A flotilla of kayakers paddled through downtown Nashville on the Cumberland River on Saturday, holding a banner reading: “Let’s move TVA beyond coal.”
It was a message from the Sierra Club, highlighting what it sees as a need for stronger federal standards to limit toxic water pollution from coal-fired power plants. Ultimately, the group is calling for the shuttering of Tennessee Valley Authority coal plants.
TVA’s coal plants have brought us tragedies like the Kingston coal ash spill, which as I observed at the time was merely an extreme example of a widespread problem. Tennessee is uniquely suited to solar and TVA could easily expand its popular Generation Partners program. Through this program, people like us who have solar panels on our residential rooftops sell our extra production to TVA at a slight premium. It’s small compared to other states — 12-cents a kWh, plus the retail rate (which fluctuates but right now is 9 cents a kWh) — but it helps to offset the enormous cost of installing these systems.
Instead of expanding its renewables, TVA has engaged in a bit of foot-dragging. This is not surprising to anyone with a brain; unless there’s some kind of cap-and-trade or carbon tax program put into play, utilities — even quasi-public ones like TVA — really don’t have an incentive to play nice with people like us, other than for the obvious PR value.
Sure, groups like the Sierra Club can remind everyone of the enormous costs of coal, and how alternatives like nuclear are not really economically viable, either. Last I checked, the Kingston mess cost TVA (and us ratepayers) $1 billion.
But while rooftop solar makes a lot of sense economically, it’s also the power industry’s biggest threat. There’s simply no reason why a power company would want to hand over power production to the people. We’re technically putting them out of business, one rooftop at a time. Instead of us buying power from them, we’re selling it to them. That kinda turns the power provider/customer relationship on its head.
And increasingly, the utilities are not happy about it.
Alarmed by what they say has become an existential threat to their business, utility companies are moving to roll back government incentives aimed at promoting solar energy and other renewable sources of power. At stake, the companies say, is nothing less than the future of the American electricity industry.
According to the Energy Information Administration, rooftop solar electricity — the economics of which often depend on government incentives and mandates — accounts for less than a quarter of 1 percent of the nation’s power generation.
And yet, to hear executives tell it, such power sources could ultimately threaten traditional utilities’ ability to maintain the nation’s grid.
This is the age-old conundrum that goes back to the ’70s when President Carter put solar panels on the White House roof. If individual households can generate their own power, then what do we need big utilities for? It’s the “hard path”/”soft path” debate we’ve always had. Big solar farms or individual rooftops? Right now it’s a mixture of both but off on the sidelines, behemoth utilities are trying to push out the little guys: yes, we can have a few mom and pop rooftop operations, for the photo op, but not too many. Too many and suddenly nobody needs Duke Energy anymore.
And of course the issue has become even more pressing as our transportation gets electrified, and as technological advances make storage less of an issue. If TVA wants to dick around with us solar folks, screw ’em. We’ll go off the grid.
Ah, the grid. So, the utilities say, we maintain this grid, and you use it when you leave your solar-powered home, so suck it up. They may have a point, but the solution is simple: nationalize the grid.
Seriously, why the hell not? The power grid is a mess, a hodgepodge cobbled together with spit and a prayer. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the power grid in recent weeks and I’m definitely not an expert but it sure seems like we desperately need to make a big change, soon. And it seems like the country’s electrical grid, like things like highways and the armed forces, is something you want to be uniform and reliable and stable, without the fluctuations that come when you let “market forces” do the picking.
So far the only thing I’ve seen about nationalizing the power grid are on far-right tinfoil hat conspiracy websites. They seem to find the idea verrry scaaaary. But no one has told me why nationalizing the power grid is a bad idea, aside from a reflexive allergic reaction to the word “nationalize.” (For people who profess to love the nation so much, I don’t get that … but whatever!)
The energy sector is changing faster than anyone anticipated. I can foresee a day in, say, 15 years when individual homes and businesses are powered by rooftop solar, we all drive around on electric cars, and vehicle-to-building technology is as ordinary as apple pie. I know it’s hard for some folks to imagine that the authoritarian Big Daddy utility may be going the way of the dinosaur, but if their best argument against technological advancement is, “it will put us out of business,” well, my answer is: so what. Adapt or die.
It’s kinda like our health insurance industry. What purpose do they serve any more? They aren’t pooling risk to lower cost, which was their reason for existence in the first place. All they do is skim profit off the top to buy an insurance company CEO a gigantic house. Sorry, but that’s kind of a sign that your business model is now rrelevant. If that’s the best case you can make, well, sorry, Charlie.
We aren’t there yet for power companies, not even close … but it appears the mere threat of such a thing has utilities shitting their pants. To which I say: adapt or die. Why should we keep you around just for nostaligia’s sake? Good lord, if the Tea Party and Americans For Prosperity had been around 100 years ago, they’d have been fearmongering about automobiles and telling us how great the horse and wagon is.
I dunno. We need to start getting shit done in this country. Has everyone forgotten about the time the Northeastern power grid failed? That 10th anniversary is right around the corner. That might be a good time for us to start talking about this stuff.