work very well. My brother here in Ireland lives at quite a high altitude – his solar heater works very well at cutting his energy use. He is quite a nerd at these things and he worked out that it was far more cost effective than solar electric panels. But then again, he has three daughters and teenage girls use a hell of a lot of hot water….

              There are so many variables, it really is almost impossible to be sure what the best solution is for any one house. A friend who has holiday cottages (with a large sauna/hot tub) in Co. Durham in England uses a mix of solar electric and wood chip – but he said the key factors were the plug in tariff, available grants, and having a local sustainable wood chip provider. In other circumstances, he might have gone more for solar thermal.

        3. Praedor

          I have an alternative suggestion for those who want to go solar AND avoid bullshit “user fees” from utilities. Split your house into 2 electrical units. Outlets (running your PC, TV, stereo, lamps, microwave), lights go onto a separate circuit that is fed with solar and battery. The rest (electric range if you have it), A/C, electric water heater (if you have it), perhaps your fridge, dryer, dish and clothes washer goes on the grid. No tie-in, separate circuits with only the heavy loads from the grid, the rest from solar/wind/batteries. No fees, softer/easier load on batteries (fuel cells will soon also be coming forth that is perfect for this…I believe Elon Musk has produced a prototype home power cell).

          I’ve been looking into this sort of thing for a long time. I have a huge south-facing barn roof that would be perfect for a cluster of panels. I have well water that needs juice to pump (power outages kills my water), a few water heaters for chickens, horses, and, of course, all the standard home stuff. I would very much like to put all but the heaviest loads on a solar/wind/battery system, taking noticeable chunk out of my monthly bill. I could do it without grid tie-in (directly…though I could setup a grid-powered charge controller too to backup my solar panels, keep the batteries topped up over night, and the utilities would be none the wiser). It wouldn’t take you fully off-grid, it would avoid grid tie-in “fees”, and still give you the benefits of lower electric bills courtesy of your solar panels.

        4. jgordon

          I have come to the opinion that heating and cooling should never be handled by electricity. It’s simply too wasteful.

          Local conditions will determine whatever heating or cooling solutions people can use, but regardless “electric heating and cooling” and “sustainability” are two things that should never be mentioned in the same sentence.

          Personally, when it’s hot out in Florida, I sit under a shade tree by the beach. In the winter, I wear a long-sleeved shirt. It sure beats the expensive and energy wasting setups I had before.

        5. Nathanael

          Given that my grid blacks out fairly routinely, I don’t really care whether the batteries are financially entirely sound — they give me more control over when the power goes out.

          You’re absolutely right that the “grid defection” scenario is one which is bad for those with less money. Blame the greedy utility companies for encouraging it.

      2. jgordon

        That’s easy enough. I originally wanted a solar array and battery setup sufficient to power my fridge, AC units and high-performance PC. But that was simply unrealistic, not to mention unnecessary.

        After going through and budgeting for what I’d actually be able to afford, I discovered that I could only have enough power for a couple of LED light, a small DC boat fridge, and a low power netbook computer. Also, I can keep a couple of cell phones, my Nikon D610 camera, and a few other small and useful electronic devices supplied with power. All that stuff can be run on a small number of golf cart batteries. The biggest key to having a successful, renewable set up is being able to differentiate between power needs and a wants (and even I consider myself to be overly excessive with my setup), and ruthlessly eliminate the wants.

        1. Gio Bruno

          Folks, solar PV installations have never been easier or cheaper to install. Much of the sizing approximations have been routinized and available online (See: US Dept. of Energy & others).

          As I’ve said repeatedly, the key to using PV properly is using energy wisely (conserve & use it in an appropriate fashion.) See this Energy Conservation Optimized (ECO) Home: (http://land2plan.com/solar-pv-design/ )

          It uses passive solar techniques (south orientation, daylighting, thermal mass, etc.), appropriate energy use (PV electrical power for lighting, computers, small appliances) and propane (gas) to provide energy to a highly efficient hydronic (baseboard) heating system and the refrigerator (the largest electric load in a conventional American home). [Propane is also used to power a backup power generator (3kW) that is required because the building is owned by the State of Nevada.]

          Those of you who are truly interested in state-of-the-art solar PV/thermal design should Google ” 2015 Solar Decathlon”. You can download working drawings/specifications for ALL of the entries.

    2. fajensen

      The issue her in Europe at least is that the homeowners are paying the majority of the costs for running the electrical grids while large industrial users pays virtually Nothing.

      Confronting the well-meaning activist will turn them into being “meanie-activists”: They will buy flow-batteries and cut themselves off the grid entirely, paying nothing at all for the grid “service”, like is happening in Germany.

      What the “Serious People(tm)” do not seem to get is that sometimes other people, especially activist people, can care a good deal less for ROI than for the “follow one’s heart and do the right thing (for oneself*)” and that technological progress combined with deflation is in fact greatly *increasing* the resources and leverage for the activists.

      We can simply do way more with much less than was possible even 5 years ago. The only thing that really sucks power in my house is Heating and the Sauna – and – it is possible to get a wood-burning stove for that, should the situation merit.

      I currently pay 0.10 EUR per kWh … so … nah. People here still invest in solar arrays at this price of electricity, clearly an act of love more than an investment, and yet – “break-even” for solar at that price is about 10 years.

      *) A delicious unforeseen consequence of the neo-liberal competitive society: It’s so much easier to win at a game of one’s own design than it is to win in the game that “society” wants you to participate in. Since we are all “rugged individualists standing alone”, we don’t need the recognition of the “competition” anymore to feel successful – that kind of thing is for people still watching MTV.

      1. Charles 2

        A) large industrial customers have the scale to build their own power plant if grid connection is priced excessively, this is why they have bargaining power with the grid

        B) Only the richest in the society have the means to “follow one’s heart and do the right thing…”, the vast majority of others just go for the lowest cost because they have bills to pay.

        C) please spare us your wood-burning stoves. Particulates filters in these are as (or even more) inefficient than the one in VW cars.

        1. polecat

          I must disagree re. wood stoves……we have a Lopi, manufactured here in the northwest, which meets current standards for emission reductions, if used properly. I might also add, where I reside, electricity is it ,and when it goes out, either to mechanical failure or nasty weather, I’ll at least have heat, while many of my neighbors will be freezing in the dark, as the waterpipes in their homes burst!……. Don’t be so smug

    3. YankeeFrank

      You kind of deflate and destroy whatever point you were trying to make in your second sentence. You wrote:

      “This will probably be an unpopular opinion but utilities are correct to do this. While it’s true that they are parasitic monopolies, operating and maintaining the electric grid is not cheap even so.”

      You can’t have it both ways. Either they are struggling businesses trying to maintain the grid or they are parasitic monopolies putting profit before all other concerns. In the US, the grid is in horrible, shoddy shape thanks to decades of underinvestment by said parasitic monopolies. These parasitic monopolies have been profiting handsomely all the while polluting incessantly and avoiding desperately needed grid upgrades, while doing everything they can to crush clean energy. Only in the funhouse world of capitalist greed logic are they acting “correctly”. If the claim you are making is that these firms cannot do the job they have been granted the monopoly to do (and I’d argue that they have utterly failed in their public purpose), then they need to be replaced and not run as capitalist enterprises. Its all too apparent that energy is one of quite a few sectors where we could use a whole lot more socialism and public-mindedness.

      1. jgordon

        This is not an either/or situation. There is no logical reason why the two propositions must be mutually exclusive. Utilities are in fact both parasitic monopolies and providing a vital, (relatively) low cost service at the same time. The fact that their service could be even more low cost if they were less parasitic and more altruistic is true, but that does not change the essential parameters of the situation.

        The main problem is that power utilities are in a failing and doomed business that has a limited lease on life. No matter how well-run, efficient, and wonderful utilities are, nor how vile and reprehensible they are, they will still cease to exist at some point in the future. Operating margins are already being squeezed due to resource, political, and social pressures (but mainly resource), and when they are squeezed hard enough, which is inevitable, they will simply stop operating altogether no matter how furious everyone will be over it. Wishful thinking, ignorance, and hope are not good replacements are not good replacements for missing resources.

        1. Brooklin Bridge

          You over-emphasize the difficulty of providing a fair service economically and under emphasize the degree to which the industry, particularly in conjunction with wall street investment wolves, is captivated by greed and corruption.

      2. Brooklin Bridge

        +100. All excellent points.

        At the pragmatic ground level on the subject of retrofits (my own house), I wish there were specialists available who did NOT do installations, but rather would come out to your house, do an audit, and then work with you to make recommendations for the most efficient and logical system taking your needs, resources and wishes into account. The service may exist, but I have not found it.

        We have (or had) something similar to that concept in HERS raters (Home Energy Rating Systems). For the purpose of optimizing insulation and other energy saving measures for homeowners, and created by insurance and mortgage companies among others, these people -often self employed- come to your house and take very careful measurements and then make suggestions for how to achieve the maximum efficiency at the lowest cost (depending on both the house and the depth of pocket of the owner). These people are often completely free of any commercial ties and when not, they are required to tell you. They are also cross scrutinized by a somewhat complicated system developed by insurance companies to ensure accuracy (particularly to protect reputation of the system). In the last few years, however, they have been required to register every job with a central database and while that may not bother many, it bothers me. How much longer will they keep that information to themselves? So there is a down side even though for the moment, at least, it is supposed to be protected information.

        Because of the complexity of solar/wind installations, because of the ease of spending a lot of money with little to show for it, It would be incredibly helpful to have a service similar to HERS for solar and wind systems, or simply energy systems in general. Someone who was not related, economically, to any installer or particular system or product and could give you technical advice (such as on the available products and technologies out there) and plans that you could then implement or have implanted as time and resources permitted.

    4. Jim A

      Where I live the generation and distribution charges are already split. Indeed they are provided by different companies, just like local and long distance were when the phone company was split up. If the problem is that proportionately more of the distribution cost is fixed than the generation costs are than they could be charged that way. I can see NO reason to single out owners of solar panels vs any other energy saving technology. If you use less electric power because you have gas furnace instead of a heat pump you’re also using less power. Now net billing for customer provided power really requires variable peak vs non-peak pricing to work well. Peak power DOES cost significantly more to provide than non-peak, especially when rentiers like Enron get involved. But one of the advantages of solar is that in Southern states peak demand and peak supply of solar energy are largely at the same time: when it is sunny and hot and the AC is running the most.

    5. Jim Young

      Seems this wouldn’t have been as big a problem if they hadn’t pumped public utilities up then forced so many to be privatized (even Alan Greenspan said no more than 15% of the generating capacity should have been privatized). Is this the kinder gentler version of the capitalist advisers that went to the old Soviet Union as it collapsed, suggesting privatization would cure all evils (essentially handing all the best state property to private profiteers). The highly concentrated wealth and power of the new Oligarches (and their western co-conspirators) seems the way we are headed as “the little people” have been stripped of so much of their property, pensions, savings and investment opportunities in stable “blue chip” sources of income adequate for their retirement. Then they blame us as they bask in monstrously extended “temporary” tax breaks, immunity from prosecution from financial manipulation, and a hostile takeover of our country by buying up all the modern equivalents of the Venal Jobs before the French Revolution.

      Want a wake up on how we compare to other countries now, and an idea of where we should have been by this time in our history? Look up Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, the first female President of Iceland and see how I wish we had someone who could clean up a financial disaster as fast.

      I never got into Micheal Moore’s movies, because I thought he tried to make Unions out to be better than some of them were (to me, some had as many corruption problems as their opposition). I did have better view of what good some did though since my classmate’s father was Walter Reuther’s personal pilot (and died in the same plane crash). Look up COMMON PATH – The legacy between the labor and civil rights movement and notice that the UAW (in addition to very much other support) had given office space in their headquarters to Martin Luther King, Jr., in which he wrote the famous “I have a Dream” speech.

      Moore’s latest movie, “Where to Invade Next,” is not the typical Moore movie, it’s far more an explanation of some of the best ideas we had, which were adopted by so many other countries, but forgotten here. So many others are advancing in broadly supported, far more cost efficient democracies, as we are being fooled into going back into false austerity dark ages.

      As the movie shows, it is particularly disheartening because we originated so many of what others have been able to do

  4. Charles 2

    The industry argues that homeowners with solar must pay fees to cover their costs of using the grid. Solar proponents dismiss that argument, pointing to the costs saved by not needing to build new power plants.

    If “Solar Proponents” don’t understand that the grid and the power plants are as different to each other than the solar panel and the electric wires in the house. It will be difficult to have a rational conversation…

    If one wants to compare to power plants, the unfortunate thing is that rooftop solar is not a very efficient way to do solar. It is much easier and more productive to have solar farms. The ease of building and the saving from scale more than compensate the cost of buying a piece of land dedicated to the solar panels.

    If one wants to compare to the grid capacity to maintain a steady and reliable stream of electricity, again, utilities do it better and much cheaper.

    From an economic standpoint, rooftop solar is a non-starter. Net metering is just free riding.

    1. Clive

      Don’t forget, though, that a solar farm will have to be grid connected and will therefore inevitably incur transmission losses of the order of 5%, so solar rooftop isn’t quite as inefficient as it might initially appear. But I do agree that it’s just about the worst way to do solar in countries with lots of land and low population densities.

      It is worth keeping in mind however that some densely populated countries (the UK and Japan are two such examples) land use pressure is intense. Solar farms here get a lot of local opposition, especially when proposed on “green belt” or other amenity land — or near rural settlements.

      See my longer note above about the perils of trying to use neoliberal price mechanisms to resolve this problem. Countries need to be free to work out what is their best generation mix given their natural resources and a zero-carbon goal, where it should be sited and what the implications are for existing regulated asset bases like the grid and legacy generation without having to fret over some notional cost figures from a vested interest.

    2. Praedor

      Building codes should REQUIRE rooftop solar on all new builds where it makes solar sense. There needs to be strong credits available to induce retrofitting solar to older builds. If most/all new homes had solar on their roofs, the cost of panels would become extremely small, the amount power consumed by each home from the grid would be greatly reduced, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and allow for more hydroelectric dams to be dismantled. You make the homes part of the infrastructure and do NOT allow utilities to punish it because it is ubiquitous.

      This push for punishing solar IS the Kochs 100%. That alone is enough reason to undo all such “user fees” and even start nationalizing private utilities for the public good.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Making building efficiency and renewables economical should be the main goal. Building codes are already bursting at the seams with complexity as a way, essentially, to make the little guy, home owner and contractor, shoulder the burden for what the government/industry should be doing in the first place.

        Many people can invest only so much at a time and front loading building codes with too many requirements doesn’t help.

        1. Gio Bruno

          Building Codes are not in place to deter owner/builders. They are in place to provide for the general safety of everyone. Home Depot’s admonition to purchasers of electrical devices (“fuses, breakers, etc. should be installed by licensed electrician”) is routinely ignored. To the disadvantage (danger) of the subsequent home-buyer.

          If you are going to build a small cabin out in the desert (not the forest) being unaware of the utility of building codes will only be to your chagrin. Anything else may cause harm to others.

          1. Code Name D

            With respect, abiding by local building codes is not difficult. One only needs a licence to perform electrical work commercially, but a licence is not required to have an inspector sign off on a project. The inspector only cares if the project is performed to code. So there really is no reason why a homeowner could not do their own projects. Electricity and electrical wiring is not that hard and there are not that many differences in codes, meaning that books on the subject will cover most of the best practices.

            That said, you are correct, building codes are only interested in safety.

            1. Brooklin Bridge

              I don’t know what state you are from but I would check with your local inspector or town building department before doing any electrical or plumbing work. If you screw up, you could void your insurance in one fell swoop. If someone gets hurt, it can get really ugly. Don’t underestimate building codes or enforcement.

              It varies by state. Some are lenient and reasonable, some are not. In Massachusetts, it is legal for a homeowner to do a certain amount of own electrical work so long as he/she is working on their own residential home (not some high rise) and takes out a permit. It is not legal for the homeowner to work on someone else’s home or apartment for anything or even in his own home or anywhere for plumbing. You would be correct that many people do and get away with it, but that doesn’t mean it is legal.

              It’s also possible you have found a lenient code inspector but that does not prove (or disprove) your assertion that compliance is easy except in so far as you are lucky enough to get that individual or you are doing a minor repair.

              Anyway, I was talking about something completely different which is the proliferation of increasingly complex code requirements in the code books for the builder or homeowner.

              1. Brooklin Bridge

                In Massachusetts, it is legal for a homeowner to do a certain amount of own electrical work so long as he/she is working on their own residential home (not some high rise) and takes out a permit when needed.

          2. Brooklin Bridge

            Motherhood and apple pie.

            In Ma, building codes, which started in the 70’s, have gone from 1 book to about 8 books in less than a decade. Looking up information has gone from something that any contractor could do easily for buildings under 33,000 cf to something that almost requires a full time code specialist and which even my lawyer (specializes in construction) finds more difficult by far than law books. Easy for the big business that employs a whole administrative staff, but very hard for small business owners – contractors – to keep up with. Mistakes, even those that have little or no structural significance, can be very costly.

            True, there are a lot of new products, and many new procedures introduced in the last decade for the building industry, but not THAT many and no need whatsoever for that much complexity in the code books.

            And I am not even talking about homeowners. I’m talking about professionals. Homeowners used to be able to read the one and two family residential code book with little or no problem; it was stilted but it was perfectly readable and relatively simple to find what you wanted. That has changed so drastically that I shudder to think what the average homeowner would have to do to find something in the 2016 editions and then once found to go to the state amendments sections to make sure there were no state variances and then double and triple check for local variances. Code inspectors no longer have the time to helpfully chew the fat with homeowners. It’s been years since -as a group- they provided actual assistance with problems. And it shows. They now fully expect a homeowner to know the code before coming out to visit or inspect a site; after more than one or two visits, they can insist the homeowner hire a contractor. And they can and do insist the contractor hire a specialist under similar conditions. Indeed, there are now specialist inspectors for things such as insulation since the codes have become so ridiculously complex.

            Then we get to the subject of licensing and the new ongoing training requirements. These cost about three to four hundred dollars every two years and I can guarantee that a good deal of that is simply for fee collection and not for motherhood and apple pie.

            There is no doubt whatsoever than this code-bloat is at least partly industry driven by industry lobbyists, as so many other things, to make compliance harder and drive the homeowner to use professionals, and the smaller builders to have a harder and harder time of it (reduce competition).

            1. Brooklin Bridge

              Then we get to the subject of licensing and the new ongoing training requirements.

              For professionals only.

              Also, even in Ma, things can vary depending on area. Generally, the closer to the city, the less time the inspectors have (it’s not that they don’t want to be helpful – they simply don’;t have the time or resources) and the more stringent they are.

              Finally, a not insignificant number of inspectors succumb to the sense of having power over others and become anywhere from simply difficult to down right nasty to work with. Code complexity has definitely not helped with this phenomenon.

              Regardless of what the feel-good stated purpose of building codes may be, the reality is somewhat different; at least in Massachusetts, also California, and I suspect elsewhere, and that difference is increasingly tilted to the benefit of large building corporations that charge the highest prices.

              At some point the home becomes simply un-affordable to the average person, except perhaps by rent, and one has to ask the question whether or not it’s worth having a super humanly safe solid energy efficient dwelling if you can’t afford to live in it.

  5. Erwin Gordon

    I would suggest that people and the companies continue to fight. Because when the policies become absurd in order to protect the crony capitalists it will always come back to bite them. I note that in the EU, specifically Belgium the MetaPV (http://www.metapv.eu) project was completed last year and showed on a large scale and in historically grown distribution networks how photovoltaics can support the grid actively. The technology is already here to put in a place an alternative grid that can completely cut out many of these utilities. If people start with developing a small scale grid to share and exchange energy in their local area, that would already put a major dent into many of these klepto utilities.

  6. art guerrilla

    1. to the Big Energy apologists: oh, you mean they screw us over 24/7/365, but when WE find a teeny, tiny, eensy, teensy way to recoup a fraction of our costs to benefit US ALL, they screw us over on that, because, um, Profits ! yeah, color me not impressed by that argument…

    (how about instead of ALLOWING psychopathic nekkid apes to get away with ‘justifying’ EVERYTHING eee-vil by waving their magic wand of ‘Profits!’, we put our collective feet down and say, ‘NO, PEOPLE before profits’… i don’t know, just MAYBE that is a better principle upon which to organize a society that actually -you know- CARES MORE about people than profits… maybe…)

    2. getting some solar hot water ICS installed, and contemplating some PV. HOWEVER, in relation to some of the comments about how it is a luxury only rich pukes can afford, just have one factor to add: the 30% federal tax credit for solar installs is kind of a moot point if you are a 1040EZ type of income tax filer, because it will only knock that amount off of your tax bill, NOT if you are owing zero or expect a refund… the point being, basically, ONLY rich pukes who generally have outstanding tax bills to deduct from derive the most benefit from this tax credit… regular joe sixpacks who want to go solar don’t get the advantage rich pukes do… gosh, i’m surprised…

    art guerrilla
    aka ann archy
    eof

  7. Paul Tioxon

    The cranky comments against solar power, wind seems to be absent, but let’s leave that one alone due to the focus in these early comments seem to be all about solar, are out of the gate as crazy as the comments that used to be posted by Austrians, Hayekiscistas and sundry libertarians and Rand devotees. My favorite is “it gets dark” duh. Nuclear power, the once heralded miracle cure that would be too cheap to meter, has to be built in pairs, at least, because 2 months out the year they completely stop operation due to refueling operations. That would be the nuclear intermittent problem, sort of the it gets dark problem, except that this one is real. And don’t forget the super toxic nuclear waste material that no one wants in any nation near them.

    Let’s look at super cool hydro. Water and drought problems cut into that favorite golden oldie. Then there is the methane production brought on by all of the algae growing in the reservoirs due to agri-business runoff of fertilizers into water supplies causing methane producing microbe that eat algae!!! Talk about global warming conundrums! And then there are the dams that flood the area of Delaware and only produce 250 megawatts of electricity. I mean, that much land devoted to solar would be put to better use, considering a West Virginia sized plot could power the whole world!

    But back to the cranks and of course, the well meaning types. Solar PV panels are still in the early adoption stage. Their prices will continue to drop and their efficiency will move from 23% for the best of the breed SolarCity crop to 2x and 3x and 4x as efficient, in the same amount of panel. Oil and gas are not going to get much cheaper to acquire or become more efficient. And then there is that old problem, we will run out of the stuff and as we do, it will get more costly and continue to kill 1,000,000 every 66 days due to air pollution. But hey, keep worrying about those sun sets and spread sheet cost analysis for ROI, because the UN Climate Conference really did not happen and if it did, it didn’t include the US Navy showing up with air craft carriers on your shorelines to enforce the issue.

    It’s amazing how the first people to show up on controversial new burning issues always have the same thing to say, as if the Heartland Institute can’t come up with new lies to spread doubt and confusion. I mean, they did try by going to the Paris UN Climate Conference to stand up for corporate mendacity, lies and PR BS. But they just looked like crazies from America, because they are crazies from America that deny science, not only in climate change, but in the engineering breakthroughs of solar and wind generated power.

    It just so happens that due to the Communist Party of China realizing that political instability was the consequence of poisoning their population with the worst air pollution EVER, they spent about $45Bil USD in building solar panel plants in 2010. The massive scale of manufacturing took the world by surprise and by storm, flooding the world market with cheap solar power. So cheap, the US, Canada and the EU have introduced anti-dumping tariffs so domestic manufacturers would not go bankrupt.

    The free riding utilities, the so called natural monopolies almost always get what they want from state regulators and never seem to get any of the uncertainty of the free market, always guaranteed a profits and never a loss, enforced by the authority of the state and paid for by the captive rate payers, aka taxpayers under other forced scenarios and plain old consumers in the usual parlance. So, their investment in the grid, which as nearly as I can tell, has not been completely replaced, upgraded or rebuilt every one or 10 years, but seems to be the same old crap installed decades ago, with repairs here and there due to Hurricane Sandy and an ice storm now and then.

    Just what great burden these poor victims are being forced to bear by solar power production from roof tops, solar farms or desert Concentrated Solar Power plants is beyond me. It seems the ancient power grid has made its money back several times over. It’s not like they have to build out a new every year!! Consumers have foot the bill for their guaranteed profits and rate increase to cover new nukes, new this or new that when ever they came hat in hand. Now, the world is changing and they don’t like it. Too Bad. We will shove it down their throats and the throats of every crank who doesn’t understand that while it does get dark, the sun also rises.

  8. TiPs

    Maybe it’s time to transition from “public” utilities to public utilities? If it’s too costly to maintain the grid when more people become solar free riders, then we better take that burden off of poor shareholders…

  9. C

    Rolling Stone has a good article on the fight here.

    Among other things it notes that some of the strongest opposition to these efforts to block solar are coming from Tea Party groups who see this as a straightforward fight against corrupt monopolies.

  10. Brooklin Bridge

    Ahh the benefits of capitalism gone wild, or was that, Ahh, the smell of Napalm in the morning. Always forget.

    The solution, as in so many areas, would be to have the government produce power and allow it’s citizens to reduce grid load and the need for new power plants by encouraging roof top AND land based collective solar/wind capture while at the same time requiring that large industry pay it’s fair share of utility costs, that is, thwart it’s ability to hustle the system. I know, I know. Disneyland until we can figure out a way to prevent government itself -or anything- from becoming corrupt.

    The town I live in, in Massachusetts, is lucky to have a private utility company that does not overcharge their customers. Or perhaps I should say, does not overcharge them quite as much as the big utilities would. But this utility is still run by people whose livelihood depends on their agreeing in principal with the direction that the big utilities – the ones that own the power plants – decide on. So they were all in favor of digging up every protected land area from here to the mid-west when the energy giants wanted to run a frack hack gas line through the area and found that hard won environmentally protected land, reservoirs, and pond areas are much cheaper to upend (sh*t on and destroy) than throwing people and houses off their land (though there would have been plenty of that as well). The state was going to contribute around two billion dollars of tax payer money to this effort and so some people with considerable knowledge of different energy strategies suggested that for the same price taking some public land and making solar/wind installation would more than offset the need to bring gas into the area since it would bring down overall consumption to the point where the existing infrastructure (under attack by wall street investors – close em and raise price) could handle it. Now perhaps there is an argument to be made that this plan would have problems of its own, but there was no risk of anyone ever hearing about those problems since there was no risk of ever hearing about the proposal in the first place.

    You need to make people aware of the choices; of what’s happening, of why suddenly we find ourselves lacking power plants in the first place (corrupt politicians for one, greedy wall street investors for another) and what are reasonable alternatives to address the issue and for that you need ways to make that information available to the public. Boston Globe? Nope. TV? Nope. Local paper? Nope (even the local paper is bought – lock, stock and barrel). Here again, when assessing the cost of any power distribution system, one has to factor in the cost of the damned public information system, or lack of it. The internet is having an effect, even in this town, but it seems to remain one of general awareness rather than specific issues, too blunt a tool for the need.

  11. Praedor

    You can split the difference with solar/wind and take part of your home off-grid, leaving the heavier loads on-grid. You avoid “user fees” from utilities and you reduce your electric bill at the same time. Win-win.

    I’ve been considering this sort of thing for a long time. Setup a solar array on the roof of my barn, build a DIY wind generator, setup a small battery array and run part of my home off-grid. Lights, TV, computer, microwave, well pump, possibly even the fridge, would go off-grid and I’d just have the washer/dryer, range, A/C, and water heater on-grid. No HUGE outlay for the solar setup like you’d need to go 100% off-grid, no way for you to be hit with grid “user fees”, reduced electric bill, reduced carbon footprint.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      I think what you describe is a great strategy even if it is not 100 percent cost effective at all times. It maximizes your choices going forward while protecting you considerably from industry backlash and corrupt regulators (gov). Ductless heating systems are also becoming sufficiently efficient that they can be part of such as strategy in a much harsher climate zones (I think zone 5 now with some backup) than previously.

      This is what I would like to do (If I can afford it) after going through my house and maximizing insulation.

      1. Praedor

        I can’t do it all in one fell swoop but can do it piecemeal. At first would be grid-tie (my utility is a cooperative, not a for-profit enterprise so it is much better than most) and then as I got to the point of making it possible, cut off part of my house from grid.

  12. jfleni

    Time now to move this essential service to community ownership, not to pay any attention to the screams of “GIMME! I am getting Buffet-f***ed”. Storage is getting cheaper by the day, especially in warmer climates, and the handwriting is on the wall.

  13. Peter Pan

    I think that one of the main underlining problem in this instance is the revolving door between regulated utilities and the regulator of utilities.

    When I was in my senior year of college and taking various courses on regulated industry, my instructor offered to introduce me to several utility companies and regulators along with a letter of recommendation. He advised that I work for the utility or regulator for five years and then work for the other for another five, and so on and so forth. This would enable me climb the ladder of success with increasing compensation.

    So, very much like the revolving door between financial companies and financial regulators, the same can be said of public utilities. The regulators of public utilities are captured and pursuing their own best interest rather than the interest of the public.

    I did not take up the instructors offer and worked primarily for small businesses.

  14. Dave

    Seems like a great opportunity for “load shedding” by homeowners and Do It Yourself solar installers. Standing in complete isolation from any grid tie-in or the house’s regular wiring, 12 volt battery operated systems that power LEDs, 12 volt power tools and other small appliances can allow homeowners to simply use way less electricity.

    A search on Youtube can provide hours of instruction on this.

    Solar hot water systems mean you use less natural gas or electricity.

    Furthermore, not allowing your utility to install so called “smart meters”, means that they cannot charge you time of use rates. Besides the health consequences of smart meters, the interference with appliances and electronics, now there are insurance consequences for those lame enough to allow them to be installed:

    http://www.examiner.com/article/changes-are-coming-to-your-insurance-policy

    Teach your children that corporations are their enemy, just like muggers, burglars, rapists and con men in general.

  15. Dave

    Seems like a great opportunity for “load shedding” by homeowners and Do It Yourself solar installers. Standing in complete isolation from any grid tie-in or the house’s regular wiring, 12 volt battery operated systems that power LEDs, 12 volt power tools and other small appliances can allow homeowners to simply use way less electricity.

    A search on Youtube can provide hours of instruction on this.

    Solar hot water systems mean you use less natural gas or electricity.

    Furthermore, not allowing your utility to install so called “smart meters”, means that they cannot charge you time of use rates. Besides the health consequences of smart meters, the interference with appliances and electronics, now there are insurance consequences for those lame enough to allow them to be installed:

    http://www.examiner.com/article/changes-are-coming-to-your-insurance-policy

    Teach your children that corporations are their enemy, just like muggers, burglars, rapists and con men in general. Is it OK to steal from muggers, rapists, burglars and con men?

  16. crittermom

    My ranch/home of 20 yrs that the banksters stole was an 1800’s homestead not hooked to the power grid. (It was just a summer/ranch hand “line shack” cabin built in 1920 until I moved in full time)
    I installed solar (PV) & lived off-grid for all of those 20 yrs & can’t wait to again. I had wanted to live off-grid since the 70’s.

    My system was small, only 408 watts of panels (Eight 51 watt panels).
    It was a 24 volt system with 12 two-volt batteries. Generator backup.

    I installed it back around 1995 or ’96 if I remember correctly. It was quite expensive at that time, with the entire system costing me $11,000 (I had some add-ons).
    The batteries & inverter were the most expensive part, but my batteries were ten yrs old when I was thrown out of my home, & still working fine. (Almost literally thrown out, as I fought the illegal foreclosure for over a year without aid of legal help since a good foreclosure atty cost $200,000–until the scheduled eviction day when 2 sheriff’s deputies were at my door ordering me out)

    You must change your habits if going totally off-grid. Simple things like a cordless phone or even plug-in clocks should be eliminated. They’re the “silent killers” of your system by putting a constant drain on it.

    I would have to start my generator when using the washer (propane dryer, when needed), or when pumping 400 gallons of water at once to fill the horse trough.

    If I was watching a lot of movies on my TV after sundown I’d sometimes have to start the generator.
    Like I said. It was an extremely small system but met my simple needs.

    I could watch TV (until I chose to unsubscribe to the propaganda & mindless shows of which so many were an insult to my intelligence), use a microwave, my computer.
    I did have all propane appliances, tho’, including refrigerator (which isn’t cheap–nor large!)

    If I “killed” my power I simply started the generator to recharge the batteries & my power would be back up within one minute.

    The place I’m now forced to rent has a horrible utility company. The power was going out several times a week when I first moved here. Oh, how I missed being able to start a generator to bring it back up!
    Not to mention the utility bills I must now pay for their miserably unreliable service.

    While I realize most folks couldn’t live with such a small system, if you’re thinking of going completely off-grid you will need to learn to conserve. I used to say everyone should have to live off-grid for at least 6 mths, & the world as a whole would then learn to not waste it so. (Yes, I’ve been known to be visiting a friend & turn off the lights in rooms they’re not using, or 2 of the 3 TV’s they’re not watching that had been left blaring away)

    Having owned my own home since I was 18 & now turning 65 & renting for the first time ever, my biggest dream is to own some land & a humble home off-grid once again. I can’t seem to find anything I can afford, however, since I’m not finding places dirt cheap like they sold mine for. (41 acres fenced, horse setup, well, septic, gorgeous property & views. Appraised @ $260,000 when I refinanced. Stolen from me–while I was current on modified pymts–& sold for $65,000!!!)

    Yeah, I remain pissed & need to move away from people again for fear I’ll run into a bankster & not be able to refrain from commencing some mtn woman justice on them.
    And I once again want as little govt intervention in my life (like public utilities the govt oversees such as in this article) as possible.
    I’ve been screwed over enough.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      So sorry to hear about your eviction and what was taken away from you!

      You made some very good points about living entirely off the grid though I know people who do it by necessity of location and yet thoroughly enjoy it. At a certain point, one forgets that small sacrifices would even be considered hardships by those on the grid. They have about 24 batteries being driven by six solar panels and a small wind mill and can go for quite some time using the generator only rarely for make-up and also for the washing machine (no dryer, gas fridge). They don’t have AC but usually don’t need it except for short periods during the summer. Not for everyone but not as bad as many might imagine.

  17. MED

    Roof top solar are as efficient as farms, electrically; price wise not due discounts; only one controls the clouds. Farms are ok with utilities but not the user. It’s ok to pay a farm thousands/month but not user a hundred/month. JP Morgan must still have a hand in it.

  18. PaulHarveyOswald

    Here in Wisconsin, we are one step behind. Third party financing for a rooftop solar array is not allowed. And SolarCity is, essentially, a finance company. I can get a predatory loan here. I can pay fees to watch my IRA drop in value. But I cannot split my utility bill with SolarCity. Because markets.

    One advantage of solar/renewables that rarely gets mentioned is that if one does decide to install a system–no matter how small–one is much more inclined to monitor consumption, and then reduce it. I know from personal experience.* Sort of a chicken-and-egg situation, but any way that reduces carbon output is good.

    *About 5 years ago I was working for an overseas NGO and was “volunteered” to assemble a solar array, a wind generator, and a high head water generator. Not my area expertise, to be sure. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t all that hard either. They were all closed systems–net metering there would be laughable.

  19. Adrienne Adams

    As with every issue in modern life, net metering is more complicated than “solar good / utilities evil.”

    A common argument for net metering of rooftop PV is that it reduces the need for new generation, thereby saving the utilities bundles of money. Yet there is no evidence that utilities are delaying or canceling new power plants because of rooftop solar: rather, it is projected that PV will replace the need for future power plants, based on assumptions of an increase in demand for electricity. Thus the primary rationale for subsidizing rooftop PV is not really viable.

    It is undeniable that PV acts as a fuel saver, replacing the need for output from coal or gas plants. But that’s exactly the problem that utilities face: Rooftop PV threatens the business model of conventional electrical utilities, which is making money by selling retail electricity.

    Many solar advocates celebrate the immanent death of the electrical utilities, but cannot offer a “shovel-ready” alternative for delivering electricity 24/7/365. It’s rather like saying “traditional sewage systems are bad, we should recycle human waste—so let’s shut down the sewage treatment plants!” Yes, good long-term goal, but what happens to all the poop when you shut down the sewage plants?

    I live in the Puget Sound area, and our electricity is supplied by a rural electric co-op that purchases power from the federally-managed Bonneville Power Administration. No greedy private investor-owned utility here! Yet our co-op is facing an enormous financial challenge, as its business model is based on selling retail power to fund operations and maintenance as well as power purchases. We used to enjoy some of the lowest electrical rates in the country; but with warm winters & rising energy efficiency the co-op has raised our rates four times in the past two years. (I have no data as yet of the impact of our local net metering program.)

    Solar PV does not match peak usage patterns on the West Coast very well: no sunshine to speak of in the winter in the gloomy Northwest, and peak usage in the Southwest is in early evening after the sun goes down (Google “California’s Duck Curve”). Rooftop PV users are 100% dependent on the electric utility they love to revile, and their contribution is causing unintended consequences (imagine that…)

    I am a solar advocate, by the way—but there’s too much magical thinking going on amongst most solar supporters. I’m somewhat sympathetic towards homeowners who were counting on the payback for their investment in solar panels, but I do not support continued subsidies for rooftop solar if they endanger the longterm viability of the electrical utilities.

    But my final beef with net metering is that it does not actually give the homeowner a real sense of how much energy their lifestyle demands. I have lived for short periods in houses (and one converted schoolbus) that were completely off-grid, and I tell you that’s a whole different beast than getting a credit on your electric bill! Off-grid (with batteries and a generator) unless you’re really rich, means some low-voltage lights, careful use of essential electronics, propane for refrigeration & cooking, wood for heat, no washer-dryer, no AC… hardly the poster American lifestyle.

    Around here, the 4MW systems are giving way to 1GW as standard: that’s a s***load of electricity for a single-family home! And every watt that gets fed into the grid by the panels on this millionaire’s waterfront trophy home is a watt that I, as a moderate-income non-PV owning renter is a watt that I subsidize. Net metering is an idea that had its time when solar was an infant industry and few homeowners were taking advantage of it: but it is fundamentally undemocratic and destructive to the viability of public utilities. Good riddance I say.

    1. Praedor

      The problem is they are NOT “public utilities”, they are neoliberal private utilities setup to maximize shareholder value and CEO bonuses. Electric utilities needs to be PUBLIC for real, or at the very least, co-ops (like mine) where they are NOT profit seeking. There’s no CEO chasing a bonus, no shareholders seeking to screw over homeowners in order to get a dividend payment. Either co-ops or true public utilities, and then I might go along with you.

      1. Adrienne

        I’d love to see all our electric utilities become true public entities! (Fat chance, eh?) But net metering which credits retail rates for rooftop PV would not be sustainable for true public utilities either.

        I would support limited net metering if the credits were applied as wholesale spot prices (including negative rates). But that’s not how it works now: net metering credits at retail! So the wealthy (relatively) homeowners are being subsidized by low income homeowners and renters. That has to end.

        1. heresy101

          About 1/4 of electric utilities are “public” in the sense that you describe. They range from small rural co-ops of 1,000 members to millions of customers for LADWP. The key thing is that they face is paying for their fixed costs such as billing, computers, maintenance of the wires, substations, line crew, etc. UNLESS the solar customer has a battery and goes off of the grid, the solar generator needs these to be available when the sun goes down. Additionally, the utility better have generation or contracts for nighttime resources or the lights go out – solar or not.

          The real issue is net metering which is deliberately obscured and confused by the likes of Solar City. Utilities don’t have a problem crediting a solar-generator at the retail rate when they generate. It is the carrying over the excess generation on summer days and crediting them at the retail rates in the winter. Net metering is a 12 month average of usage and generation. If your twelve months generation (extra in the summer ie the duck curve) is equal to your twelve months usage, then you pay NOTHING for electricity. See CA Public Utilities Code 2827. http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?sectionNum=2827.&lawCode=PUC

          So who pays for the fixed costs that the net meter customer avoids? Why it is the low income, senior citizen, or renter class of customer that can’t afford or is unable to install a pv system.

          Again, PV systems are good but without net metering which shifts costs to non-pv customers.

          1. Lyle

            In a coop if it makes money during the year the excess income is rebated to the members after several years (just like happens in the Telephone Coop which serves where I live) The customers are effectively the shareholders and get what are called patronage dividends or capital credits or the like. Most electric coops are essentially distribution only utilities not owning any generation. So in the coop model the customers get any surplus not equity providers and the coop can borrow cheaply from the federal government.

    2. Clive

      I suspect you may mean “4kW systems are giving way to 10kW systems…” (single domestic loads of 1GW would be outlandish even by U.S. norms !) but you do make a good point.

      I was genuinely shocked when I read a real-life case-study http://www.daikinac.com/content/assets/DOC/Blueprints/BP-ORLANDO-12-15.pdf of a FL home where it wasn’t until energy use topped 100kWh that the owners thought “gee, maybe we should do something about this…”

      Jeez, 100kWh! In a flippin’ day! Words fail me.

      1. Adrienne

        @Clive thank you for the correction.

        We’re completely ignoring the problem of excessive energy consumption.

      2. Adrienne

        My husband grew up in Florida when whole-house AC was not very common. Now when we go back to visit every building is cooled to Arctic levels.

      3. Lyle

        It should be noted that the mini-split systems (which is what the linked article was about) now use the most advanced variable speed motor technology, and further the comparison was easy with a 25 year old hvac unit with at best an 8 seer.
        Just like one should replace an old fridge and junk it not take it downstairs to cool whatever.

    3. Gio Bruno

      Off-grid (with batteries and a generator) unless you’re really rich, means some low-voltage lights, careful use of essential electronics, propane for refrigeration & cooking, wood for heat, no washer-dryer, no AC… hardly the poster American lifestyle.

      See this:
      http://land2plan.com/solar-pv-design/

  20. Code Name D

    This is not just a problem faced by home owners and small scale producers. There are regulatory scams in place that frustrate even larger independent wind producers. First, just getting them build is a red-tape nightmare, usually involving some very strange zoning regulations which create additional hurtles.

    But the real problem is something they call “base power.” The argument is that a grid network is required by regulation to always assume renewable energy systems could shut down at any moment. This ends up giving a huge advantage to coal, oil, and gas production plants as they are categorized as “base power” units which place them at the head of the line when it comes to production.

    The upshot is that even on windy days when a windfarm could be at peek production, they have to feather there turbines simply because legacy systems are given priority. And legacy systems are given priority for the soul reason that wind farms are not reliable power sources.

    One reason why natural gas is doing so well is because they can game the base power system to there advantage. Of the three, natural gas has the fastest start up and shut down times, putting them at the head of the list over coal and oil. Ironically, this same fast start-up time even makes more breathing room for wind farms, giving them larger production windows they can exploit.

    But the unreliability of wind systems is increasingly the result of the base-power approach. Wind farms can only produce if they have a production window AND if they have a suitable wind-day.

    To make mater worse for wind farms, while they are not completely reliable, they are surprisingly predictable based on weather forecasts. This allows the legacy systems to game the operations against wind farms. For example, they shut down for maintenance only on low wind days. This keeps wind farm production down and keeps their operational windows small.

    In contrast is the European system which doesn’t use base power. They place renewable systems at the head of the line, and then use legacy systems to make up the slack on low production days. They also have a revenue sharing system where operational costs are distributed. More often than now, the renewable systems ends up supporting the legacy system. But this helps keep the legacy system healthy for use on low-wind days.

  21. lyle

    If one looks at a central renewable plant, it will get the wholesale price for its energy. I do think we need to complete the vertical dis-integration of the electric industry, so you have at a minimum generators, transmission, distribution, and retailers . The distribution will be a natural monopoly, since multiple sets of lines serving a community don’t make sense. It is the retailer who buys the energy from the generator and transmission system, pays the distribution company to move the energy to where it is used and generates the bill. Looking at the system this way rather than the old model of the monolithic electric company makes net metering look at the wholesale power price more rational. Basically to the retailer it is buying excess power from the rooftop solar generator, in competition with buying power from a generation company.
    In addition the rooftop owner does save on distribution costs of any energy that the owner does not pull from the grid.
    In Europe the feed in tarrifs (their version of netmetering) are getting less generous at the same time. However with the continuing fall in the price of solar systems, solar may adapt to this model in a couple of years.
    IMHO the current model does force the other customers to pay for the local grid while the rooftop owner who net exports power does not pay anything for the local grid, but rather gets paid by the other customers to use the grid for power export. If you go to the wholesale price, then the distribution piece does get money for the power shipped to the neighbor, whereas in the retail price model the distribution piece takes the money paid by the user and pays the rooftop solar owner that money leaving it with no return for moving the energy.

  22. Cry Shop

    Treat the grid like a 10 kW back-up generator, then someone has to pay for it. It’s still a lot cheaper than buying the generator and maintaining it, but the problem is it’s the poor who pay a part of that cost for the wealthy’s back up generator.

    Inject poorly rectified A/C on to the local distribution grid, and the grid has to throw on-line rectifying equipment which consumes anywhere from 1% to 10% of the energy content being rectified and is expensive to maintain. While the future smart grid, and expensive investment, will help locate the bad players, right now the grid has to take the hit, which they pass on to customers, and due to local & state utility boards being corrupted (and not just by the grid) % wise it falls hardest on the poor. The future (?) smart grid, an expensive investment, could help locate the bad rectifiers and trip them. However the smart grid may not be that much of a solution to disparity, because guess who’s going to pay an unfair share for that smart grid in this system?

    Sell power through the local grid, which is at the lower end of HV distribution (IE: inefficient), and a good bit of that power is lost after it passes the home owners meter but before it reaches the final user meter. Guess again who winds up paying the largest share of those losses. Yep, the poor.

    http://www.prosebeforehos.com/cultural-correspondent/07/20/why-being-poor-more-expensive-than-being-rich/

    The problem isn’t the grid, it is the whole system of capitalism and false beliefs in markets. Got to stop playing a fixed game.

  23. Paul Tioxon

    Now a lot of issues have been hashed out. Certainly, the parallel development alongside solar and wind installations is reducing the load of electricity needed. The shift to electric cars will increase demand, but there may not be as many cars on the road in the future due to cultural shifts from self driving vehicles, which seems to me a way to turn the personal auto into a form of mass transit, to ride sharing technologies that aren’t uberized. It’s rent-a- car and park it around town services that are available now, some have been bought up car rental companies, but it could be that car ownership along with the vast middle class will both contract in direct proportion to one another.

    But the really big story is the reform building codes and construction methods to produce Net Zero structures, that rely heavily on passive solar design and high efficiency insulation and other materials, such as super insulating glass, more than the current antiquated low-e glass. New York is a model of a carless lifestyle with plenty of enjoyment of life without driving to find happiness. Other cities, likewise, but that gives you an idea of what a reduction in auto ownership can look like nationally. Yeah, I know, you live in the middle of 30,000 acre compound in West Texas. I don’t care. San Antonio, I care, otherwise, whine somewhere else about your long distance driving and love of pickup trucks and the like. You can have them, I not about outlawing, because we all know, when you outlaw something, only outlaws will have them.

    http://www.bullitt.org/about/staff/

    http://energy.gov/eere/buildings/zero-energy-ready-home

    So, the government and business people get it, reduce the need for heating and cooling, lighting and cooking, hot water etc and you can produce a home that makes more energy than it consumes. And if the homes last more than a generation or three, well, that is conserving forests, glass and energy for constant building material production.

  24. verifyfirst

    It’s not just solar the utilities are pushing back on–it is also LED. Here in my little burg of 20,000 souls, the city was able to implement a two year property tax (without a vote of citizens) to raise half a million dollars and use that to convert all the streetlights to LED.

    The city believed there would be big savings, but the utility turned around and proposed a new rate for LED that would actually make the LED streetlights more expensive than the old kind. This has not yet been decided by the rate commission.

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