Utilities Stymie Residential Solar

By Christina B. Farnsworth | 10/24/2013

California utilities say they want only clean solar energy. What do they mean?


According a Bloomberg feature, California’s largest utilities, Edison Internationa l, PG&E Corp. and Sempra Energy are refusing to plug rooftop solar systems with battery back up into the grid.

The utilities argue that battery back ups may allow homeowners to cheat, to store power from the grid and sell it back or get credit.

That theory seems a little strange. Most residential solar contractors try to keep installations at net zero so that systems produce only the power needed to operate the home. Except in Germany (and buy-back rates there have dropped), utilities do not pay as much for the power they buy from home-generation systems as they charge the homeowners to buy from the grid.

Ben Peter, a government affairs analyst at Mainstream Energy Corp. (a solar company) told Bloomberg, “The utilities clearly see rooftop solar as the next threat. They’re trying to limit growth.” He estimates that 60 PV/battery back-up systems have been refused linkage to the grid.

Just a few years ago, there were large utility company rebates for homeowners installing solar. The argument was that utilities need to generate a certain amount of power from renewables and what better way than on homeowner roofs. It saved utilities from arguing with regulators for bigger power plants and helped them meet sustainable renewable energy goals.

These days utilities are growing their own solar and wind farms. Last week’s feature on robots Rover and Spot that are helping bring solar installation and power generation costs in line with those of natural gas, shows how utilities are working to generate their own solar electric power. Seems a small step that those same utilities would try to limit homeowner rooftop solar under their newer business model.

Peters told Bloomberg that “people with rooftop panels are already buying less electricity, and adding batteries takes them closer to the day they won’t need to buy from the local grid at all.”

Downing certainly shared that sentiment in her own Tucson Weekly article. She was sure ready to add batteries to back her power up if homeowners with PV were penalized or had significant rate increases.

Bloomberg cited Matthew Sperling of Santa Barbara as its example of a stymied consumer unable to use his system. Sperling spent $30,000 to install eight solar panels and eight batteries at his home, a fairly small system. Sperling said he wanted back-up power in case of a black out to keep the refrigerator running. Southern California Edison rejected his application to link the system to the grid even though city inspectors said Sperling’s system “was one of the nicest they’d ever seen.”

What’s peculiar about Southern California Edison’s decision is that no one would complain if Sperling had chosen to install a back-up generator powered by fossil fuels -- except maybe neighbors, who might complain about the noise when the generator was on.

Danny Kennedy, author of Rooftop Revolution and co-founder of Sungevity (an exclusive solar partner with Lowe’s), in an Alternet interview said environmentalists and solar energy advocates see utility companies blocking rooftop solar, a decentralized system from which they will not longer be able to control or profit.

Whether powered by rooftop solar backed up with batteries or the grid, no one plans to give up electricity. Just think about the daily plug in of our can’t-do-without devices: laptop computer, tablet, smartphone ...

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