Punishing solar customers for disrupting outdated electric model is wrong

Punishing solar customers for disrupting outdated electric model is wrong
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All across the country, solar energy is providing real, tangible benefits to the American people. Everyone from families and businesses to churches and schools are investing in clean energy to take control of their own energy and lower their utility bills.

If your neighbor has solar panels, they’re likely saving money — and saving you money, too. That’s because when your neighbor sends her excess solar-generated electricity back to the grid, she’s helping your utility avoid expensive and polluting infrastructure investments that all customers shoulder. 

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More households and businesses with rooftop solar means less need for costly coal, gas, and other large power plants, and it also means less wear and tear on our aging power grid, which in turn defers and eliminates the need for expensive upgrades.  

As solar, batteries, and other customer-centric energy investments become more ubiquitous, real-life examples of these system-wide cost savings are becoming more frequent. When record temperatures swept the Northeast this past July — and everyone blasted their air conditioners all at once — the region’s grid operators reported that rooftop solar helped keep the lights on and saved ratepayers $20 million over seven days. 

In California, the fact that more residents are producing their own solar power and conserving energy overall meant that grid operators were able to cancel a host of expensive transmission projects amounting to $192 million in savings.

Thanks in large part to the dramatically plummeting cost of solar over the last decade, solar energy now powers the homes of nearly 2 million Americans. That’s incredibly good news for our economy, our health, and our climate.

One of the main drivers of that success is a state-level policy known as net metering, which allows solar customers to earn credit on their utility bill for the valuable electricity they send back to the grid. Solar customers are essentially mini generators of clean, local, and affordable power distributed all across the grid, and net metering is a policy that makes their investment in solar both fair and cost-effective.

This shift toward an energy system that puts people at its center requires innovation that’s proving painful to some. Customer control over their own electricity fundamentally undermines the outdated business model of the centralized, monopoly utility, and unfortunately many of those utilities are responding by fighting rooftop solar tooth and nail rather than striving to meet changing customer demand.

(Vox’s David Roberts does a great job explaining why it’s time for a utility business model overhaul.)  And it’s true that as households and businesses continue to invest in solar, storage, energy efficiency, and other smart technologies to manage their own electricity, a real conversation needs to be had about how our electric system should evolve.

What’s troubling are the misguided claims that rooftop solar is somehow bad for other customers, including a piece in The Hill from Utah State University’s Josh T. Smith. The author’s arguments about the costs of rooftop solar have been repeatedly disputed by multiple independent studies.

The piece also endorsed a range of punitive fees and charges to force solar customers to pay a surcharge for investing in rooftop solar. Punishing solar customers with fees is about as fair as a cable company charging customers for choosing to use Netflix instead.

Solar energy continues to have bipartisan support, especially in these increasingly polarizing times. People across the political spectrum support solar because it represents so many values Americans hold dear: economic freedom and choice, resilience, and an investment in cleaner air and water for generations to come.

We’re seeing evidence of that support in solar’s continued rise. I also appreciate and encourage the spirited debate around how to best guide our country’s transition to a modern and resilient grid that accommodates the growing demand for clean energy. As this debate continues, let’s strive to put the interests of the American people above the profits of power companies hoping to protect the status quo.

Zadie Oleksiw is the communications director at Vote Solar, a national nonprofit working to make solar more affordable and accessible, and a former Fulbright scholar, where she researched solar policies in India. She was also a fellow with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute, a program for rising experts in clean energy, and recently named a #Solar100 Thought Leader.