In a popular Simpsons episode, the diabolical Mr. Burns builds a giant disc to eclipse the sun and force Springfield’s residents into round-the-clock reliance on electricity from his power plant. It’s pitch-perfect cartoon sarcasm, but with a foot firmly in reality: the fledgling U.S. solar industry faces an array of Burnsian obstacles to its growth across the country.
In Hawaii, for example, Earthjustice is taking on a blatant effort by the state’s largest utility to block homes and businesses from installing rooftop solar panels, a move that could strangle Hawaii’s burgeoning homegrown solar industry, prevent residents and businesses from saving money, and keep the state addicted to imported oil.
If there is anywhere that should be blazing the trail to a clean energy future, it is Hawaii. The islands are blessed with abundant sun, winds, and waves, yet today rely on imported fossil fuels for more than 96 percent of their energy. Hawaii consumers pay the highest electric rates in the nation. The state is trying to chart a new course, but the utility is resisting change and fighting to limit solar access to the local grid.
In so doing, the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) is holding back much more than just Hawaii. It is hindering an important experiment with solar energy that could provide valuable information to consumers, entrepreneurs, utility owners and policymakers throughout the United States.
Although we certainly need to cut fossil fuel use by promoting solar and other renewable sources of energy, it isn’t yet clear which policies are best for encouraging their economy-wide growth. In all likelihood, it will be a combination of approaches. Experimentation is critical to find out which ones will work, and lessons learned in Hawaii could answer some key questions for the rest of the country.
HECO’s obstruction is indicative of the myriad challenges the U.S. solar industry faces, especially in places like Hawaii where solar is an absolute no-brainer. A program Hawaii is considering, called a feed-in-tariff, could provide a breakthrough.
Here’s how it works. Suppose I install solar panels on the roof of my house that generate more electricity than I need to power my home. Under a feed-in-tariff policy, I can get paid handsomely by the local utility for feeding that excess electricity back into the grid for other consumers to use. This helps to defray the cost of my investment in rooftop solar panels.
A year ago, Gainesville, FL became the first U.S. city to implement a feed-in-tariff for rooftop solar, and now other cities and states, including Hawaii, are hoping to follow in its footsteps. In Gainesville, the policy was unanimously approved by city leaders, who control the local utility. The Gainesville program reached its enlistment quota in just a few days.
But such popularity isn’t universal. For-profit utilities, for example, are far less inclined than municipal utilities to back a feed-in-tariff for rooftop solar because it could decrease their earnings or reduce their control over customers’ energy consumption. And indeed, in HECO’s case, the utility is doing what it can to limit the program’s adoption.
America can’t afford such limits as we move towards clean, domestically produced energy. In this rapidly changing energy landscape, where a boost in renewable power is an essential goal, old ways of doing business must change.
Many advocate a transformation in which the profits of investor-owned utilities are no longer linked to how much power the utilities sell, but instead with how effectively they serve their customers. Such a switch actually encourages a range of beneficial programs like feed-in-tariffs and energy efficiency.
Encouragement from states and the federal government is critical for overcoming technological and regulatory barriers to the rapid spread of solar power. Government can spur innovation by investing in research to find new ways to harness renewable energy and deliver it affordably to customers on increasingly large scales. After all, for every Mr. Burns-style roadblock (or sunblock) out there, scores of creative and committed innovators are finding ways forward.
There is no silver bullet that will solve our national (and global) energy problems. The path forward demands flexibility, creativity, and a willingness to try everything clean and renewable under the sun.