Working Without a Net

Bruce Hagen


Originally published by Enphase Energy in 2013, where Bruce worked as a Program Manager.

Twelve years ago, on a bright November afternoon, workers threw the switch on Westridge Knolls Unit #1 in Petaluma, California.  The meter disc, surprised by this abrupt paradigm shift, ceased its lazy westward drift, and settled into a vigorous counter-spin.  For the first time, my home and my neighborhood felt the pulse of power from the sun.

“Watch your meter spin backwards,” the sales pitch appealed to anti-utility as well as environmental sentiments.  But I had worked for a utility in the energy-efficiency effort that helped California prosper while flattening power consumption.  I knew utilities were capable of being on the right side of the green power curve.

Net metering was then, and still is, a large variable in the incentive equation for going solar. And as more homes and businesses hook their arrays to the grid, utilities feel the bite in their business model as well as their system operations.  Mine was the first installation in a 100 home subdivision.  Today we have over a dozen, and solar canvassers are a common weekend sight on my street.  The drop in the bucket is now a splash, and in states like HawaiiCalifornia, and Arizona, it’s becoming a wave.

If the utilities’ challenge with net metering isn’t clear, here’s a “down-to-earth” analogy.  Mr. P-H used to buy all his potatoes from large chain grocer “MegaBites.”  They weren’t especially healthy or tasty, and they came with a big carbon footprint.  Now, Mr. P-H grows his own.  He stores enough yummy organic potatoes to supply his family over the whole year.

If Mr. P-H produces surplus ‘tates at the right price, everyone benefits when MegaBites buys the extras and sells them to his neighbors.  MegaBites becomes a potato broker.  But if too many neighbors do this, MegaBites is challenged to efficiently handle storage and distribution.  If MegaBites' price is regulated below their total cost for this brokering, they charge more to their non-growing customers to make up what they lose to the home-growers.  Or they go broke.  Neither scenario is sustainable, much less fair.

The analogy isn’t perfect.  Electricity is harder to store than potatoes, yet it can be moved quickly over great distances by a centralized control.  Utilities are heavily regulated, but not necessarily in ways that seem fair to the utilities or their customers, including the micro-generators.  Yet, in a fundamental way, spuds and sparks are the same: “cheap” conventional potatoes and power carry a cost that doesn’t show up on anyone’s grocery or utility bill – the impact on personal and global health.  Two-thirds of the electricity in America is fossil-based, generated at incalculable risk to the present and future inhabitants of our earth.  The push toward net-metering and other distributed generation incentives is in part an attempt to account for and balance these costs.  With full accountability, we can more readily invent and embrace the technology for making the leap to light-power.

The question that many of you smart people are working to answer is this:  what institutions and protocols will most quickly move us to this honest energy accounting, and how do we put them in place in time to save our climate?  The return to healthy food and power is not inevitable— there is no safety net protecting us from our collective ignorance.  But I think we are smart and compassionate enough to overcome these challenges… don’t you?

All this writing has made me hungry.  I’m going to microwave some of my Canella Russets, courtesy of Mr. Sol.