Monday, July 10, 2017

Dueling headlines: which is correct?


In the New York Times, Hiroko Tabuchi describes the increasing successes of electrical power company lobbyists with support from Republican Rick Perry's federal Energy Department at throttling the growth of solar power. They've been getting some wins:

... a concerted and well-funded lobbying campaign by traditional utilities [has] been working in state capitals across the country to reverse incentives for homeowners to install solar panels.

... “There’s no doubt these utilities are out to kill rooftop solar, and they’re succeeding,” said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a renewable energy advocacy group. “They’re now driving the agenda.”


But at Vox, David Roberts explains that utilities which are failing to adapt to the availability of decentralized solar power are merely hastening their own demise. Nobody is better at explaining energy economics to lay readers:

When a customer installs solar panels, it hurts the utility in two ways.

One, it reduces demand for utility power. Utilities generally don’t want lower demand. To justify building stuff, they need to be able to project higher demand.

Two, the more solar customers reduce their utility bills by generating their own power, the more utilities have to charge other, non-solar customers more, to cover their costs-plus-returns. This pisses the other customers off. And it incentivizes them to install solar themselves!

Utilities are terrified of the “death spiral” that could ensue as more customers are driven to generate their own power. ...

But Roberts explores a McKinsey survey that seems to prove that ready availability of large capacity, cheap batteries will soon change the power business in ways that will overwhelm utility lobbying.

... batteries allow customers to circumvent utilities’ two primary tools for slowing the spread of solar.

If utilities alter rate structures to reflect time of day and location (as they should!), batteries allow solar customers to arbitrage, storing power when it is cheap, selling it back to the grid when it’s worth more.

If utilities reduce the amount they pay for rooftop solar-generated power, batteries allow customers to increase their “self-consumption” — that is, to consume more of the solar power they generate, by storing it and spreading it out across the day. McKinsey calls this “partial grid defection, in which customers choose to stay connected to the grid in order to have access to 24/7 reliability, but generate 80 to 90 percent of their own energy and use storage to optimize their solar for their own consumption.”

That’s a nightmare for utilities: customers who use their grid but pay them nothing for it, forcing them to charge other customers more.

... According to McKinsey’s projections, partial grid defection will become economic — will outperform grid power — around 2020. That’s not very far away. Nor, in terms of the time horizons of utility investments, is 2030, when full grid defection will become a live option.

Lobbying to throttle innovation can hamper progress toward solar adoption for awhile, but most likely the utility dinosaurs are done for if they can't figure out how to change:

... What McKinsey does make clear is that for power utilities, unlike for so many other decrepit American institutions, simply clinging to the status quo is not an option. Rooftop solar can be staved off temporarily with fees and rate tweaks, but as batteries get cheaper, those strategies will stop working. More and customers are going to generate, store, and manage more and more of their own power.

Utilities have got to find other ways to make money, other services to provide, other roles to play in the power system of the future. They have no other choice.

I'd bet on Roberts' understanding of the future; he's been right about energy for a long time.

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