In a recent article, we shared the developing story of attacks on net metering policies around the United States, even in solar-friendly states. While not all of the attacks are successful, many are. Many people think this is going to be bad for rooftop solar, but it could end up being a blessing in disguise.
What Is Net Metering?
Net metering is a system that lets people with solar panels send extra energy they create back to the grid. The utility company then credits their account for that energy. This can help people save money on their electric bill. Sometimes, if a customer creates more energy than they need, their account will even go into the negative and the utility company will have to pay them for the extra energy.
Or, put more simply, you can “turn your meter backwards” (even if that’s not the most technically accurate way to explain the practice).
This is great for solar customers because they get to basically use the grid as if it were a battery. You can produce extra energy during the day, feed it to the grid, and then get energy back during the night from the grid when your rooftop solar panels don’t generate any electricity. Because you can get energy cheaper (per kWh) from your panels than you can get it for from the grid, this makes for a financial advantage for people who can get panels on their roof.
Environmentally, this is great because solar power helps offset daytime energy use and make the grid use less fossil fuels to power things like air conditioning. So, in that vein it makes sense to pay solar customers well for their excess power, as it really does help their neighbors use less energy from fossil fuels during the day.
But, The Grid Is Not Really A Battery
There’s a problem, though. While net metering lets people with rooftop solar treat the electrical grid like a battery, the electrical grid really isn’t a battery.
One problem occurs when too many residential rooftops, businesses, and large solar farms feed too much energy in during the day for people to actually use. Sometimes, you can sell the excess power to neighboring states, but other times you have to either give it away or even pay people to take it off your hands. When there’s nobody else in a neighboring grid to take that excess power, you end up having to find ways to waste it and even take some solar plants offline.
Grids facing this problem obviously aren’t going to think it’s a great idea to pay people retail rates for their power. They’re having to not only sell power cheap or pay to give it away, but they’re also having to idle solar farms that have fixed costs regardless of whether they produce power that day.
There’s also the problem of what happens when things go wrong with the grid. Severe weather, epic storms, earthquakes, a broken power plant, terror attacks, and war can all cause outages, as we know. There’s also the potential problem of space weather causing severe outages, with the worst case scenario being power outages that last months or years. Having solar power on rooftops that shuts itself down during outages (to not hurt lineworkers) does nothing for anybody during those situations.
Environmentally-speaking, once a grid gets saturated with solar power during the daytime, adding even more power doesn’t help with the issue of burning fossil fuels at night. There comes a point where we have to stop adding power during the day and start adding some at night.
Ending Net Metering Means Solar+Storage Makes More Financial Sense & Helps Society
When people can’t get retail rates for energy sent to the grid, it makes it a lot easier to want to keep it to use later. When you don’t want to sell it cheap and pay more to get it back, batteries give you the opportunity to actually do that.
But, it’s not just the financial aspects that make energy storage better.
For the family that lives under the roof, having battery storage means at least some independence from the grid. Power outages? Your family can actually sit them out, no matter how long the power outage goes on for. When you consider the potentially deadly consequences of not having power (think of Texas this past winter), this matters a lot. When government officials and others assisting in disaster don’t have to help you and your family, they can help other people more. This means that overall, everyone is safer than they would have been if people only had solar without storage.
Another advantage to home energy storage is that it can help keep outages from happening at all. When there’s too much demand, utilities sometimes have to engage in rolling blackouts so that everybody at least gets a turn to have power. The more people who have power on their own, the lower the chances that this has to happen at all.
On the international stage, energy security and energy independence are well-served by this. While energy independence is often a pro-fossil talking point in the United States, many countries can’t just dig up coal or pump oil to keep outside energy dependence down. Having to import things like coal or natural gas leaves a country vulnerable to blockade or blackmail, for example.
It’s Time To Move On, But In An Orderly Fashion
While net metering did a good job of getting people to adopt solar back when battery storage was prohibitively expensive, the world has changed. We do need more solar in most places, but we need the ability to store that energy for night-time use as soon as possible. Continuing policies that lead us away from that and toward imbalances makes no sense.
But, that doesn’t mean it’s time to accept excuses for policies that are actively and intentionally anti-solar, nor does it become a good idea to cut off net metering too abruptly. With anti-renewable leadership in many jurisdictions, this is the result we’d get from just backing away from the debate completely. So, we need to stay actively involved.
The goal needs to be to draft sane policy that incentivizes battery storage without penalizing solar.
Featured image by Vijay Govindan, CleanTechnica.
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