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Published on July 31st, 2017 | by John Farrell

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Solar: Choice, Competition, & Clean Air

July 31st, 2017 by  


Originally published at ilsr.org.

It’s simple to promote solar power as a money saver and clean alternative to fossil fuel generation. But it sells solar short to focus only on savings, when it also gives Americans the freedom to generate their own energy and to challenge the economic and political power of big corporations.

Individual Freedom

If individuals want to invest their money, or pay someone else, to put solar on their rooftop, who is the government or the utility to tell them no? Americans should be free to decide how best to spend their money, and rooftop solar is one of the few ways they can spend it that pays back by cutting their use of electricity.

Competition

In more than 30 states, utilities operate as monopolies. The monopolies serving most customers are private companies that receive a generous rate of return (10% or more) on money they invest in the grid system. Utilities suggest their monopoly is “natural,” and that the grid operates most efficiently in their clutches. But if that’s the case, why are utilities across the country scrambling to cut compensation for solar producers, add fees to the bills of solar owners, and modify electric bills so people who use less energy can’t avoid paying the utility less money?

The truth is that technology, from solar to smartphones, undermines the rationale for a utility monopoly, and customers should be able to compete with their utility to get the best deal.

Americans also deserve to have a say in the rules of the electricity business. Big monopoly utilities wield their customers’ dollars against them in court and at the capitol. In Florida, investor-owned utilities have one lobbyist for every two legislators. One of California’s biggest investor-owned utilities spent over $46 million opposing a policy allowing cities and towns to shop for a better deal. And utilities can use money from their captive customers to pay for membership in trade organizations that spread their monopoly-protection legislative ideas from state to state. Monopolies don’t just mean bad business, they make for bad politics, and less concentrated economic power means more people power in making the rules.

Benefits for Everyone

Solar is good for individuals, but their investments also pay dividends for the grid. For one, solar power produces power right where we use it. Think about a delivery from Amazon: is it better to have items sent to the distribution center 30 miles away or to your front porch?

Solar also produces power during times of peak energy use. Most state or regional grids reach their peak capacity on hot, sunny afternoons, the same time solar pours electricity into the grid. Consider congestion lanes on a freeway: when traffic is heavy, the price to use them goes up. The value of solar energy is higher because of when it’s produced.

Furthermore, solar on a local rooftop likely involves a local installer and maybe even a local loan. The money spent to finance and build a rooftop solar installation stays in the local economy when most other energy dollars do not.

Finally, solar reduces health and environmental costs that big companies unload onto their customers. Every kilowatt-hour of energy produced at a coal or natural gas power plant produces several pounds of pollutants. Their spread into the air and water spurs warnings to limit our consumption of fish, higher incidences of respiratory diseases like asthma, and other public health dangers. Because it reduces energy consumption from power plants, rooftop solar helps avoid these health and environmental costs otherwise borne by individuals rather than the utility companies that cause them.

If you like, it’s possible to get into the weeds of the financial and economic benefits of rooftop solar versus coal or gas or nuclear, but aren’t choice, competition, and cleaner air enough?

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About the Author

directs the Democratic Energy program at ILSR and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. His seminal paper, Democratizing the Electricity System, describes how to blast the roadblocks to distributed renewable energy generation, and how such small-scale renewable energy projects are the key to the biggest strides in renewable energy development.   Farrell also authored the landmark report Energy Self-Reliant States, which serves as the definitive energy atlas for the United States, detailing the state-by-state renewable electricity generation potential. Farrell regularly provides discussion and analysis of distributed renewable energy policy on his blog, Energy Self-Reliant States (energyselfreliantstates.org), and articles are regularly syndicated on Grist and Renewable Energy World.   John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at jfarrell@ilsr.org.



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