Solar energy is one of smallest parts of our electricity system, but there are strong indications that could be changing.
“If you look at data on the growth rate of solar … it’s almost a flat wall in terms of a spike,” said Ryan Pletka, who works with infrastructure consulting firm Black and Veatch.
But, utilities aren’t all happy about this trend – in fact, many are fighting against it. That’s because more customers putting solar panels up on their rooftops means utilities will be selling less power to them. Additionally, in most states, utilities are actually required to buy any excess power those customers produce beyond what they are using at any given time, through a system called net-metering.
“That’s a concern,” said Xcel Energy Vice President of Policy and Staff Frank Prager. “That’s why we’re trying to address it today before it gets to be too big a concern.”
The rapidly increasing number of U.S. households that are installing rooftop solar panels is foreshadowing a wider debate over the future role of our traditional electric grid. Ironically, it is a debate that has already taken place.
In the 1880s, renowned inventor Thomas Edison was locked in a bitter battle with engineer and entrepreneur George Westinghouse over how this new invention of electric power should spread across the country, a battle commonly known as The War of the Currents.
Edison, who invented the very concept of electric power distribution, called for a decentralized, widely distributed power system with many small power plants providing low-voltage direct current (DC) electricity to nearby homes and businesses.
Westinghouse, working with inventor Nikola Tesla, advocated the use of high-voltage alternating current (AC) from a centralized system of large industrial power plants transmitted out to a spiderweb of power lines connecting the entire country.
Westinghouse, AC and the centralized system eventually won out, and that’s more or less the model of the grid we have used ever since. It is a stable, reliable, cheap system, currently threatened by rooftop solar.
A little bit. Maybe. Eventually.
Studies are underway to determine how solar power can be used to a greater extent, including methods of integrating it to the larger grid, and in creating storage capacity so that it might be used at a later time.
Inside Energy’s complete series, The Solar Challenge, can be found here.