Give the Grid to Solar; Let Clean Energy Spread Like the Internet Did

Hope or heartbreak is at hand for everyone who believes America should show how to stop destroying the climate by burning coal to make electricity.

On the side of hope, solar panel installers now offer homeowners a deal not to be refused: pay no money down, and buy about three-quarters of your electricity off your own roof at a lower price than the utility is selling it to you. A half of all roofs are technically suitable for solar panels – enough roof space that solar can take the place of coal in the nation’s generation fleet.

On the heartbreak side, because rooftop solar has less than one percent share of the generation market, its growth rate of around 40-50% is too slow to curtail greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as needed to save the world.[2]

The solution is to repeat for rooftop solar what the United States did for the Internet in the 1990s.

When the Clinton Administration took office in 1993, Internet access in homes was non-existent. But about one-fourth of American homes had personal computers.[3] Virtually all had telephone lines. So, with the encouragement of the White House, the FCC ordered (among other things) that everyone could connect their home computer to the telephone line – without paying anything extra to the telephone company. Internet access providers marketed this sweet deal to consumers. AOL rose to the top of the heap in providing what became known later as narrowband Internet access.[4] By the end of the 1990s Internet penetration in homes approached 50%.[5]

To keep alive hope for averting climate catastrophe, solar panels need to cover half of American rooftops in the same amount of time it took the Internet to reach that mark – seven years. That’s about twice the current solar installation rate. As Paul Krugman acknowledged in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, “the science [behind solar energy] is solid; the technology is there; the economics look far more favorable than anyone expected.” All that stands in the way of solar adoption: “a combination of ignorance, prejudice and vested interests.”[6]

The key is to let solar rooftop installers use the electric grid in the same way that the FCC let the Internet access companies “borrow” the telephone lines.

The telephone companies did not like the FCC’s actions. They knew the Internet would force sweeping change to their businesses, destroying many companies (like the entire long distance industry, for example) in the process. In an effort to protect their carbon-related business interests, the Koch brothers, who are always setting new lows in obstinate opposition to progress, are pouring money into campaigns to fight any and all incentives for solar energy.[7]

Utilities, with the exception of a few that have joined in the race to the rooftops, do not like the prospect of solar supplanting their own supply of electricity.[8]

But like computer owners taking up the Internet, rooftop solar installers should pay nothing for connecting to the electric grid. In fact, if they make more electricity off rooftops than the occupants use, the utility should buy that surplus at a price that gives credit for reducing carbon emissions.

Solar installers should be unregulated. They should pay no new taxes. Homeowners should not be charged anything extra by utilities for using less grid-supplied electricity. Existing tax credits for rooftop solar should be maintained until the market is fully saturated.

Most utilities are opposing all these measures in almost all states, as are the Koch brothers.[9]

Unlike the FCC in the 1990s, no federal agency has yet tried to set a national policy of giving the electric grid to rooftop solar. Nor has Congress conveyed to an energy agency greater legal authority for imposing change as it did with respect to the FCC in the bipartisan 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Until the country gets a more visionary Congress, states need to pass law and issue regulations welcoming rooftop solar’s use of the utility’s lines. In this way, the rapid spread of distributed, cleaner, and cheaper power will change the world, just in the nick of time. State green banks can enable any town or city to go all green, and to sell their surplus clean electrons back to the grid.[10]



[1]The author was the FCC chairman in 1993-97 and is now the CEO of the Coalition for Green Capital.











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