Rooftop solar and utilities don’t have to be enemies

rooftop solar panels

Photographer’s caption: The rails that will hold the solar panels in place are up, and we are wrapping up at the end of Day 1 of installing the panels on a low-income house in Oakland, California.

Probably very few advocates of sustainability identify themselves as conservative, but I do.

Conservative think tanks allied with electric service providers vigorously advocate ending “special treatment” for renewable energy. How any position opposed to energy conservation can seriously be considered conservative is beyond me.

Too many advocates of renewable energy are content to paint electric utilities (and large corporations in general) as evil.

I want to make a conservative case for renewable energy in general and rooftop solar in particular. But before countering the arguments of the utilities and utility-friendly think tanks, it is first necessary to understand them.

Rooftop solar installations tied to the grid (part of what is known as distributed energy resources) will kill electric utilities under their present business models.

No one, I hope, wants electric utilities to go out of business, but they see rooftop solar as a threat not just to their business model, but their ability to survive. They have circled the wagons and used their considerable political muscle to urge state public utility commissions to put the brakes on distributed energy resources. Thus the efforts on the part of the conservative think tanks to help them out.

The threat of rooftop solar panels

electric power plant

A fossil fuel electric plant in Arizona

Electric utility companies are in the business of selling electricity.

Some operate as state-regulated monopolies, solely responsible for its generation, transmission, and distribution They take care of part of the grid.

Others, under some level of deregulation, still take care of part of the grid, but they no longer generate electricity.

They buy it from whatever generating businesses offer the lowest possible price (which varies from hour to hour) and sell it to customers.

On the surface, any effort to conserve energy takes income and profit away from electric service providers. Consumer-owned rooftop solar panels and utilities appear to be playing a zero sum game. All the electricity consumers generate themselves reduces demand for the utilities’ product.

Regulations require that the utilities pay consumers for all the electricity they generate beyond what they use. In other words, electric service providers must pay to enable expansion of the most serious threat to their existence, rooftop solar energy.

Solar power is most plentiful at midday, when demand for electricity is at its highest. Utilities make more money from peak power than at other times of the day, so it would appear that distributed energy reduces demand not just for utility-supplied electricity in general, but for the most lucrative electricity in particular.

The case against renewable energy and why it’s wrong

solar panel array

Solar array in Austin, Texas. Utilities don’t object to solar installations they control.

I have already written that the utilities’ argument against solar power at home and other forms of renewable energy (as expressed by conservative think tanks) begs a couple of questions:

First, it complains that renewable energy can’t survive without state subsidies. Unasked is the question of whether any energy company can survive without government subsidies of some kind.

The correct answer is no. Traditional electric service providers are heavily subsidized, and the fossil fuel industries receive more subsidies than renewable energy companies.

Second, it complains that renewable energy is intermittent. I have already noted that the peak availability of solar power coincides with the time of greatest demand.

The question in my earlier post was whether Duke Energy, a state-regulated monopoly, should be required to purchase a certain amount of renewable energy. Its supporters say it should not.

This answer wrongly assumes that renewable energy interferes with the operation of fossil fuel turbines and increases costs to the utility. In fact, the utility must start and stop peaking plants that are inefficient and expensive to operate and maintain.

Once electricity exists, the grid doesn’t care how it was generated. Once solar installations have been built, the power is free. It is much cheaper to use solar energy at times of peak load (when bright sunshine drives demand) instead of turning a peaking plant on and off.

Other utility arguments against “special treatment” for renewable energy likewise beg questions, assuming answers to unasked questions and reasoning in a circle from the assumption to a conclusion that merely restates the assumption.

They claim that state mandates for Renewable Portfolio Standards, laws that require electric utilities to generate some minimum percentage of their electricity from various renewable sources, raise the consumer cost of electricity. What is least expensive for utilities that allows them to profit from the lowest rates?

Indeed, until very recently, renewable energy cost more than electricity from fossil fuels. Not any more.  According to last year’s report by Lazard, the levelized cost of renewable energy is $59 per mWh for wind and $79 for solar. The least expensive fossil fuel source is natural gas ($74). Coal costs $109. It is difficult to swallow an argument that using less expensive sources of fuel will raise costs.

Coal ash spill site

Work at Dan River coal ash spill site. (February 28, 2014)

They complain about the environmental costs of decommissioning spent solar panels, but they beg the question of what poses the least environmental risk.

It is possible to plan for the replacement and disposal of solar panels. It is not possible to plan for oil leaks and spills, coal ash spills, explosions in mines, or other environmentally harmful events inherent in generating electricity from fossil fuels.

Some of these events make national or international news. Others get only local coverage, and I’m sure still more never get reported by the media at all.

Regardless of the extent of press coverage, accidents regarding extraction and handling of fossil fuels require investigations by state and local environmental agencies—paid for by our tax money. Conservatives usually advocate for lower taxes. Why advocate for higher taxes when it comes to electric service?

Certainly the utilities should operate at a profit, but the problem is not renewable energy. It’s that current business models are obsolete and not worth preserving. The American electricity grid, build and maintained mostly by regulated monopolies, is an awesome achievement, outstanding in reliability.

The same used to be true of AT&T and Bell Labs, but the Bell System has been broken up. The successor to Bell Labs is a shadow of its former self. Phone service has improved and grown in amazing ways without the Bell System. Today’s electric grid must also fade into history, replaced by something more suited to the times.

Electric utility companies’ efforts to hang on to those models (and the high subsidies that keep it propped up) will result in higher consumer prices, environmental degradation from our inability to handle fossil fuels safely, and higher taxes to pay for investigation of accidents.

The public will be better off when electric service providers learn to use rooftop solar and other distributed energy resources to their advantage. Multiple proposals for viable alternative business models exist.

I am appalled that organizations identified as conservative are helping the electric utilities postpone the inevitable end to their traditional ways of conducting their businesses. Opposition to renewable energy and distributed energy resources amounts to an attack on one of the most important conservation efforts of our time. There is no reasonable definition of “conservative” that includes opposition to conservation.

Solar Panels Could Destroy U.S. Utilities, According to U. S. Utilities / David Roberts (Grist) 4/10/13
Comparing the Costs of Renewable and Conventional Energy Sources / Mitch Tobin. The Energy Collective. February 12, 2015.

Photo credits:
Installing home solar. Some rights reserved by Lauren Wellicome.
Electric power plant. Source unknown.
Solar array at Austin, Texas. Photo by Larry D. Moore. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Coal ash spill site. Some rights reserved by NC Dept. of Energy and Natural Resources.

Cool smart windows and insulating blinds

smart winsowsIsn’t sunlight wonderful? Like me, you probably prefer a bright, clear sunny day to a cloudy, gloomy one.

But sunlight creates problems indoors. In the summer heat comes through the windows with the light, making your air conditioning work harder.

In the winter, heat escapes through the windows, making your furnace work harder. Ultraviolet rays fade the colors of your walls, carpets, furniture, and artwork year round.

Wouldn’t it be nice if windows were smart enough to let in the cheery sunlight without the damaging ultraviolet and without wreaking havoc on indoor temperatures? Smart windows exist, and advancing technology is making them both less expensive and more flexible.

Smart glass technology has mostly been limited to commercial buildings, aircraft, and the like. In a few years smart windows (and skylights) suitable for your house and car will become available. Heat blocking window treatments are available now. Continue reading

Take a bite out of food waste

Food waste

Food waste

Does food waste bother you?

I have seen estimates that between 30-40% of the food grown in this country never reaches the table.

Once it does, food waste comprises the largest component of municipal solid waste, and consumers generate as much as half of it.

It’s a long journey from farm to table. Not everything planted will grow. Not everything grown will reach harvest because of weather and other problems. Not everything harvested will reach grocery stores, food processors, restaurants, and other destinations before it rots.

None of these losses, serious as they are, count as food waste. Continue reading

Microbial Fuel Cells: Making Electricity from Sewage

wastewater discharge pipe

Wastewater discharge pipe

About three years ago, I wrote about a fairly new technology for generating electricity from the waste we flush down the toilet, microbial fuel cells.

At that time, several research teams were working on them, but they were still a strictly experimental technology. Are we any closer to harnessing the electricity microbes generate? Somewhat. Continue reading

10 Greenest Cities in the World

City skyline graphicContributed by Tane Clark

Until very recently in human history, most of the world’s population lived in rural areas. Now most people live in cities. What do you think of when you think about cities and sustainability?

I suspect that most of us still have vestiges of the rural mindset and think of cities as crowed and dirty.

A lot of them are, but with most people living in cities, humanity will find sustainability completely out of reach until our cities become green. Cities account for 75% of the world’s energy use, for example.

The greenest cities have to be among the largest. The largest cities have some inherent advantages, such as the population density necessary for really good public transportation. Practices like using renewable energy or replacing traffic signals with LED lights have a greater environmental impact in a large city than in a small one. Continue reading

Solar Energy Facts and Begging the Questions

solar energy, Nevada

Solar farm at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada

If you follow this blog, you probably believe that solar energy is a good thing, along with other renewable energy. You may also wonder why anyone would disagree, but the entire concept remains controversial.

Many states use tax credits to encourage the development of solar power and other renewable energy.

Opponents point out that renewable energy is intermittent and that renewable energy sources can’t survive without handouts from the government.

These claims beg at least two questions. <language maven hat> That is, they are based on a kind of circular reasoning that assumes the answer to a question it doesn’t actually address. “Beg the question” does not mean “raise the question” as so many people misuse the expression these days.</language maven hat>

What are the questions that go unasked by opponents of solar energy?  Continue reading

World Green Building Week


LEED plaque for Proximity Hotel

Infographic contributed by Megan Wilson

Countries around the world are observing this week, September 21-27, as World Green Building Week. Countries on every continent except, of course, Antarctica, are participating and holding events.

The leading means of designating a sustainable building project is LEED certification. (Leading with LEED—I like it!)

I have written about LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) before as an example of how sustainability moves forward without (or despite) the federal government.

The U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit corporation, devised LEED standards and revises them periodically. Continue reading

Organic Farming: Advantages and Disadvantages

Organic farm shop

Organic farm shop

What does organic food have to do with sustainability and green living?

For many people who are passionate about environmental issues, sustainability, especially sustainability in agriculture, absolutely requires organic farming.

They tout the health benefits and claim that conventional farming destroys the soil and pollutes water.

They disapprove of factory farming and often take a dim view of industry in general. A dim and short-sighted view. In fact, organic farming on a large scale is factory farming. It is the organic farming industry.

Like any industry, the organic farming industry has its own spin and seeks to persuade the public that it is better than the alternatives. And like any industry, organic farming can easily overstate its case. Continue reading