Recently, many people throughout the country celebrated the first day of summer and the longest day of the year by urging consumers and businesses to “Put Solar on It.” I also support “Putting Solar on It,” because renewable energy sources of all types have many benefits for our country, helping to reduce carbon emissions, diversify our energy supply, and create jobs.
But as we all work to reap the benefits of the spread of renewable energy sources, we need to make sure to look carefully at the policies in place around “Putting Solar on It,” because one of these might end up hurting those who don’t have the option of using rooftop solar panels.
In fact, a policy called “net metering” is causing costs to increase for lower-income and minority groups that cannot afford such systems or do not have access to them in their current living situation. So, I am in support of putting solar on it, but not at an unfair cost to the working poor.
Let’s first examine what net metering actually is. Net metering is allowed in many states, stemming from policymakers’ desire to spur on the growth of renewable energy sources such as solar power. Net metering customers are allowed to sell back the extra electricity they generate to their electric company at the retail rate of electricity, which essentially allows them to avoid covering their fair share of the grid. This might not sound like a big deal — but the problems with this policy become apparent once you look at how electricity bills work.
One part of your electricity bill is for the power you use, and the other part covers the costs of the electric grid. If some customers avoid paying that latter portion of their electricity bill, guess what? Someone else is stuck with the difference.
Because of old net metering requirements, customers without rooftop solar panels are the ones who end up shouldering those avoided costs. This goes beyond not being fair. We all use the electric system, whether we have solar panels on our roofs or not. And actually, the grid plays a helpful role in facilitating the selling of excess electricity for rooftop solar customers. Without the grid, these customers also wouldn’t be able to power their homes when their rooftop solar systems can’t provide enough electricity to meet their needs (at night, for example).
This situation becomes even more unfair when you consider that homeowners who have solar panels are, for the most part, wealthier than those who do not. That’s not surprising, because installing solar panels can be expensive, sometimes costing more than $50,000. But even when the cost of installation is lower, families on a budget have a difficult time seeing the benefit. Something I think we need to address. Wealthy families and home owners are taking advantage of not just the positive aspects of solar (something more of us should do), but a flawed policy that sticks someone else with part of the cost. A May 2014 Wall Street Journal story notes how some customers with rooftop solar have houses that are valued at $1.75 million dollars! What’s more, those who live in apartments or rent — including many low-income families — don’t even have the option of “putting solar on it” as these solar voices advocate.
Low income households that are already spending a significant portion of their income on household energy costs shouldn’t be saddled with additional financial burdens because of their wealthier neighbors’ decision to install rooftop solar systems. Switching to clean energy sources is something we should all be working towards — but we can do without shifting energy costs from the affluent to the poor. In any discussion about “putting solar on it,” we should find a way to balance our environmental goals with economic equality. Let’s change net metering policies to make sure we don’t hurt those who are most in need.