My Utility COOP & Solar Power

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There’s a crucial difference between an energy utility company being concerned about the costs associated with moving toward new technology like net metering, and the company pretending concern as a tactic to avoid changing the status quo.

According to a Deutsche Bank study, related in
a great article by Lucas Mearian for Computerworld, ten US States already “boast solar energy costs that are on par with those of conventional electricity generation.” And by 2016, the study expects price parity in all 50 states. Comparing American solar capability with that of the world leader, Germany, the study says cloudy “Seattle is the worst place in the continental U.S. For solar. Germany’s worse than Seattle.”

Last August, my local electric utility’s quarterly PR magazine included a letter by the utility’s General Manager, saying the company was concerned that in “traditional individual-owner net metering applications, the solar owner’s share of the utility fixed costs is transferred to other members.” I was unsure whether this was a real concern or a smokescreen, so I wrote to the GM and received a response from both her and from one of the technical managers.

The utility’s idea of implementing solar seems to be a scheme that would allow customers to buy a “share” of the output of a solar generating plant operated by another nearby utility. While there may be some economies of scale in a big “on-grid” solar farm, the successful model in places like Germany where solar has really taken off has been rooftop. Solar farms seem like just another way for the utilities to retain control and hang onto a lion’s share of the benefit. To make matters even stranger, my local utility is a cooperative. And its most recent PR magazine featured an article urging customers to fight the proposed new EPA carbon rule under the Clean Air Act.

So what’s the solution for electricity customers interested in trying new technology? As Photovoltaic costs continue to come down, there will certainly be more of us. The government confers monopolies on public utilities, using the logic that a region only needs one, and competition would be bad because the streets would constantly be torn up by new companies laying redundant cable. This makes sense, as long as the company granted the monopoly remains focused on the best interests of the community. I don’t see how advocating for less regulation on coal and dragging your feet on new, sustainable technology benefits the community in the long run.

My utility coop’s approach seems more likely to drive the really interested users off the grid entirely. We’ve all heard stories about the local visionary northwest of Bemidji who installed solar panels on his roof, only to have the utility issue a rate increase to all his neighbors to cover the cost of retrofitting to the smart grid. Talk about driving away precisely the people who could be your best allies! I’ve got to admit that faced with that type of attitude, my response is, “Well, is there a way I can do off-grid power for part of my needs, and just reduce my dependence on the utility?” this may be good news for battery manufacturers, but it’s probably not the most efficient or effective way to move the community toward a sustainable future.