A Personal Experiment In Solar Power Begins

Breaking free from centralized power production must start somewhere. Democratize, not centralize.

In the last year alone, I’ve suffered five blackouts. Since I’ve moved here to Utah, there has been a blackout at least once a year in the 12 years that I’ve lived here. In the 40 years that I lived in Southern California, I can only remember a handful of blackouts during those years. The uncertainty of power service had become a low hum in my mind since the last blackout. I had to make a change.

So I sprung for the solar power and the batteries and last fall I signed up. Months of waiting and prep work followed. The contractor helped me with the paperwork, too. With their help, I’ll get some of the tax subsidies, $2000 so far, and I’ll get a somewhat decent rate for net metering at 9.2 cents per kWh. That should help me get to the $0 power bill that so many have shared with me from their own solar adventure. I saw that and I wanted that. But the service interruptions made me want something more: Battery backup.

Somehow, last fall, my wife and I found ourselves in a zoom meeting, getting the pitch and seeing that solar power and battery power protection were within our grasp. I could see how the financing would work. I could manage another $169 a month for this. I’m working full time, my wife very part-time. One of my dreams started to become real. And in my dream, I could say buh-bye to blackouts.

The panels and the battery were installed weeks ago. I’m still getting the system up and running. I’m relieved to learn that the timely paperwork we filed will help us to get paid 9.2 cents per KWh until about 2032. That’s a good long time to help pay off our system. The rest will come from extra work here and there. I could worry about the money, but I’ve noticed in the past that when I commit to something great, all manner of assistance comes to my aid that I could not foresee. It seems like there is always something or someone out there that wants to help me make things happen, and things just work out.

I’ve only been producing for a few days now. I got the monitoring for the power system installed a few days after we flipped the switch. I just got consumption monitoring started yesterday. I got one panel that wasn't reporting and had that one fixed. Then I found another one that wasn’t working, and they will fix that one, too. We’re just working the bugs out. Next up is the battery which isn’t really doing much at the moment. One by one, these things will be sorted out. I’m a persistently sqeaky wheel when it comes to getting contractors to finish their wove bark, but I’m patient.

However the money works out, and I think it’ll be OK, what I’m really concerned about is power service. I just wanted something that would put an end to the blackouts and at least keep part of my house running while the power company fixes the root cause of the next service interruption. I have to admit that I was not too pleased to learn that 3 of those blackouts were caused by the same truck driver at a local Walmart. It would have been nice if that truck driver had not clobbered the same transformer in the parking lot 3 times.

I also saw other problems coming up. More extreme weather, with high winds and fires. More hardware contention as the power company deals with power demand over old hardware that they have to maintain instead of financing the second house on the coast of Spain for the CEO. Sometimes transformers blow up and power lines snap. I just wanted protection from that while I’m working from home. I expect that in a week or so, we’ll have all the bugs worked out and I’ll have a smooth-running power system.

I see that the power utilities have been doing everything they can to mitigate the rising trend of consumer-generated solar power. Oh, they have no problem installing their own solar plants out in the desert. But they are very much concerned that consumers might actually make money producing their own power. Power companies love monopsony.

Monopsony is where one or a few actors are so big, that they can set the price for what they buy. In this case, we have only one utility, Rocky Mountain Power (RMP) one buyer, for the power I will sell. RMP has been busy working hard with the Public Services Commission to limit the amount of money people can earn generating solar power.

There isn’t much profit here. I’d like to be compensated for unreliable service, myself. It’s not a big lift to compensate consumers for buying the hardware, paying the installers, and managing the plant. Consumer solar power just isn’t something that the utilities want to contend with. They want their free lunch. So they work with their proxies in government to reduce economic incentives for people to install solar panels.

The trends in Utah show that RMP’s plan is working. The amount of consumer capacity installed each year has been going down in the last decade, despite rising efficiency. Meanwhile utility solar has been on the rise. The incentives have been cut relentlessly based on the claim that solar power shouldn’t be subsidized (unless utilities build it, then it’s a good subsidy). Meanwhile, we’re not supposed to notice the subsidies received by coal, oil and gas.

Don’t worry about the coal subsidies. You know, like how coal ash spills are not cleaned up by the coal companies unless the government ponies up the cash. Never you mind that natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas by itself (methane is 84 times more powerful than CO2) and that some natural gas wells have been leaking for decades. Hopefully, a large oceanic flotilla of cyanobacteria will pick up the slack. And don’t even think about the military subsidies we pay to keep the oil tankers coming. Worldwide, carbon energy subsidies total about $5 trillion at the last count. Fossil fuels are about as centralized and undemocratic as you can get.

Electricity is universal and it’s everywhere. Every form of life relies upon electricity to function. Electricity runs our brains. They’ve even found that electrical energy is generated when the saltwater mixes with the freshwater where the river meets the sea. Electric power generation doesn’t care much about input sources, too. Nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, and even tidal forces can generate energy for all of our gadgets and appliances. Solar power is the most decentralized form of energy generation because the input source is the sun.

When power generation is decentralized, it’s democratized. Isn’t it interesting that RMP is going in the other direction? Even if they build their own solar power plants, they’re still banking on centralized energy production. Now, what would our country be like if every house and every business could run off-grid, without the power utilities? I would hope that we’d be a kinder gentler nation full of people with a greater capacity to help each other.

Write on.

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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