Home solar power faces the darkness

November 13th, 2010
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I’m passionate about solar energy and have been privileged to work in the industry for the last few years. Every day, I get to pore over hundreds of headlines regarding the latest exciting developments, but of late I’ve seen increasing numbers of stories about threats to the solar power industry, both here and abroad.

In Australia, we’ve seen many solar power subsidies reduced or axed, sometimes with little or no warning. In the USA, the mid-term elections have seen a shift in power in the House of Representatives that may negatively impact on renewable energy. In the UK, rumblings about solar energy are already growing.

Given the circumstances and timing, if I were a paranoid sort of fellow I would think all of this solar dissing was a corporate/fossil-fuel based conspiracy. 

But maybe it’s not all that paranoid.

Up until relatively recent times, solar power was tolerated or simply ignored by much the traditional electricity generation industry as it just fed off the crumbs that fell from the fossil fuel table – it posed little threat to the status quo.

However, the evolution of solar power has sped up and prices have dropped, thanks in part to subsidies that have encouraged uptake and in doing so meant equipment can be manufactured more cheaply. Solar can now also provide baseload power on a large scale.

Some in the traditional energy generation industry have seen the light so to speak and are making more than just token efforts to jump on the renewable power bandwagon, which is great. Others do the bare minimum required by law.

Individuals have also been empowered and grid connect rooftop solar power systems are appearing everywhere. Unfortunately, this is not impressing some electricity companies, as it is taking business away from them; however these household generators may also be helping them reach whatever targets they have for renewable energy production.

We are rapidly approaching grid parity in some regions, i.e. the point in time where solar power becomes as cheap as filthy fossil fuel generated electricity. A paradigm shift in relation to electricity production seems about to occur, but there are storm clouds gathering, such as the subsidy and incentive cuts that have often focused on small generators, including solar households. 

Often the excuse for these policy backflips is that subsidizing solar is “increasing electricity prices.” However, in Australia anyway, the majority of electricity price increases have nothing to do with small or large scale solar power, but with aging transmission infrastructure that requires upgrading; upgrades that have been put off for years to keep prices down. For this reason and others, electricity was always going to become more expensive with or without solar’s influence. The piper is demanding to be paid and solar has just been the convenient scapegoat. 

It’s ironic in that rooftop solar can actually help decrease electricity transmission costs -  so much electricity is wasted and consequently so much more pollution is generated due to line loss. The best way to decrease line loss is by generating electricity as close as possible to the point of consumption. It doesn’t get much closer than your own rooftop. A distributed system can also help lessen peak load stresses on power stations and infrastructure.

It’s worth bearing in mind that no energy sector – clean, renewable energy or even filthy fossil fuel – has ever been developed without subsidies. Fossil fuel has been subsidized in many countries for decades, and we’re not talking chump change.

In an article I wrote for Energy Matters, I drew from information from 1 Block Off The Grid that states U.S. taxpayers have paid an average of over $500 towards fossil fuel subsidies in the past 5 years. The amount paid towards solar subsidies over the same period? 7 bucks each. 

The absolutely crazy thing is we have a situation where subsidies are needed for solar to compete with fossil fuel subsidies that keep those carbon intensive fuels artificially cheap – the same fuels that are causing the problems that solar power will help address!

Solar is no longer a novelty power source – and that is likely scaring some very powerful forces who would like to see the solar train either totally derailed, or at the very least, only allowed to carry VIP passengers.

Controlling energy is a very good way to control people. 

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Michael Bloch
Green Living Tips.com
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