solar energy

Llewellyn King: Rooftop solar energy burns the poor

  Leon Trotsky said, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  The same thing might be said about disruptive technologies.

The U.S. electric system, for example, may not be interested in disruptive technology, but disruptive technology is interested in it. What Uber and Lyft have done to the taxi industry worldwide is just beginning to happen to the electricity industry; and it could shock consumers – particularly the less affluent – as surely as though they had stuck their finger in an electrical outlet.

The disruptive revolution is not only happening here, but also in Europe, as Marc Boillot, senior vice president at Electricite de France (EDF), the giant French utility, writes in a new book.

Ironically in the United States, disruption of the otherwise peaceful world of electric generation and sale last year was a bumper one for electric stocks because of their tradition of paying dividends at a time when bond yields were low.

The first wave of disruption to electric generation has been a technology as benign as solar power units on rooftops, much favored by governments and environmentalists as a green source of electricity. For the utilities, these rooftop generators are a threat to the integrity of the electrical grid. To counter this, utilities would like to see the self-generators pay more for the upkeep of the grid and the convenience it affords them.

Think of the grid as a series of spider webs built around utility companies serving particular population centers, and joined to each other so they can share electricity, depending on need and price.

Enter the self-generating homeowner who by law is entitled to sell excess production back to the grid, or to buy on the grid when it is very cold or the sun isn't shining, as at night. The system of selling back to the electric company is known as net metering.

Good deal? Yes, for the homeowner who can afford to install a unit or lease one from one of a growing number of companies that provide that service. Lousy deal for the full-time electricity customer who rents or lives in an apartment building.

There’s the rub: Who pays the cost of maintaining the grid while the rooftop entrepreneur uses it at will? Short answer: everyone else.

In reality, the poor get socked. Take Avenue A with big houses at one end and apartments and tenements at the other. The big houses -- with their solar panels and owners' morally superior smiles -- are being subsidized by the apartments and tenements. They have to pay to keep the grid viable, while the free-standing house – it doesn’t have to be a mansion -- gets a subsidy.

It's a thorny issue, akin to the person who can't use Uber or Lyft because he or she doesn’t have a credit card or a smartphone, and has to hope that traditional taxi service will survive.

The electric utilities, from the behemoths to the smallest municipal distributor, see the solution in an equity fee for the self-generating customer's right to come on and off the grid, and for an appreciable difference between his selling and buying price. Solar proponents say, not fair: Solve your own problems. We are generating clean electricity and our presence is a national asset.

EDF's Boillot sees the solution in the utilities’ own technological leap forward: the so-called smart grid. This is the computerization of the grid so that it is more finely managed, waste is eliminated, and pricing structures for homes reflect the exact cost at the time of service. His advice was eagerly sought when he was in Washington recently, promoting his book.

While today’s solar may be a problem for the utilities, tomorrow’s may be more so. Homeowners who can afford it may be able to get off the grid altogether by using the battery in an all-electric car to tide them over during the sunless hours.

The industry is not taking this lying down: It is talking to the big solar firms, the regulators and, yes, to Elon Musk, founder of electric-car maker Tesla Motors. He may be the threat and he may be the savior; those all-electric cars will need a lot of charging, and stations for that are cropping up. There’s a ray of sunshine for the utilities, but it's quite a way off. Meanwhile, the rooftop disruption is here and now.

Llewellyn King (lking@kingpublishing.com), a longtime publisher, journalist and international business consultant, is executive producer of "White House Chronicle,'' on PBS.

Emily Schwartz Greco/William A. Collins: Solar getting brighter

bright-solar-future-cartoon-600x422
OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib
NORWALK, Conn.
With so many homeowners and businesses making greener energy choices, private utilities — along with big oil, gas, coal, and nuclear companies — see the writing on the wall.Unlike some other denizens of the fossil-fueled set, this gang isn’t beating oil wells into solar panels, retiring nuclear reactors, or embracing wind and geothermal power. Instead, these guys are trying to coax lawmakers into rigging the rules against increasingly competitive new energy alternatives.You see, the bulwarks of conventional energy are good at math. And the math is increasingly not in their favor.Solar panels are growing so affordable, accessible, and popular that sun-powered energy accounted for 74 percent of the nation’s new electric generation capacity in the first three months of this year. Wind power comprised another 20 percent, geothermal 1 percent, and natural gas plus other sources accounted for the final 5 percent.

Coal didn’t even register.

OK, so that first-quarter surge was kind of an anomaly because it included the inauguration of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the world’s largest solar-concentrating power plant. Through a vast array of seven-by-ten-foot mirrors located on federal land along the California-Nevada border, this remarkable site produces enough energy to power 140,000 homes. Another vast utility-scale project aptly called “Genesis Solar” ramped up too.

But the U.S. solar industry did install a record amount of new capacity in 2013. And once enough folks produce their own power on their rooftops and utility-scale clean energy becomes commonplace, demand for the juice generated by the dangerous and dirty oil, coal, gas, and nuclear industries will fizzle.

Can you imagine the economy weaning itself off of fossil fuels by the middle of this century? That’s what Denmark has officially pledged to do.

Besides, we all need to visualize this possibility. Unless most of humanity transitions to a new way of life powered by climate solutions, global warming could ultimately render the Earth uninhabitable.

Can you guess who is trying to manipulate legislation to squeeze a few more years out of the dirty-energy status quo instead of helping make a requisite green transition happen?

The American Legislative Exchange Council — a secretive national network known as ALEC — is stalking state capitols for just this purpose. ALEC’s lobbyists push a broad conservative agenda in statehouses through templated bills they tweak for state lawmakers.

What are these bills calling for? In states like Arizona, Utah, and Oklahoma, there are efforts to essentially tax homeowners who lease solar panels. But mostly ALEC is aiming for something bigger: gutting individual state “renewable portfolio standards.”

Those wonky-sounding regulations require utilities to provide a certain percentage of power from renewable sources at some set point in the future.

Alternative-energy leader California, for example, has committed to drawing a third of its juice from climate-friendly sources by 2020.

And who’s paying for this dirty work?

Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade association for the 70 percent of the U.S. utility industry controlled by private companies, is behind it — according to the Center for Media and Democracy. It’s joined in this legislative attack by coal giant Peabody Energy, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Koch Industries and other big fossil-fueled interests.

It may be hard to believe, but so far, foes of systematically encouraging renewable energy growth are losing. Badly. Even in Kansas. That state’s GOP-controlled legislature refused to repeal its renewable energy standard a few months ago in a 63-60 vote.

All 13 state-targeted efforts to chip away at or kill renewable energy standards have failed so far this year. Not one state rolled back its standards in 2013 either.

Who could have guessed that renewable energy would be so hard to foil? Well, anyone who pays attention to all the jobs it generates.

The solar industry now employs at least 142,000 people in the United States. Solar workers outnumber coal miners in this country. In Texas, solar supports more jobs than ranching and California has more solar workers than actors. Wind jobs are growing fast too. They hit a total of 80,000 last year.

Sorry, ALEC. Even the reddest states can’t ignore this rising tide of green jobs.

 

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit national editorial service run by the Institute for Policy StudiesOtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn. This piece originated on  OtherWords.org.

 

 

Oil/gas moguls try to quash solar power

  caf-alec-Brookhaven National Laboratory

From Brookhaven National Laboratory

 

Now the Koch brothers are coming after my solar panels.

I had solar panels installed on the roof of our Washington, D.C., home this year. My household took advantage of a generous tax incentive from the District government and a creative leasing deal offered by the solar panel seller.

Our electric bills fell by at least a third. When people make this choice, the regional electric company grows less pressured to spend money to expand generating capacity and the installation business creates good local jobs. Customers who use solar energy also reduce carbon emissions.

What’s not to love?

According to the  American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative network better known as ALEC, our solar panels make us “free riders.” What?

Yes, according to ALEC, an organization that specializes in getting the right-wing agenda written into state laws, people like me who invest in energy-efficiency and shrinking our carbon footprints ought to be penalized.

Why does ALEC want us punished? Since it’s bankrolled by, among others, the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, it’s hard not to surmise that they’re worried about a threat to fossil fuels businesses. Koch Industries’ operations include refneries, oil and natural-gas pipelines and petrochemicals

That’s no conspiracy theory. Recently the British newspaper The Guardian wrote about the assault on solar panels as part of a broader exposé on ALEC.

John Eick, the legislative analyst for ALEC’s energy, environment and agriculture program, confirmed to The Guardian that the organization would support making solar panel users pay extra for the electricity they generate. That’s already about to happen in Arizona, where homeowners who use solar panels will pay an average of about $5 extra a month for the privilege, starting in January.

The sola- power industry called the new rule a victory only because power companies in the state were demanding assessments of as much as $100 a month — more than high enough to deter families from considering switching to solar.

Making solar energy cost-prohibitive for homeowners and businesses is part of a larger ALEC objective, affirmed at its recent annual meeting, to continue its effort to eliminate state renewable energy mandates.

According to meeting minutes, ALEC has already succeeded in getting legislation introduced in 15 states to “reform, freeze, or repeal their state’s renewable mandate.” ALEC lobbyists are pushing policies through states that will speed up climate change and increase pollution. They’re threatening the renewable energy industry, which is already creating new jobs and saving money for homeowners and businesses.

Without the current policy paralysis in Washington and a lack of bold, creative thinking about how to build a new, green economy at the national level, they wouldn’t be making so much headway.

My organization, Institute for America’s Future — together with the Center for American Progress and the BlueGreen Alliance — recently published a report that shows what’s at stake with ALEC’s destructive agenda.

Our “green industrial revolution” report recommends tying together a series of regional solutions that take advantage of the unique assets of each part of the country, such as the abundance of sun in the West and the wind off the Atlantic coast, into a cohesive whole.

These regional strategies would be supported by smart federal policies, such as establishing a price for carbon emissions and a national clean energy standard, creating certainty and stability in the alternative energy tax credit market, and providing strong support for advanced energy manufacturing.

This is the way to unleash the kind of innovation and job creation our economy — and our rapidly warming planet — desperately needs.

My solar panels are the envy of my block and I wish more of my neighbors will be able to make the same choice I did. But they won’t if fossil-fuel dinosaurs like the Koch brothers and right-wing organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council keep casting their dark clouds on efforts to build a clean energy future.

It’s time for them to step aside and let the sun shine in.

Isaiah J. Poole is the editor of OurFuture.org, the Web site of the Campaign for America’s Future. OurFuture.org. This was distributed via OtherWors.org.