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The sun and its enemies

April 21, 2014

BlazingSunIn the last few years, solar panels have become a bit more efficient, and much, much cheaper. More builders are including them on new homes, and on public buildings such as schools. Because of a policy called net metering, most utilities will credit customers for each watt-hour generated and returned to through the line, against watt-hours used.

Though solar technology still is nascent, we are starting to see a future where energy is less centralized and less derived from fossil fuels. Which upsets the Koch brothers. Working with ALEC, one of their favorite lobbying arms, they have launched a battle against net metering and home solar. So far, they are mostly failing. But the Kochs have an uncanny ability to tar anything they dislike as socialist and evil, and to pose themselves as champions of “liberty” to their Tea Party followers.

Utilities have been regulated in the public interest for most of a century. At the center of that regulation is the tension between large and small consumers of energy. It’s much cheaper for a utility to service one large plant that manages its own local distribution, than thousands of small customers. If rates to large customers are too high, the plant might purchase its own generators. People save money and help the environment by consuming less utility-supplied energy. But that’s dollars straight out of the utility’s revenue. (And solar panels are not the only way to do that. Our last electric bill was 500kWh. But no solar panels here! Our home is just comfortable with minimal AC. As I write this, the door is open to the screened balcony behind me.)

We need centralized power generation and a grid to distribute it, and likely will for decades to come. There is real cost to that grid, above and beyond the supply of watt-hours that flow through it. The shift to less centralized generation will require a different thinking about the electric grid, and a shift in how electric utilities function and are regulated.

I cannot imagine a worst group to drive that change than ALEC. The Koch’s concern is not primarily how the grid is managed, but in their coal and oil and energy interests. How that guides their personal animus is a bit fuzzy. I suspect even billionaires have more an emotional than rational attachment to the industries that made them rich. Let’s hope they are foiled, in their attack on solar.

Update: Oklahoma passes a bill to charge a higher rate to customers who install solar panels.

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