Saturday, November 15

How to Build a Zero Carbon America Fast

Here's an idea for legislation to get more solar roofs up fast and cheaply, even during the current financial meltdown:


Write a law saying that if homeowners want to put in a solar roof, then their utility MUST then forward their electricty bill payments to the solar company till the roof has been paid off by the homeowner, and the utility MUST accept the electrons being added to their grid from that customers roof.

How would that work?

1. You would be contacted to see if you would like to put up a solar roof. You would agree. Installation would be done. Your roof would begin sending electrcity to the grid.

2. You would contact your utility to tell them you have switched from being a customer to being a supplier of electricity to them.

3. They would say, ok, take you off their roll and send you an (averaged over the last year) bill which would become your new monthly payment amount towards paying off the solar roof. (Typically someone who pays alow of $80 a month and a high of $120 would be signed up to now paying a regular monthly bill of $100 for ten or twenty years - till the roof is paid off.) The utility would forward the entire payment to the solar company.

4. This billing would go on for as many years as it takes to pay off the solar roof, depending on size. If you move, the next person living there takes over the standard payment.

Why this solution would be attractive to uilities:

Renewable Portfolio Standards, while intended to get utilities to buy more renewables, can be slowed by NIMBYism and also by the ignorance of utilties about renewable power, dragging their feet. At a time of no credit; it's hard to comply. The utility must find credit and spend money to put in new renewable power to comply with RPS.

1. Utilities in 30 states already have to find more renewable power to comply with RPS. (Once congress passes the RPS nationwide (likely this year), even more utilities will have to find more renewables somewhere.) My solution offers a way for utilities to comply, yet not lift a finger to learn about renewables or spend money or credit on financing new renewable power.

2. If the homeowner defaults on the monthly payments the utility can cut you off just as they can now. So the utility, and solar company is more sure than a bank is of getting paid. They are not taking the same risk as a bank in "financing" the solar roofing of America.

Why this would be attractive to homeowners:

1. Most want to help solve climate change, if it doesn't cost more.
2. This way they wouldn't have to pay more than they do now.
3. They get a guaranteed fixed cost for ten or twenty years - and then free. The electricity price would not constantly go up like if they were paying the utility.

I have sold renewable energy, and my experience is that people want renewable power If it cost the same as they are paying currently. They just cannot find financing for the upfront costs.

If it was just "sign here to switch", no money involved - most people would switch to paying off a solar roof instead. With this law they would know that they do not have to apply for financing - they just would send the usual payment to their utility. (Berkeley just sold out of their new financing system involving property tax assessments)

Why this would help grow solar businesses:

Few people will risk having their power turned off by their utility for non payment.
As investers realized that all these solar businesses were cash cows over the long term with reliable mulitple monthly payments coming in for decades, they would loosen their pursestrings and lend to the solar companies to expand. The Federal government could guarantee these utility payments to the solar companies as collateral.

Why this would be attractive to the public

There is no cost to taxpayers: All it would take is a law. No new taxpayer money is involved. Unlike Feed in Tarfiffs - which the public fears would encourage utilities to just charge you more for electricity since they must pay retail for your electricity.

Why this would cost nothing:

Nobody is inconvenienced.
The solar company is doing a lot more work and getting paid reliably over time (and thus getting loans easier).
The homeowner is paying their usual electrcity bill, except it goes all to the solar company.
The utility is the only one doing a little work for free; a little simple repetitive billing for the solar roof. But in exchange for this pro bono billing work, they do not have to go out and find new electrons to supply this homeowner any more. So, no benefit - but also - no cost. It's a wash. (Part of the business that just is something you have to do, like figuring out sales tax forms. As a former business owner, I know most businesses accept that. This would be just like that: a little inconvenience.)

What the congress can do:

You could guarantee the collateral (monthly payments) like you have the FDIC - so the solar companies have access to credit for expansion, and you could cut the utilities a sweet deal on meeting their Renewable Portfolio Standard requirements, for every customer they can get to pull out of their grid. This should make up for the loss of that customer (but remember - they don't have to find new electricity for that customer, either).

It is likely that you can pass legislation decoupling utilities as well this year, which will make this work well. As part of the green jobs corps, you could employ huge numbers of new green collar workers very quickly to go out and sign people up to make the switch. (I'd be happy to help organise that here in California!)

Why this idea really will make America a carbon free nation faster:

This solution takes no money and is consumer-driven by all of us who get it on climate change, avoiding the ignorance/hostility of fossil utilities or NIMBYs slowing it down. Many of us voted for exactly this kind of change and are excited about making it happen.

Published at the NRDC OnEarth