Sunday, February 2, 2014

Will Utility Companies Charge You For Being Efficient?

Will utility companies charge me extra because I cut my energy usage through efficiency improvements at home?  Utility companies across the country are proposing new fees for people who find a way to reduce their dependence on a dirty and destructive energy grid by operating rooftop solar systems.  The core of the utility companies' argument is that these homes and businesses with rooftop solar cut the amount of energy they need from the grid, and thus they reduce the amount they pay for the operation and maintenance of transmission lines and substations that bring them energy from far away places. 

There seems to be two major problems with utility company logic.  First, what will stop them from charging me for reducing my use of the grid through energy efficiency improvements?  How do they distinguish between people who install rooftop solar panels, and people who replace appliances and light bulbs to cut electricity usage?  And second, what choice do I have when the utility companies make poor investment choices in unnecessary grid infrastructure and power plants.  In California alone, utilities wasted billions of dollars on a nuclear plant that is now shut down, and now want to charge us for demolishing the plant and replacing it with unnecessary natural gas plants.  Utility companies also invent reasons to build multi-billion dollar transmission lines that do not always make sense, further entangling our society in an unsustainable grid.

The utility companies' effort against rooftop solar exposes their intention -  to stop distributed solar generation from rendering their monopoly of the grid obsolete.   I am willing to accept that anyone connected to the grid should pay at least a fee for that service, but the utility companies are leveraging that fee to punish people based on the amount of solar they generate at home.   If you apply the logic of that penalty elsewhere, it would mean that anybody that intentionally reduces the electricity they pull from the grid should pay extra charges to pay even more for the grid, including those of us who invest in new appliances or light bulbs that use less electricity.

Reduce your electricity use by switching lights off if they are not in use, and un-plug "vampire" appliances and chargers that will use power in stand-by mode.  Keep in mind cable TV boxes and DVRs use quite a bot of energy even when in stand-by mode.
We all already pay standard fees on our utility bill to pay for the grid in addition to the per kilowatt hour charges for the amount of electricity we use.  So why should we be punished if we try to reduce the amount of grid energy we use?  The anti-solar surcharge applies to many people that are still paying the utility company transmission and distribution charges, it is just that utility companies want to charge them even more for attempting to break from their centralized model.

I live in an apartment building that does not allow me to install my own rooftop solar, but my city recently adopted support for "solar gardens" that allow residents who cannot install their own solar panels to buy into a solar installation elsewhere, such as solar panels on a warehouse or over a parking lot.  The energy those panels produce would offset the energy I use from the grid.  In the meantime, I have switched out incandescent bulbs for LEDs, installed smart power strips that cut stand-by power usage, and I am mindful of turning off lights in rooms I am not using.   All of this adds up, and my average daily energy usage has dropped by nearly 25% over the past two years.  Does this mean I am a freeloader on the grid?  Should my utility charge me more for using less?

What is worse is that the anti-solar fee sets a precedent for forcing people to pay for infrastructure and destruction that they barely need, and cannot control.  If I have to pay my utility company extra money to sustain its outmoded business model, I am undermining the very reason I try to cut my energy usage - to protect our environment and reduce my own footprint.  The role utility companies play must change to accommodate new technologies, and to address the climate crisis.   Utility companies should not be allowed to strangle distributed generation and efficiency improvements; they should instead become partners in transforming our system to one that rewards lower energy use and local clean energy generation. 

1 comment:

  1. Desert solar is an outrage. Not only is it destructive to a fragile ecosystem, it is being done in the name of private profit. There is not one penny of these projects that has anything to do with the public good. It is about greed, profit, and money at all of the rest of us' expense. It is disgusting. Solar belongs on root tops and already degraded land, and it should be owned publicly. The "green revolution" is a sham and just another way of sucking public money into private pockets.