Solar power and other distributed renewable energy technologies could lay waste to U.S. power utilities and burn the utility business model, which has remained virtually unchanged for a century, to the ground.
That is not wild-eyed hippie talk. It is the assessment of the utilities themselves.
Back in January, the Edison Electric Institute — the (typically stodgy and backward-looking) trade group of U.S. investor-owned utilities — released a report [PDF] that, as far as I can tell, went almost entirely without notice in the press. That’s a shame. It is one of the most prescient and brutally frank things I’ve ever read about the power sector. It is a rare thing to hear an industry tell the tale of its own incipient obsolescence.
The thing to remember is that it is in a utility’s financial interest to generate (or buy) and deliver as much power as possible. The higher the demand, the higher the investments, the higher the utility shareholder profits. In short, all things being equal, utilities want to sell more power. (All things are occasionally not equal, but we’ll leave those complications aside for now.)
Now, into this cozy business model enters cheap distributed solar PV, which eats away at it like acid.
It’s worse than that, though. Solar power peaks at midday, which means it is strongest close to the point of highest electricity use — “peak load.” Problem is, providing power to meet peak load is where utilities make a huge chunk of their money. Peak power is the most expensive power. So when solar panels provide peak power, they aren’t just reducing demand, they’re reducing demand for the utilities’ most valuable product.
But wait. Renewables are limited by the fact they are intermittent, right? “The sun doesn’t always shine,” etc. Customers will still have to rely on grid power for the most part. Right?
This is a widely held article of faith, but EEI (of all places!) puts it to rest. (In this and all quotes that follow, “DER” means distributed energy resources, which for the most part means solar PV.)
Due to the variable nature of renewable DER, there is a perception that customers will always need to remain on the grid. While we would expect customers to remain on the grid until a fully viable and economic distributed non-variable resource is available, one can imagine a day when battery storage technology or micro turbines could allow customers to be electric grid independent. To put this into perspective, who would have believed 10 years ago that traditional wire line telephone customers could economically “cut the cord?” [Emphasis mine.]
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