Friday, March 29, 2013

Solar a Mortal Threat to Utilities

It appears that the public is waking up to the obvious threat that solar is to the status quo energy providers.  We live in an age of accelerating change and disruption.  I wrote last year about how solar will continue to expand rapidly into the general market regardless of what the utilities do to discourage it.  What today's Wall Street Journal piece means to me is that the national dialog will start to become even more rancorous with respect to clean energy issues.
David & Goliath -- Distributed Generation vs Traditional Utilities
Unfortunately, there is some truth to the fact that solar is currently only feasible for the wealthy and that federal tax credits could be seen as a transfer payment from average tax payers who can't afford solar to wealthy ones who can. The consequence of this dialog will be the elimination of federal and state incentives for distributed generation systems. Solar already has unsubsidized grid parity in many markets so growth their will continue to drive down the global costs for installing solar.  Companies like Solar City & Sun Run will have to re-model their current business plans, and I doubt they will weather the storm very well since their profitability is so tied to the current incentives.  New installation company concepts will emerge though and I think more traditional contractors will finally get into the game.
Utilities may go further and try to ban the connection of solar systems to the grid. Standalone solar with back up systems will be ready for the market by the time this happens though. Essentially this will be the last arrow in the utility's quiver to stop the rising tide of distributed solar. At that point, we'll probably cross the tipping point where they don't have enough rate payers to maintain affordable rates. Then things get really ugly.

While I am advocate for progress and technological innovation, crippled utilities will be a major issue for an already crippled political system to address. Add this difficult situation to the already huge list of complex issues that we don't seem to be able to effectively address (national debt, climate change, social security insolvency, resource depletion, population growth). The brinksmanship games we are playing will take on an entirely new dimension when we start to have daily brown outs and extended power outages.


  1. I went to an energy conference today and listened to a variety of people connected to traditional utilities. The two major fears they were discussing were carbon regulation driving up their costs and the low price of natural gas disrupting their legacy generation capacity. I heard no concern at all about distributed energy becoming a threat to their rate payer base. Once grid parity is clear to the general public, the speed at which people will put up solar panels will be astonishing. The utilities don't have even 10 years to prepare for this--more like 2. With only a small reduction in the number of rate payers, the profit models the utilities have created are completely changed. This will make it very tough to find the money to maintain the existing infrastructure.

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