Monopolies strangling solar, small business

Monopolies would destroy small business who make their money at the local level by insulating homes or installing solar panels.

In times like these, it is helpful to recall what our nation learned from the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt, who went after trusts and monopolies because he knew they used their huge size to strangle other businesses.

Iowa could use that kind of leadership. Our Iowa monopoly electric companies are strangling small businesses again. As monopolies they are guaranteed profits, only because of efficiencies seen as a public benefit in the production and distribution of power. And to make sure they do not abuse that power, they are regulated by a fairly powerful state regulatory agency, the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB).

Solar energy gives citizens control over part of their lives. Small customers who could not operate a coal plant can put up solar panels. MidAmerican Energy (MidAm) sees that and feels threatened. Even though only 750 of their 770,000 customers have solar panels on their property, MidAm wants this market to itself.

So now, MidAm is trying to bypass its IUB regulators by going to the Iowa Legislature to get what they want. MidAm’s approach is a job-killer for solar contractors and a few manufacturers in the state. Legislation the company is pushing would strip those small competitors of most of their market, reducing or even removing the benefits to people who chose to install solar panels.

In short, MidAm wants to put a tax on the sun.

Its proposed changes greatly reduce the incentive to generate one’s own electricity. As it works now, customers with solar panels sometimes produce more electricity than they use. This is often during the middle of a sunny day in the summer when electric prices are at their highest.

Currently, these customers are compensated for the excess energy they provide back to the grid at the same price they pay the electric monopoly. HSB185 would allow MidAm or any investor-owned utility to charge extra fees, or cut compensation, to homeowners and businesses that have clean energy systems. This would discourage solar projects by making them cost-prohibitive.

MidAm — like all utilities — charges a fixed, mandatory fee each month to all customers, which proves false MidAm’s principal argument that the clean-energy customers aren’t paying their share for lines, transformers and billing expenses of the company. Already, they pay.

But MidAm at least is consistent in its attempts to undermine smart-energy choices and the role of small users and businesses in providing it. We saw it last year as well, when MidAm and Alliant Energy successfully bypassed the IUB by dismantling Iowa’s requirement that they help their customers be more efficient. Previously, electric monopolies rewarded a customer who bought a more efficient refrigerator, or efficient light bulbs, or put in more insulation. No more.

Now MidAm is using the same game plan. Go to the Legislature and convince the members to allow monopolies to destroy small business who make their money at the local level by insulating homes or installing solar panels.

What would Teddy Roosevelt have done? He would stand up to stop utilities’ bullying of fair competition and the freedom of citizens to generate their own electricity. Small businesses, conservationists and citizens who just want more control of their lives are looking for that kind of champion.

David Osterberg is lead environment/energy researcher, founder and former executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Solar power shines when most needed

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

By David Osterberg and Nathaniel Baer

The hot sun we experienced this August not only caused the local electric grid to experience high use, but it also powered solar systems distributed around Eastern Iowa.

The middle of a hot summer day is a time when almost any U.S. electric utility expects to see highest demands during the year. Aug. 11 was going to be one of those days in Eastern Iowa. Peak demands of high electricity use translate to high costs.

So, a day in advance, MidAmerican Energy asked the University of Iowa’s Facilities Management team to cut back the university’s electric load from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2016.

The university has an arrangement with the electric utility to decrease its electric load by cutting back on air conditioning and other usage, when called upon, in exchange for a reduced electric rate. The goal is to reduce costs for all utility customers by encouraging some customers to reduce their electricity use at the highest and most expensive times.

This type of arrangement is a win-win not only for UI and MidAmerican, but also other MidAmerican customers. Utilities often make these arrangements available to large customers as well as residential customers with air conditioning.

The university has two small solar energy systems that produce electricity. The data for one of them, a 38-kilowatt solar array, showed energy production varying during the morning of Aug. 11 (below). During the utility’s predicted peak period of energy use, the solar array’s production rose quickly and continued to be strong for the remaining period.

Basic RGB

Similarly, the solar arrays at Johnson County’s Secondary Roads and SEATS campus began producing much higher levels of solar energy shortly after the 12:30 p.m. high-use period started. These panels also continued with strong production through 5 p.m., when the period ended. (below)

160822-solar-timeofday

The hot sun caused the MidAmerican system to experience a peak day but also powered distributed solar systems in the area to help meet those higher energy needs.

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

2016-osterberg_5464David Osterberg is an energy and environment researcher at the Iowa Policy Project. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANathaniel Baer is the energy program director at the Iowa Environmental Council. baer@iaenvironment.org.

 

A version of this column ran in the Sept. 6 Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Spreading a friend’s message

“At 93 I am nearing the end of my life on this planet. As a parting message, I want to encourage you in the strongest terms to use your influence to make distributed solar energy a major source of electricity. … Please use your influence.” — Don Laughlin, in his letter to Warren Buffett

I visited an old friend, Don Laughlin, in a nursing home before he died. A stroke had paralyzed half of his body but certainly had not affected his mind. Even with his impending death he was looking toward the future as he spoke with Nathan Shepherd of IPP and me.

Our conversation was about renewable energy, which he had promoted for decades. He told us that one of his many unfinished projects was a letter to Warren Buffett, the owner of MidAmerican Energy, to ask him to be more supportive of rooftop solar power. Nathan suggested to Don that he dictate a letter and that we would send it to the billionaire. And we did.

160810-CLIP-dmr-openletterBut we realized that with probably hundreds of letters every day, Warren Buffett might never hear of Don’s letter. We spoke with the Des Moines Register’s opinion editor, who loved the idea of publishing Don’s letter as an open letter to Buffett. So, two days after we spoke to Don, a third of the Register’s op-ed page was Don’s letter, an introduction by Nathan and me, and a huge picture of solar panels. (Click on image.)

Within several days, Don Laughlin would be gone at the age of 93.

At a celebration of Don’s life at Scattergood School near West Branch August 27, my neighbor Deborah Dakin suggested that while she was sure Don was happy to do one last act to encourage solar power and reduce the effect of climate change, more could be done.

Basic RGBShe suggested that everyone who reads this write to Warren Buffett to ask him to pull his company back from efforts to reduce the return to homeowners from their own rooftop solar. That is because MidAmerican is trying to kill net metering, the ability of a homeowner or business to receive retail rates for any excess electricity they generate beyond their own usage.

Your letter would honor Don Laughlin’s last public activity, and, if it succeeds, each of us will be doing our part to stave off the worse and worst effects of climate change.

IPP-osterberg-75David Osterberg, Co-Founder and Environmental Researcher, IPP

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org