By Seth Masia January 24, 2014
The recent attacks on solar arrays for homes and businesses have opened some fault lines within the renewable energy community.
Specifically, with the backing of fossil fuel companies and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), investor-owned utility companies across the country are trying to roll back the net metering rules that encourage the operation of small solar arrays in 43 states. (For background, see Utilities Fight Net Metering State by State.)
Utility companies actually love solar and wind power. They’ve found that free fuel is a great concept and that they can make money selling the power, which turns out not to be as intermittent and undependable as they still claim. But for-profit utilities (as opposed to municipal utilities) love solar and wind only when it’s generated by very large central generating plants – large wind and solar farms. When power comes from central plants it can be sold and billed on the traditional transmission line model, a business model invented by Thomas Edison and Samuel Insull in 1883.
But when solar and wind are used to generate power at small user-owned stations, on rooftops and ranchland, users don’t pay for the electricity they use on site. That constitutes only about 1 percent of America’s power right now, but it’s growing fast – according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, installations in 2013 rose to 4.3 gigawatts, up 27 percent over 2012, and small arrays accounted for 20 percent of that in the third quarter.
Up to 90 percent of those small arrays are installed by leasing companies. And so we have a sorry divide opening between homeowners and small business owners and leasing companies and small installers on one side, and for-profit utility companies on the other.
Solar equipment companies are neutral in this game. They want to sell photovoltaic panels and inverters to large developers and to small-array owners.
Not quite analogous is the divide in wind. Utilities love big wind farms and hate small wind installations. Manufacturers of large wind turbines for utility-scale use do not sell small wind turbines for farmers, ranchers and small businesses. In general they wouldn’t mind if the small wind industry simply blew away.
It’s important for voters and consumers to understand that when a for-profit utility company boasts about how much solar and wind it uses, that doesn’t mean the company wants you to have your own power generating system. They don’t. And they’re working behind the scenes to kill net metering so you won’t want your own system. If you already have one, they’re working to charge you more simply for using it.
If utility companies were really interested in the rapid growth of renewable energy, they would work to revise their own outdated business model. They’d admit in public that distributed generation saves money on fuel and infrastructure, and thus benefits all ratepayers. And they’d figure out how to share the cost saving with the ratepayers who contribute power to the system by building solar and wind with their own money.
In the meantime, solar and wind advocates can’t risk being recruited to the wrong side in this debate. The American Solar Energy Society supports America Supports Solar, Vote Solar, and the dozen other pro-solar political initiatives. We’d like to see all these movements declare explicitly that they unite on the side of small arrays as well as big ones. ASES chapters in 43 states expect your support in maintaining the growth of small systems, through net metering and feed-in tariffs. We oppose efforts by for-profit utility companies to kill the goose.