How 'Big Energy' Is Conspiring to Control, Constrict and Co-opt Renewable Power
May 16, 2013
Giles Parkinson / Clean Technica & Rachel Dovey / The Bohemian
According to a recent report by the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group that represents investor owned utilities in the US, solar panels and battery storage (along with fuel cells and storage from electric vehicles) could “directly threaten the centralised utility model” that has prevailed for a century or more. Utilities are now seeking to protect their business models by slowing or controlling the deployment of new energy technologies that don’t fit the decades-old model.
Rooftop Solar Owners vs Utilities: The Battle Begins
Giles Parkinson / Clean Technica
(May 14, 2013) -- You don’t have to go too far into a document prepared by the US-based Edison Electric Institute (EEI) to realise what is at stake for centralised utilities from the threat of rooftop solar.
The EEI, a trade group that represents most investor owned utilities in the US, said solar PV and battery storage were two technologies (along with fuel cells and storage from electric vehicles) that could “directly threaten the centralised utility model” that has prevailed for a century or more.
How worried should they be? A lot, said the EEI. The ability of rooftop solar, battery storage and energy efficiency programs to reduce demand from the grid would likely translate into lower prices for wholesale power and reduced profits. Worse still, customers were just as likely to “leave the system entirely” if a more cost-competitive alternative is available.
“While tariff restructuring can be used to mitigate lost revenues, the longer-term threat of fully exiting from the grid (or customers solely using the electric grid for backup purposes) raises the potential for irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects.”
In the US, utilities are now seeking to protect their business models by pushing hard against net metering and seeking to influence the pace and manner of deployment of other technologies and new energy market concept that don’t fit the decades old model.
In Australia, much the same has been happening. RenewEconomy reported on the concerns of utilities in this article last month. Feed-in-tariffs have been wound back, as they were supposed to have been as technology costs fell, but now the pendulum is swinging the other way, and utilities -- with the apparent complicity of state-based pricing regulators -- are now trying to extract as much revenue from solar customers as they can.
It is a dangerous game. Leading electricity executives and market analysts suggest the rollout of rooftop solar is inevitable and “unstoppable” – unless, of course, by regulation and changing tariffs.
Little wonder then, that solar consumers and rooftop solar providers are starting to organise themselves to protect the interests of individual consumers, and the industry as a whole.
In Australia, a new solar campaign initative known as “Solar Citizens” is being launched this week to ensure the interests of solar owners are protected from changes to laws and policies by power companies and governments.
Solar Citizens sees its mandate as helping existing and would-be solar owners to advocate for their rights as energy investors and aims to push for panels on every Australian rooftop.
Solar Citizens Manager Dr Geoff Evans says 2.5 million Australians now live under a solar roof (one million homes have rooftop solar PV systems), and have invested about $8 billion. Some forecasts expect those numbers to triple by 2020.
“That’s an amazing show of support for solar,” Evans said. “But to date, when the interests of solar owners have come under threat, there has been no way for them to come together and protect their interests. With Solar Citizens that will change.”
One of Solar Citizens initial targets will be Queensland, there the local competition authority has canvassed a range of controversial tariff structures that appear to favour government owned utilities over consumers, as RenewEconomy highlighted in March in this article, and again two days later.
In other states such as NSW, individual homeowners have to negotiate with retailers to get a price for the power that retailer then sells to their neighbours.
“There’s a real power imbalance in those negotiations” said Evans. “The situations in NSW and Queensland highlights the trend we have seen across the country,” said Dr Evans. “We will soon be working on campaigns with solar owners in every state to make sure all Australian solar owners are ensured a fair go.”
“Network operators and energy retailers don’t want to see Australian’s take back control of the grid. They are making it harder for Aussies to go solar in order to protect their profits.
The Solar Citizens campaign is emerging in Australia just as solar companies in the US are organising themselves to counter the same potential threats to their business.
Last week, Bloomberg reported, SolarCity, Sungevity, Sunrun and Verengo, which accounted for the majority of US rooftop solar installations (most of which are financed by leasing arrangements)) formed a lobbying group called the Alliance for Solar Choice to combat efforts by “monopoly utilities” to quash programs that support renewable energy in 43 states.
The alliance is seeking initially to preserve net metering policies that require utilities to purchase surplus electricity at retail rates from customers with rooftop solar systems, and says it is responding to “the coordinated utility attack on net metering throughout the country.”
Bloomberg said the effort underscores the growing conflict between rooftop solar providers and power companies that disagree about the long-term sustainability of industry support mechanisms such as net energy metering.
Utilities say that as more people install solar panels at home and are compensated for the power they generate, it shifts the costs of operating their grids to non-solar users. A similar argument is trotted out in Australia. But as the QCA report acknowledges, the benefits of solar PV are not documented or even brought into consideration for the setting of tariffs.
Giles is the founding editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, an Australian-based website that provides news and analysis on cleantech, carbon and climate issues. Giles is based in Sydney and is watching the (slow, but quickening) transformation of Australia's energy grid with great interest.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
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The Final Four: So Just How 'Clean' Are the Companies Vying for the Sonoma Clean Power Job?
Rachel Dovey / The Bohemian
(May 15, 2013) -- With the tentative approval of Sonoma Clean Power by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, each of the county's municipalities has a choice to make. With a short-list of four potential energy suppliers, the county's Community Choice Aggregation -- which would break with PG&E to buy power on the open market -- is poised to go forward pending each city's yea or nay. Like Marin Clean Power, individuals will be given the ability to opt-out and continue receiving service from PG&E.
What may sound like a no-brainer for green-conscious, PG&E-wary Sonoma County is complicated by the concept of buying power from one of four out-of-state bidders, each offering a different mix of fossil-fuel, nuclear and renewable options.
According to Cordel Stillman, who is heading up the research for the nascent program on behalf of the Sonoma County Water Agency, the final four were chosen based on overall price, financial viability, power supply, use of local renewable energy and assistance during startup. Sonoma County will examine the specifics of each supply more thoroughly during the next bidding round, he says.
Below, we take a look at the final four, including their top employees, the mix of energy they offer and any iffy business practices or human-rights violations they've been associated with. Like the cities prepping to make a choice, readers can make their own decision as to how truly "green" these corporations are, and whether they top PG&E.
Headquarters West Windsor Township, N.J., and Houston, Texas
At the helm David Crane, president and CEO, has been with the company for 10 years, working in various positions at International Power and Lehman Brothers before that. Kirkland Andrews, VP and CFO, also comes from banking, working with Citigroup and Deutsche Bank prior to joining NRG.
Energy mix Of its nearly 100 plants and facilities sprinkled around the United States, roughly one-tenth is solar or wind, with the rest generating power from fossil fuels. Crane has stated a goal of curbing the company's carbon emissions, but though its use of coal and oil total only about one-fifth of the total mix, NRG relies on fracked natural gas. All of its California plants use natural gas. As of 2012, it owned a 44 percent share in one nuclear facility in South Texas.
Headquarters Houston, Texas
At the helm Badar Khan replaced longtime CEO Chris Weston in April of this year. Before his 10 years with Direct and its parent company, Centrica, Khan worked for a variety of corporations and consultants, including the controversial pair KPMG and Deloitte. While the former company created fraudulent tax shelters for high-ups in the finance industry -- withholding as much as $2.5 billion -- the latter has been accused of money laundering for the Iranian government and publishing false information on behalf of the tobacco industry. Former CEO Weston has been an outspoken advocate of governmental deregulations of the energy industry.
Energy mix The company purchases electricity from five wind farms in Texas and owns 4,600 natural gas wells in Alberta, Canada, purchased from Suncor Energy and Shell Canada. Ratios of the company's fossil fuel-to-renewable power sources are not published on its website.
The dirt Between 2001 and 2004, Direct Energy was found by several regulators to have signed up unwitting clients in four US states and two Canadian provinces. According to a newspaper report, the company brought attention to itself by accidentally signing up an Atlanta man who had been dead for over 20 years. It was charged with unethical business practices and fined $500,000 stateside and $150,000 in Canada.
CONSTELLATION (NOW EXELON)
Headquarters Baltimore, Md., and Chicago, Ill.
At the helm Kenneth Cornew is the current president and CEO of Constellation, which was purchased by Exelon in 2012. He has been with the parent company since 2003. Christopher Crane, president and CEO of Exelon, comes from nuclear energy, working in management for plants in Texas and Arizona before joining Exelon in '98.
Energy mix Not surprisingly, considering its CEO's background, Exelon bills itself as the largest owner and operator of nuclear plants in the United States. With 10 plants and 17 reactors, roughly 55 percent of the company's total energy is nuclear. Another 35 percent is fossil-fuel-based, with hydro, wind and solar making up another 10 percent.
The dirt Though Exelon has supported cap-and-trade legislation -- the largely nuclear organization would likely benefit if such policies limited the availability of fossil fuels -- it is not without environmental blemishes. In 2005, it was fined $600,000 for a sulfur dioxide leak from a generation station in Pennsylvania. In 2006, the company disclosed that one of its Illinois nuclear plants had leaked more than 6 million gallons of water laced with radioactive hydrogen, known as tritium, since the '90s.
Headquarters New York City
At the helm Kevin Burke, the CEO of parent company Consolidated Edison, has been with the organization in various positions since 1973.
Energy mix An energy retailer, ConEdison Solutions offers several "green" packages, including wind from national farms and wind from farms in consumers' regional area. The company will also install solar systems upon request. In New York City, its parent company supplies customers with a mix of electricity and heat imported from a hydroelectric plant in Quebec and a handful of gas and electric utilities.
The dirt Like PG&E, many of ConEdison's problems have involved maintenance -- and lack thereof -- of New York's aging pipe system. According to a report by Public Campaign, ConEdison was high on a list of companies -- topped by GE and PG&E -- that paid no federal taxes between 2008 and 2011. During that same period, the company reportedly spent almost $2 million in lobbying fees.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.