Tim Dickinson wrote a lengthy piece for Rolling Stone titled The Koch Brothers’ Dirty War on Solar Power: All over the country, the Kochs and utilities have been blocking solar initiatives — but nowhere more so than in Florida.
Though the Koch Brothers got top billing in the headline for fairly obvious reasons, the real villain in the story is the Florida Power & Light (FP&L) company, even though they are simply the largest of several regulated monopoly electric utility companies in the state.
I don’t “have a dog in the fight,” I am a dog with bared teeth in this particular fight. I have 56 years worth of vested interests and strongly held opinions about FP&L.
Dad was an FP&L electrical engineer and engineering group supervisor for 35 years, starting in 1952. Mom has been receiving an FP&L pension since he passed away in 1987. She held onto the stocks that they purchased through the company’s thrift plan and generously shares some of the dividend payments with me and my three siblings each year.
I can’t comment on the local political situations that Dickinson describes in his article because it’s been more than a dozen years since I last lived in Florida. However, it amuses me to notice that he seems oblivious to the fact that the struggle he describes is apparently funded by Koch Brothers on both sides. ALEC, which opposes solar energy, might be a Koch-funded effort, but so is the Tea Party, which he describes as fighting for expanded solar incentives.
I can also point out some of the technical weaknesses that reduce the credibility of his arguments.
The introductory paragraphs to his article provide some interesting statements about reactions to the competitive threat from solar energy that would be more applicable to the response of the fossil fuel industry to the progress made in nuclear power plant costs between 1956 and 1969.
The difference between the two is that nuclear energy provides a complete replacement for coal, oil or gas-fired plants. Nuclear power plants are more reliable and virtually eliminate air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Improperly designed incentives for solar energy installations represent a different kind of economic threat to electric utilities. They don’t do a thing to reduce the need for reliable thermal power capacity since the entire statewide installation disappears every day before the evening consumption peak. They do, however, require operating fossil fuel plants to reduce their output and sales for a portion of most days, thus requiring more revenues in other parts of the day to cover overhead.
In markets with cost-of-service rate-regulation like Florida, all extra costs get distributed to the full customer base in the form of higher rates.
Dickinson mocks and attempts to discredit the fact that solar systems as currently incentivized are a cost burden on lower income people that mostly benefit people who can afford a large roof and have the ability finance the initial capital cost of a solar system.
The political argument advanced by ALEC and EEI is that rooftop solar generators are freeloaders on the traditional grid infrastructure: They rely on conventional power when the sun isn’t shining, but because they sell power back to the grid, they don’t pay much on net. An ALEC report on rooftop solar implausibly holds up utilities as champions of the economically vulnerable, arguing that net metering creates a “regressive tax, subsidizing the rich by picking the pockets of the poor.”
Such arguments ignore the clear value rooftop solar producers create for other customers on the grid – including producing power at times of peak demand and adding resiliency against outages.
It’s often repeated but it’s not true that rooftop PV panels produce power at peak demand; their output disappears before the late afternoon/evening consumption peak arrives. They also don’t help in outage situations if the panels are damaged by the same forces that bring down the power lines or if they are properly installed with an isolation breaker that protects linemen during system restoration. If not damaged, they might provide some resilience for the well-heeled and heavily-subsidized solar system owners.
However, most people hit with power outages would feel much more resilient if they have a reasonably sized natural gas, gasoline, or diesel generator with an adequate fuel stockpile. In addition to providing on-demand power, another advantage of portable generators is that they can be more readily shared with neighbors in a collective effort to endure an extended outage.
I left a comment on Dickinson’s hit piece, but since there were already almost 300 comments, I figured it would disappear in the noise. Here’s what I said on Rolling Stone.
Tim – you somehow avoided mentioning Florida’s third major source of electrical power – nuclear energy. There are currently four large nuclear units in the state, providing a total of nearly 30 billion kilowatt hours per year of electricity.
Nuclear energy produces about 12% of Florida’s annual electricity consumption, more than 12 times as much electricity as solar power in the “Sunshine State.” (Here’s a secret from a native Floridian that rarely makes it to the brochures – rain in that state is called “liquid sunshine.” It is quite rare to have cloudless days.)
There are two major projects underway that could more than double Florida’s nuclear energy output within the next decade or so. The Levy County project was put on slow during the period of slow growth caused by the Great Recession, but it can be revived and accelerated. The Turkey Point Units 6 and 7 expansion project has moved steadily forward and should receive its combined license within the next two years. It’s been a marathon effort, but the finish line is almost in sight.
Disclosure: I’ve never thought of the power company as “the man.” That might have been because of all of the dedicated workers that were a part of my personal “village” as I grew up in the house of a career engineering group supervisor at FP&L.
I wonder how many solar installers will be ready to go back up on the roofs in the aftermath of a storm the way that Dad and his colleagues donned their hard-hats and helped the linemen restore power after one of Florida’s not infrequent hurricanes? Many of those colleagues would travel as far north as Maryland and Tennessee if needed to pitch in for a fellow utility company.
I’ve been in a crowd in Annapolis, MD that cheered linemen from distant states when they restored power after Hurricane Isabella.
One of the logical justifications for electric monopolies is that they are obligated to serve all customers with reliable power at rates that are controlled by a public service commission. They can’t just pick the most profitable sectors and they must maintain the capacity to respond to unplanned events. Johnny-come-latelies like Jigar Shah’s former company SunEdison want to capture the profitable parts of the business without the service commitment.
There is a real cost imposed on the system when there is too much solar capacity. David Roberts just published a couple of important pieces on California’s costly and challenging “Duck Curve” demand profile. The rapid rampes in both the up and down direction were created by its 13 GW of rooftop solar.
I like the free enterprise system.
However, some commodities/services are so fundamental and vital to all other portions of the economy that they are natural monopolies. Electric utilities fall into that category. Ideally they should be run by well-trained electrical generation, transmission and delivery professionals who are encouraged to take pride in their obligation to serve their neighbors with a vital commodity.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, the Atomic Show podcast