Electricity Democracy Comes Via Solar

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Originally published on SolarLove.

Solar-powered energy generation is really a game changer, but you probably know that already if you’re on SolarLove. Folks who come here to read about solar are those catalyzing change, implementing solutions, dreaming about a cleaner and more independent future – the Doers, not the Talkers, if you will. Solar doesn’t just allow people to produce power, but it is a truly disruptive technology that democratizes energy production. Democratization is the process of making something accessible to everyone and that is exactly what solar does for energy.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Friend of the site Renaud Janson shared some figures from 2014 with us that really put this into perspective:

Although the final numbers aren’t yet fully available, the total worldwide cumulative installed PV capacity at the end of 2014 is expected to be around 185 GW.

To only have 36 GW of utility scale capacity, less than a 5th of the total, is a good sign that PV is, and remains, a decentralized energy source, whose present and future is on residential and commercial rooftops and parking lots.

With so much solar being generated on rooftops of homes and businesses, power is shifting from large, central power generators utilizing natural gas, nuclear, or coal to those who consume the power. It takes what would normally be a monthly expense and turns it into an asset for your property while conveniently getting rid of that pesky electricity (or hydro in Canada) bill.

Image Credit: Kyle Field

Those stats really emphasize the relationship between utility-scale solar installations and residential solar installations, but the power of solar goes far beyond that. Before solar, one’s options for generating power at home were fairly limited. We were able to dry our clothes via the sun, cook in solar ovens, maybe set up a hydropower generation facility if there was a stream or river on the property (which is at risk as climate change–induced droughts become more prevalent), and possibly geothermal generation if it made sense on your property and you had the (significant) capital to cover the installation.

Installing a residential solar photovoltaic (PV) system on the rooftop of a home or business changes all of that. The system can be sized to fit the consumption needs of the home – including electric vehicles (EVs), if they are a part of the family — and can even be scaled up in size as needs change. For instance, I initially started with a small 5-panel PV system and have scaled it up over the years to 17 panels today — which more than covers the usage of both of our EVs and all of our other electricity needs.

Image Credit: Climate Victory

Locally generating power at the point of use also effectively eliminates transmission losses, which the US Energy Information Administration estimates to be 6% of the electricity transmitted and distributed. Applying this to the 4,093 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity generated in the US (EIA estimate for 2014), we find that we generate 246 BILLION kilowatt-hours each year in the US just to move that power around. It’s effectively the cost to “ship” the power… which we can almost fully eliminate through local generation of solar power.

With residential batteries becoming increasingly more common, the balance of power is further decentralized, putting more power into the hands of the people, as a residential battery storage installation allows one to generate their own power including absorbing peak generation and supplying for peak and nighttime usage.

Finally, with energy consuming a large percentage of the income of the poor in developing countries, small-scale solar empowers them to shirk the bonds of energy poverty to stay up later, read more, breathe less pollution from kerosene lanterns – single-handedly bringing revolutionary, positive change. Many nonprofits have been started to tap this specific market, expanding beyond just providing light to add USB chargers, central batteries, and small, wired rooftop solar panels.

Image Credit: Panasonic

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Kyle Field

I'm a tech geek passionately in search of actionable ways to reduce the negative impact my life has on the planet, save money and reduce stress. Live intentionally, make conscious decisions, love more, act responsibly, play. The more you know, the less you need. As an activist investor, Kyle owns long term holdings in Tesla, Lightning eMotors, Arcimoto, and SolarEdge.

Kyle Field has 1638 posts and counting. See all posts by Kyle Field

59 thoughts on “Electricity Democracy Comes Via Solar

  • The only problem, in my case, is that sometimes you run into some (person) government/regulation that insists they have authority over such RE systems (without them actually having so).

    • Care to give us some more details? BTW where in the world are you?

      • I live in norther BC, Canada, designed and build an energy efficient house in 1995 ( used about 1/3 to 1/2 the annual energy than next door). In 2008 designed and build a net zero duplex, but was unable to install RE because of “regulations”.
        Did write an article about in 2010 (published on the net) was re published by the local paper under “Razor efficient” in May 2015.
        When I turned to local papers, TV, etc in 2010, NOBODY was interested in writing, knowing about energy efficiency!

  • Not to forget that democratic means the people decide. If the people would decide coal power (hopefully few do but there are many households relying on coal as the main source) then that is democratic.
    And if people don’t want solar then it’s not a democratic source of energy.

    Somehow “democratic” now means “the source I prefer you to have”.

    • The other accepted meaning of “democraticized” is to make accessible for everyone! Search the definition yourself, I did!

      • So as long as everyone can get coal power it’s democraticized then?

        • The implied meaning within the context of the article is mass affordability.

          • Aaah, now I get it. Cheap coal available for everyone. Now I know what electricity democracy is… 😉
            How about forced levels of renewables, would that be in an electricity dictatorship? =P

            Electricity democracy is almost as ridiculous as the label “organic”.

            But as long as people keep reducing the use of fossil fuels I think both you and me are happy, no matter what people call things.

        • Of course. Imagine if Peabody Coal wrote this piece – they would be talking about the patriotic beauty and visionary ethics of installing coal burners only for homeowners.

  • My love for the planet is greater than your hate for the 0.1% who are rich. Any thing that can help install more solar PV, whether its for greed or altruism is welcome. I have been posting about the greed of many of the major solar installers that if they could just lower their prices to that of Australia or Germany, we could help save the planet much quicker.

    • If you want to pat yourself on the back about your belief that you care more about the planet than I do – isn’t that admirable for you!

      Personally, what I see is that rooftop PV is the most expensive way to do solar, and the future lies in large-scale cost-effective energy farms which are located where insolation is ideal, and then distributing that juice over a smart grid to all of us. The exact opposite idea of rooftop.

      • Rooftop solar competes at the retail level.

        Utility solar competes at the wholesale level.

        That is an important distinction one should understand

        • Until solar gets taxed properly then both will be competing at wholesale level (almost at least, assuming the roof top PV owner also wants a profit on the investment, a bit less if only to break even).

        • And yet your comment below speaks to the wholesale price effect of rooftop. Have you just contradicted yourself?

          • No, Roger, I have not contradicted myself. I’m afraid you’ve failed to think.

            Do I need to spell this out for you? I suspect I do.

            Rooftop solar is more expensive than utility scale solar. That is a fact. It is also a fact that rooftop solar competes with ~12c/kWh retail electricity while utility solar competes with ~5c/kWh wholesale electricity. Is that clear enough for you?

            One can afford to pay more for solar if it is displacing more expensive grid electricity.

            Now, solar of any variety – utility, commercial, or utility- lowers peak demand during sunny hours. Peak supply is more expensive for utilities to purchase/provide. The less peak supply utilities have to purchase, the lower the wholesale cost of electricity The lower the wholesale cost of electricity the lower the retail electricity cost.

            Lower retail cost benefits all customers whether they own solar are not.

            Now, if you’re still unable to understand those simple concepts let me know and I’ll attempt to write a version with shorter words.

          • Great explanation.

            Your number’s already out of date though – looking into rooftop solar (In Texas) for my brother and best quote is currently puts the LCOE at 7.289c/kwh (Assuming the panels die the second their 20 year warranty expires – including replacing the inverter at the 12 year mark when it’s warranty expires. Also assumes 3.22% inflation and 4.54% cost of capital – aka a pretty conservative case.)

            Seems a lot can change in 15 hours… =-P

          • ” It is also a fact that rooftop solar competes with ~12c/kWh retail
            electricity while utility solar competes with ~5c/kWh wholesale
            electricity. Is that clear enough for you”

            No – that is NOT good enough for me. A utility-scale PV farm can be owned and constructed by a municipality to serve all the citizens and deliver lower costs to all.

            You seem to be arguing that utility-scale = corporate only and only for some wholesale market. I would argue that that paradigm of for-profit energy producer and for-profit energy distributor is no longer suitable for renewables.

            Utility-scale can produce juice at half the price of rooftop because it has lower costs. You are not duplicating the electronics a million times for a million rooftop installs. You are buying at wholesale, not retail. Install costs are standardized – not custom like a rooftop.

            You are thinking too small and too short-term. It is going to cost trillions to build our new renewable energy future. We can choose to do it cheaply and intelligently as a commons project -or – we can just let it happen the way it is going now – with profiteers, no national planning and high expense.

          • Roger, it doesn’t matter if utility is half the cost of rooftop.

            Ms. Smith is not going to build a solar farm and go into the business of selling power to the grid. But she may well find it worth her while to install solar on her three bedroom, two bath ranch and cut her monthly electricity bills.

            The solar she puts on her roof helps cut FF us. That’s a good thing.

            You’re arguing along the lines that since we could electrify rail and cut petroleum use we shouldn’t purchase EVs in place of ICEVs. It’s not an either/or thing….

  • Those who do not own homes or who can’t install solar on the homes they own will be benefitted by lower electricity rate. Once sufficient rooftop solar is installed utilities will no longer have to purchase very expensive peak supply.

    We’ve seen this happen in Germany. A modest amount of end-user solar causes the wholesale price of electricity to plummet. Compare the top and bottom price graphs to see how solar has cut the cost of electricity.

    • I just attended a forum, in the city of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada about the transition to low carbon/zero carbon by 2050.
      One very important thing that I found out that a lot of changes are community driven (as pointed out by several articles on this site in the past).
      But even the community driven changes are started by one or more persons with a vision/plan/idea.

      • Are you arguing that people who put PV on their roofs for their own use are visionaries who are trying to drive renewable energy for all?

        Because I would think that people who just invested $30,000 for their rooftop PV would be less inclined, not more, to support raising their taxes to build solar and wind for everyone else.

        • Certain some are. If you read more and spouted off less you’d know that.

          • I read plenty, Bob. And rooftop is only a small part of the ultimate solution, although it gets all the press (like this rah rah piece by a company cashing in on the tech.)

            And, yeah – I am spouting off I guess, but if half of the fervor and marketing for rooftop was directed toward building large-scale publicly-owned renewable utilities, we would be a lot further along.

          • In Germany and Australia most solar is end-user rooftop. In the US a large portion is end-user.

          • Germany has few other options. We are extraordinarily blessed in the U.S. to have the desert southwest – a huge undeveloped area that has nearly perfect insolation.

            Australia is, so far , a terrible example for anything renewable with their awful policies and track record. And there they sit with 90% empty desert with blazing sun all the time. We could power the entire world with 5% of that space properly utilized.

            Germany has done a lot with rooftop – but to meet all energy needs with renewables in, say, 2050, it is going to require a LOT more than rooftop can ever hope to deliver.

            Jacobson and Delucchi have done the math for us – look at their reviews. To meet our future needs, we are going to need thousands and thousands of large-scale farms. My mission in life is to get people to demand that these are public- not corporate-owned (or privately-owned, like rooftop)

            The electric utility sector has been the most publicly-owned sector of the economy, and, still, about half of generation is publicly-owned. SolarLife is writing pieces like the above to change that for the worse.

          • If you expect solar farms to be built with public money I suspect you are going to be very disappointed.

            As far as I know the federal and state governments in the US own no wind or solar farms. The exception might be TVA which is a federal government owned non-profit utility company.

          • Yeah, Australia is a terrible example. Yesterday afternoon my state only generated 22% of its electricity use from rooftop solar. I look forward to your shaming me with a whole list of places that are doing better, Roger.

          • I don’t recall J&D saying that we needed utility solar and not rooftop solar. I believe they calculated the number of watts of solar we would need, not where we would need to install it.

        • I was not just taking about PV (even though the article is).
          What I was talking about is the whole way we humans consume energy,
          Start with energy efficiency (reduce energy use), then go to RE systems (all of them). and perhaps most of all remove ALL subsidies to all energy systems (5.3 trillion US per year in the world) and ad a carbon tax to FF used and we may have a change to survive (humans).

          • Are you saying you think it would be a good idea to remove subsidies for renewable energy?

          • I am saying remove all subsidies from all energy systems and add a carbon tax.
            That would put all FF and nuclear out of business.
            Right now we have the problem that FF receives 3 x the subsides of RE in the G 20, never mind the cost of the ill health effects of the use of FF.
            Could you imagine what US $ 5.3 trillion could do for RE for 1 year (on a world scale)!

          • Heck, I don’t think you even need the carbon tax (any more – have you seen the prices of solar/wind lately???). Just make an even playing field, keep reasonable pollution controls (NOx, SOx, particulate, mercury, etc) and let the technology run…

          • Yes, yes he is. I think the vast majority of the people on this site are well informed enough to understand that if we removed all energy subsidies all at the same time, and let each of the technologies compete on their own merit, we’d all be better off.

          • I think that the very idea of removing subsidies for renewable energy is the most short-sighted idea I have ever seen. Some sort of quasi-religious free market fanaticism.

            Subsidies are a societies way of encouraging proper growth. Why do you think we have the luxury of hoping the so-called free market has any inclination to save civilization in time?

          • The thing is, RE is to a point that, if you remove the subsidies from fossil fuels also, RE is already competitive. He’s not suggesting removing only the RE subsidies, but rather all energy subsidies. (Which would actually make RE more competitive because, on average, RE gets less subsidies per unit energy than most fossil fuels…)

            That’s the point. Removing them all would actually help RE!

          • Removing subsidies from wind and solar may or may not be shortsighted.
            Realistically wind and solar probably no longer need to be subsidized. Wind (unsubsidized) is now the least expensive way to bring new capacity online. Solar (unsubsidized) is tied with NG for second place and should soon push NG into third.

            If we had a rational Congress we would probably be best off to remove subsidies for solar and most wind. We might want to keep subsidies in place for onshore wind in places where we haven’t yet built up an industry (the SE states, for example) and definitely should subsidize offshore wind for a while.

            The money taken away from wind and solar should go to storage and transmission, especially transmission as storage is a longer term need.

            And then we should start removing subsidies for fossil fuels and start charging them for their external costs. Or go to a carbon tax. Anything that makes it more likely utilities will cut back on FF use and use more renewables.

        • Why in the world would that raise taxes?

          Raise the price of electricity and you might have an argument (a flimsy one, but if you carefully select your assumptions you can make it look reasonable). Raising taxes though? Really?

          • We need to build about ten trillion dollars worth of infrastructure in a few decades. Who besides the Federal government can possibly undertake such a project?

            Why would we want anybody else do it?

          • Um, private citizens investing their own money? That could easily raise $10 Trillion (which I think is honestly a little on the high end… but that’s besides the point)

            And we’d want everyone to join the undertaking for lots of reasons.
            1)It’s easier (and faster) to get a board of investors to agree than to sway the entire US populace
            2)The more entities we have pursuing this, the faster it will get done. (And probably better – go ask China how their wind rollout is going. While it’s making progress, our pitiful PTC and the free market is significantly out performing them…)
            3) The US works on the free market system, not socialism – not to mention the whole “state’s rights” thing. Trying to get the US FEDERAL government to systematically overtake a significant portion of the economy is not only a bad idea because of it’s major ramifications on the economy, but it will also receive a significant amount of pushback.
            4)Need I go on?

            Sorry, I prefer to live in this world, not an idealized one where the ‘solutions’ don’t translate.

          • The utilities will want to do it.

            The average lifespan of US coal plants and nuclear plants is about 40 years. There is some attempt to push nuclear out to 60 years but the economics are so tight that if there’s a big repair bill the plant is more likely to be closed than repaired. A few reactors may make it to 60, most probably will not.

            Take a look at the age of our coal and nuclear fleet. Add five years to the numbers on the horizontal axis, that’s a 2015 graph. That black and red stuff? Those are our aging out thermal plants that will have to be replaced with something over the next couple of decades.

            All that yellow stuff? Those are NG plants which have high fuel costs, meaning that it’s cheaper to use wind and solar when they are available than to fire up the turbines.

            Economics is the driver, Roger. We’ve reached the point at which it’s cheaper to use renewable energy than fossil fuels or nuclear. The next task is to bring down the cost of storage so that we can minimize our use of NG.

  • There are community based approaches sprouting all over the country where you can invest or subscribe to a solar PV facility in vacant lots managed by the city and approved by the city, for those that rent and they are able to get reductions in their bills, facilitated by the city and their local utilities. It has been featured several times in the past here in CleanTechnica,

    If there’s a will there’s a way! Complaining doesn’t get what you want.

    • So when I point out propaganda, I’m just a complainer? Sorry to offend you.

      Btw, I’m all for community-owned, and county-owned, and State-owned, and regionally-owned, and nationally-owned renewable energy farms. And, if we were serious about our energy future, these are what we would be pushing, because they are a lot more cost-effective than rooftop PV, and they serve ALL of us.

      • End-user solar displaces fossil fuel generation just as utility solar replaces fossil fuel generation.

        Not everyone can afford an EV but each EV on the road displaces an ICEV and makes the air a bit cleaner for all of us.

        • And gold-plated PV panels displace as much as regular PV panels. But it is not a good way to spend money on renewable energy.

          • Roger, try thinking.

          • Keep it clean, Bob. Personal insults means you have lost the argument.

          • Can’t argue with someone who hasn’t understood the basic facts.

            Catch up, Roger.

          • Ok. Bite me, Bob 🙂

          • Classy, Roger.

          • This guy should get a life, he is so full of himself, negativity!

          • I’m not negative – I am hugely positive about renewable energy. I just want us all to work together in common interest with the hope that we can all own our new national renewable energy utility, not some corporate entity.

            We have a fleeting window to demand this public ownership, so that our nation – like a homeowner with PV on his roof – can, after paying off that initial large capital investment, can then enjoy virtually free energy in abundance. After all, unlike fossil fuels, sun and wind are limitless and free, right?

          • Roger, I have read all of your comments here. I agree with much of what you say. But specifically, you are simply wrong about rooftop solar. It is part of the solution. It has many positive effects. I just don’t think that there is anyone, anywhere that is in favor of converting civilization to clean energy, that is against rooftop solar. Solar farms, yes. But look at Hawaii. They could displace almost all of their FF power generation with just rooftop solar. Everyone knows this, I believe. Everyone agrees on this, I believe. I don’t know where your disdain for rooftop solar comes from, but it is misguided. You are just wrong. Rooftop solar is going to continue to grow. It will be an important part of the transition.

          • I am not saying that rooftop is not part of the solution. With so many people drinking the Kool-Aid, I suppose rooftop is here to stay. I object to a propaganda pieces calling it “democratic”. Other articles here portray it as “empowering”; “freedom” and other such stuff.

            I see rooftop as a symptom of government not fulfilling its obligation to build us the new energy system we all know we need, not as the second coming of Christ. I see rooftop as a symptom of the corporate-cheered privatization of our public utilities.

            I guess if your municipality decided to let its water purification system fall into decrepitude, we could look forward to enthusiastic articles touting the Democratization of personal home water purification systems, brought to you by Nestles – the same people who have made clean water so expensive many second-world peoples are having riots over it.

            Your town not providing what you want for a Fire Department? Hey – install your own home sprinkler system – only $30,000 per household!

        • I do like a lively discussion! :))

  • Dude, you need a nap.

    • Thanks, John. You can bite me too. 🙂

  • That´s must be something fishy about the figure for total installed utility because, if the figures where correct, one american Company; First Solar ahould be responsible fo more than 30% of total World utility installations and everybody that follows the Industry know that´s not correct even as First Solar is one of the leading Companies in that business.
    Börje Widerberg



  • What the article fails to mention is that the utilities have to bridge the gap between around 4 PM to 7 PM or so in the summer. The electrical usage shoots up as workers get home and turn on the A/C and at the same time the PV amount of current wanes. Thus, two things come to mind. First, rooftop PV should be encouraged to have some proportion of panels to face west instead of south. This would allow more current to be generated in the time window. Second, we really need to strive to get devices such as the Tesla Powerwall prices down so that any PV installation would also include one or a couple of the Powerwalls to get the home through that time window. Then the utilities have nothing to complain about or to gain traction in assessing homeowner PV extra charges.

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