Is basic solar technology the key to an energy revolution?

Plain old photovoltaic panels and innovations in energy storage and distributed generation could remake our electricity system.

  • A solar field in Lancaster, California, one of many that help generate nearly a quarter of the city's peak energy. It's shooting for a "net zero" status, wherein it produces more clean energy than it consumes.

    David McNew
  • Lancaster, California, Mayor R. Rex Parris poses with the solar panels that sit atop City Hall. Parris wants to ban dirty energy, and is battling neighboring Palmdale over its proposed hybrid gas/solar plant.

    David McNew
  • A SolarCity solar panel-covered parking structure at the JetHawk stadium, above, which generated 70 percent of the energy it used last year.

    David McNew
  • Heather Swan works for the tiny Lancaster Power Authority, which may someday produce enough energy to break free from Southern California Edison.

    David McNew
  • Residential solar in Lancaster, California, where a law mandates new housing developments average 1 kilowatt of solar per home.

    David McNew
  • A Borrego Springs resident checks real-time energy use with a monitor hooked to the town microgrid. The microgrid program allows 60 residences and small businesses to see when the grid has a heavy load, a sign for them to conserve energy.

    San Diego Gas & Electric
  • The SolarCity website updates energy production and consumption every 15 minutes, as well as historically.

    SolarCity
 

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It's hard to get utility spokespeople to acknowledge any objections to rooftop solar. In email conversations, Southern California Edison's Robert Laffoon said the utility, spurred on by a state incentive and marketing program called the California Solar Initiative, has installed solar on 49,000 customers' rooftops and has reservations for 11,000 more, for a total of 668 megawatts. With help from the California Public Utility Commission, the utility holds workshops, in Lancaster and elsewhere, on installing solar and connecting up with the grid.

Yet in their lobbying and advocacy, utilities argue that their consumers' unpredictable systems cost them money and deprive them of revenue. They're not wrong: In states with lots of sun and energy policies that favor rooftop solar, Navin says, "utilities are losing some of their best customers at peak periods," people with big roofs and houses full of always-on electronics; desert dwellers who run air conditioners from April until October. On top of that, those states require utilities to buy power back from those same people at retail rates.

With just a smattering of solar-covered rooftops, that's not such a big deal. "But if you look at places like San Diego," Navin says, "where in five years they grew from 2,900 to 29,000 homes with solar, that has an impact."

The utilities' quest for relief has not gone well. Southern California Edison and California's two other investor-owned utilities, San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas & Electric, leaned heavily on state regulators and legislators to add usage fees to net-metered customers' bills; the impasse ended this fall with the Legislature allowing for a modest surcharge on solar customers' bills, but clearing the way for even more net metering. In Arizona, the state's largest utility, Arizona Public Service, wanted regulators to add a $50 to $100 per month surcharge to the bills of net-metered customers. Instead, they got 70 cents per kilowatt of solar capacity. For a good-sized solar-powered home, that comes out to only about $3.50 per month.

Now, in Colorado, Xcel Energy wants to take 6 cents off the 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour that it pays to solar-equipped customers, claiming that people without solar subsidize the cost of putting their neighbors' rooftop PV on the grid.

But are utilities really suffering as much as they believe? Jon Wellinghoff, the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, thinks not. Distributed energy has advantages for utilities, too, because it obviates the need for large new centralized power plants and the complicated land-use agreements that come with them. It's also more efficient, as there's no loss along transmission lines. "The utilities that see the value of (distributed energy) to their local distribution system and use it to enhance that value will survive," he says. "Those that fight it – that try to oppose consumers putting in the systems (they) want – will have much more difficulty."

An energy lawyer for 30 years in Reno, Nev. – he drew up the state's landmark renewable energy standard in 1997 – Wellinghoff served at FERC from 2006 until late last year; he's now at the San Francisco law firm Stoel Rives. At FERC, he shepherded through new rules that would help "firm up" intermittent power sources like solar with storage, including two that directed utilities and regulators to place a higher value on energy stored in batteries, flywheels and tanks of molten salt. Battery technology has lingered in the doldrums relative to other technological advances in the 21st century, because batteries just weren't profitable. The FERC orders invigorated the industry.

Wellinghoff likes distributed generation, he says, because it makes communities more resilient when catastrophes hit the grid. He suspects that's why consumers like it, too. "People are starting to understand that the grid is an unreliable system," he says, "especially in the face of major climatic events." But so far, resiliency remains an illusion in places like Lancaster, because solar-electric systems are useless in a blackout. When the grid goes down, they go down with it.

In the next three to five years, Wellinghoff believes, that will change. More homes will be able to switch from grid-connected to "island" mode – even at night, as "we see the coupling of PV with storage." He also sees a bright future in liquid metal batteries, which, unlike solid batteries, last for a decade or more. Plug-in electric vehicles already store some solar electrons, and Tesla Motors' Musk will partner with his cousins to provide lithium-ion battery backup for business and residential solar.

More ways to complement solar loom: Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, has developed a super-efficient and quiet gas generator the size of a mini fridge called the Beacon 10. David Crane, CEO of NRG Inc., a New Jersey energy developer with offices in Arizona and Palm Springs, sees a future in which there's a solar array on every roof and a Beacon 10 in every garage.

Utilities like storage and Kamen's machines even less than they like rooftop solar alone. Southern California Edison recently began denying net-metering credits to customers who back up their solar arrays with batteries, on the grounds that battery power isn't necessarily from renewable sources, so utilities aren't required to buy it. The move could easily backfire: Consumers who can't sell their electrons back to the utility have little incentive to maintain the relationship.

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