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Open letter to Congressional Black Caucus: Don’t listen to the utilities

Recently, Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a utility trade group, met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus to warn them against the perils of net metering.  Net metering is the practice by which utility companies credit solar households for the electricity they generate that is fed back to the grid.  States and utilities vary, but for many home owners with solar panels, net metering is a significant financial benefit.  

EEI, however, wanted to push the caucus in a different direction. Their argument against net metering plays on the idea that someone who can afford solar shouldn’t be getting a good deal on their utility bill as well.  They suggest that as wealthier utility customers put solar panels on their roofs, the only people left consuming electricity from the grid in the traditional way will be low income, and likely minority, populations.  Because there will be fewer rate payers, these people will disproportionally shoulder the burden and end up paying even higher rates while the rich receive fat monthly credits. 

{mosads}At best this is a narrow argument that omits some important detail; at worst, it is intentionally misleading fear-mongering.  

What EEI likely failed to mention was that in many ways, net metering benefits both the utilities and the community.  When solar customers are putting power on the grid, the utility has to spend less money on new power plants, transmission, and distribution.  Fewer power plants mean less pollution.  One California study estimated a net gain of over $90 million per year as a result of net metering, despite the fact that the power put back on the grid by rate payers constituted only 0.37% of the total utilities’ power demand.  

Increased distributed generation like solar also hedges against risk.  As a Navy veteran concerned with the national security implications of our fragile grid, I believe makes sense to decentralize our energy sources and be less dependent on fossil fuel-burning power plants.  The U.S. military knows this and is taking steps to ensure bases are resilient in the event of extreme weather events or intentional attacks on the grid.  Many of those efforts revolve around renewable energy projects, including solar power.  

Lastly—and most important to countering EEI’s argument—the idea that only wealthy Americans can afford to reap the benefits of solar is simply no longer true.  As the cost of solar falls, the technology is becoming increasingly accessible to all.  A full two thirds of solar installations in California now happen on the roofs of middle and low income households. 

EEI is likely motivated by more than just utilities’ unwillingness to change their business model.  It turns out EEI is also funding the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in what appears to be a coordinated attack on solar.  ALEC, in turn, has been working with the Heartland Institute, an ultra-conservative think tank, in an attempt to repeal other renewable energy legislation.  And to no one’s surprise, the Heartland Institute naturally receives funding from the fossil fuel industry. 

Dark money aside, utilities are clearly feeling threatened by potential changes to the status quo.  But the solution to the rise of renewables cannot simply be to bury their heads in the sand.  Organizations like the Rocky Mountain Institute and even some forward-thinking utility companies are investigating new methods by which to quantify and value benefits that were previously dismissed as intangible.  The future will mean new business models, increased transparency, improved resilience, and less pollution. 

Don’t listen to those that try to tell you otherwise. 

Marr is a Navy veteran, energy engineer and member of the Truman National Security Project.


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