In Arizona, a state that I recently visited, numerous housing developments are built up in desert landscapes dotted with cacti, sagebrush, and rocky hills. Rows upon rows of adobe-colored stucco homes spread across the sand and rocks with little to distinguish them.
In Massachusetts, where I live, the state has a longer history. Landscapes are more undulating and significantly more tree-lined, and while there are many housing developments, home styles are somewhat more diverse than in Arizona.
One could argue that the two states have very little in common, but if you look, you will find similarities. As a tech geek, one similarity I noticed is that more homeowners in both states are opting for solar energy.
That makes abundant sense in Arizona, which averages around 300 sunny days a year. In Massachusetts, which has far fewer sunny days on average (around 100), perhaps not so much. Nonetheless, as prices come down and concern for the environment grows, solar energy is on the rise in both places—and in fact, everywhere.
On the grid
Plugged into the grid, homeowners with solar can now watch their electric meters spin in both directions as their homes produce, as well as use, electricity. If there’s a surplus, homeowners receive credits and their electric bills go down.
Because solar surpluses feed into the grid, homeowners with solar are helping to produce power and reduce carbon dioxide. Neighbors without solar can also benefit. It seems like an enlightened partnership between citizens and their local utility companies.
However, it turns out that the truth is less idyllic. Power grids owned and maintained by the utility companies are not always up to the challenges presented by the rising popularity of solar power.
According to an article in the New York Times, the increasing solar-generated electricity flowing from solar-equipped homes into current-day power grids can cause overloaded circuits, damaged power lines, brownouts and blackouts.
Consequently, where there otherwise might have been unprecedented cooperation between citizens and corporate entities, there is increasingly an adversarial relationship.
Power companies are taking aim at solar installations, reducing the value of solar credits and instituting surplus caps and surcharges to homeowners who generate their own electricity.
This reminds me of cable TV providers, who are using scurrilous measures to dissuade customers from cutting the cord, so they can continue to charge exorbitant rates for 500 channels you don’t watch.
The difference is that the utility industry seems to be trying to convince you not to add solar to your home by tacking on fees that might make it less attractive.
It may be true that no good deed goes unpunished, but in this case, it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a growing desire among the population both to go green and to save money.
Surely, there must be ways to use solar-generated power that avoid having to even deal with the utility companies.
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, thinks there is. As an electric car company, Tesla has contributed greatly to improvements in battery technology. Recently, the company introduced large-scale home batteries that can be charged from solar panels.
For people considering solar panels for the home, the Tesla Powerwall, as it’s called, is an option for capturing and storing any surplus energy that is generated.
Although expensive—starting at $3,500, depending on capacity—the home battery solution can provide a way to maximize the value of the solar energy that homeowners capture, and gain some independence from the utility company.
Homeowners can use the energy that their homes generate and if there’s a surplus, they get the full benefit, rather than discounted utility company credits.
My dream scenario
I’ve written in these pages previously about Tesla automobiles. They are fully electric, environmentally friendly, and downright cool.
When my ship comes in, and I buy my Tesla Model S, my ideal use case is to have solar on the roof, and a Tesla home battery charging in the garage. Each night, as I get home from work or play, I’ll plug the car in, and it will charge completely from the home battery. No fossil fuels required.
Short of moving to the woods and living off the land, that’s about as green as it gets.