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Get out of solar’s way

Keep an eye on this.

“Hawaii is a postcard from the future,” said Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar, a policy and advocacy group based in California.

Other states and countries, including California, Arizona, Japan and Germany, are struggling to adapt to the growing popularity of making electricity at home, which puts new pressures on old infrastructure like circuits and power lines and cuts into electric company revenue.

As a result, many utilities are trying desperately to stem the rise of solar, either by reducing incentives, adding steep fees or effectively pushing home solar companies out of the market. In response, those solar companies are fighting back through regulators, lawmakers and the courts.

The shift in the electric business is no less profound than those that upended the telecommunications and cable industries in recent decades. It is already remaking the relationship between power companies and the public while raising questions about how to pay for maintaining and operating the nation’s grid.

The issue is not merely academic, electrical engineers say.

In solar-rich areas of California and Arizona, as well as in Hawaii, all that solar-generated electricity flowing out of houses and into a power grid designed to carry it in the other direction has caused unanticipated voltage fluctuations that can overload circuits, burn lines and lead to brownouts or blackouts.

“Hawaii’s case is not isolated,” said Massoud Amin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Minnesota and chairman of the smart grid program at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a technical association. “When we push year-on-year 30 to 40 percent growth in this market, with the number of installations doubling, quickly — every two years or so — there’s going to be problems.”

The economic threat also has electric companies on edge. Over all, demand for electricity is softening while home solar is rapidly spreading across the country. There are now about 600,000 installed systems, and the number is expected to reach 3.3 million by 2020, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The Edison Electric Institute, the main utility trade group, has been warning its members of the economic perils of high levels of rooftop solar since at least 2012, and the companies are responding. In February, the Salt River Project, a large utility in Arizona, approved charges that could add about $50 to a typical monthly bill for new solar customers, while last year in Wisconsin, where rooftop solar is still relatively rare, regulators approved fees that would add $182 a year for the average solar customer.

This story doesn’t have a direct connection to Texas, but our state has a tremendous potential for solar, high electric bills in many cities, and a Legislature that isn’t all that friendly to renewable energy, but very much is friendly to the entrenched status quo. That’s a combination that makes this all worth keeping an eye on.

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4 Comments

  1. Paul Kubosh says:

    I am for Solar energy. Anything that can save money for the consumer. Give them options. Free enterprise. Make the electric companies compete. That is how the world should be.

  2. Steven Houston says:

    PK, the article mentions how home solar is causing mechanical problems to the grid the rest of us rely on. As such, doesn’t it seem fair to regulate solar systems hooked up to the grid and charge them fees based on actual and potential expenses? I’m for consumer choice myself and if someone wants to live completely off the grid in a manner that doesn’t impact anyone else, so be it. The flip side is that most people with solar systems want to remain on the grid, sell excess power generated, and buy power on rainy days, at night, or when their system is not able to handle their needs on peak days. As such, it makes sense that they should bear the burdens they cause, yes?

  3. Paul Kubosh says:

    Maybe so. We supplement so much and the power companies make so much money why don’t we make them upgrade the grid for the greater good. I mean this type of energy is good for us, right? Make the electric companies upgrade to handle this. We made all gas stations change their gas tanks right? Whats the difference?

  4. Steven Houston says:

    PK, when you look at how little the power companies make by factoring in all the capital expenditures needed, it’s not so clear. While I have my doubts (serious doubts) as to whether or how much these solar systems truly cause problems for the existing grid. Big companies have plenty of reason to embellish so I can’t take their word for it but if proven, I think it’s fair to divide those costs out to those who are causing the problems rather than everyone. I’m not against incentivizing solar, wind, or other forms of renewable energy but isn’t it reasonable that home generators be required to install protective devices on their end (and at their expense) than force the companies to install it? Those most likely to install solar systems capable of harming the grid the rest of us HAVE to use are more likely to have the money if it costs a few grand or less for their limited numbers. I suspect upgrading the entire grid would cost an exponentially higher amount, if said dangers exist.

    But taking your example of gas storage tanks, the older style used for generations prone to leaking toxic substances into the ground and surrounding aquifers, were paid for by the individual owners or companies of those tanks, not the general public. So in essence, you are arguing my case for me as the home solar generators would be the equivalent, the companies they want to sell power to on peak production hours claiming those systems either are or might reasonably damage the existing systems. I’m more familiar with the large wholesale solar plants than current home systems but as the likelihood of expansion of said systems increases, it makes sense to address the concerns from a practical standpoint.