This July 4, it is more important – and possible – than ever to gain our independence from the conventional power industry, and to a degree, the utilities.
For many of us, it is fireworks, barbecue and beer. But on July 4, we also celebrate the ratification of the Declaration of Independence of the United States as a critical step in breaking away from British rule.
This day has me thinking about independence – a word that is often used in connection with solar power. Because we are also in the middle of a revolution: A global revolution in the electric power sector (and eventually transportation and heating) away from fossil and nuclear power and towards a future of renewable energy, electric vehicles and batteries.
But it is not only a revolution against the conventional power industries, but also against the utilities, particularly the monopoly utilities.
This is a technology revolution, but politics also play a central role here. And it is slower and in some ways less dramatic than a military conflict, but it is a revolution nonetheless, and one that we cannot afford to lose or even delay.
Across the world and across the United States, this revolution is happening. One part of this revolution is wind and solar – particularly rooftop solar. Another is battery storage, which serves as the great enabler of solar and wind on the grid. And a third is a renegotiation of the role that utilities play on the grid – through processes like New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision, Power Sector Transformation in Rhode Island, and the more piecemeal actions of California regulators.
The next phases will come with a shift away from the internal combustion engine, through both electric vehicles and better urban planning to reduce single-occupancy vehicles, and the decarbonization of heat.
The masses of America are on our side. A recent poll found that a significant majority of Americans, across the political spectrum and demographics, support a California-style mandate for solar to be installed on all new homes.
War by other means
Just like the collapsing British Empire, the conventional power companies and the utilities are trying desperately to hold on to their power. And they are trying every trick in the book to do it – literally using your money.
This has been documented with utility funding of the Edison Electric Institute, which oversaw national campaigns to stop rooftop solar in legislatures and state regulators across the nation. This includes a propaganda campaign to spread the myth that rooftop solar creates a “cost shift” to other users – a myth which has been repeatedly debunked in studies that find that at current and near future penetrations, in almost all places rooftop solar saves other utility customers money.
These tactics took a particularly cynical turn with Entergy New Orleans hiring actors through a subcontractor to influence a City Council decision. Entergy is certainly not the only utility to try such a sleazy tactic – they are just the latest to get caught red-handed.
However, there is more nuance than the revolution metaphor suggests. While we can break free of coal, oil and nuclear power – and eventually even gas – it is true that we need the utilities, or at least that we need someone to run the lines and wires to trade electricity. But just like the way that the British were running the 13 colonies, they are occupying a much larger role than is necessary.
And it needs to be understood that as the big power companies hold both utilities and generation arms, the utility sector is wedded to the conventional power industry. Even in deregulated markets, the big power companies have two powerful economic incentives to fight distributed solar and demand-side solutions – first, because under net metering it eats into their revenues, and second because it replaces the need for the wholesale power that in many cases they are supplying through their generation businesses.
There are those who say that we can work with the utilities, and in every war, there is some degree of negotiation. In particular, many utilities are increasingly embracing large-scale solar while continuing to fight distributed generation tooth and nail. And while we at pv magazine support solar at every scale, it is important to understand that rooftop solar builds a vested political base for renewable energy to a much greater degree than utility-scale solar – by employing more workers as well as more citizens who have a stake in hosting and/or owning this generation.
So in closing, for all of the workers in the solar industry, from installers to CEOs, we thank you for your service as the force that is building this future. For all of the advocates out there, we than you for your service in fighting the legal, legislative and organizing battles to ensure that we have policies to accelerate the energy transition and to provide fair compensation for customers who generate their own electricity. For all of the homeowners and renters who have solar, we thank you for investing in the future.
For those of you considering solar, we highly encourage you to take a step not only for a better future for our children but for energy independence and consider installing rooftop solar or subscribing to a community solar farm. And for all of you, we encourage you to get more involved with one of the many organizations fighting for renewable energy and energy choice. Because this is a political fight, and in the words of Frederick Douglass – “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Here is a list (by no means complete) of some of the organizations that are fighting for energy independence:
Environmental Law and Policy Center (Midwest focus)
The Alliance for Affordable Energy (Louisiana)