Privatizing Sunbeams

On June 28, the US Energy Information Administration announced that – for the first time – renewable energy trumped nuclear as a major source of power. For the first quarter of 2011, renewables provided 5 percent more electricity than nuclear reactors and matched three-quarters of the power provided by domestic crude oil. Taken together, renewables provided nearly 12 percent of US energy output. The leading contributors were biomass/biofuels (48 percent), hydropower (35 percent), and wind (12 percent), followed by geothermal and solar.

When it comes to growth, the big winner was solar. Compared to the first quarter of 2010, solar-electric production soared 104 percent, outpacing even wind (40 percent) and hydropower (28 percent). While renewables surged, electricity from natural gas rose a meager 1.8 percent, nuclear flat-lined, and coal fell 5 percent. Naturally, congressional Republicans greeted this news with calls for more nuclear bailouts and a push to gut federal investment in renewables.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced a $1.2 billion loan guarantee to help SunPower build a 250-MW centralized solar plant in Southern California and another $2.1 billion loan guarantee to Solar Trust of America for the first of two 242-MW solar-thermal electricity plants. As Solar Trust’s CEO noted, the money would help kick-start “a new era of utility-scale solar development.”

On the surface, that sounds like good news. Go deeper, though, and you can unearth the real agenda here: These plants are built to serve large commercial interests. That’s right. In addition to the old bogeymen of Big Oil and Big Coal, we are now looking at the birth of Big Sol.

“[The US] can either sit on the sidelines and watch the competition pass us by, or we can get in the race and play to win,” DOE Secretary Dr. Steven Chu proclaimed. But Solar Trust is a joint venture of two German firms – Solar Millennium AG and Ferrostaal Inc. – while SunPower is controlled by the French oil giant Total. Foreign ownership is one problem, corporate control is another. Solar Trust has partnered with Chevron while SunPower will supply PG&E, California’s largest private utility.

As David Myers observed in the Autumn 2010 Journal, “There is a corporate lobbying push to focus federal stimulus funds on projects that keep renewable energy ‘behind-the-meter.’ In other words, to stop the democratization of energy.” So how can we short-circuit the corporate control of sunshine? Through diversity. Instead of imposing vast, mirrored complexes on untrammeled wilderness, solar farms can be planted atop urban brownfields, parking structures, and shopping malls.

Ultimately, the antidote to corporate centralization is decentralized microgeneration – a solar array for every home. In California, residential and commercial rooftops are projected to generate 40,000-70,000 MW – more than the state consumes on the hottest summer day. But Big Sol has some tricks for reducing the economic competitiveness of sunbeams that are harnessed right off your rooftop.

Here’s how: Under “net-metering” programs, utilities offer “credits” for excess power grabbed by their central grid whenever a homeowner’s electric meters “spin backwards.” The utility profits by reselling this free excess power at a premium. As energy analyst Robert Freehling notes, net-metering can put photovoltaics “in conflict with efficiency and conservation efforts” because it favors “energy hogs that use three or more times the ‘baseline’ amount of electricity.”

A better approach is the feed-in tariff (FIT), a system that pays businesses and homeowners directly for excess solar production at an agreed-upon price. Thanks to FITs, homeowners in Ontario, Canada, receive between 53.9 and 71.3 Canadian cents/kW for their excess rooftop power – more than commercial generators receive. In Germany, where FITs rule, citizens pay 40 percent less to go solar than net-metered Americans. FIT expert Paul Gipe argues that adopting Germany’s feed-in tariffs would save US ratepayers money “and result in windfall profits.” Not surprisingly, Big Sol prefers net-metering.

Concentrating photons in the hands of an energy elite prioritizes stockholder gain above avoiding biosphere pain. Off-the-grid independence is the ideal. Short of that, we can still cast a shadow over Big Sol’s power grab by demanding a FIT price for farming photons from atop our own solar homesteads.

Gar Smith is the Journal’s Editor Emeritus and author of “Nuclear Roulette,” available from the International Forum on Globalization for $16 plus $3 postage.

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