Shine On!

Tom Easton

We have known how to use solar energy for a long, long time. It’s as simple as facing a house to the south to catch the winter rays. If you want hot water, put a black-painted 50-gallon drum on the roof. Or take a long black hose and snake it back and forth on the roof, as I once saw in Maine.[1] If you want something fancier for heating household water or even living spaces, you can install special panels.[2] If you need more intense heat, try a Fresnel lens.[3]

If you want to use the sun to generate electricity, there are two basic methods. One that has been used by utilities relies on mirrors to concentrate sunlight on a boiler, generate steam, and spin the turbines of electrical generators. The largest and most recent example is the Ivanpah solar farm in California’s Mojave Desert; it was designed to produce over a million megawatt-hours of electricity per year.”[4]

You can also use solar cells, which lend themselves to much smaller applications. They can be deployed anywhere a flat surface faces the sun—on flashlights, backpacks, rooves, free-standing frameworks, and even roads.[5]  The Tesla company is marketing solar roofing tiles.[6] And in 2018, California passed a law requiring newly built homes to have solar panels.[7]

It’s not hard to use them at home. Businesses such as Sungevity, Sunrun, and Vivint will install solar cells on home rooftops, let customers use some of the electricity generated, and sell the rest to utilities.  People can also buy solar systems outright. And once you pay off the up-front costs, you have free electricity for the rest of your days. For nights, you need battery backup.

Costs of solar panels have been falling; solar electricity may even be competitive with fossil fuel-based electricity by 2020.[8] Demand has been rising. And this is giving utilities fits, for the law requires that they maintain an appropriate infrastructure (power plants, poles, transformers, wires, repair trucks) to meet demand, and if demand is falling, they lack the necessary revenue. Peter Kind, executive director of Energy Infrastructure Advocates, argues that increased interest in “distributed energy resources” such as home solar power and energy efficiency, among other factors, is threatening to reduce revenue and increase costs for electrical utilities.  In order to protect investors and capital availability, electrical utilities must consider new charges for customers who reduce their electricity usage, decreased payments to homeowners using net metering, and even new charges to off-grid users of “distributed energy resources” to offset “stranded costs” (such as no longer needed power plants).[9] That is, if the utilities lose customers, they must either charge the remaining customers more or find a way to bill non-customers.  In Florida, local government seems prepared to help by preventing people from disconnecting from the grid.[10]  In Hawaii, utilities restrict or block rooftop solar.  In other states, they are pushing hard to do the same.

If the utilities cannot protect their business model, they say, they face a “death spiral” of falling revenues and rising liabilities.[11] They are doomed.

Are they really? A major drawback to home solar is that the sun doesn’t shine all the time. You can make up for that to some degree with an electrical grid (the network of power plants, power lines, substations, and computerized control stations that controls the distribution of electricity even when disrupted by storms, power plant failures, and other problems) that stretches across enough time zones to bring electricity in from someplace where the sun is shining or the clouds are gone.[12] If you can’t span enough time zones or you have a more local grid, you need traditional gas-fired, nuclear, and hydroelectric power plants to fill in the low spots in supply, on demand.[13] So there is still a need for the traditional utility. The question is whether the need is great enough to justify the costs. It may make more sense for homeowners to buy battery backup systems.

A more important question may be whether any business has a right to expect to keep making money and attracting investors the way it always has. The oil industry has been fighting this battle for years, and certainly oil wells, refineries, pipelines, tankers, and gas stations represent “stranded costs” if we ever swear off the stuff and go all electric.

Technological change happens, and it disrupts existing business models. It seems rather nervy, not to mention desperate, for a business, when this happens, to try to charge noncustomers for a service it is not providing them, on the grounds that they might need it someday and the business has to stand ready to meet the possible demand. Fortunately, the oil industry isn’t proposing to charge electric car owners for the gasoline they don’t use, though if the electric utilities can make their grab stick, it might reconsider.[14]

Surely there are other ways to stay in business. Rather than digging in the corporate heels, how about adapting to change? Perhaps the electric utilities could sell complete home solar packages instead, with both battery and grid backup. Or cover shut-down coal fields with solar panels to generate electricity more cleanly. Or invest in wind, geothermal, tidal, and other renewable energy sources.

These are, after all, changes we will have to make anyway, the sooner the better. Global warming is a serious threat, and it will force us to stop using fossil fuels. Eventually. I suspect it won’t happen till the consequences are much more apparent.

So far the utilities are choosing to mount a “war on solar” instead.[15] Fortunately, and despite the Trump Administration’s tariffs on imported solar cells, solar is winning, at least so far.[16]


[1] It’s the same idea as leaving a garden hose on the lawn—the water inside may not get hot enough to make a cup of tea, but it will do for a hot shower.

[2] http://www.htproducts.com/solar-flatpanelcollectors.html

[3] https://www.dezeen.com/2011/06/28/the-solar-sinter-by-markus-kayser/

[4] “Beleaguered California Solar Plant Finally Produces Enough Power,” The American Interest, March 4, 2017; https://www.the-american-interest.com/2017/03/04/beleaguered-california-solar-plant-finally-produces-enough-power/.

[5] Sebastian Anthony, “World’s First Solar Road Opens in France: It’s Ridiculously Expensive,” Ars Technica, December 23, 2016; https://arstechnica.com/cars/2016/12/worlds-first-solar-road-opens-in-france/.

[6] https://www.tesla.com/solarroof

[7] https://www.npr.org/2018/05/17/612082781/california-to-require-all-new-homes-to-have-solar-panels-starting-in-2020

[8] Emma Foehringer Merchant, “IRENA: Global Renewable Energy Prices Will Be Competitive with Fossil Fuels by 2020,” Green Tech Media. January 16, 2018; https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/irena-renewable-energy-competitive-fossil-fuels-2020#gs.Y8CMqbY.

[9] Peter Kind, “Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business” (Edison Electric Institute, 2013).

[10] http://www.nbc-2.com/story/24790572/cape-woman-living-of-the-grid-challenged-by-city#.VGjCsMltgpE

[11] Monica Castaneda, et al., “Myths and Facts of the Utility Death Spiral,” Energy Policy, November 2017.

[12] It is worth noting that “wind-heavy or solar-heavy U.S.-scale power generation portfolios could in principle provide ∼80% of recent total annual U.S. electricity demand.” See Matthew R. Shaner, Steven J. Davis, Nathan S. Lewis, and Ken Caldeira, “Geophysical Constraints on the Reliability of Solar and Wind Power in the United States,” Energy & Environmental Science, February 2018. But wind doesn’t blow all the time either. One solution is the “smart grid” that has been under discussion for the last few years. Russell Kay, “The Smart Grid,” Computerworld, May 11, 2009, describes it as a more advanced and efficient version of the current grid, with digital controls to coordinate a host of small and intermittent electricity sources, such as home solar and wind power. 

[13] Utilities even argue that coal power is needed for this purpose.

[14] Maybe tobacco companies could charge nonsmokers for the ciggies they don’t smoke? Donut shops charge the skinny? Gyms charge the nonexercisers? Nah, no way, of course not. Though a government bail-out of a “too big to fail” industry would amount to the same thing.

[15] https://ips-dc.org/dirty-energys-quiet-war-on-solar-energy/

[16] https://climatecrocks.com/2018/06/15/in-face-of-trumps-war-on-renewables-solar-makes-big-inroads-on-coal/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *