Three years ago my wife and I signed up to purchase an array of sixteen solar panels for our rooftop. It was part of a neighborhood group-buy sponsored by the City of Milwaukee, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, and our local neighborhood association. Along with the purchase, we became members of the MREA and learned for the first time about their annual Energy Fair. Every year, thousands of people with an interest in sustainable energy convene in northern Wisconsin for three days of workshops, industry speakers, and other activities.
Having our own solar array has led me to focus on energy issues that I had only passing interest in before. State utility policies suddenly became more immediately tangible. One of my first observations was that our electric company was not really our friend. The year we got involved, Wisconsin power companies convinced State regulators to allow special fees on customers who produce their own electricity, a “tax” that was overturned in court because no justification had been provided to support the charges.
Driving around the state I began to notice how the north and west parts of Wisconsin seemed to have a lot more installed solar than could be seen in the southeast, where we live. It was then that I began to appreciate the weirdly haphazard nature of our electrical grid — everyone purchases power from a monopoly, but there are dozens of monopolies distributed over the landscape. Depending on where you live you might be the customer of a power cooperative, a municipal supplier, or a large for-profit monopoly. In Wisconsin, the large for-profit operators were much less friendly to customers like us. In our situation, the power company went so far as to send “observers” to the solar “power hour” education events that helped inform people who were interested in participating in the group-buy.
Despite the unfriendly reception, however, solar has exploded on the energy scene and although the country lacks anything remotely resembling a systematic renewable energy policy, dramatic drops in the cost of installing solar power arrays have made even the big for-profit companies begin to adopt them. At this year’s Energy Fair, I learned that solar energy accounted for a remarkable 55% of new power installed in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2018. Solar now beats both wind and gas sources for new power, and even formerly hostile monopolies with huge coal plant legacy infrastructure. WE Energies is closing a huge coal-burning power plant and has announced the installation of 350 megawatts of solar to be completed by 2020.
There is still a long way to go for solar advocates, and while the monopolies have come to like solar generation, they like it most when they control it. Power companies continue to push for various fixed charges and pricing arrangements that discourage individuals from owning their own rooftop arrays. It takes longer to get the economic benefits of a roof-top installation than it should. But the tide has turned for this technology and, just maybe, the for-profit monopolies can find a way to recognize how encouraging rooftop solar can benefit them as well if only to not be an irritant to their own customers.
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