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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.