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Profile: Edison Electric Institute (EEI)

Edison Electric Institute (EEI) was a participant or observer in the following events:

A report by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) finds that within a decade or so, solar energy and other renewable distributed energy resources (DER) could lay waste to the utility business model and to American power utilities. The utility business model, which has remained relatively unchanged since the early 20th century, is not capable of coping with the “disruptive challenges” posed to it by solar and other renewable energy power generation. David Roberts, a staff writer for the environmental news publication Grist, will write of the EEI report in April 2013: “It is one of the most prescient and brutally frank things I’ve ever read about the power sector. It is a rare thing to hear an industry tell the tale of its own incipient obsolescence.” Standard power utilities are “regulated monopolies,” which means they are the sole providers of power in their service areas. The business model relies on the utilities selling power as “overseen” by public utility commissions (PUCs), which control what utilities can charge for their power. Inexpensive solar (photovoltaic, or PV) power “eats away at [that business model] like acid,” Roberts writes. Solar power is not regulated for the benefit of the utility companies. In simplistic terms, a kilowatt-hour (kwh) of solar energy generated by, say, a rooftop solar array is a kilowatt-hour of reduced demand for the utility. Solar power peaks each day at noon, usually the time of most intense sunlight, which is one of the power utilities’ “peak load” times. Power utilities make much of their profits from peak load electricity, as they charge more per kwh for peak load electricity. Roberts writes, “[W]hen solar panels provide peak power, they aren’t just reducing demand, they’re reducing demand for the utilities’ most valuable product.” The EEI report also challenges the myth that power consumers must rely on grid power and not solar power because solar power is not available when the sun is not shining. Battery storage, micro turbine, and other developing technologies are making it possible for many consumers to go entirely “grid free,” to opt out of grid-generated electricity entirely. Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers says, “If the cost of solar panels keeps coming down, installation costs come down and if they combine solar with battery technology and a power management system, then we have someone just using [the grid] for backup.” If a large number of consumers begin generating their own power and using the grid for backup alone, the EEI report says, the utilities face “irreparable damage to [their] revenues and growth prospects.” Utilities generally anticipate revenues that allow them to invest heavily in fossil fuel plants that will not recoup costs for 30 years. Those investments could be more difficult to recoup if consumers begin generating their own power via solar and other DER power sources, leading the utility companies to contemplate raising the rates of those consumers who do not opt out of grid-based power. The EEI report states: “The financial implications of these threats are fairly evident. Start with the increased cost of supporting a network capable of managing and integrating distributed generation sources. Next, under most rate structures, add the decline in revenues attributed to revenues lost from sales foregone. These forces lead to increased revenues required from remaining customers… and sought through rate increases. The result of higher electricity prices and competitive threats will encourage a higher rate of DER additions, or will promote greater use of efficiency or demand-side solutions. Increased uncertainty and risk will not be welcomed by investors, who will seek a higher return on investment and force defensive-minded investors to reduce exposure to the sector. These competitive and financial risks would likely erode credit quality. The decline in credit quality will lead to a higher cost of capital, putting further pressure on customer rates. Ultimately, capital availability will be reduced, and this will affect future investment plans. The cycle of decline has been previously witnessed in technology-disrupted sectors (such as telecommunications) and other deregulated industries (airlines).” In other words, as consumers begin to opt out of grid-based power consumption, and utilities raise their rates to compensate for the loss of revenue, more and more consumers will opt out, further shrinking the number of consumers paying the utilities to generate their electricity. Even small numbers of consumers using rooftop solar strikes at the utilities’ main profit centers (one reason why German utilities are already feeling the pinch). Currently, less than 1 percent of US electricity is generated by solar arrays. But a projection by Bloomberg Energy Finance forecasts that in some areas of the nation, up to 10 percent of power load will be generated by solar arrays. The EEI report speculates that utility consumers in those areas will see massive increases in their rates as the utilities compensate for the lost revenues. [Kind, 1/2013 pdf file; Grist Magazine, 4/10/2013]

Entity Tags: Edison Electric Institute, Bloomberg Energy Finance, Grist, David Roberts, Jim Rogers

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

Reporter Grace Wyler of the online technology magazine Motherboard writes that solar power generation “poses a mortal threat to the mainline power utilities that have dominated energy distribution in the US since the late 19th century.” Wyler echoes the findings of a January 2013 report by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI—see January 2013). The price of solar energy is dropping, she writes, and a new solar unit is being installed somewhere in the country every four minutes. The nation’s solar capacity has doubled since 2008 and costs are down 40 percent. Within 10 years, perhaps sooner, analysts predict, the price of solar generated energy will reach parity with other power sources. Naturally, conventional energy utility companies “are waging an escalating war against independent power distributors, and particularly against a new crop of solar technology companies that threaten to disrupt their century-old business model,” she writes.
Net Metering Among Largest Issues - One of the biggest issues is “net metering,” a policy which allows renewable energy consumers to sell their excess power back to the grid at retail prices. Net metering is taking the place of state subsidies for solar energy producers, allowing solar consumers to lower their energy bills. However, utilities fear what Wyler calls “a so-called ‘utility death spiral,’ in which more and more customers generate their own power, forcing utilities to charge higher rates to maintain infrastructure that was intended for a much larger pool of energy consumers, which will in turn encourage more people to turn to distributed energy options—which in most cases means solar panels.” Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers told a Bloomberg reporter: “It is obviously a potential threat to us over the long term. If the cost of solar panels keeps coming down, installation costs come down, and if they combine solar with battery technology and a power management system, then we have someone just using [the grid] for backup.” The EEI wrote that if the utility industry does not take immediate action, renewable energy could soon cause “irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects” of utilities. These firms are battling net metering, claiming that conventional energy consumers are paying higher rates because of solar energy usage, a claim that has been challenged (see April 5, 2013). Utilities are fighting net metering policies in at least 11 states, asking regulators to impose new rate structures that would lower the amount utilities pay to buy back excess power from renewables consumers, and in some cases impose new grid-use fees on solar customers. Solar energy and technology producers such as Sungevity, SunRun, and SolarCity are fighting back against the utilities’ push.
Odd Political Bedfellows Joining to Fight Utility Restrictions - The solar companies are fighting the policy restrictions, not just on financial grounds, but, Wyler writes, because they believe government-sanctioned utilities monopolies are outdated and interfere with progress, calling it “the techno-libertarian view that regulation is an impediment to innovation and technological progress.” SolarCity spokesperson William Craven says: “Having more choice and more competition in the sector benefits pretty much everyone except the monopoly that has enjoyed having a monopoly for the past 100 years. It’s not clear that that system benefits anyone else. Generally, greater choice and greater competition drives innovation and drives reduced costs.” Many libertarian conservatives are joining the push for deregulation, broadening the base of solar consumers and advocates by aligning themselves with the more left-leaning solar advocates whose push for renewable energy is largely driven by environmental concerns. Even some far-right tea party groups are joining the push for deregulation. “From a conservative, or libertarian, perspective, it raises the question of why are we giving these guys a monopoly when they don’t need it anymore?” says John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which pushes for distributed generation. “We can generate electricity in lots of different ways. We don’t need a big centralized corporate entity to generate electricity. We can do it ourselves.” Wyler says this “strange grassroots coalition” is successfully fighting back against the utilities’ attempts to weaken net metering, citing victories in California, Georgia, Idaho, and Louisiana. Rosalind Jackson of Vote Solar says: “Utilities have a simple argument that sounds compelling, but time and again, we’ve seen such strong public outcry against the idea of utilities trying to take away the right to generate power that the decisions have actually come down on the side of solar customers.… This is a regulated industry that has not had to innovate for a century. But they are faced with a real disruptive technology. There are new entrants for customers who have never had an option before. So that’s a very real threat.” [Motherboard, 9/23/2013]

Entity Tags: Sungevity, SunRun, William Craven, Rosalind Jackson, Edison Electric Institute, Grace Wyler, Jim Rogers, SolarCity, John Farrell

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

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