Are Solar-Powered Homes Jacking Up Everyone Else’s Electric Bills?

By Tim McDonnell

Illustration by Mr. Biscuit

Solar power is having a major moment. It’s growing faster than any other energy source—in 2014, a new system was installed in the United States every three minutes—while the price of a typical panel has dropped 63 percent since 2010. By 2016, experts predict that solar will be as cheap or cheaper than conventional electricity in most states. But solar companies are warning that the boom could soon end, if utilities and some Republican state lawmakers have their way.

Power companies’ beef with solar boils down to a clever payment system that was largely responsible for bringing about the solar boom in the first place—a practice known as net metering. Most solar homes aren’t actually “off the grid”: They stay connected to transmission lines, using regular power when their panels aren’t operating (like at night). But they also feed electricity into the grid when they produce more than they can use.

Sounds great, right? Not really, say the power companies. They pay solar homeowners for their excess kilowatts—but argue homeowners aren’t paying their fair share for grid maintenance. That has utilities in revolt, and the fight has reached a fever pitch in Northern California, where the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, serves more residential solar homes than any other.

Like many utilities, PG&E charges customers on a multitiered price scheme—the more electricity you use, the more you pay per unit. That can incentivize power hogs to conserve, but it can also mean that a poor family of four in California’s AC-dependent Central Valley can end up paying rates far above the national average (and what it actually costs PG&E to serve them), while a Google-employed bachelor millionaire gets a bargain. If that tech dude decides to install solar panels, he pays even less—even though he still uses the grid.

To be fair, customers who generate their own electricity also save the utilities money, causing less wear and tear on transmission lines and less power lost along the way. But a study commissioned by California’s Legislature found that in the Golden State at least, these benefits do not fill the hole left by lost revenue. Net metering cost the state’s privately owned utilities $254 million in 2012, a price tag estimated to jump to $1.1 billion per year by 2020 as an estimated 500,000 more homes go solar.

The solar industry shot back with a study of its own, arguing that those costs are minor compared with the roughly $32 billion that California’s major utilities earned in 2013 and that, for PG&E, the problem is not really caused by solar but by the huge gap—about threefold—between the company’s lowest and highest rate tiers. Since solar is attractive to high-tier customers, who stand to save the most money, each one who saves by installing a system is a big blow to the utility’s bottom line. Smooth out the rate tiers, the study suggests, and the problem disappears.

In 2013, California lawmakers told the state’s utilities to do just that. PG&E’s proposed solution, set to be voted on by state regulators in the spring, would reduce the number of price tiers and add a fixed monthly grid maintenance surcharge. The problem is that the fixed charge will erode the cost advantages of going solar, since you can’t avoid it just by using less power from the grid. Sanjay Ranchod, a policy analyst for the solar installer SolarCity, sees the change as a sneaky way for the utilities to kneecap the competition. Imposing a fixed monthly charge, he says, is “one way you can inhibit the growth of distributed solar.”

Similar battles are playing out from Utah to Wisconsin, as utilities fight to roll back net metering, restructure their rate systems, or impose special fees for solar users—and it’s easy to see why power companies are sweating. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the gap between the cost of maintaining the US grid and the available funds will grow by $11 billion per year through 2020, since the revenue streams utilities have traditionally relied on to pay for those costs—investments in big power plants they can recover through increased sales—are drying up.

John Farrell, a program director at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, argues that to succeed down the line, utilities will have to act more like grid managers, connecting power from a host of sources (much like data flowing into a server from many places) and investing in technology that helps consumers use power more efficiently. “There’s no outcome 10 or 20 years from now that looks anything like what utilities have been before,” Farrell says. “It’s going to happen anyway, and you just have to choose whether you’re gonna like it or not.”


Tree Shaped Wind Turbines to be Installed in Paris

A French company called New Wind is installing tree-shaped wind turbines at the Place de la Concorde in Paris, France. The company’s founder, Jérôme Michaud-Larivière came up with the idea while in a Paris square, when he “saw the leaves tremble when there was not a breath of air.” He hopes the trees can be used to exploit small air currents flowing along buildings and streets, and could eventually be installed in people’s yards and urban centres.

He is the first to admit the efficiency of the trees is low compared to more consistent currents higher up, but believes the £23,500 trees are more viable and less intrusive than ‘monstrous’ conventional wind turbines. The 26 foot high trees, which use tiny blades inside the ‘leaves’, could potentially be profitable after a year of wind speeds averaging 7.8 mph. They can generate electricity in wind speeds as low as 4.5 mph.

AFP/Getty Images


New Commercial Buildings in France Must Get Green Roofs or Solar Panels

By Evan Ackerman

Photo: Getty Images

For the most part, Europe has been steadily advancing towards a smarter, more efficient power grid, heavily based on renewable energy as opposed to coal or nuclear power plants. There’s enough reliance on solar power, in fact, that solar eclipses have the potential to cause gigawatt-scale power fluctuations. France, however, is still primarily dependent on nuclear power, which provided over 80 percent of its power in 2012. In an effort to rebalance its energy mix, the French parliament has approved a law mandating that all new commercial buildings feature roofs that are at least partially covered in either solar panels or plants.

This new law applies only to new construction of buildings in commercial zones in France. Originally, environmental groups had lobbied for the law to apply to all new buildings, and for the requirement to be total rooftop coverage with greenery, but it’s been scaled back to allow partial coverage or solar panels, whichever the building owner prefers.

The benefits of solar panels are straightforward: when the sun is out, they generate electricity, which can be either used on-site or fed back into the grid. Green roofs, which are covered in dirt and living plants, are a little bit more complicated. They’re much more difficult to construct, since you usually have to plan for them in the design phase of your building. All those plants, the soil they live in, and the water that the system retains weighs a lot, with the most extensive, self-sustaining green roof ecosystems weighing up to 700 kg/m2. Without planning for that sort of structural overhead over your head, it’s sometimes impossible to greenify a roof of a building that wasn’t designed for it, an designing for it from the beginning can as much as double the roof’s cost.

In one respect, green roofs are similar to rooftop solar panels. There’s a significant up-front expense, but over time, there are also significant savings that (should) more than cover the cost of construction and upkeep. For example, a green roof protects against structural damage, and should last between two and three times as long as a conventional roof. Green roofs act as insulators, reducing summer cooling and winter heating needs by about 25 percent.

On a national scale, both green roofs and rooftop solar panels tackle several problems simultaneously. By either saving energy or generating electricity, they help to reduce power demands and stabilize the national grid, especially when demand peaks due to high temperatures. Green roofs also absorb water, helping minimize runoff during heavy rains. And when it’s hot out, they can temper the urban heat island effect, where all the dark and impermeable surfaces in cities (like streets, sidewalks, and rooftops) cause localized temperature spikes of between 1 and 5 degrees C. Furthermore, green roofs can help deal with air pollution, they provide an urban habitat for birds, and they’re also a very pleasant place for humans to enjoy, especially if they’re used to grow plants that can be made into salads.

Since 2009, Toronto Canada has had a similar mandatory green roof law in place, requiring green roofs on new buildings. Preliminary studies suggested that the city could save hundreds of millions of dollars in energy costs while reducing ambient temperatures by several degrees Celsius. Changes like these don’t happen overnight on the scale of a city, and it may take decades for a nation the size of France to achieve measurable benefits, although on a per building basis, the benefits are immediate, and continuous. France is making an investment in energy independence, efficiency, and stability, and when it eventually pays off, the rest of us will be regretting not having started greening our roofs sooner.


Urban Dwellers Grow Their Own!

A new device is hitting cities where apartment-dwellers haven’t been able to grow their own food… and it’s doing all the hard stuff!


The Solar-Powered, Recycled House That Will Let Us Float in Style

By: Maddie Stone

If you’ve ever considered trading your house for a life on the water, but don’t fancy the idea of cramped, below deck living quarters, then this floating, solar-powered home, designed by renowned Italian architect Giancarlo Zema, might be just the thing for you.

As our climate warms and sea levels continue rise, our coastlines will change irrevocably. EcoFloLife, the firm behind Zema’s “Waternest 100,” has spent years designing a new generation of energy-efficient homes to accommodate our changing planet and lives. The 1,000 square foot Waternest 100 is made from recycled timber and a recycled aluminum hull. The design includes skylights, balconies, and large windows that offer sweeping views of the natural surroundings. The roof is essentially a giant solar panel, and best of all, the home can be set to float atop any calm body of water.

Here are some sneak peeks the floating homes that may one day pepper our waterways:

All images courtesy of the Giancarlo Zema Design Group

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