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Seeing the Light


MANHATTAN BEACH, CALIF. — I pulled out my volleyball to warm up under an overcast sky, not quite the sunny southern California welcome I’d been expecting. Still, experienced beachgoers slather on sunscreen even on cloudy days, when the dim sunlight lulls novices into forgetting just how intense solar rays can be, and I want to take a moment to appreciate the awesome power of our sun.

After all, sunlight is the ultimate source of energy on Earth’s surface. Even fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas, which power almost every aspect of our modern lives — are merely the partly decomposed, compacted remains of ancient plants. People have always dreamed of harnessing the power of the sun. But only recently have we had the ability to do so in major ways.

For the last 3.5 billion years or so, photosynthetic organisms (including, in modern times, the plants that provide food, shade and decoration for humans around the world) have made our complex food chain possible by transforming solar energy into organic compounds useful to other organisms. Yet even they only manage to capture about one percent of the sunlight that strikes their leaves (though scientists are tinkering with ways to boost their efficiency).

But the search for renewable energy has led humanity to seek other ways of capturing this sunlight. In particular, modern solar panels can turn 25 percent or more of the light striking them directly into electricity. Along with hydroelectricity and wind, solar power is supposed to lead us into a new era of sustainability as we transitioned away from reliance on what is a finite fossil fuel supply — and its unfortunate side effect, climate change.

And at last, solar power seems ready for the big stage.

In several states, solar energy generation has reached “grid parity,” meaning that electricity from solar panels installed on your roof is as cheap as or even cheaper than electricity purchased from your local utility company. This is a major economic milestone because it means solar has finally reached the same price point as traditional electricity generation (typically from coal, gas or nuclear power plants). Solar is no longer the pet project of wealthy greenies, and as technology continues to improve, it will increasingly become the economical choice — not just the environmentally conscious one.

If further proof of solar’s success is necessary, one has only to gauge the anxiety levels of the electrical utility companies. After decades of security in its then “natural monopoly” as the only source of electricity available to homeowners, the utility industry is suddenly facing substantial revenue losses as its customers shift toward self-sufficiency.

The companies’ response has been almost painfully predictable: lobbying government officials to impose a monthly fee on solar users who remain connected to the grid.

Their reasoning is not without merit: Solar users typically retain their grid connection to compensate for the times when their panel installations can’t meet their energy needs (like our gray Manhattan Beach day, or at nighttime). But this all evens out: During the day, when solar users’ electricity generation exceeds demand, they feed this spare power back into the grid, offsetting their previous usage. At the end of the month, some homeowners have sold back enough electricity to completely offset their usage, so they owe the utilities nothing.

It’s true that solar users benefit from the extensive — and expensive — infrastructure provided by their utility companies. Still, it’s hard to view the exorbitant charges recommended by the (electric) utility companies as anything but an effort to force solar into an uneconomical corner. It’s an attempt that Arizona regulators recently saw through, however — they set fees at about $5 per month rather than the utility-recommended $50-100.

But monthly tariffs aren’t the only way utilities can try to block solar. They can also charge unreasonable amounts for grid hookups and drag their feet with lengthy delays. At least that’s what Elon Musk, of Tesla fame, and SolarCity claim is happening to California customers, who present a double threat to the utilities as they begin to install the company’s lithium-ion batteries.

For now, it makes sense for homeowners to retain their safety tether to the grid. But the future of battery technology — which represents complete self-sufficiency, made possible by storing excess solar panel-captured energy in those batteries during peak production that can be used at nighttime — clearly results in customers removing themselves completely from reliance on the grid. By reducing the revenues of a natural monopoly, increased reliance on batteries will drive up the price for the remaining utility customers, causing more and more to jump ship.

The seeming inevitability of this transition — at least in sunny states like Arizona and California — is encouraging, regardless of whether your concerns center more on sustainability or environmental impact. And while there will be some fossil fuel-based hiccups along the way (for example, as fracking floods the market with natural gas), it’s nice to see at least one renewable technology have its day in the sun.


Holly welcomes rays of sunshine in the form of reader emails at [email protected]

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).