Solar Panels and the Electricity Grid

Solar PanelsOver at Vox on Monday, Brad Plumer wrote a really interesting and oddly exciting article, Solar Power Is Growing so Fast That Older Energy Companies Are Trying to Stop it. It is about how the electric utilities are very concerned about people putting solar panels on their houses, even though less than a half percent of electricity is coming from solar right now. This isn’t just, or even primarily, about the rapidly falling prices of solar technology. Let me explain.

Forty-three states have “net metering” laws that require excess energy collected by homeowners to be bough by the electric utility. This causes a feedback loop. The electric utility still has very high set costs of bringing electricity to everyone’s home. Thus, as less people buy electricity from them, they will be forced to raise the per unit price of electricity. As the price of electricity goes up, so will the pressure for people to install solar panels. According to Plumer, “If rooftop solar were to grab 10 percent of the market over the next decade, utility earnings could decline as much as 41 percent.”

In one way this is great: renewable energy is just around the corner! But we still need the electrical grid. We don’t want to end up with a system where we aren’t guaranteed electricity — you know, like the days when that great free market innovator ENRON was providing (or rather very often not providing) electricity. Even if this weren’t the case, and we could all just switch to solar and say goodbye to (in California) natural gas based electricity, there would be big fights as the utilities tried to keep their lucrative monopolies.

But given that there is a very real need to maintain the electricity grid, this is all turning into a real mess. Plumer mentions how this issue is splitting the conservative movement, where some are actually saying that solar is giving people more choices — which is true. Of course, I don’t especially think this attitude is going to last. Yes, there are Tea Party groups who are very pro-solar. But I’m sure that the ones that stay that way will find their Koch brothers’ oil money dry up and even if the groups don’t disappear, they will have little impact on the debate.

There are, however, many things that can be done to save the electricity utilities. One that is not being talked about is the most obvious: nationalization. But that’s always the way. That is the conservative way and therefore the American Way™. We can’t just solve problems in the obvious way. Like with healthcare, we couldn’t just have a single payer system, with all of its advantages. We had to work out a hugely complicated “free market” system that would appeal to the conservatives, even though none of them voted for it and now they all whine, “Why did Obamacare have to be so complex?!”

As electricity generation becomes more and more individualized and egalitarian, it just makes sense to make the distribution of it nationalized. I wish we could do the same thing with the internet. (Note: nationalize flow not content.) Instead, we are generally stuck with a cable company that totally sucks and a phone company that totally sucks. At least a utility is better than that. But as profits get squeezed, the utilities might start acting very badly — enabled by a corrupt political process, of course.

But it is good news that solar power is going down in price. Let’s just hope that the entire federal government doesn’t become a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries. Then solar panels might be made illegal. And don’t pretend that that couldn’t happen.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Solar Panels and the Electricity Grid

  1. When it comes to conservatives, they invoke a number of things with the unacknowledged caveat of “as I think it is.” The US Constitution, Christianity and free markets are not seen as complex ideas to be examined, critiqued and applied wisely. Instead, those three things are totems for the status quo, they are justifications for their own privilege.

    I can empathize with the libertarians out there, who cringe, when traditional conservatives invoke the free market in order to defend a whole range of decidedly anti-market institutions. Farm subsidies, Medicare, the military, the police, bank bailouts, extremely long patents and monopoly public utilities have all been defended under the banner of conservative fidelity of free markets. To conservatives, “free market” is short hand for the entire constellation of their existing privileges.

    Liberals and libertarians have been quick to point this out but conservatives keep abusing the term “free market.” One of my favorite quotes from Paul Krugman, regarding the distinctly anti-market out look of conservatives in general and financial sector elites in particular, was “this is not Ayn Rand, this is Ancien Regime.”

    • You are correct: the basis of conservatism is the status quo. Libertarianism should be a radical ideology. But for the vast majority of people, it is just slightly more thoughtful conservatism. The truth is that “real” libertarians and socialists should find their philosophies at least somewhat uncomfortable. I know when I was a libertarian, I found it distinctly so. Of course, one just doesn’t run into real socialists in this country anymore. And the libertarians are generally just conservatives who aren’t complete idiots. So I have far more respect for the few real libertarians I run into, even though I think they are wrong and too wrapped up in theory. Otherwise, libertarians are just conservatives by different names. In fact, just look at the huge overlap between self described libertarians and neo-confederates. That made me really embarrassed when I was a libertarian.

  2. I agree that most libertarians comprise what I like to call the “dorky Republican Auxiliary.” However, I know libertarians who are principled and before, during and after the financial meltdown of 2008, they were warning about the dangers and excesses of crony capitalism. When the financial system and global economy imploded, my libertarian friends were frustrated to hear people in the news say “this collapse is because of that whole Adam Smith, no government, free market stuff.”

    However, impractical they may be and however clueless they may be about the realities faced by poor people, I can empathize with libertarians, who were taking blame for something that they had opposed, which is to say, an industrial policy that always favored the financial service sector. Conservatives, Republicans and “new” Democrats alike, implemented socialism for the very rich and when it all blew up, it got rebranded as a failure of markets and was pinned on libertarians. It was unfair.

    Of course, my sympathy has its limits as libertarians are a pretty unsympathetic lot. When far worse things, unfairly and capriciously, happen to other groups, most libertarians shrug and say that said group should just become rich and find a “market solution.” Hence, most libertarians act like conservatives, hence my desire to get out of that boat.

    • As a former fellow traveler, I’m not very sympathetic. Because in those places where we’ve had as close to the libertarian ideal, it has been a mess. And now libertarians always have the out, “It wasn’t free market enough.” The truth is that it was libertarians who were pushing for deregulation. Libertarians can’t be blamed for the corporate socialism of the bailouts, but they can be blamed for the deregulation that caused the financial crisis. And when people like me pointed that out, we got the standard apologia: the markets were still over-regulated and that was the reason it didn’t work out. I highly recommend checking out the site I reviewed Anti-Libertarian Criticism. It deals with all forms of libertarians.

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