Energy and Environment
Solar Power Could Change Everything You Know About Energy
The Grid is the great bane of renewable energy aspirations in the United States. An all pervasive electrical infrastructure links together power plants, homes, and anything else that contains a switch or button. Regardless of the company with whom one is registered, everybody gets a share of everybody else’s energy. That is to say, all power companies inject their energy into the grid; a customer simply pays premiums to a particular producer.
The same principle applies with green energy. Supposing a customer gets his bills from Company Green, this does not mean that his home has a minimal carbon footprint; the building is getting energy from the grid, which also includes energy produced by Company Brown. There is still merit in this, though, as the more money a green energy company accrues, the more effective it will be at diluting the grid with green energy. Hopefully in time, the entire grid will be green. In the meantime, the grid poses additional challenges.
Solar power has been gaining ground as of late, but it continues to meet opposition from the large utility companies it threatens. The genius of solar power, aside from the fact that it is clean energy with massive potential (the Sun produces so much energy that an hour’s worth could power the entire Earth for a year), is that it decentralizes the grid.
Solar used to be an unreliable and erratic form of energy to inject into the grid and share among customers. Now, however, private homes can draw nearer to energy self sufficiency. Furthermore, solar-powered homes are able to contribute energy to the grid themselves. Utility companies balk at this, declaring that the grid is designed for one-way flow. They go further, writer Edward Humes explains, in attempting to label solar customers “as mooching ‘free riders’ who avoid paying their fair share for the grid.” This is a misrepresentation of the dynamic; utility companies are simply losing customers. If a more favorable alternative provides one with a chance to opt out of complete dependence on the previously established grid, why not do so?
The crowning cause of opposition by utility companies to solar power is the concept of net metering. This policy enables solar homeowners, upon producing surplus energy, to receive credits from power companies as they distribute it back into the grid. In this sense, customers can easily overcome the initial costs of retrofitting their homes with solar panels, as they will not only save money on their energy, but can actually make money selling it back. In what Al Gore calls the Utility Death Spiral, their losses exponentially increase as they lose customers to this process, then consequently must raise prices on those who remain, who subsequently leave the grid as well.
Another factor influencing the appeal of solar power and its grid decentralization is that the barriers posed by storage are less and less significant. Aside from playing a substantial role in the possibility of net metering and generating surplus energy to sell back, increased and more efficient storage capacity enables solar users to fill in the gaps in cloudy stretches or during the night and provides for a more fluid energy-consuming experience.Furthermore, it decentralizes the grid; the individual and the community are more able to place their energy and their fates in their own hands. As Humes points out, it can “allow homeowners to form small, super-efficient neighborhood micro grids that huge, costly utilities could never outcompete.” It would be efficient because the generation and use of energy would be based on the specific neighborhood’s needs, as opposed to a more generalized, business- and profi- motivated number.
Micro grids are flexible, adaptable, and have geographic advantages. An insightful article from David J. Hayes at The New York Times showcases the merits of renewable energy in remote places where the grid thins out or is non existent. In small Alaskan villages, residents are compelled to utilize dirty and expensive diesel generators to meet their energy needs. Setting up a renewable energy system there on a micro grid would alleviate such a burden, while providing eco-friendly and more affordable power to the people. For residents in northern climes, Hayes details, wind power will probably be more common, while solar systems are likely to appear in more tropical settings. This furthers the argument, demonstrating that other forms of renewable energy can also operate on micro grids and provide all the advantages therein.
Solar power has also met opposition from the political and governmental arenas. Perhaps because the centralized nature of the current electrical system is conducive to the control and oversight preferred by ruling bodies, or perhaps because of initial economic barriers or higher perceived priority of other objectives, the necessary funding for solar installations is difficult to come by. While Arizona maintains the top spot in the country for its solar program, New Jersey often surprised people with the number two position. Now it has dropped to number five. Governor Christie and his cabinet have removed the rebate incentives for solar installations, and, in addition to diverting funding for solar and offshore wind projects to balancing their budget, have been providing subsidies for natural gas power plants.
While solar power and energy democratization may be slowly winning the battle against utility companies, there clearly are additional barriers to solidifying its foothold and future. Solar power is unique among current renewable energy options, though, as the economic incentives for it are in place; the transitions that must be made in order to come on board are very doable. That being the case, convincing the nay sayers of its viability will hopefully be more and more common. The future of solar power seems sunny indeed.