California Utilities Face “Rooftop Revolution”

October 14, 2013


California’s three biggest utilities are sparring with their own customers about systems that store energy from the sun, opening another front in the battle that’s redefining the mission of electricity generators.

Edison International (EIX), PG&E Corp. and Sempra Energy (SRE) said they’re putting up hurdles to some battery backups wired to solar panels because they can’t be certain the power flowing back to the grid from the units is actually clean energy.

The dispute threatens the state’s $2 billion rooftop solar industry and indicates the depth of utilities’ concerns about consumers producing their own power. People with rooftop panels are already buying less electricity, and adding batteries takes them closer to the day they won’t need to buy from the local grid at all, said Ben Peters, a government affairs analyst at Mainstream Energy Corp., which installs solar systems.

“The utilities clearly see rooftop solar as the next threat,” Peters said from his office in Sunnyvale, California. “They’re trying to limit the growth.”

California is the largest of the 43 states encouraging renewables by requiring utilities to buy electricity from consumer solar installations, typically at the same price that customers pay for power from the grid. The policy, known asnet metering, offers a way for households to reduce their bills. It underpinned a 78 percent surge in the state’s residential installations in the second quarter from a year earlier, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Common Dreams:

As Danny Kennedy, author of the book “Rooftop Revolution” and co-founder of solar company Sungevity in California, said in an interview with Alternet earlier this year:

Solar power represents a change in electricity that has a potentially disruptive impact on power in both the literal sense (meaning how we get electricity) and in the figurative sense of how we distribute wealth and power in our society. Fossil fuels have led to the concentration of power whereas solar’s potential is really to give power over to the hands of people. This shift has huge community benefits while releasing our dependency on the centralized, monopolized capital of the fossil fuel industry. So it’s revolutionary in the technological and political sense.

The tensions between decentralized forms of energy like rootop solar or small-scale wind and traditional large-scale utilities is nothing new, but as the crisis of climate change has spurred a global grassroots movement push for a complete withdrawal from the fossil fuel and nuclear paradigm that forms the basis of the current electricity grid, these tensions are growing.

Below, Lester Brown on the vision of a Green future:


63 Responses to “California Utilities Face “Rooftop Revolution””

  1. Meanwhile, the UK reads the writing on the wall and signs to build 3.3 GW of EPRs at Hinckley Point.  The strike price for the power is considerably less than what offshore wind is getting.

    The writing on the UK’s wall includes the collapsing gas supply from the North Sea, the decreasing availability of gas through its undersea connectors, and the need to meet its carbon targets.  Per Bloomberg, the UK is aiming to build 16 GW of nuclear capacity (roughly 10 EPRs) by 2025.  This is more than the 9 GW of older nuclear plants in the UK currently operated by EDF.

    In short, the UK is following the path of Ontario and France, not Denmark.

  2. Huge amounts of storage are most definitely NOT needed to have large amounts of renewable energy in the utility mix.—no-need-build-wind-back-up
    The need for back up is a crock. Stop repeating the same false canards.
    Peter cited to a study showing that large amounts of power could come from renewables a few decades hence without large amounts of storage.

  3. Reserve capacity is determined by the peak load, not by power source. Every source needs backup for downtime, except distributed renewables.

  4. Bruce Miller Says:

    CANDU reactors at Bruce Nuclear have been re-built! Can be rebuilt again in 40 years, at really reduced costs. (Ontario technology Win-Win!) My Question: If and when Ontario Electric demand calls more reactors, will Ontario opt for American developed, American proven, Chinese refined, Chinese modernized, safer, cleaner, pressure cooker free, plutonium free, smaller benign waste, 99% efficient, cheaper to fuel, easy to fuel, Thorium LFTR styled ( or better) reactors? (debut 2017 in China) Can U.S. duplicate these for U.S. market? Are we really on the threshold of a new, safer, cleaner, plutonium free, near waste free, nuclear age for mankind?

    • MorinMoss Says:

      From my recent research, it appears that Ontario is really bad at managing their nuclear costs or perhaps that’s just the industry as a whole.

  5. Memo to Bruce. No. See fukushima and chernobyl. The vacuum cleaner sales approach might need a tune up.

  6. Bruce Miller Says:

    Co-op Wind Turbine farms? Tidal in Germany? Super-insulated homes in Canada? Suppressed super-insulation systems? UFFI, and its cousins? Under-ground dwellings? Low level geothermal in Canada, using ground water, lakes? Will the “waste heat from Thorium reactors, generators be safe for human uses? Will geothermal advances come onto the energy scene? Whatever happened to mini and micro hydro? Does colder, denser, Northern Canadian wind really produce more energy from a given wind turbine setup? Will inductive, on the fly charging and improved energy storage systems change rolling stock parameters? Will China’s huge reactor power provide cheaper Aluminium truck and car bodies? Will China’s loudly announced thrust towards electric, away from fossil fuels, bear fruit? Bring innovative ideas to the West? break the back of the U.S. ‘sunk money” inertia on oil, Enriched Uranium reactors? Just what did the astute German Scientists tell that nation to have them willingly change from a ‘status quo’ common in the 20th century to this new innovative anti-nuclear situation? Will the psychotic dissonance and non-polarized divisions that is the U.S. governing body today, ever be able to recover, follow suit with Germany? Can 20th Century Golden Age raised Americans of the Cheap Oil Age ever find comfort in the austere, frugal, conservative, non-materialistic reality found everywhere else in the modern world? Can public Transportation ever be held in other than disdain by these progeny of a neuveau riche, Bourgeois? Can Energy expectations be lowered comfortably for these “entitled” folk? Do we see possibilities for cast styro-foam spray-Crete homes in America? Will America ever make it law to compost, even humanures, use Anaerobic digestion or better to extract heat, methane, and top soil ameliorating fertilizer products? To save waterways and preserve agricultural greatness of America?

  7. Replying to Morin Moss, re-parented for readability:

    But what would it take to reduce Ontario’s per-capita emissions to Danish levels

    The vagueness of the available statistics requires some guesstimation, but transportation accounts for almost exactly 1/3 of the energy consumption in Ontario.  Electrify (and thus de-carbonize) that 1/3, which is currently almost 100% petroleum aside from whatever might be allocated to the Toronto subway system, and Ontario’s emissions should hit about 10/t/capita, roughly equal to Denmark.  Since Ontario’s energy consumption is very light on coal, oil may actually account for a much greater fraction of carbon consumption; the statistics I found are not easily interpreted.

    It’s possible to do much better than that.  Ontario could simply electrify everything in sight.  Space heat and DHW can be electrified with FF burners relegated to backups, with heat pumps given DSM priority over resistance heat.  Much industrial heat still supplied by FF can be electrified too, with FF remaining as backup.  Just chewing away at the remaining FF consumption can keep pushing carbon emissions downward.

    how much would it cost?

    Good question.  I don’t have an answer, but the promoter of the LEADIR effort believes nuclear steam will cost less than natural gas.  AECL managed to build CANDUs for about $2/watt through 1995; if that was $3/watt and 0.2¢/kWh for fuel going forward financed on provincial bonds at 4%, you’d get about 2.7¢/kWh plus maintenance running at 95% capacity factor (CANDUs do not need to shut down for fueling).  Figure 3.5¢/kWh all told, or about $10/mmBTU.  That’s less than the world price of natural gas, which North American prices will rise toward once LNG exports get under way.  In heat pumps, figure the per-BTU cost of heat as a third of that.

    If they follow the Ontario plan of racking up huge cost overruns

    There’s another side to that story.  If I understand correctly, refurbishment on several CANDU reactors was nearing completion when the anti-nuclear provincial government decided to create a brand new nuclear regulatory agency.  Having done this, the reactors were not allowed to go back on-line until they had been re-certified to the new regulations… which the new agency had to write from scratch.  All of the personnel costs and purchased power during this politically-forced outage are probably counted as “cost overruns”, but have nothing to do with the technology.  (They should probably be billed to the responsible party officials in their individual capacities, with the remainder after liquidation of their assets coming out of the coffers of their parties; that would teach them.)

    • MorinMoss Says:

      1) There’s absolutely no indication that any party or group in Ontario is looking at making even a small fraction of these changes whereas Denmark has been actively working towards sustainability since the oil embargo of ’73.

      2) Decarbonising transport to that extent requires non-ICE vehicles, big and small.
      Affordable passenger vehicles that the general public would buy are at least 5-10 yrs away. And doing all that, at tremendous expense and requiring at least a couple decades would get Ontario to where Denmark was 8 yrs ago – by 2035 at the earliest.
      I don’t have enough years left to wade through the all the details on the fight about surface rail vs subway stations in Toronto but it looks like 3 subway stations will get built by 2020?? For $3 billion dollars????

      3) Demographics matter – a lot. Denmark has a much lower unemployment rate and a MUCH slower population growth rate than Ontario. Adding jobs & mouths to feed without increasing increasing emissions is quite a feat.
      Remember that the end goal is NOT reducing per-capita CO2 but total CO2 from a given amount. A rising population hampers that goal.

      My ultimate point isn’t about technologies but about focus and planning.
      Only a few countries appear to have that; the rest are being pushed & pulled along, sometimes backwards, while the clock keeps on ticking.

      • 1) There’s absolutely no indication that any party or group in Ontario is looking at making even a small fraction of these changes whereas Denmark has been actively working towards sustainability since the oil embargo of ’73.

        Yet Ontario has obvious roads forward on several fronts, and Denmark’s are far less clear.  Particularly on transport.  Electrification would cut Denmark’s carbon emissions far less than Ontario’s simply because Ontario has far less CO2/kWh.

        2) Decarbonising transport to that extent requires non-ICE vehicles, big and small.

        You can cut carbon emissions quite a bit in the short term by switching vehicles from liquid fuels to natural gas.  Trucking is switching over at an accelerating rate, but light-duty vehicles consume far more fuel yet are a nearly untouched option.

        Affordable passenger vehicles that the general public would buy are at least 5-10 yrs away.

        PHEVs are spendy but they’re here today.  The changes to make them mainstream are coming like a stampede.  It really only needs two things:
        (a)  Cheaper batteries (being driven by a host of forces)
        (b)  Body re-design to tuck the traction battery beneath the seats or in the floor a la Tesla.

        When PHEVs get to be a big enough segment to justify their own engine families, you’ll see more sweeping changes.  2-cylinder turbo engines will become commonplace.  This will trim a lot of bulk and weight, as well as cost through reduced parts count.  Engine efficiency will go up due to higher average load.

        And doing all that, at tremendous expense and requiring at least a couple decades would get Ontario to where Denmark was 8 yrs ago – by 2035 at the earliest.

        If I was looking to de-carbonize Ontario for its own sake, the first thing I would do is use utility-controlled electric resistance heat as a dump load to offset fossil-fuel space heat and run the nukes at 100.0% all winter long.  Every bit of that dump load could be shut off in half a cycle, which effectively makes it spinning reserve.  That would let me shut down gas plants as long as the nukes and hydro had excess, further decarbonizing the system.  I’d get it installed by offering consumers electricity at the same price as gas (a discount from propane or fuel oil) and a credit on their bill for the installation.

        There are ways to up-rate the existing CANDU fleet while reducing the amount of spent fuel produced, but I’m sure your eyes are glazing over already.

        3) Demographics matter – a lot. Denmark has a much lower unemployment rate and a MUCH slower population growth rate than Ontario.

        Canada’s population growth is driven by immigration.  That’s a policy fix, if you can persuade the welfare-state left that cutting off the flow of new clients is actually in the national interest.

        My ultimate point isn’t about technologies but about focus and planning.

        As I said, the powerful camps with divergent goals and near-opposite means creates a schizophrenic non-policy.  This can be fixed, it just requires enough of a reality check to push some of the ideologues out of power.  THEN you get the focus required to plan.  The question is, plan to do what?  Denmark would be better advised to emulate Ontario than the reverse.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      Here’s a comparison of 2 Euro countries:

      The UK, which peaked at 26% nuclear in ’97 but fell to 17% with multiple reactor shutdowns and France which has been at +75% electricity generation from nuclear since the mid-80s.!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=en_atm_co2e_pc&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=country:FRA:GBR&ifdim=region&tdim=true&hl=en_US&dl=en&ind=false

      While France has significantly lower per-capita emissions, they made very little progress from ’88 – ’02 where they flatlined for several years before beginning a slight decline.

      The UK did much better despite a significant cutback on the amount of nuclear power.

      And France’s long-term plan for fossil phaseout seems underwhelming: 30% by 2030, 50 % by 2050
      And Prime Minister Hollande is already hedging his bets on the 2050 target.
      The link & headline are misleading as both say “cut carbon emissions 30% by 2030” but the article text says “30% less fossil fuel use by 2030” – not at all the same thing.

      Getting back to Ontario, while it looks like they should meet the 2014 emissions target projected back in 2007 (page 7 in 1st linked PDF below), the 2nd link, a report for all of Canada, paints a bleak picture for 2020 ( page 33 )

      Click to access std01_079187.pdf

      Click to access 793-Canada’s-Emissions-Trends-2012_e_01.pdf

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