Political Animal


July 18, 2012 3:49 PM Green Gables

By Ed Kilgore

One of the keys to better and more progressive governance is to find ways to address different public policy challenges simultaneously. There’s no question America needs more renewable energy. And there’s also no question right now that the American middle class needs way to build new assets from those they already possess.

That’s the genius of the ideas Anya Schoolman (executive director of the Community Power Network) presents in her contribution to the July/August issue of the Washington Monthly, “Rooftop Revenue,” which focuses on ways to encourage homeowners to become solar energy producers. It’s something that’s part of the landscape in Europe, where, notes Schoolman, “nearly 900,000 Germans have become renewable energy entrepreneurs, and Germany itself now gets more than 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.”

Duplicating that success in the United States isn’t easy because of our complex system of federalism, utility regulation, and tax subsidies for “green” activities. But it can be done, and is being done Colorado, California, New Jersey, Vermont, and in the District of Columbia (where Schoolman lives and is herself a home solar energy producer). These are jurisdictions “where governments have put two key policies in place:”

The first is the enactment of rules that require utilities to accept onto the grid any power homeowners and other small players produce themselves, a practice known as “net metering.” The second is the setting of renewable portfolio standards that are designed to allow average families to be paid for that extra green energy they produce, just as the big boys are.

Even in those jurisdictions, says Schoolman, the ability of homeowners to reap the financial harvest of solar energy generation is being threatened by aggressive corporate efforts to encourage people to instead lease solar panels, which will cut electricity bills for consumers but also lets the leasing companies and their financial backers pocket tax credits and revenues from the sale of the generated power. If states require that utilities provide “net metering” to allow sale of energy back to the power grid; set up “renewable portfolio standards” to enable receipt of tax credits by homeowners; and make it easier for lower-income homeowners to secure financing for the purchase and installation of panels they will own; we could move more rapidly along the path blazed by the Germans.

Concludes Schoolman:

Until now, elected officials who support renewable power have stressed its environmental benefits and potential to create “green jobs.” Yet the number of Americans who can realistically imagine themselves working in a green job is limited, whereas every American family gets an electric bill, and two out of three own their own homes. The prospect that anyone could turn an unused roof or piece of land into a moneymaking asset, and help the environment in the bargain, ought to be hugely appealing.
Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • MichaelF on July 18, 2012 4:22 PM:

    Its other wingnut regressive tendencies notwithstanding, Loosiana [sic] has both extremely generous tax credits and net metering for solar and, if I remember right, wind turbines.

    In 2010 South Coast Solar installed a grid-tied 2Kw electric that's cut my bill by roughly 25 percent, and hopefully will be an even bigger boost if/when I can upgrade my central air conditioning to at least SEER 16. I also reduced my energy costs for hot water by about a quarter, though to be honest, the solar hot water/gas backup is really more gas hot water with a solar boost.

    Tax credits on the federal and state level covered most of the cost. The feds offer a 33 percent of cost credit that carries over to subsequent years if your tax bill zeroes out; the state credit is 50 percent refundable, which means you get the entire credit at once.

    My guess is that the anti-tax zealots must have prioritized that over their otherwise general hatred of all things librul, particularly energy...but hey, it ended up working out for me. An added bonus is that the layout of the house means the panels are basically invisible from the street.

  • c u n d gulag on July 18, 2012 4:26 PM:

    Is she CRAZY?

    Let that Socialist monster, the Sun, which shines its light and heat all over the planet, spread that potential wealth from the energy corporations to the little people?
    And the peons can make MONEY off of doing it?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

    Kenyan Kelptocracy!!!!
    Solar Monotheism!!!!!

    The horror... The horror... The horror...

  • SecularAnimist on July 18, 2012 4:29 PM:

    Ed Kilgore wrote: "the ability of homeowners to reap the financial harvest of solar energy generation is being threatened by aggressive corporate efforts to encourage people to instead lease solar panels"

    Actually, those "aggressive corporate efforts" by companies like SolarCity, SunRun and Sungevity are putting a hell of a lot of solar panels on a hell of a lot of residential rooftops, for homeowners who cannot afford the up-front costs of purchasing a system.

    In addition, those companies simplify the whole process for the homeowner, and deliver a turnkey system, along with monitoring, maintenance and support -- and a significant net reduction in the homeowner's electric bell. They also often work in partnerships with local clean energy companies -- for example, in the DC area SolarCity has partnered with CleanCurrents, and SunRun has partnered with Standard Solar.

    This is not a bad thing. I'm shopping for solar panels now, and for various reasons I'm inclined more towards purchasing a system outright. But for many homeowners, these leasing or power purchase agreement (PPA) options are making it possible for them to get much, even most, of their electricity from solar power, when they otherwise would not be able to do so.

    Companies like Sungevity, SunRun and SolarCity are helping to make distributed, residential PV the booming success that it is. They are good guys, not bad guys.

  • Jon B. on July 18, 2012 4:36 PM:

    Even in those jurisdictions, says Schoolman, the ability of homeowners to reap the financial harvest of solar energy generation is being threatened by aggressive corporate efforts to encourage people to instead lease solar panels, which will cut electricity bills for consumers but also lets the leasing companies and their financial backers pocket tax credits and revenues from the sale of the generated power.

    I've signed up for Sungevity's leasing program because my thorough review indicated that it really was a better deal for me than buying. They pocket the tax credits, true, but I get solar panels for a fraction of the price I'd pay if I bought them myself. The lease is for 15 years and I can pay the entire cost up front for even more savings (compared to the present value of their monthly payment option). I figure that 15 years from now, panel technology will be improved enough, and come down in price enough, that I wouldn't want to own the same panels anyway. Finally, Sungevity does *not* pocket the revenues from the sale of the generated power. That's entirely between me and my electric utility.

    I should caveat this by saying that my panels aren't yet installed (my town is holding things up in the permitting process), so maybe Sungevity will find a way to screw me over, but I don't see how.

  • Gandalf on July 18, 2012 4:56 PM:

    I have maintained for many years now that we as a country should institute a nationwide conversion program to install wind and solar on each and every house and buiding in the country, creates jobs and produces inexpensive energy. Secondly the cleanesty cheapest source of energy available is geothermal. the technology exists to produce large amounts of electricity from non-polluting geothemal plnats that don't need large amounts of water. Just watch eventully these will happen here.

  • DAY on July 18, 2012 4:56 PM:

    Curious, is it not, that on the One Hand we are a can-do, entrepreneurial bunch of self-made Mittsters, yet on the Other Hand, it is Bigbidnez that thwarts every move towards self sufficiency by the aforesaid Li'l Mittsters.
    As she sang, in "I see paradise by the dashboard light," What's it gonna be?

  • Ron Byers on July 18, 2012 5:02 PM:

    SecularAnimist and Jon B. are spot on. If consumers know the facts they can make informed decisions among a variety of alternatives. In this case, leasing might be the better alternative. Schoolman's criticism might be well founded, ownership of the solar panels might allow a greater long term return for homeowners, but Jon B.'s argument has merit. Schoolman's off hand criticism is one of the reasons a lot of business people don't like "pointy headed academic liberals." Just because something is being promoted by a "corporation" doesn't mean it is bad.

  • Daniel Kim on July 18, 2012 5:13 PM:

    After the Great East Japan Earthquake, some cities decided that new construction should include solar power. I can't remember if this was to apply only to temporary housing or was a mandate for new permanent construction, but it sounded like a step in the right direction.

    Every year, our country has entire communities destroyed by hurricanes and tornadoes. These are often rebuilt with the help of federal disaster relief funds and loan guarantees. Perhaps such new construction should be required to have solar panels built in.

  • SecularAnimist on July 18, 2012 6:18 PM:

    Anya Schoolman wrote about purchasing vs. leasing: "That is money that could be going to homeowners if they knew they had a choice (which the leasing companies seldom tell them about)."

    I'd like to know the basis for Ms. Schoolman's assertion that the leasing companies "seldom tell" their potential customers about the option to purchase the solar panels outright.

    I have received proposals from both CleanCurrents (partnered with SolarCity) and Standard Solar (partnered with SunRun), and in both cases they provided detailed cost/benefit and return-on-investment information for both up-front purchase and multiple leasing/PPA options, answered all my questions about the pros and cons of each choice, and didn't particularly push me to choose one or the other.

  • emma on July 18, 2012 7:21 PM:

    Pay people to generate energy through treadmills. That should cover the jobs, energy and obesity problems.

  • paul on July 19, 2012 10:04 AM:

    Another vote for the evil solar-panel-mongering corporations. This is precisely an example of the kind of situation where (with careful oversight) a company can do better than individuals. They have cheaper access to credit, cheaper access to solar panels, cheaper access to installation contractors and the ability to vet those contractors better than a single person could. The fact that there are a bunch of them in most markets suggests reasonable competition. And this goes in multiples for lower-income customers, who are going to have a heck of a time convincing a bank to lend them money as individuals, even assuming that they want to take on the risk.

    I've been looking at installing solar panels, but doing the site analysis myself, qualify contractors, choosing panels, speccing the electrical parts and so forth are not jobs I want.