John Farrell is an advocate for state and local energy policies that help people produce more solar power at home.
But he understands why ordinary citizens didn’t bother much with trying to change the laws about America’s energy system in the past.
“The way we deployed the electricity system for many years made it immaterial whether citizens wanted to be involved because there was no economical way for citizens to generate their own energy,” said Farrell, who serves as Director of Energy Democracy at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit organization started in Minneapolis.
Now with offices in Washington, DC and Portland, ILSR works to strengthen local economies around America. Farrell’s initiative is all about encouraging distributed energy — which, these days, mostly means solar installed on rooftops of homes, businesses and government buildings across the country.
Before solar came along in a big way in the last decade, the only practical way for most people to get their energy was to buy it from a big company. You had to fill up your car at a gas station. And you had to get your natural gas and electricity from a local monopoly utility. So it was natural that ordinary Americans didn’t care much about the electric grid.
But these days, times they are a changin’. Especially in energy. And Farrell thinks that more people will start to care about the grid, one of America’s key energy assets.
A modernized, open grid could help utility companies and homes alike to thrive by freely producing solar and other clean energy. But an outmoded monopoly grid could slow down solar’s growth in the short run and even lead to the decline of utilities in the long run.
You Can Now Become Your Own Utility
It’s gotten cheaper and easier to get an electric car that will allow you to drive right by the gas station. And it’s gotten even cheaper and easier to start generating your own electricity at home with solar panels.
More families making solar power at home is good for America. And it certainly makes ordinary people smile. But big energy companies? Not so much.
So those companies, especially electric utilities, have been trying to slow down home solar or even take solar over for themselves.
“Utilities say that solar is so much cheaper if they just build it,” Farrell said. “But the biggest impact is that where companies make their money to build big power plants will make less money if customers are building their own infrastructure. It’s a threat to their business model just as energy efficiency is.”
That’s why utilities are trying to repeal laws in many states that help solar homeowners, like net metering, which lets your electric meter run backwards when you produce more solar power than you’re using. And unfortunately, the effort to push back home solar is working in some states. “Utilities have lots of money and lots of lobbyists as a way to protect their turf,” said Farrell
Farrell thinks that as long as utilities own the wires that connect your house with extra solar power to sell to other homes that need solar power, utilities will find ways to block your access to the grid.
A Free and Fair Energy Market
“Structure the rules for the market and rules for the utility system based on today, not on 100 years ago,” said Farrell. And that would mean getting rid of the conflict of interest that utilities have when they both manage the wires and run their own power plans.
One fix could involve separating those two functions.
Consider an example that may be familiar to the ordinary person: watching TV shows on the internet.
Verizon or Comcast may provide your internet service. But they don’t also produce the streaming shows you watch online such as Breaking Bad or Downton Abbey.
That’s a very good thing. Because if internet service providers not only sold you internet service but also produced their own TV shows, then those ISPs would have a business interest in blocking other TV shows from their internet service.
If ISPs made heir own content and distributed it over their own wires, that would mean you could have plenty of “World Headlines from Verizon” or “Comcast Comedy Hour,” but less of CNN or Comedy Central.
It’s the same with electric utilities and the electric grid. If utilities control not just the wires, but also offer their own power, then they have a business interest in blocking other power providers, including solar homeowners, from selling power on the utilities’ grid.
That’s called a conflict of interest.
To solve this conflict, you could let utilities continue to run power plants. But just don’t let them run the grid.
A 21st Century Energy Grid
To give solar homeowners a fair way to sell power to other people who want to use solar but don’t have their own, Farrell thinks that you could put the grid in the hands of a non-profit organization that doesn’t also produce electricity.
That grid operator would then solicit competitive bids to provide electricity from all sources fairly. This would finally create a level playing field for solar homeowners with utilities.
“The grid has been built like a 40-lane freeway so that you’d never have congestion,” Farrell explained. “What we’ve never thought about is how can we ask the people who are driving to use less power or generate their own lane by bringing their own electricity. That was the only way we knew to do it in the past.”
Farrell thinks that the only way this change will happen is if citizens get involved in the political process.
“We need ordinary citizens to get involved in energy issues. They have more power over the system than they’ve ever had. We need their interests represented.”
Farrell’s advice is not to start by calling your member of Congress about some energy bill in Washington, DC but instead to begin in your own community.
“Start local. Find out what organizations there are that might already be doing this work. The Sierra Club for example. Or is your utility community owned, either by the city or a rural electric cooperative? Run for the board of your utility or contact your city council member. Tell them there needs to be this transition that we need more lower cost energy, economic development and use the grid more efficiently at the same time.”
Utilities should also take note. There’s a risk to them in continuing to stall the transition to a 21st century electric grid.
In the near future, solar homeowners may lose patience with trying to get a fair deal to sell their excess solar power on the grid. As home batteries continue to get cheaper and better, it will become more practical for solar homeowners to consider going off grid entirely.
“Solar plus storage is coming and it’s already much less expensive than I ever thought it would be. For example, it’s already affordable in Hawaii,” said Farrell. “We’re pretty close to cord-cutting which is what killed landline phone companies. So utilities can put it off as long as possible. But when the economics make it possible then utilities will have no other choice.”
— Erik Curren, The Solar Patriot