As Distributed Solar Becomes More Potent, Attacks Become More Fierce

Distributed solar generation threatens to upend the centralized electric grid in a good way.  This technology gives more people the opportunity to generate clean energy for themselves and to share with others without destroying wildlands.  As Bill McKibben wrote in his book Eaarth about our energy future, "our projects, if we are wise, will be myriad and quiet, not a grand few visible to the world."

Now it appears that energy storage will be a force multiplier for sustainable, distributed solar energy as the technology becomes cheaper and more efficient.  According to a report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a combination of energy efficiency investments and improving cost forecasts for rooftop solar with battery storage means that "tens of millions" of utility customers (residential and commercial) will find it more cost effective to produce and store their own clean energy by the year 2020.  That means that technology will give millions of people the option to defect from the grid by 2020, and even more after that.  Solar paired with storage means that the energy we do not use during the day may be available to us at night.  Even if you don't own the rooftop over your head, community solar policies are expanding, allowing those living in apartment buildings or renting a home to choose a more sustainable energy source.

It is no surprise that utility companies are stepping up their attack against rooftop solar.  The more we get used to the idea that we can generate - and eventually store - our own clean energy, the sooner that utility companies lose their grip on the massive profits they gain from building and maintaining a destructive grid.  Rooftop and parking lot solar installations will not make utility companies go away completely, but the utility business model will no longer be based on the promise of entangling our wildlands in transmission lines and destructive power plants built hundreds of miles from the places we live.  Utility companies know that distributed solar technology is becoming more cost effective, so their attacks are focused on adding extra costs to the technology.  The companies are proposing additional fees to be charged to families and businesses that install solar panels. 

As some continue to be fascinated by the glaring solar power towers and utility-scale fields of solar panels and wind turbines that are strapped to giant transmission lines, distributed solar generation makes continued investment in an outdated grid seem absurd.  But solar panels on a home or business do not provide the same "big infrastructure" backdrop that more destructive utility-scale projects provide to policymakers and elected officials.  Afterall, our definition of progress and success is still as outdated as our concept of the centralized electric grid.

Instead of subsidizing fossil fuel extraction or bulldozers scraping desert wildlands, why not implement policies that shift the grid (and the economy overall) to a more decentralized model?  How about feed-in-tariffs for those that sell energy back to the grid from their rooftop solar panels, or rebates for people that buy into rooftop or community solar?  Instead of handing billions of dollars in subsidies to a handful of already-wealthy corporate executives, how about more help for normal folks that want to make their home or business more energy efficient, and powered by a set of local solar panels?  Solar panels that sit on a rooftop, or provide shade to a parking lot - adding value to a space in our city that we took for granted as having only one purpose.

But that sort of shift in the grid will require a shift in policy. And that shift in policy will require that we desire distributed solar not only because it is clean energy, but because it is more sustainable.  Because we would rather pay a little extra for electricity, and be more efficient in the way we use electricity, than continue to dispose of wildlands and wildlife as if they were something to swap for convenience in a marketplace ever more disconnected from our natural heritage.  The value of distributed solar - and its potential to transform the way we consider our relationship with electricity - is more than just the technical comparison of system costs - replacing transformers or new software to manage the grid.  The value of distributed generation that we may never manage to perfectly capture is how much we need - but may not fully appreciate - a beautiful desert valley in the Mojave, a pristine ridge north of Tehachapi watched over by red-tailed hawks, or an intact grassland in New Mexico that is not scarred by natural gas well pads and roads.  Those are the places that may be spared by an investment in distributed generation.  How do we factor that into our utility bills?


  1. Once again, Shaun, very well spoken—thank you. If I were on the board of a utility company I would be demanding "vision," figuring out paths that embrace distributed solar, not fight it. Utility companies must adapt to survive a new energy paradigm which I believe is inevitable. Policy can and should hasten this transition; industry must find how it can be a part of it. Any inability to lead will not prevent the shift, but it will make prolong the agony (the idea that you must destroy nature in order to save it).


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