Saturday, July 31, 2010

one small proposal for gettting from here to there

Our earth is undergoing measurable global climate warming that has a significant anthropogenic component, with the primary anthropogenic contribution to warming coming from the steady increase in CO2 emissions from the use of fossil fuels such as oil and coal. Moreover, warming that has already occurred over the past century and warming that is certain to occur in the next century, have had and will have recognizable negative impacts on the health of human beings and human societies. Those impacts include, but are not limited to, rises in sea level and loss of shoreline, changes in plant and animal populations (declines, increases, shifts in range) including changes in disease vectors (such as West Nile Virus and Malaria carrying mosquitoes), increasing drought with its impact on food crops and human water supplies, and increasing extreme precipitation events with concomitant flooding.

Among the scientific community there is debate and need for continuing research on how much warming and how fast future warming will occur, and the regional patterning of impacts, but there is general consensus on the basic facts of warming and its causes and its consequences. Recent polling of the general population in the United States shows that about three quarters of the American population accept the scientific consensus on the reality of global warming and the anthropogenic causes of that warming. However, there is a decided lack of consensus both within the scientific community and the general population on exactly what should be done to address the problems posed now and in the future by global warming.

Just because people agree that a problem exists and that something should be done, has never meant that they will agree on what to do about that problem. This has always been true. There are lots of good sociological and psychological reasons for this lack of agreement. From a psychological perspective immediate, present threats to one's livelihood and material well-being are more salient and real than predicted future threats no matter how real we consider those future threats to be. A parent will always be more concerned about the present day need to keep a roof over their children's heads and food on the table today, than they will be about the availability of housing and food for those children in 20 years.

From a sociological perspective we have organized our economy around the need to maintain very short term current profitability to retain investors, rather than around long term future. The structures, rules and practices of business decision-making and investor decision-making, make it difficult for either business managers or investors to forgo current profits in exchange for long term sustainability.

For a utility company currently generating most of its electricity from coal fired plants shifting to solar or wind generation has many economic drawbacks. If a utility simply purchases "green" power from another electricity producer who is already invested in wind, solar or hydro-power, the primary profit from power production goes to the actual producer not the utility company purchasing the power. To make any profit, they have to raise the cost of that power to the customer, making it more expensive than the coal generated power, and thus less attractive to consumers of electricity. Such a move also introduces greater inefficiencies -- the further electricity is transmitted the greater the loss, so purchases power from a distant provider means that you get less power for your buck as well.

On the other hand, if a utility company decides to themselves begin producing electricity from wind, solar or hydro sources, there is the huge upfront capital investment that must be made. While this may have great long term profit potential (once constructed one never has to pay for sunlight or wind unlike coal), it has tremendous short term costs that affect profitability and investor satisfaction. If a utility attempts to pay for this by raising utility rates up front, there is substantial customer dissatisfaction, and in states (like Kentucky) with strong political incentives to protect coal, little political interest for public utility commissions to support such rate increases. Additionally, the construction of a centralized solar or wind generation plant requires huge acreage, that may not be readily available to a utility company near its customer base.

Finally, another reason that utility companies become nervous about discussions, is that the idea mode of generating electricity from solar energy is a pattern of dispersed, household level or building level generation, where solar panels sufficient to the needs of a particular housing unit or office building are placed on the building itself. This eliminates two problems: first, all the extra land that would be needed for centralized solar generation, and second, the problem of electricity losses due to transmission over distance. However, since currently housing unit and office building solar electricity generation is financed and operated by individual families or businesses it represents a loss of revenue for the utility company, and certainly not something they really want to encourage.

Moreover, from the point of view of the individual, family or business, the cost of constructing small localized solar (and wind) generation is quite large (at least $20,000), and far beyond the reach of the median household. While such household level solar (and wind) electricity generation does pay for itself over twenty to twenty-five years (the vast majority of the costs are in the initial hardware and installation and after that the electricity itself is essentially free), the upfront costs are prohibitive for all but the most affluent and most environmentally committed.

Now, finally to my proposal. I acknowledge up-front, as a person who is uncomfortable with the power of utility companies now, this is not my ideal solution, but it is a means of decreasing the input of CO2 into the atmosphere, to ameliorate future extent of global warming and its impact, while dealing with many of the problems outlined above. My proposal is that electric utility companies currently heavily invested in their own coal-fired generation consider adopting the model used by Bell Telephone in the 1950's. In exchange for a modest installation fee (say a few hundred dollars that could be prorated over a period of time) well within the budgets of middle and working class families with "green values," the utility company would deliver and install solar panels on the consumers home -- but, and here's what I think is a new idea (at least as applied to electricity generation) the utility company would retain ownership of those panels in perpetuity, and charge the consumer a monthly fee for the electricity consumed from those panels.

Here's the details -- the one's that I think would make this idea appealing to both the consumer and to the utility company. The individual solar installations would 1) be large enough to provide for ordinary, peak daylight hours electricity use and 2) would be tied into the grid allowing for both inflow and outflow. The utility company would benefit, because all excess electricity generated would flow into the grid for use by other customers (and unlike the situation where a household customer owns the solar installation, the utility company would own that excess flow outright and not be paying the customer with the installation for it). With each household or business that added solar generation, the electricity generating capacity of the entire grid would be expanded. The capitalization costs would be spread out over time -- no huge up-front investment in generation capacity years before any new power can be generated. Moreover, following current phone company and cable company practices, the utility company could charge a very small (a few dollars) monthly maintenance fee to consumers, to cover costs of periodic maintenance and repair.

The consumer would benefit in two ways: they would have the assurance that in the absence of sunlight they would still have electricity, and conversely, during widespread power outages due to downed transmission lines they would also still have their locally generated power. Indeed, if several households in a neighborhood had contracted with the utility for solar panels, the entire neighborhood circuit might be protected from electricity loss during a widespread outage.

In the beginning only middle income and upper income families that are highly committed to environmental, "green" values would participate. I know I would. I would be very willing to pay a reasonable premium in installation costs just to be assured that while I was sitting at my computer typing away I was using electricity generated by solar power rather than by coal obtained by scalping the mountains around me. Overtime, as people begin to notice, that one of their neighbors still has electricity after a storm has knocked out everyone else, the appeal of solar panels might spread. If the utility made the cost of electricity generated in situ from the solar panels marginally less expensive (say 1/2 cent per KWH) compared to electricity pulled from the grid, this would increase the appeal of participation.

From the utility company's perspective, they are able to gradually expand their generating capacity, using "green" sources, with small, periodic expenditures of capital that can be partially charged to the customer (installation fees), and also recouped by feeding all excess electricity generated into the grid. Customers without the panels who depended solely on the grid would pay the standard rate for their electricity. By dispersing solar generation through out the households served by a utility, there would be a substantial increase in efficiency, as electricity would be consumed closer to where it was generated, reducing the losses to long distance transmission. Most of all this idea allows utility companies to make the transition to renewable electricity generation gradual and incremental, and thus less painful and more acceptable.

So there is my idea -- somebody tell me what's wrong with it!


Ed Pilolla said...

the proposal seems to make sense. it's well thought out and logical. i don't have faith in those in power, those who really make the decisions. look how they handled bailing out the financial industry. gave them billions after they screwed up, and now the banks won't lend the public money to the public becuz they don't want to take any risk. maybe we shouldn't be concerned with what the utility companies and the power structure would like. maybe we should go about our business without them.

Geraldine said...

Hi Sue, I couldn't comment at Sunflower Roots as the security word there was impossible to read, tried twice. I've disengaged mine at both Blogger blogs and haven't had any problems with spammers. I know a lot of people now who aren't even commenting if a blog has these security words to contend with. Just thought I'd mention.

I wondered if this person was ok, that you wrote the poem about?

Take care, G