Power to the People: America’s Rooftop Revolution

Rooftop by rooftop—from Hawai'i to across the mainland—Americans are waging a war of independence from a 100-year-old system of centralized dirty energy.

Solar panels dot the rooftops of homes in Salt Lake on Oahu, Hawaiʻi.
Solar panels dot the rooftops of homes in Salt Lake on Oahu, Hawaiʻi. (Matt Mallams / Earthjustice)

Isaac Moriwake stands atop his house in Hawai’i surveying a neighborhood of rooftops glittering with solar panels.

But, Moriwake sees more than just block after block of neighbors cashing in on abundant free energy; he sees a national clean energy revolution that his work as an Earthjustice attorney helped ignite.

Over the past few years, Moriwake has knocked down barriers to solar across the state. But his successes have also helped fan the flames of a growing nationwide battle over who has power over meeting our energy needs—the outcome of which will determine the future of our energy landscape for generations to come.

Many of these battles are fought out of the public eye and in front of governmental bodies within each state called public utility commissions, or PUCs, which are charged with ensuring that consumers get electricity at a reasonable cost and that utilities get a chance to earn a reasonable profit for the services they provide. On one side of the fight are the utilities, which are used to delivering customers fossil-fuel-fired energy nationwide from large plants. They want to continue this centralized business model, and they often have the political and financial backing of the coal, oil and gas industries, which benefit from business as usual.

On the other side of the fight are consumers who want to generate their own energy and the clean energy industry that can provide this option to customers. This consumer-centric model, the ultimate DIY project, is also known as distributed generation, and it provides an efficient way for clean energy resources, including solar and wind, to power homes and businesses without constructing huge new transmission projects. Distributed generation is becoming increasingly popular not only because it is a low-carbon solution to meeting our electricity needs, but also because it saves many people money and gives people an unprecedented measure of energy independence.

But popular opinion and planetary necessity aren’t enough to reform a politically powerful dirty energy industry. Earthjustice attorneys like Moriwake are showing up at the PUCs in case after case on behalf of consumers and the solar industry to call out policies that unfairly favor fossil fuels and drive up electric costs and to make new rules that level the playing field for clean energy.

“PUCs are a forum where really important decisions are being made every day about how we will meet our energy needs, such as whether to build new power plants or invest in clean energy, but not many people know about them,” explains Earthjustice attorney Jill Tauber , who is overseeing the organization’s clean energy portfolio. “We’re at a critical juncture in terms of our energy picture. In many parts of the country, for example, we’re deciding whether we want to continue burning rocks for energy.”

Earthjustice’s fight began five years ago, after the state of Hawai ʻ i announced an “energy agreement” with the state’s main electric utility, pushing a predominantly utility-centric plan. Not long after, Earthjustice joined forces with the Hawai ʻ i Solar Energy Association and environmental groups to help shape a clean energy framework.

Since then, Moriwake has helped transform a state that’s almost entirely dependent on fossil fuel imports to a state that hosts one of the hottest markets for rooftop solar in the country.

“We are on the ground floor of this huge thing,” says Mark Duda, a solar industry leader and longtime Earthjustice partner. “And Isaac is by far the most effective advocate in any of these proceedings.”

But Hawai ʻ i’s solar successes have also led to new challenges. For example, the state’s utilities have proposed imposing barriers to homes and businesses installing renewable energy systems. Earthjustice, together with the solar industry and environmental groups, beat back these proposals and convinced the PUC to accelerate renewable energy installations. Moriwake, who has participated in countless PUC meetings, says that these successes help raise the bar across the nation by encouraging a sort of “Race to the Top” for clean energy.

“The aim is to strategically pick battles and advance as far downfield as we can, setting an example that other states can follow when the political climate is ripe for clean energy,” says Moriwake.

The success of this strategy can already be seen in places like California, where Earthjustice attorney Will Rostov, representing the Sierra Club in the state’s PUC proceedings, has helped shepherd many clean energy successes. Most recently, the commission made a groundbreaking decision to ramp up energy storage technology, a critical step in maximizing the power of the wind and the sun.

The clean energy battle is not just limited to the West Coast, however. Interest in wind and solar are gaining popularity around the nation, thanks in large part to Renewable Portfolio Standards , which require utilities to procure and sell a certain percentage of clean energy. While there is currently no such program at the national level, 30 states and the District of Columbia had mandated renewable capacity policies as of January 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Unfortunately, the success of these clean energy standards has made them a target. Over the past few years, the utilities have worked alongside their dirty energy cohorts to protect industry profits by promoting a suite of model bills and regulations aimed at weakening clean energy regulations and removing incentives for clean energy at the state level.

“They think that they can put the genie back in the bottle,” says Duda.

According to a report by The Guardian newspaper, this death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach is largely being orchestrated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a powerful corporate lobby group that has sponsored anti-clean energy bills in a majority of the states and, in 2012 drafted a model bill calling for the repeal of renewable portfolio standards. Those efforts largely failed.

This year, ALEC and its members, many of them state legislators and business leaders, are regrouping and taking a more subtle approach to protect industry profits. They are targeting net-energy metering policies that give solar customers credit for excess energy that is fed back into the grid. According to The Alliance for Solar Choice, 43 states plus Washington, D.C. have adopted a net-metering policy, and in the states where solar is taking off, net-metering has been key.

The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that there is now enough cumulative solar electric capacity to power more than 1.7 million average American homes. But as more and more people install rooftop solar systems, utilities are questioning the net-metering model and the value of distributed generation more broadly. For example, in Colorado, the utility Xcel Energy has proposed a new way of calculating the rate it should pay for power provided by small solar resources. Earthjustice is representing the Vote Solar Initiative before the state’s utility commission to ensure that the payment rate for small-scale solar generation fairly compensates customers with on-site solar for the value that their systems provide.

“At its core, this case is about making sure that the owners of small solar facilities are paid at a rate that accurately reflects the costs that the utility avoids by purchasing solar from them, including the cost of energy and capacity from fossil fuel fired power plants and transmission and distribution costs,” says attorney Jill Tauber.

More broadly, these cases help lay the groundwork for creating a 21st century smart grid that enables people to have control over their power usage and generation.

Under the current model, utilities profit by selling more power, primarily fossil fuel power. In the 20th century, this model helped power up the country as quickly as possible. But in the 21st century, when we need to reduce the amount of fossil fuels burned, this outdated model could lead to climate catastrophe.

“It will take a while to work itself out but eventually technology will win,” says Duda. “It just hasn’t fully revealed itself yet because the laws and rules need to catch up.”

Signs that we’re headed in the right direction are already popping up around the country. In Hawai’i, for example, the shift toward a modern grid began last year with the utility’s adoption of a cutting-edge approach that plans ahead for further expansion of solar and the grid upgrades needed to make it happen. Unlike most states, Hawai ʻ i doesn’t have the benefit of a big, regionally interconnected grid that can balance the hiccups that distributed generation sometimes presents. Yet, it has become a leader in solar generation. As Moriwake says, in terms of clean energy, Hawai’i is sort of a crystal ball for rest of the nation. If distributed generation can happen there, it can happen anywhere.

“What is amazing is how fast this field is evolving, even since a year ago,” says Moriwake. “We’re trying to build the grid of the future. And we’re just getting started.”

Written by Jessica A. Knoblauch. First published in the Spring 2014 issue of the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine .