Unlike a lot of activists, I’m not what you’d call a single-issue voter. Education, health care, immigration, land use, transportation—I’m passionate about all of them. But if there’s one overarching issue for me, it’s our environment and how we as a civilization deal with the now undeniable impacts of climate change. Whether or not you believe human industry is responsible for melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, superstorms, draught, and famine, you have to admit that the future looks bleak for our species if we don’t do something to stop the regression.
And if humans can’t survive the next 100 years on this planet, it really doesn’t matter if we get comprehensive immigration reform, gun control, new funding mechanisms for our schools, or the A’s in San Jose.
At the core of the problem is how and where we get our energy. The industrial revolution created an exponentially increasing demand for juice to power our homes, offices, cars, and now smart phones. Over the past 150 years, large energy companies have profited from a seller’s market, raising rates at will and passing the cost of their boondoggles along to ratepayers. For a good long while, this was an unavoidable dynamic. These guys had the production and distribution system, and we needed cold beer on Sunday. But the onset of green energy technology provides us all with a chance to stake our own claims in the battle against climate change—and we can create jobs and save lives while we’re at it.
Even single-issue environmental activists will agree, there is no silver bullet in the green energy revolution. It will take combination of sources—solar, wind, water, (hydrogen fuel cells, anyone?)—to generate the power needed for our increasingly digital civilization to thrive. But most would also agree that rooftop solar power is one of the true success stories of the green economy. This is particularly true in California, where residents, schools, and businesses have installed more than 1,400 MW of rooftop solar capacity—about the same amount of energy generated by three dirty, coal-fired power plants.
Solar electricity is pollution-free and comes from a source that will never dry up—at least for the next few billion years. The solar industry employs more than 43,000 Californians and has driven $10 billion in private investment in the state over the past five years. A key factor in the continued growth of the industry is a policy called “net metering.” According to a state government website: “Net energy metering, or ‘NEM’, is a special billing arrangement that provides credit to customers with solar PV (photovoltaic) systems for the full retail value of the electricity their system.”
Basically, net metering is like rollover minutes on your cell phone bill, and we’re not talking about nickels and dimes. A January study by Crossborder Energy showed that net metering will save ratepayers of big California utilities more than $92 million annually. And now that third-party owned solar has reduced or eliminated the high costs of installation, two-thirds of California home solar installations are popping up in low- and median-income neighborhoods. As solar energy gets cheaper and becomes more accessible, Californians buy less electricity from big utilities. So it should come as no surprise that the state’s investor-owned utilities are trying to drown the NEM baby in the bathtub.
That’s why it was good to read the other day that public health leaders and solar energy companies have formed a new coalition called CAUSE (Californians Against Utilities Stopping solar Energy). Okay, so there’s one extra “s” in there, but despite the name, the group has an honorable cause: fighting back against legislative efforts sponsored by the big utility industry to stop rooftop solar. According to the group’s press release, CAUSE is “dedicated to maintaining a thriving solar industry in California, and to promoting the health and economic benefits that solar delivers to all Californians.”
Bottom line: Using less electricity is good for everyone, except the big utility companies. Shrinking profit margins for some of the wealthiest corporations in our state should not excuse actions that prevent people from making smart conservation choices. Like any other business with a reduced market for its product, utilities should cut costs through increased efficiency, modernize their industry to take advantage of the solar and green energy evolution, or simply learn to live with one less corporate jet.
As a former Mercury News employee, I’m reminded of the smell of slow death that permeated the newsroom as the Internet quickly became the number one source of information for a generation that doesn’t like the feel of newsprint on their fingers. If major newspaper publishers had recognized the potential of online media prior to the turn of the century, they would be better positioned to survive. Instead, the industry is a relic hanging on for dear life. The same dilemma confronts the utility industry, and it’s grounded in basic Darwinian philosophy: survival of the fittest.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go order a solar installation for my house.
Peter Allen is an independent communications consultant and the proud owner of a Prius that gets up to 50mpg.