Here in the desert, capturing the sun’s free energy is potentially available to all rooftop owners. This exciting ability for individuals to produce their own clean energy, use it as they wish to power their homes and electric cars and often times send extra power back to the grid has been an important tool in moving the renewable energy market forward.
However, in many states, including Nevada, the power companies are starting to take measures to discourage rooftop solar. Is this a homeowners only option, to be at the mercy of the utilities? Apparently not.
Last week I was privileged to participate in the eighth annual National Clean Energy Summit. What a different tone from the first two summits I attended at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The message eight years ago was still persuading everyone a need to move to renewable energy. This year there was no convincing needed. The move is well on its way.
The message instead was focused on how to move forward on this momentum. Speakers from both sides of the political aisle, industry and financial experts, as well as technological innovators, all spoke of a bright future with renewable energy, smart grids and storage technology.
During an interesting debate between two conservative leaders regarding the future of rooftop solar, Lisa Woods from the Edison Foundation, representing utility leaders across the United States insisted that rooftop solar owners were not paying their fair share for the use of the grid under the current net metering systems.
Woods’ counterpart in the debate was Charles Cicchetti from Pacific Economics Group. Cicchetti disagreed strongly with Woods and warned that if power companies are not careful, we will see more people leaving the grid and storing their excess energy in battery cells, eliminating the need for a monopolized utility company.
To be sure, a net metering system with rebates and other industry discounts has been successful in drawing many new customers to add renewable energy to Nevada’s grid. Too many, apparently. Net metering of rooftop solar reached the 235-megawatt cap in August.
That cap does not mean that we have enough solar. The sky’s the limit in that regard. It just means it is a cap that will protect NV Energy’s guaranteed profit margin. This profit margin was based on an agreement made when Nevada lawmakers thought it was a good idea to have the power company be a monopoly in the early 1900s.
Recently, the Public Utilities Commission came to an interim agreement to allow net metering to stay in place, as is, for the rest of this year. This was temporary good news for many rooftop solar owners, but the real work is still ahead.
A new rate design must be created by January. Utilities want fair compensation from solar customers to use and be connected to the grid. Solar customers want fair calculations of the benefits, both monetary and qualitative, that the power company receives from rooftop solar customers. Solar customers help utilities avoid building new generating plants and move away from polluting sources.
And when a solar customer produces more energy than needed, that extra energy goes back onto the grid and typically feeds into a neighboring property. For every one unit produced, nearly 10 units of primary energy is saved in line loss because of the shorter transmission distance. Deciding on an equitable tariff for rooftop solar customers will be difficult and controversial.
One of my interviews at the NCES was with an almost giddy Susan Kennedy from Advanced Microgrid Solutions. Kennedy’s resume and experience in government, utilities and now her own tech startup company, AMS, landed her in a position to acquire an amazing setup. Her company secured simultaneous contracts with Sun Edison, Tesla and a major real estate owner in Southern California.
Kennedy purchased storage batteries the size of a parking space from Tesla. AMS will connect these batteries to 26 buildings to allow them to store power in the evening at a cheaper time-of-use rate and then switch to the stored power at significant times when the grid energy price would be higher, saving the building owners money and relieving pressure when Sun Edison needs the help the most. It is a win-win-win for all parties.
Kennedy’s enthusiasm over the role of these batteries reminded me of the exciting video of Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, launching the Power Wall batteries. These already reasonably priced batteries could be the means Cicchetti talked about for those who may choose to go “off the grid.” Solar owners could store their excess energy in a Power Wall battery to use at night or on a rainy day or to charge their electric vehicle.
Too far-fetched? Not really.
This is an issue that even both sides of the political spectrum can come together on. The tea party has recently teamed up with the Sierra Club to form a Green Tea Party Coalition. (Who knew?) Both sides agree on giving people a means for energy autonomy.
The coalition is headed by Debbie Dooley, who started with her advocacy role in helping to break up a government-created monopoly in Georgia to stop them from charging customers for their future investments and their guaranteed profits. Sound familiar?
To help people get started in the near future, Google has just come out with a new service that uses Google maps to calculate how much solar power your roof can generate and how much you can save. This new service, called Project Sunroof, is presently only available in San Francisco, Boston and Fresno, Calif., but Google has plans to include the rest of the United States and beyond very soon.
If you are like me and have plans for installing your own rooftop system or are just interested in saving money and having more freedom to create your own power, then this topic is worth exploring all options.
Kennedy remarked, “Err on the side of bold.” Rooftop solar owners and the renewable industry leaders have been bold and creative. Battery storage may be the next bold step.
— Mary Beth Horiai has split her adult life between Japan and Southern Nevada. A graduate of UNLV, she was trained as a speaker for The Climate Reality Project. For more information and links to additional resources relating to this column, please visit driverofchange.net.