Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: Solar is a way to go -- but adopting it is not simple

I guess I'm weird. Despite the author's warnings, I've been fascinated by David Robert's series on electric utilities.
There's very little public discussion of utilities or utility regulations, especially relative to sexier topics like fracking or electric cars. That's mainly because the subject is excruciatingly boring, a thicket of obscure institutions and processes, opaque jargon, and acronyms out the wazoo. Whether PURPA allows IOUs to customize RFPs for low-carbon QFs is actually quite important, but you, dear reader, don't know it, because you fell asleep halfway through this sentence. Utilities are shielded by a force field of tedium.
So what is the the Grist columnist discussing here?

In very short summary, he's all for "small is beautiful," distributed power generation from residence scale units such as that provided by rooftop solar panels. But he is too honest to pretend that when utilities ask "but who is going to pay for building and maintaining the grid?" they are entirely blowing smoke. So long as residential solar is a scare novelty (as the proud sign pictured here proclaims), a tiny number of solar-equipped customers can freeload off the rest of us who are paying for all the maintenance of the power system through our regulated rates. But as distributed solar spreads, at some point it will become unfair if some people's meters spin backward.

We can't trust the electric companies to level with us as that happens; they are in business to squeeze as much profit out of us as they can, regardless of the true economic facts. Besides, utilities make money by projecting increased power demand, borrowing to build more plants and other capacity, and receiving regulated returns on these expenditures. If a lot of us create our own power sources, that model of making a profit will stop working.

This model is already getting creaky. According to Roberts,
… demand for utilities’ services is slowing. Depending on which forecasts you believe, electricity consumption may even begin declining in some states over the next few decades.

Why? Some of it is merely the “offshoring” of industrial activity. But a substantial chunk is the recent explosion of energy-efficiency technologies and investments. ...

Alongside that, individuals now have the power to generate their own electricity with solar panels and other distributed generation technologies. Utilities do not own that distributed generation; it’s an investment upon which they receive no returns. And it represents a reduction in demand for what they are selling, a reduction in use of their grid infrastructure, and a reduction in the need for future power infrastructure.
The thing is, for the foreseeable future, we do need an electric grid and somebody is going to pay for it. If enough solar customers can "make their meters spin backward," eventually that's going to break the utilities' business model. But we still need the grid. Solar advocates say we are nowhere near a crunch on this and besides, utilities, as legal monopolies, have become accustomed to benefiting from bad planning -- planning that ignores how distributed generation reduces their costs.

This discussion is an example of why the arrival of abrupt climate change is so difficult to deal with in a democratic fashion. There are genuine problems that require technical solutions -- on top of the political and scientific puzzles such unprecedented change throws at our societies. If people are going to retain any say about how our societies respond to this, more of us are going to have risk encountering the "force fields of tedium." Or at least reading smart interpreters.

Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- reminders of an inconvenient truth.

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