The Solar Industry is a much more decentralized form of electricity distribution and according to a recent article in Utne Reader, titled “Power Politics: Government Regulation of Solar Power“, governments, utility executives, activists and tech gurus are all reconsidering what the future of electricity might look like.
New technologies are slowly grabbing a small slice of the market share of electricity generation and distribution. But this has not been without it’s challenges. The grid system, that has existed since the alternating current allowed for sending electricity greater distances, is a monopoly in most countries. Highly regulated and not open to competition. This was not how Thomas Edison envisioned the distribution when he drew up plans for a decentralized system, using small power plants in each neighbourhood. But with the cost of solar power falling almost 70% since 2009, this technology is primed to allow people to generate their own power.
The rise of environment concerns has lead to support from citizens across North America for cleaner forms of energy. Solar being the main beneficiary of this shift. But the fact that solar means you pay for power upfront when you install a systems and the intermittency of the power have been obstacles to widespread adoption.
But things are changing. New battery technology, which allows for electricity storage that can be used during the night and Net Metering Programs mean that the investment in solar installations has much better return on investment than ten years ago.
For those people that do not have the money to pay for a solar installation upfront, solar companies in the US have come up with innovative solar leases, in which the solar installation company pays for the panels and maintains ownership, while the homeowner pays a monthly fee. Then the company resells any unused power back to the grid during peak times. But in some jurisdictions, these companies have run into the power of the monopolies and laws that state who can and can’t sell electricity.
Much of this has to do with the utilities stance on Net Metering. If a homeowner is selling power back to the grid but not buying any electricity from said grid, then the grid is being used by people who are not helping pay the costs of generation station maintenance. With the small percentage of solar users, this may not be an issue now, but as solar adoption rates climb this becomes more of an issue. Hawaii has this problem with their older grid being over-burdened with net metering.
The situation is roughly analogous to electric cars not paying for road repairs via the gas tax. A few electrical cars are fine, but what happens when most cars on the road aren’t paying? -Josiah Neeley – Utne Reader
Some utilities are now charging a monthly fee to Net Metering customers, essentially eliminating any gains for selling electricity back. Some are capping the amount any one home can sell back, and some are removing the program all together.
Some large utilities say they are not against solar power. But this only seems to be true when they control it. What they are truly worried about it losing their monopoly that they have held for over a century. With no competition, they see solar as an existential threat. The model of a decentralized grid is not something they want to see and their political power shows in the regulations of most regions.
The move towards a decentralized power system is slow moving but will continue to grow. But we need to ensure that the governing bodies do not hinder the grow of new renewable energy technologies such as solar with over regulation, but also do not favour it over other technologies. The consumer in the end will be the main driver and each person should be able to decide how they wish to power their lives.