Net Metering: Doubling California’s Solar Energy Goal

The California net metering battle has come to an end–til 2015 at least–and will raise California’s maximum roof-top solar capacity from the current 2,400 megawatts to about 5,200 megawatts.

The state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted on Thursday to make a technical tweak in the way it calculates how many electricity rate payers can participate in the net metering program. This tweak includes residential, commercial, and government buildings whose excess solar power gets sent back to the grid, giving the solar user a lower bill.

In the simplest terms, net metering enables solar users to get credit for the electricity generated by their solar system when their overall usage is low (i.e. when you’re not home during the day). This credit can then be used towards their bill when they’re using electricity but their solar is not generating (at night, when the sun’s not shining).

The daytime solar generation – nighttime usage = a lower bill.

Net metering gives solar owners an element of predictability. Based on the credits received for the solar contributed to the grid, a homeowner can project the savings they’ll incur over the life of their solar system (25+ years).

The net metering issue has been under scrutiny recently as the PUC was gearing up to vote on how to calculate a cap on net metering eligibility. Consumers and utilities opposed to net metering argued expanding the program would create unfair subsidies for wealthy people who can afford to install solar in the first place and shifting costs to non-solar customers who either can’t afford solar or don’t want it.

A 3-year-old PUC study estimated the amount paid by non-solar customers to be $140 million annually to cover the net metering program for their solar owning neighbors. But a more recent study done by Berkeley energy consultant, R. Thomas Beach, concludes that the benefits of using solar (decreasing fossil fuel dependence, decreased carbon dioxide emissions) outweigh the subsidy costs.

Net metering is a very important driver of residential solar adoption. As it is, California’s solar industry employs more then 25,000 workers and provides a clean, renewable source of energy to homes and businesses.

After the extension of the net metering program, PUC  President Michael Peevy announced, “Today’s decision ensures that the solar industry will continue to thrive for years to come, and we are fully committed to developing a long-term solution that secures the industry in California.”

Solar Moving Forward Despite Low Subsidies

Despite relatively low subsidies, especially in comparison to the subsidies awarded to other energy sources, solar has been making it’s way as a valuable source of energy .

Incentives Graph

Graph Used From Baker Report and Think Progress .

The federal government provides incentives for every major energy production market and they exist to bridge the “chasm” between early adopters (about 16%) of a certain market and the majority adopters (about 84%). Crossing the chasm doesn’t necessarily mean all companies in the industry succeed, but that the industry itself succeeds. To get from initial adoption to full scale implementation, federal incentives support new energy resources on average for 30 years, including market control for oil, pipeline availability for natural gas, and dams for hydropower. Incentives provide economies of scale in a long term scenario that offer stability during the adoption process with gradual reductions in incentives as the industry matures.

Solar is at the chasm where continued government incentives are critical in assisting the jump between adoption phases. As it is, incentives for solar have been small compared to fossil fuels, according to a report by the Baker Center, “federal investment in solar technologies has been modest in a long-term histroical context relative to other energy technologies”. But, the incentives solar has received have really aided the industry. The growth of solar over the past two years has come with the federal investment tax credit and state renewable energy standards set in place. In addition to the decreasing PV prices, there’s been a 77% growth in the last 5 years.

This growth is spurring innovation, which in itself stimulates growth. Growth means more opportunity for jobs–the Baker Report estimating between 200,000 and 430,000 direct, indirect, and induced jobs coming from the solar industry by 2020. There are already 100,000 Americans working in the solar industry. To top it off, solar provides more jobs per megawatt hour than any other energy industry.

Solar has huge potential in the U.S. Rooftop solar alone could provide 20% of America’s energy needs, which would help decrease impacts of price and supply vulnerabilities from fossil fuel supplies. Solar could be an important addition to the American energy portfolio, but continuing incentives will be a crucial factor in perpetuating this.

Incentives are used to move an industry up the adoption curve. Solar has come this far despite relatively low subsidies; imagine what it could accomplish if the federal government channeled incentives usually given to the fossil fuel industry into solar.

Hogwarts Achieves Carbon Neutrality: Living in a Closed Loop

Imagine an isolated castle surrounded by sloping hills and a glassy lake with the looks similar to the circa 1900 era: Welcome to Hogwarts School of Whichcraft and Wizardry. For those of you who don’t know, Hogwarts is the school of magic in the well known Harry Potter series. After much musing, I’ve determined Hogwarts (though fictional) is probably the greenest, most carbon neutral school in the (wizard and muggle) world.

There are a few things that really stand out when I think of Hogwarts being the greenest school–the fact that there is no electricity is a huge one–but there are other nuances that allow the school to operate on a virtually closed loop system.

I’ll go ahead and get big one out of the way since I’ve already mentioned it: no electricity. Hogwarts is lit solely by fires, lanterns, and the efficacy of your lumos spell. During drafty nights in the library you’d be forced to get a thicker cloak to wear. On hot days you’re better off spending the afternoon in the dungeons than plan on turning on air conditioning. Furthermore, there aren’t computers, copy machines or other pesky vampires (no, this isn’t a jab at Twilight–apparently it’s an actual term) to keep the kilowatt clock running at all hours of the day and night.

School districts in the US spend six billion dollars a year on energy which translates to over 64 billion kilowatt hours of energy. If you’re using coal to generate that electricity, we’ve just emitted about 133 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. Hogwarts is skipping right over those carbon emissions (not to mention the other emissions associated with electricity generation) by not being connected to the grid.

It’s never quite discussed how the kids of Hogwarts are fed day in and day out, but I’m going to assume a good deal of that food is grown on the grounds thanks to Hagrid’s garden. Thankfully, the use of magic appears to have eliminated the need for pesticides and fertilizers, so they’re operating on a fairly organic basis (I’m not sure if enhancing food with magic could really be considered “organic”, but roll with me). Growing their own food–or most of it–diminishes the costs associated with food transportation.

Transporting food into California alone emitted 70,000 tons of carbon in 2005. Whatever isn’t grown on the Hogwarts premises can be obtained in the nearby village, Hogsmeade, and visiting the village is a great way for the students to support their local wizard economy.

If something isn’t readily available locally, the students of Hogwarts can always order from Diagon Alley. Unlike regular mail, all deliveries in the wizarding world are made by owl post–eliminating the carbon emissions associated with postal fleets.

Like electricity, another huge factor in keeping Hogwarts’–and really all of the wizarding world’s–carbon emissions at bay is their unique transportation systems. Whether traveling by broomstick, floo powder, or apparating, wizard’s modes of transportation rarely contribute to greenhouse gases (the exception being the Hogwarts Express train and the few wizards that drive cars).

According to the EPA, a car’s average carbon dioxide emissions is 11,450 pounds per year–this doesn’t include the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the gasoline used in each vehicle. Multiply that by the 250 million vehicles registered in the US and you have a whole lot of carbon dioxide.

My final point regarding Hogwarts virtually carbon free system is water. Granted, this issue is probably a bit of a stretch, but it’s fun to imagine anyway. In my mind, Hogwarts runs solely on recycled water–toilet to tap, if you will. The only conceivable way I can structure this is by having an underwater waste water treatment plant in the lake, most likely operated by the merpeople. Like I said, bit of a stretch, but obviously J.K. Rowling doesn’t go into much detail on the inner workings of the Hogwarts sewage system, so I’m left to my own devices.

Even though I’ve taken a few liberties with my analysis of Hogwarts’ carbon neutrality, I think it’s important to think of different ways to create closed (or more closed) loop systems in our society and make big moves to lower our greenhouse gas emissions. In my Earth Day post, I touched on simple things people can do–conserving electricity, buying local, not wasting water–and basically that’s all that’s done at Hogwarts, but at a much larger scale which allows them to live in a closed, carbon neutral loop.

We need to think a little bit outside the box, get creative, and take a leaf out of Hogwarts’ book to make a difference in our society and live greener lives.