rooftop solar images

Rooftop solar seemed to be one of those juggernaut macro trends in new home building and development. It would get cheaper over time, pay for itself more quickly, and serve as one of those literally shining examples of technology that actually works to the mutual benefit of consumers, builders, and the planet.

Rooftop solar, from an aesthetic standpoint, was never going to win a lot of fans. What's more, initial costs to install sent those considering it into feverish calculations of monthly calculations of the pay-back point. Still, the math generally worked out to the good, and early adopters even had Uncle Sam and the utility companies kicking in to get the fledgling solar business off the ground.

And now, according to some, roof top solar is virtually out of business as a  phenomenon--the opposite of an up and coming trend--in places like Phoenix and possibly soon in the Las Vegas market and other locations.

Utility companies, you see, and even some of the state power agencies, have this problem with roof top solar, and most of the difficulty--which comes down to money--centers on this notion of net metering.

Net metering happens when people who live in a roof top solar-powered house return power to the grid and get credit for an amount that they--as retail customers--would buy that same quantity of power from the utility.

From the household's standpoint, fair is fair. You pay a dime per kWh from your utility company, and said utility pays you the same for that same kWh. The utility companies beg to differ. They say they sell residents a kWh for a dime (say), but they pay just a nickel. Therein lies the rub.

So, the utility companies are pushing back on net metering and pushing to cap solar credits via a per kWh rate below retail, or a flat fee. Nevada, which had been one of the more benign environments for solar to get a toe-hold, appears to be being drawn into a forcefield of political shenanigans thanks to the power of legacy power.

So, it's no surprise to see, as recently as yesterday, a report of mega-political power players acting their part in the net-metering debate on a state-by-state basis.

Media Matters contributor Denise Robbins discloses the names of a number of such organizations whose immense resources pressure elected officials and grassroots support bases on the side of the utilities against net metering. Robbins writes:

Nine of the 10 states with the most solar electricity installed per capita also have strong net metering policies. But policies to roll back net metering are already impacting solar companies. One company, Vivint, scrapped its plans to expand to Nevada after the state changed its policy to cap net metering at what solar advocates call an unreasonably low limit. Massachusetts' net metering cap poses a similar threat to the solar industry there.

Attack campaigns against net metering could halt the expansion of a clean energy industry that threatens the fossil fuel interests usually behind those attacks.

Special interest funding for non net metering in 2015, from Media Matters

Extensive, expensive analysis as to the relative costs to the grid of rooftop solar residence energy units, this way and that, during peak and off-peak, direct, and distributed, wind up self-serving the interests of whomever it is funds the research.

But all of this misses two basic points. One is the gorilla in the room, which is that the utility companies, by behaving as if it is their birthright to have every household and every commercial and industrial enterprise umbilically dependent on and beholding to them, have embraced an odd definition of the sharing economy: You pay us and we share that with a few shareholders.

The other point is more nuanced, and ultimately more important in what happens at the end of the day. Rooftop solar's innovation is not sheerly about cost savings, engineering, and renewable energy in the home.

Its innovation is that it's an elegant and self-determined way for a household's occupants to engage with their home, run it (albeit in a turn-key and easy-to-use way), and alter the ongoing experience of living there in an active rather than passive way.

Homes are user experiences after all.

In Steve Lohr's book, Data-ism, The Revolution Transforming Decision-Making, Consumer Behavior, and Almost Everything Else, Lohr notes his admiration for Silicon Valley's buccaneer leaders at Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and others. They're really smart, for one, and they bring a "we can change the world" conviction to their business models and missions.

A battle that pits old power against new power, and the non-sharing economy against the sharing economy, and the perpetually-dependent homeowner against the homeowner who has a stake and a say in his home's "interface" is going to be a fascinating one. And it may be that the ones winning in the early-going may be losers in the longer run.