We promote solar power quite a lot here on CleanTechnica. We’ve actually published nearly 10,000 articles on the topic. We often combine the benefits of utility-scale solar power and rooftop solar power when discussing many of the great advantages that solar offers. Even when we do specifically write about the benefits of rooftop solar power, we typically focus on the technical benefits (less need for transmission infrastructure, greater grid stability and security, reduced whole electricity costs, etc.).
However, there are some huge societal benefits that come from distributed rooftop solar power and community solar power aside from the technical ones. Following my recently revived interest in spending more time on the “human side of cleantech” (see this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this), that’s what this article is again delving into.
It’s a matter of political and philosophical debate, but I agree with the idea that society is generally better off when socioeconomic and political power are distributed. (Granted, a benevolent dictator can theoretically be a wonderful gift for a society, but most dictatorships don’t tend to be very benevolent from what I’ve seen.)
Although we do live in a somewhat democratic society (in the US, Canada, UK, Europe, Australia, India, Korea, Japan, or wherever you are probably reading from), there’s no doubt that money = power, and people with more money or who are representing more money have more power in politics and society.
With regard to this matter, we often think of powerful people and companies in the telecommunications, media, banking, and real estate industries. Clearly, though, these aren’t the only ones trying to steer more cash to their executives than to society as a whole.
With many utilities being regulated monopolies, these are powerful giants as well (no pun intended). Despite the fact that they are regulated, the vast majority of us can’t name the people who regulate them, and there is rampant corruption in the sector. How many of us can even explain what the regulators do? I think we typically take utilities for granted and leave their work almost invisible — they’re there, we have to pay them to keep the lights and computers on, someone is watching over them to make sure they don’t fleece us (too much), etc.
A more obvious “enemy of the societal good” is the fossil energy industry. Burning coal and natural gas kills millions of people prematurely every year. We somehow accept burning these fossils as a necessity of modern life (though, given the state of clean technologies like solar and wind, we no longer should). Nonetheless, we also know that these industries work hard to not clean up their processes and emit less pollution. They lobby government and fight huge wars against regulation with millions and millions of dollars that could have just gone toward protecting more lives from pollution. But hey, what can we do?
Political Donations from the Oil & Gas Industry in the US
Political Donations from the Coal Industry in the US
Political Distortion & Externalities
As I highlighted recently, in the USA, the coal, oil, and natural gas industries spend a ridiculous amount of money trying to put Republicans into office. In return (whether with full awareness and lack of ethics or more subconsciously), Republican Congresspeople and many state-level politicians — to the detriment of their actual constituents — routinely vote against coal, oil, and natural gas regulations; vote against protecting our clean water supply and our air; vote against policies to stop global warming; and essentially vote for death over life.
In 2011, House Republicans earned Congress the worst environmental voting record in history. In 2013, House Republicans got their worst grade ever from the League of Conservation Voters on its annual National Environmental Scorecard. “Average House Republican scores have dropped steadily in recent years, from an average of 17 percent in 2008, to 10 percent in 2012, down to the low average of 5 percent for 2013,” The Atlantic wrote.
The blockade against clean air, clean water, and a livable climate has become such a core part of the Republican Party that the only ways politicians can make energy progress at the moment are basically: 1) via a Democratic supermajority in Congress, 2) via a Democratic president who extensively uses executive orders, or 3) via extremely well executed (and probably lucky) dealmaking.
For sure, there are a variety of factors at play here, but a big part of this story is Big Fossil’s huge piggy bank and political influence.
The situation with utilities is a bit more complicated. Utilities aren’t by default human-killing entities. However, they are often investor-owned monopolies that are greedily interested in squeezing as much cash out of ratepayers as possible. They enjoy high profit margins, and they make money on a combination of infrastructure investments, utility-owned power plants, and customer service.
In general, if they “have to” spend more on infrastructure, they are going to make more money and send more back to their investors. If they can charge customers for more things (e.g., putting solar panels on their roofs and connecting them to the grid), they make more money and send more back to investors. If there’s no more need to expand the grid and consumers are using less electricity, utility revenue shrinks — not the type of thing an investor-owned utility’s executives are aiming for. So, utilities fight distributed solar power in obvious as well as underhanded ways.
How Democratized Rooftop & Community Solar Can Help
How democratized solar power hurts fossil political power and helps people/society:
As rooftop solar power takes more of the market from fossil fuels, that keeps more money away from fossil fuel lobbyists and politicians, which inherently weakens their political power to some extent.
However, beyond that, rooftop solar owners, people invested in community solar projects, and people interested in making such investments automatically become more open to and invested in a clean energy future without pollution.
That political capital is more powerful because their policy preference is now more powerful than a simple (but not passionate) preference for clean energy. Opinions on the topic are stronger when they are tied to one’s personal assets, investments, and planned investments.
As more people become personally invested in solar, the political pressure for the rest of the country to switch to clean energy and stop subsidizing coal and natural gas grows — the political pressure for climate action grows.
Additionally, people who go solar are likely to learn quite a bit more about energy — not everyone will, but many will get caught up a bit on energy information they never knew before. That greater understanding of energy matters, especially solar energy matters, will make them more attentive to obviously false claims that politicians make because of their ties to the fossil fuel industry. It will make them less tolerant of such lies, and will make them more skeptical of the politicians and media personalities who push them. Naturally, this will most hurt the politicians who are “bought” by the fossil fuel industry, weakening the “return on investment” the polluting industry gets from such politicians.
This will also weaken opposition to broad and strong climate action. The politicians advocating that we delay turning off the oven will have less and less support. Also, as more people go solar, they will become more inclined to believe in the science that tells us global warming is an existential threat to society and we should act fast. They have already taken a big step forward lightening their climate footprint (whether that was part of the impetus for going solar or not), so they will be more willing to accept the need for such action and the moral benefits of being a cleantech leader.
How democratized solar power hurts utility political power and helps people/society:
It’s basically a very similar story with utilities, but on another level much of the time. Utilities influence national policies, but they also tend to have a strong influence on regional and state policies and the regulators who oversee the industry. As more people invest in distributed solar, these solar owners/investors will want to see rooftop solar supported, not opposed via solar fees, complicated and slow permitting, reduced or cancelled net metering policies, etc.
Even if utilities have a lot of money and lobbyists, thousands or millions of solar homeowners create a highly invested and informed subculture that will oppose policies that harm the solar industry.
More Distributed Power = More Distributed Benefit
The short summary is that, as electricity generation is less centralized, the voting public will be less likely to put up with policy decisions on this matter that benefit a small minority of rich people to the detriment of most of society. The voting public will be less likely to accept unnecessary cancer, heart disease, and premature death from burning fossil fuels and policies that support that.
Overall, the voting public will be less likely to accept centralized political power that benefits a few while harming the rest, and that effect makes the benefits of democratized solar power even more valuable and broader than discussions of electricity markets and emissions typically imply.