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The Electricity Battle: Utilities vs. Solar Power

old windmillAir conditioning (HVAC) companies don’t care where you get your power, as long as you have heat or cooling where and when you want it. But consumers care, because the price rises and falls— OK, mostly rises— depending on how efficiently we use the power and where it comes from.

There’s bad news and good news on this story: One is that the use of renewable energy— anything that’s not being used up like oil or coal— shot up to nearly 10% of our energy consumption last year. This is the highest level since the 1930s, when many more Americans heated their homes and cooked with wood. (In fact, wood is still the second- highest renewable energy source because of the popularity of pellet stoves in the North.)

About half of that renewable energy was used to generate electricity, and therein lies the bad news. According to a story in The New Yorker magazine (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/29/power-to-the-people), the electric utilities are trying to keep people from switching to residential solar power. While entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are doing their best to produce low-cost solar batteries to store power, utilities have a vested interest in keeping people on the grid.

Author Bill McKibben argues that the price of solar panels will continue to drop, because ‘it’s a technology, rather than a fuel’ and this will increase the challenge for stodgy utility companies. [For a previous blog post on solar batteries, see here: http://www.acdoctor.com/blog/solar-power-hitches-ride-silicon-valley/.]

The utilies have a valid point. As people drop off the grid, the remaining customers will bear an increasingly greater share of the cost of utility poles, lines . . . the transmission network we take for granted. In Arizona, for instance, Arizona Public Service asked state regulators for permission to charge a fee to anyone who installed a solar panel, arguing that those customers still have access to reliable power even when the sun don’t shine.

solar panelsNow the Tea Party and the Sierra Club have joined forces in an organization called the Green Tea Coalition. This started in Georgia and has spread to Florida. One of their goals is to change the laws so that residents with solar power are allowed to sell electricity back to the grid. (This is already being done in western states.)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who said during Hurricane Sandy that the electric utilities were the ‘equivalent of vinyl records in the age of the iPod’, instituted a new program called REV (Reforming the Energy Vision). Proposals include equipping appliances— such as refrigerators and TVs— with a chip that connects them with the grid, and powers them off during peak demand and back on again at slack times. 

It remains to be seen whether New York can stop the death spiral, as utilities describe their situation, which would increase the cost of doing business in the state. Even if you’re not a fan of solar or wind power, it’s shaping up to be quite the battle— aging Goliath against nimble David. It’s an age-old story, right? Does Goliath ever win?

 

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