Commentary: The right to power our homes

Marc Lopata, left, is president of Microgrid Solar in St. Louis, and Jeramy Shays is Policy Associate at the American Council On Renewable Energy.

Marc Lopata, left, is president of Microgrid Solar in St. Louis, and Jeramy Shays is Policy Manager at the American Council On Renewable Energy.

By Marc Lopata and Jeramy Shays

Reliable, affordable electricity is the lifeblood of our country and economy. This has been fact since Thomas Edison demonstrated the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb in 1879. Electricity fuels our economy and greatly enriches the quality of our lives.

For much of the last hundred years, electricity came from massive centralized power plants. These plants routinely emit harmful pollutants into the air we breathe and the water we drink. They harm our quality of life while decreasing property values in their surrounding communities. If those power plants use coal as a fuel, there are also significant “externalities” associated with the common mining operations in coal production, such as environmental degradation, water pollution, and loss of animal populations.

Until quite recently, most consumers have had little choice other than to purchase their electricity – transmitted over long, aging transmission lines – from a single seller. As a result, consumers suffered increased costs due to inefficient line loss averaging 7 percent per year and related rate and fuel price increases.

Due to significant technology innovation, common-sense government policies, and rapid “mature industry” cost declines (80 percent for photovoltaic (PV) solar in the past five years), the historic, centralized state of the electricity market is showing cracks.

Today, as solar approaches grid parity, homeowners are being empowered to generate their own electricity on their own property. Decentralized or distributed generation in the form of PV solar installations on roofs grew 36% from 2011 to 2012, with the growth trends clearly accelerating. Residential installations grew by 61 percent, fueled by the increasing use of leases and third-party ownership of these systems.

So why are most states, cities, and local communities across the country enthusiastically embracing this opportunity for individuals to diversify how and where their energy is generated? Simply put, distributed solar power reproduces much the same innovation opportunity as Edison’s first light bulb. It balances out the supply and demand equation by favoring energy security, economic vitality, and environmental security for consumers, our communities, and our country.

The cost is mostly startup, and once paid, the consumer is essentially generating free electricity. The cost of the fuel – the sun’s infinite light – is zero. Such free-market spirit expressed by self-generation, self-reliance, and limited governmental involvement is a hedge against rising electricity costs and is proven to be an economic and environmental boon.

The community benefit is also significant. Generating electricity onsite reduces overall peak demand on the centralized power source. This reduces the most expensive peak electricity prices on those hot, humid summer days in Missouri when electricity is used the most. In most cases, peak demand lasts for about 100 hours per year. But these 100 hours compel utilities to make uneconomical investments in the name of reliability. In the end, their customers – the rate payers – make up the difference. The more we increase distributed generation – in this case PV – the more we can reduce the investment cost and the burden to the rate-payer.

Using the sun’s clean, CO2 neutral energy to generate electricity on your own property – an action collectively taken by many individuals in our neighborhoods across the country – improves the quality of our air, land, and water, all while helping to mitigate the threats of climate change. According to the Community Associations Institute, there are about 13 million townhouses and homes in gated communities or subdivisions. These properties are the most suitable for residential solar installations. If just five percent of these homes invested in an average-sized residential solar energy system, it would add 3.3 gigawatts of clean power and reduce CO2 emissions by over 6 million tons – the equivalent of taking over 1.1 million vehicles off the road. Imagine if 50% of those homes went solar!

We all talk about the critical need to diversify our fuel sources and reduce harmful impacts of electricity production on our air, climate, land, and water. Preserving and actually improving the quality of life for present and future generations is one of our strongest American traditions. This is most true when accomplished using free market principles, consumer choice, and limited governmental involvement.

The American Council On Renewable Energy is strongly opposed to any prohibitions that limit steps individuals can take toward securing their energy, economic, and environmental security goals. Installing solar panels on the roof – which are arguably no more noticeable than skylights – is a right we should all be standing up and fighting for, in Missouri and nationwide.

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