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In the rush by solar companies and some policymakers to push the adoption of rooftop solar, it’s easy to overlook the significant efforts of electric utilities from all segments of the industry (investor owned, electric cooperative and municipal) to construct or purchase power produced from utility-scale solar projects. Electricity from these large solar projects is produced or bought by a utility wholesale and sold to the customer at a retail rate. In contrast, rooftop solar is considered distributed generation because it is produced by the consumer “behind the meter” and not produced or purchased by a traditional electric utility.
An example of utility-scale solar can be found on Ted Turner’s ranch in Colfax County, New Mexico; here sits the Cimarron Solar facility. Cimarron is a 30-megawatt facility owned by a subsidiary of the Southern Company, operated by First Solar and with all the output purchased by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc. There is enough power produced from this facility to serve 9,000 homes. Cimarron is just one good example of many illustrating the proliferation of utility-scale solar over recent years.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, there are more than 31 gigawatts of major solar projects in operation today, with an additional 74 gigawatts of utility or large-scale under construction or development. In addition to the Cimarron facility, this collection of projects also includes Florida Power and Light’s 74.5 megawatt Babcock Ranch Facility outside of Fort Myers, Florida. Babcock Ranch has the ability to provide power to more than 15,000 homes and is just an example of a source of relatively affordable and reliable electricity that makes sense to the consumer.
For a decade, Energy Fairness has been consistent in advocating for energy solutions that make sense for families and businesses. This focus has meant resisting the urge to focus on “shiny objects” that look good, but might make little sense for customers. Too often, roof-top solar represents the shiny object for policymakers. In truth, there are usually superior options for the energy grid as a whole and for customers.
Data shows that roof-top solar still benefits mostly the wealthy. Even though the income gap has narrowed, the average household income with roof-top installed is still $100,000. Yet all taxpayers, regardless of income, still subsidize the 30% Investment Tax Credit for the average relatively well-off homeowner installing a roof-top system.
Moreover, a recent study conducted by the Brattle Group found that solar electricity produced from a utility scale solar project is roughly one half the cost of the same amount of electricity generated from the equivalent amount of rooftop-solar. The study also found utility-based solar had 50% fewer emissions than rooftop-solar. On balance, utility scale solar presents a far sunnier picture for the vast majority of customers. That’s something for policymakers to keep in mind as they pursue the best options for everyone.