On the grid vs off the grid: A successful Solar revolution includes both

In the last few years, I've had numerous conversations with various people on renewable energy generation. And most of them, even those with much more technical savvy than I have, were missing some critical pieces of the puzzle in their understanding of the rapid growth of Solar in North Carolina and elsewhere. In example, here's a paraphrased conversation from a few months ago:

"I'm glad to see all these Solar farms, but I'd really like to see those panels on houses instead."

Me: "I'd like to see more residential Solar also, but thousands of people are powering their homes with Solar photovoltaic energy already and they don't even know it."

I got raised eyebrows from that remark, but I really shouldn't have. I stopped short of saying, "Where do you think the energy from Solar farms goes, off into space?" What people need to understand, if they really want Solar energy to succeed in replacing large amounts of coal-fired energy, is that volume matters. And thanks to the volume of panels manufactured and used in large-scale projects, installing Solar systems on houses is now much cheaper than it was eight years ago, when NC passed its REPS. All (or most) of that happened *on* the grid, taking advantage of infrastructure already in place. Why is that important? Because the REPS requires Duke Energy and other established utilities provide increasing percentages of their power sold to customers from renewable energy. Unfortunately, there still persists a desire to keep Solar "pure" and not tainted/associated with other, dirtier forms of energy:

In one ambitious venture, Apple has contracted with First Solar to begin buying a little less than half of the power later this year from California Flats, a solar energy farm now under construction. Under the terms of the deal, Apple will pay $848 million for the electricity over 25 years and receive the farm’s total output by the end of the agreement. It is one of largest commercial clean energy contracts yet.

Lisa Jackson, the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency who is now the Apple executive overseeing environmental policy, social initiatives and worldwide government affairs, said she hoped Apple could serve as a model for the many other big corporate power users that are now embracing clean energy.

“This is just another sort of innovative way to get that power onto the grid so we don’t have to take the California grid-mix default, which still includes fossil fuel,” Ms. Jackson said.

On one hand, this push for renewable energy at the corporate level is fantastic. It's bringing the first wind farm to North Carolina, thanks to Amazon's determination. But on the other hand, it doesn't matter who ends up using the power. That comment about the grid-mix is an example of "purity thinking" that could end up slowing the growth of renewable energy. Why is that a problem? Because there needs to be a market to use the power, and a big chunk of that market is residential customers, spread out all over suburban and rural areas, and currently connected to the grid.

Hey, I like the idea of "community" Solar or wind projects, not reliant upon the grid, but where are they? For the most part, they're still on the drawing board. The associated and necessary infrastructure to deliver that power costs more than the power itself. And before you say it, no, you can't "eminent domain" Duke Energy's power lines and home connections. Might be able to purchase it, but I have a feeling it wouldn't be much cheaper than building from scratch.

My point with all that isn't to "bum people out," it's to get them to focus on what's working well, and not what they think might work. Just like every other session of our General Assembly for the last five years, next session will produce another attempt to get rid of our Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards. Since this program is intricately connected to Duke Energy, some may be tempted to say, "Big deal, we don't need Duke Energy, we can build a Solar future without them!"

No, we can't. Even if we pass 3rd Party Sales legislation and open the door for other energy sellers, and even if we can crack the nut on Solar power storage (batteries), the volume of energy generated by these advancements is still a drop in the bucket compared to large-scale Solar projects. We desperately need those advancements, but not at the cost of having our REPS repealed.



In case you're wondering

why I keep capitalizing "Solar," it's because it is rooted in a proper name. We have a star, we have a sun, and its name is Sol. This is just one of countless times in which I ignore my irritating know-it-all AP Stylebook. :)