Can I Hate the Solar Bill of Rights and Still Love Solar Power?

by Neal Dikeman

A few of you may have run across the Solar Bill of Rights Petition that’s floating around the web.  I was really excited at the idea, until I read it.  For a good environmental conservative like me, I had a lot of trouble swallowing the actual demands, despite the fact that a whole bunch of my friends and people I respect are already signatories.  To be honest, instead of being excited over the soaring rhetoric and call to action, or enthralled by the detailed and well thought out solutions to the thorny issues around power deregulation, local choice, and distributed energy, and my first response after reading it was along the lines of “where do they get off”.  It reads like a very self serving, our child is prettier than your child, our cause is more important than your cause, partisan politics please subsidize me call to unlevel the playing field, and ignores all the devils in the details.

Whereas the reall Bill of Rights is a carefully crafted attempt to reserve rights to protect the individual from the state, this feels like an attempt to use the state’s engines to smash all opposition to particular industry, and local choice and the rights of the people and businesses affected be damned.  Not my idea of a Bill of Rights.

To my friends who know how much I believe in the solar sector and its promise – I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry in advance of you reading this.  But somebody please bring me a new version of the Solar Bill of Rights worth signing.

The text of the Solar Bill of Rights is below in italics, with my thoughts and questions after each point.  Read through for yourself, and post your comments on the blog.  Tell me whether you think I should sign, and Cleantech Blog should endorse it.  Or post suggestions for amendments we can propose, and we’ll write our own.

We declare these rights not on behalf of our companies, but on behalf of our customers and our country. We seek no more than the freedom to compete on equal terms and no more than the liberty for consumers to choose the energy source they think best.

1. Americans have the right to put solar on their homes or businesses


Millions of Americans want to put solar on the roof of their home or business, but many are prevented from doing so by local restrictions. Some homeowners associations have prevented residents from going solar through neighborhood covenants, which allow for the association to veto any changes to a property’s aesthetics. Some utilities and municipalities have also made it prohibitively time-consuming and/or expensive to have a system permitted or inspected.

I loved this one, at first blush.  A right to solar?  Terrific.  Then I started thinking, hey wait a minute.  HOAs and deed restrictions are a core defender of local property rights.  Where do we get off retroactively telling the massive number of property owners and zoning boards, we’re sorry, despite the fact that you can’t get 50% vote of your neighborhood to approve changes to the agreement you all live under in your democratic process (and that your neighborhood may have had for 100 years), here’s your new amendment.  That smacks of eminent domain to me.  I hate the use of eminent domain to benefit a specific constituency.  Needs lots of nuance before I could get behind this one.

2. Americans have the right to connect their solar energy system to the grid with uniform national standards


Currently, each state (in some cases, each utility) has a unique process for connecting solar systems to the local electricity grid. National interconnection standards will create a uniform process and paperwork, creating a simple process for the homeowner and a standardized physical connection for manufacturers. Connecting a home solar system shouldn’t be any more complicated for the homeowner than setting up an Internet connection.

Got to love standards, but who’s going to set them?  That part always creates big winners and losers.  Telecom standards for that local internet connection were supported by the government, but never did we have a mandate all ISPs shall go DSL, right?  Oh, and by the way, all local utility grids are very different in design.  Some can do things that others can’t.  How exactly will that be reconciled, and who will pay for it?  Like this one but Devil’s in the details and I don’t think these guys have thought it through.

3. Americans have the right to Net Meter and be compensated at the very least with full retail electricity rates

Residential solar systems generate excess electricity in the middle of the day, when the owners aren’t usually at home. Net metering requires the utility company to credit any excess generation to the customer at full retail rates at a minimum – effectively running the electricity meter backwards when the system is generating more electricity than the occupants of the house are using. Allowing customers to net meter is critical to making solar an economically viable option for most homeowners.

Net metering is a terrific idea in principal, but 1) again, not all grids are capable of handling the impact easily, especially if it’s at volume, 2) right now our always available power distribution system is paid for by charges buried in your power usage bill, if the net metering house still wants the benefit of being hooked up to the grid, how are they compensating the rest of us for the on demand infrastructure use?, and the big one 3) why is retail a fair price?  Saying the utility (in many places owned by you and I) has to buy all the power its customer produces at the same price it would retail it to you is about like saying your local grocery store has to buy the 10 lbs of tomatos you grow at retail.  They buy the rest of their tomatos in volume, with delivery and quality restrictions, for a much lower price (and for the non produce they send back the unsold volumes to the manufacturer);  and 4) which utility has to buy it?  In places like Texas which are deregulated, you can choose your provider.  Shall we pick one at random and force them to buy our power at the highest price they’ve ever sold to any customer?  That sounds fair.

Then I read that last line again, ummh, so you deserve a “right” because the only way it’s profitable for you is if you make somebody else buy it at higher than their current cost?

4. The solar industry has the right to a fair competitive environment


The highly profitable fossil fuel industries have received tens of billions of dollars in subsidies from the federal government for decades. In addition, fossil fuel industries are protected from bearing the full social costs of the pollution they produce. The solar energy industry and the public expect a fair playing field, with all energy sources evaluated based on their full, life-cycle costs and benefits to society. Therefore it is critical that solar energy receive the same level of support, for the same duration, as the fossil fuel industry.

I’m getting really, really tired of this argument.  Renewable and solar advocates conveniently ignore that even incorporating a kitchen sink approach to fossil fuel subsidies (and heaven forbid we add the massive percentage of solar R and D spent by governments over the years), the solar subsidy is many, many, many times higher the fossil fuel subsidy level on a per unit basis (i.e, if we gave the solar guys the same subsidy per kilowatt hours or btu equivalent that they claim the fossil fuel industry gets, the solar industry would never have started.  And it smacks of total smarminess to have this argument right below the “let us sell back power at retail rates” subsidy demand).

Or maybe we should just add as a corollary that all Americans have the right to shares and dividends from any venture capital backed solar company which receives greater than 1/3rd of its funding from a DOE loan program or other public R and D funding and later benefits from a subsidy that Americans pays for in their regulated utility bill.  I’ll go look in my mailbox tomorrow and see if my check arrived.

5. The solar industry has the right to produce clean energy on public lands

America has some of the best solar resources in the world, which are often on public lands overseen by the federal government. But even though oil and gas industries are producing on 13 million acres of public lands, no solar permits have been approved. Solar is a clean, renewable American resource and solar development on public lands is a critical component of any national strategy to expand our use of renewable energy.

Hang on, big fan of leasing national natural resources in a fair and responsible manner, but I don’t necessarily want solar, oil, or ANY industry to have an unrestricted right to use my share of the public lands without environmental reviews, an open and transparent process with stakeholder inclusion, and a competitive market.  While I want to see solar thrown up all across the country, why should the solar industry be demanding this as a right?  The wind industry doesn’t?  The hydro industry doesn’t?  The geothermal industry doesn’t?

6. The solar industry has the right to sell its power across a new, 21st century transmission grid


Over the last 100 years, the transmission grid in the United States has been built as a patchwork of local systems, designed and planned to meet local needs. As the needs of customers have changed, so has the way the electric industry does business. What haven’t changed are the rules crafted in an era of coal-fired power plants. What is needed now is an investment in infrastructure to connect areas rich in solar resources with major population centers.

Uh, I’m a big advocate of an advanced grid.  And the cost here is measured well into the 11 or 12 figures, or significant portions of total GDP.  Let’s not write checks and demand someone else’s body has to cash them.  This is a tremendous topic but totally does not belong in a solar bill of rights unless the solar industry is ready and willing to pay for it (which in turn would be unfair to ask of them alone either).

7. Americans have the right to buy solar electricity from their utility

Many utility companies have never considered offering their customers the option to purchase clean solar energy, rather than dirty energy from coal or other fossil fuels. Nation-wide over 90 percent of people support increased use of solar energy, and over three-quarters believe it should be a major priority of the federal government. Despite this, only around 25 percent of utility customers in the U.S. have the ability to actually purchase clean, renewable power from their utility, and only a fraction of those programs offer solar energy. Utilities should be required to offer the electricity source that their customers want.

Dude, a few years ago California voters voted down a solar initiative because of cost, only to have the CPUC implement it anyway.  We could do the right thing and just deregulate like Texas and New Zealand did (instead of stupidly like California tried), and I could buy dirt cheap 100% wind power, hydro power, 20% wind power, natural gas only power, average grid mix, cap and save, fixed rate, floating rate, or any other different combination a marketer can dream up.  Oh wait, since all other forms of renewable power are cheaper than solar, I’d buy that 11.4 cent/kwh all wind power than the solar.  Maybe that’s why the solar industry wants their private right.  How about, every American has the right to buy power in a free market and switch providers when they want to?  And then let’s make the subsidies we give all energy companies transparent, as opposed to making new back door ones?

8. Americans have the right to – and should expect – the highest ethical treatment from the solar industry


Solar energy systems are an investment as much as a physical product. Consumers deserve top-quality information and treatment from solar energy providers and installers. Consumers should expect the solar industry to minimize its environmental impact and communicate information about available incentives in a clear, accurate and accessible manner. Finally, consumers should expect that solar systems will work better than advertised, and that companies will make every good faith effort to support solar owners over the life of their systems. Read SEIA’s code of ethics.

This is just plain odd.  I wasn’t aware we needed this.  Maybe I missed something important about how ethical the solar industry is today?

I’m sorry guys, this whole SOB of Rights just reads as very self serving.  But bring your comments, if the weight of Cleantech Blog readers want me to, I will sign it and we will support.

Neal Dikeman is the chief blogger of Cleantechblog.com, and creator of Cleantech.org, a huge advocate of solar and policy powered financing and R&D, he just doesn’t like using his government to support hidden subsidies to pick winners.  He is a partner at cleantech merchant bank Jane Capital Partners LLC, and has helped found or invested in companies in carbon, solar, superconductors, and fuel cells.

16 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Neal, I read the Solar Bill of Rights, and agree with you whole heartly.Do not, sign this version of theSolar Bill of Rights.Sincerely,William A. HollonOwner – PresidentHollon Industries, LLC

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I think your reading and reaction is dead on. the notion that one can demand a right to a particular technology is not a right it is a demand. One thing that is missing is any list of responsibilities – like

    We will strive to drive efficiency up and cost down in order to compete with existing fossil fuel technologies.

    We will create business plans that are based on selling a competitive product and not the collection of subsidies and tax incentives.

    We will actually admit when solar or any other alternative energy application either does not work in a location or must be augmented by something else.

    I could go on…

    Regards

    Ron Pettengill
    Epiphany Solar Water Systems

  3. John E
    John E says:

    Neal – I can't believe your responses to the SBOR. It reads like an uneducated tea bagger who works for an oil company. Did someone pee in your cornflakes before you wrote this?

    Have you ever heard of "avoided costs"?

    I may unsubscribe to cleantech due to your responses – Sign the damn bill!

    ps – who is this Hollon lackey anyway?

  4. Scot Kelly
    Scot Kelly says:

    Neal – How many oil company stocks are in your portfolio? With friends like you, the solar industry needs no enemies.

    I won't break down each point but do want to address #4:

    First – A recent International Energy Association analysis has revealed that fossil fuel consumption subsidies amounted to $557 bn in 2008.

    Second – During the fiscal years of 2002-2008 the United States handed out subsidies to fossil fuel industries to a tune of 72 billion dollars, while renewable energy subsidies, during the same period, reached 29 billion dollars. Conducted by the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The funds provided to renewable energy sources plunges further when one takes into account that of the 29 billion dollars, 16.8 billion went to subsidizing corn-based ethanol, an energy source that numerous studies have shown is not carbon neutral and has been blamed in part for deforestation in the tropics and the global food crisis. The remaining 12.2 billion went to wind, solar, non-corn based biofuels and biomass, hydropower, and geothermal energy production. So of that 12.2 Billion only a small part was for solar.

    Third – These are direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. It does not take into account environmental effects not paid for by the industry or the Trillions of dollars spent fighting wars to protect access to oil in the Middle East and the shipping lanes required to transport that oil to the U.S.

    The Solar Bill of Rights may not be a flawless document but it is a legitimate wake up call in a political environment where eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, making oil and natural gas companies pay for their environmental recklessness, and ending oil wars are all unattainable liberal science fiction.

    The reality is that solar is becoming more efficient and getting closer to grid parity every day and the fossil fuel companies are scared and will put up road blocks until they can own the sun and meter it to us.

    Scot Kelly
    President
    Artistream Energy, Inc.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    This was very thoughtful and well stated. Before reading through, my left-of-center leanings and strong support of the solar industry made me think that I would likely disagree, but your intelligent analysis changed my view on all but perhaps the first item. A lot of neighborhood covenants & HOA rules are beyond stupid, based on boilerplate text of unknown origin, yet all-but-impossible to change because no one really gets involved except to protect the status quo – like the CCRs that prevented folks in my area from re-roofing with fire retardant shingles shortly before the firestorms in which many of their homes burned down.

    In any case, I wish all political discourse – on both sides of issues – were as reasoned so that we could make decisions based on intelligent debate instead of name-calling rants.

    Thank you for contributing to civility!

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    As someone who lives under and HOA agreement myself, we need to make it mandatory that you have a right to install the panels, yes, even if 50% don't agree. Just b/c it's unpopular, doesn't mean that it's not right for the people and the city. I couldn't get my co-owners to compost, until SF made it mandatory. They had all kinds of ridiculous concerns, and when it was mandatory, they just shut up and accepted it. We had to legislate integrated housing – back in the 60's, far less than 50% of all Americans agreed that non-Whites should be allowed to freely rent apartments in their buildings or live on their streets, until it became illegal to deny them. Basically, public good can't always wait for the public.

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Neal, I also read the Solar Bill of Rights, and agree with your decision not to sign. It reads as blatently self-serving, and doesn't come close to acknowledging or addressing the complex stakeholder issues involved.

    Scott Wisler

  8. BradJ1001
    BradJ1001 says:

    It's especially fascinating that industry lobbyists are now demanding a bill of rights for their members. Oh, I forgot: thanks to the Supreme Court, corporations are people too.

    I think it's a bad idea to favor any particular technology in something resembling a "biil of rights." What might be more appropriate would be advocating the goal of unrestricted access by everyone to renewable energy that is affordable and doesn't adversely affect the health of people or the environment (I prefer “rest of the biosphere”).

    On a related note, I'm curious what your opinions are about David Fridley's “Nine Challenges of Alternative Energy” in the Post Carbon Reader (see http://www.postcarbon.org/reader/downloads).

  9. Edward Antrobus
    Edward Antrobus says:

    #1
    "HOAs and deed restrictions are a core defender of local property rights"

    Huh? HOA's and deed restrictions withhold and restrict local property rights, not defend them. They are largely based on the premise that what you do on your property affects mine. They are saying that my property is more important than yours. I hate HOA's and will never live somewhere with one.

    #2
    Who should set standards for electrical grids? Hmm. Maybe a governing body with experience in formulating electrical standards, like IEEE or UL. Maybe instead of trying to turn a concise statement into a 1000+ page document, we should simply be laying out a road map of what we believe needs to be done and let the professionals figure out the details.

    #5
    Nowhere does this say that solar should be given unfettered access to public lands with no oversight or review. It's pointing out the fact that oil & gas permits have been getting approved and solar permits haven't. I read this as saying that the permitting process has to be reviewed to see if there are any systematic biases that are preventing solar from getting a foothold.

    #7
    The true fact of the matter over consumer "choice" in electricity is there is no such thing. You don't have any choice in where the electrons coming to your home came from. They came from the nearest source of power generation that had excess capacity to meet your need. Mostly, consume choice in the source of electrical generation is a marketing ploy to get you to feel better about using electricity.
    The best extent that choice in this market has any effect in the real world is that it affects how much generation different sources produces. But then it is the aggregate of every body in the market. Even if you choose to get 100% of your electricity from solar, if the market over all chooses 1% solar and 99% coal, there is a 99% chance that your electricity is coming from a coal power plant.

  10. Dave
    Dave says:

    Neal,

    I enjoyed this entry and agree on most of your points. A free market approach almost always makes the most sense but there are issues that the influence peddling on Capitol Hill skews significantly making markets of various flavors not work all that well. Just look at the mess our legislators have made of transportation over years as a result of enormous amounts of lobbying dollars. It appears that the good folks at SEIA wrote the Solar Bill of Rights in reaction to this Capitol Hill environment that they live in minute to minute. I signed it btw.

  11. Brian
    Brian says:

    It's unfortunate that the SBOR was framed in the language of "rights" rather than aspirations, which is what it should have been. As goals to strive toward, I'm 100% on board with it. As a collection of asserted rights, I have to agree with Neal: they just don't make sense.

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