Let's Fix This Country

Solar Is Gaining, But Not If Big Carbon Has Any Say

Power companies and friends want a cloudy future for solar

The cost of solar panels has fallen to a level that the federal subsidies that propped up the industry while it developed efficiencies may no longer be needed.

Still, only 1% of power company customers have installed solar. But that’s too much for the utilities that produce power from fossil fuels. They want to crush the upstart industry before it makes any further headway. By free market competition? By innovation, say, or lowering prices? Why, no. Instead, the power generating companies have gone to the legislatures in state after state to have special laws enacted which aim to tax solar out of existence.

Leading their cause is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the outfit funded by corporations, the utilities and — there they are, again —

the Koch brothers, who own energy conglomerate Koch Industries. ALEC is the organization that writes “model” laws for Republican-controlled legislatures to enact. They are also behind many of the laws states have adopted to mandate voter ID and make it otherwise more difficult for certain targeted blocs to vote. We wrote about ALEC two years ago in “Who’s Writing the Laws in Your State?”.

Altogether 43 states have laws on their books that require their public utilities to buy power generated by homes and businesses that have made the heretofore costly investment in solar arrays on their rooftops. Whatever the arrays generate that is not used at the sites is fed back through the power line to the utility, effectively spinning the meter in reverse. The arrangement is called net-metering. In most of those states, this is part of a program to replace some of fossil fuel use with renewables. There are 29 states shooting for reductions of 10% or more by various dates.

ALEC also works to overturn these renewable mandates. The organization is working to overturn Ohio’s 12.5% mandate, for example. In Kansas, where Kathleen Sebelius, when she was governor, signed the first instance in the U.S. of a government agency blocking the building of coal-fired power plants on the grounds of CO2 emissions, that state’s senate repealed Kansas’s mandate to reduce emissions by 20%. It would have gone through had the state’s House not blocked the measure.

getting even

Wind and solar posed no problem to the energy producers as long as these renewable programs were rounding errors. Power plants tolerated them as a way to dampen demand and avoid building costly new power plants. Many companies even gave customers free low-powered CFL bulbs to reduce consumption. But now that solar is poised to grow, well, they can’t let that get out of hand.

The weapon of choice is a surcharge, or a tax, on solar owners. Oklahoma’s House of Representatives just passed by an 83-5 vote a surcharge for anyone who henceforward installs solar or a small wind turbine. Arizona Public Service, backed by secret donors and business groups, one of which had earlier report bankrolling in the millions by the Kochs, got the legislature in that state to allow charging a whopping $50 to $100 monthly fee on net-metering customers. Net-metering is not big business for consumers; a fee that size is enough to dissuade homeowners from installing solar, which is the idea.

The practice is spreading; moves to penalize utility customers are afoot from Washington to both Carolinas. One claim is that the utilities must charge more to their other customers to compensate for the net-metering credits issued to those selling them solar power. A television commercial in Arizona said older people on fixed incomes were hurt by higher rates. But, excepting California, where utilities must credit customers at the retail rate, utilities elsewhere credit only the wholesale cost, which leaves the electrical companies reselling the power at retail with no cost of generating it.

The other argument is that customers generating their own power are not paying their share of the power company’s infrastructure — transmission lines, substations, etc. — which they use when the clouds roll in. It is a strange argument to say that, if you have bought equipment to generate your own electricity, you owe money to the public utility whose electricity you are not using when the sun is shining, even though you do pay for the utility’s electricity (and infrastructure built into the price) when the clouds roll past or night descends.

Another argument is that the surcharge is needed to recover the cost of the infrastructure for sending electricity back to the electric company. If so, that justifies a one-time fee, not an unending charge every month.

forward into the past

The real point is elsewhere. The nation has decided on the long term development of alternative sources of energy both for the abatement of fossil fuel use and as a means to combat climate change. Solar offers enormous potential — in place of plants belching soot and planet-harming gasses, the prospect of a hundred million American rooftops someday capturing the inexhaustible power of the Sun. To the troglodytes who refuse to acknowledge that man’s unearthing and burning of sequestered oil, gas and coal in quantities measured in gigatons could possibly be having an effect on the atmosphere, we can only ask, don't you consider the consequences if you are wrong? Because failure to follow the precautionary path that leads to damage to the planet will be irreversible.

What explains the mentality of those possessed of so much obstinacy, such lack of foresight, such unconcern for those who will live their lives after they are gone, such towering greed as to care only for their own profit as to want to destroy the hard won gains of renewables and insist that we stay stranded in the past?

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