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Solar and Dependence on the Electric Grid

Original Airdate June 25, 2014

Derrick Shore: When we think about powering our homes we often times think of turning on the lights, the dishwasher, small appliances...but some people do a lot more than that. We're about to meet one of them. Come on.

When he's not touring the globe, DJ Morgan Page works from his home studio in Los Angeles -- it's powered by solar.

Morgan Page: I love the concept of making music from the sun.

Derrick Shore: In fact, his entire home is powered by solar panels.

Morgan Page: It's just sort of quietly working in the background and you almost can't even see it from the street. It's kind of invisible which is what I kind of like with technology. It's working in the background. It's saving money on the power bill and it's not an eyesore.

Derrick Shore: But you're not just making music from the sun -- you're running this air conditioner, these lights. As if that weren't enough, Morgan also drives a Tesla, an all-electric car whose batteries are charged by his solar panels.

Essentially you're driving on sunshine.

Morgan Page: Yeah.

Derrick Shore: Sun power.

Morgan Page: That's the idea.

Derrick Shore: Morgan's solar-powered life is a money saver, too. When his panels create more energy than his home uses, he feeds it back to the grid to offset his electric bill. It's called "net energy metering" and it works like this. Let's say you put solar panels on your roof. On sunny days they generate electricity to power your home. If they create more energy than you can use, you get to send it back to the grid and sell it to the local utility company. At night, when your panels aren't generating energy, you would need to draw from the grid and pay for it just the same as regular customers.

But that has generated a controversy. Why? Because power companies are required by law to credit people like Morgan for the extra power they produce. And that, utilities say, isn't fair to regular customers.

Mark Irwin: So this facility is known as our Electric Vehicle Center here in Pomona.

Derrick Shore: Mark Irwin leads the advanced technology team at Southern California Edison.

Why is the issue of net energy metering seemingly such a touchy subject -- for both utility companies and solar companies?

Mark Irwin: Well I think it's a touchy subject for the utility because having everyone pay their fair share of the infrastructure is really crucial.

Derrick Shore: Edison says every customer should contribute to the cost of the grid.

Mark Irwin: If you're generating the same or more energy than you use on an annual basis, then you're not paying anything to support the cost of the grid.

Derrick Shore: But solar customers are still connected to the grid.

Mark Irwin: Yes they are.

Derrick Shore: The "grid.” That's the massive and complex network of transmission lines, substations, and transformers that delivers electricity across thousands of miles from dams and power plants to your home, and it costs billions of dollars.

Utility companies say they want solar customers to pay a monthly fee which would help maintain and rebuild the grid of the future. But many solar advocates disagree, saying that thinking is outdated.

Sheila Bowers: The large transmission system is a relic of the past. It’s designed entirely for one way remote massive power to be sent to the distribution system.

Derrick Shore: Sheila Bowers is a solar advocate. She envisions a new kind of energy system where power is produced and used locally. It's called a micro-grid. Building a smaller, local micro grid though -- wouldn't that also cost money? Wouldn't that also be expensive?

Sheila Bowers: Absolutely. It’s going to be very expensive. Any way we want to add clean energy and modernize the grid it's going to be expensive. The question is where do we put the money? Do we put it into this 19th century model or do we put it into the model of the future?

Derrick Shore: Sheila says big utilities get financial incentives to keep investing in the current electrical grid.

Sheila Bowers: For one thing, they get a good return on their investment for that kind of infrastructure. For another thing, it creates a sunk cost that has to be repaid by the customer -- the utility customers over a long period of years.

Derrick Shore: Helen Butac isn't interested in arguing over who should pay whom for what. She's putting solar panels on her home in East Hollywood.

Helen Butac: It's been my dream since you know solar system was started years ago. And the kids too, they're excited.

Derrick Shore: For years, the only option to go solar was to buy expensive panels. But now, prices are going down and homeowners like Helen can lease without any money up front. The cost: $70 a month. That's about 25 percent less than her bill from DWP.

For you the cost savings is the most important thing.

Helen Butac: Yeah and clean power.

Derrick Shore: And clean power. Clean power?? Cost savings???

Helen Butac: Haha. More of course cost savings…

Derrick Shore: It used to take literally days to install solar panels on the roof of a house, but that's not the case anymore. These guys have been working for just under three hours and they're just about done. Are you guys busy?

Jim Cahill: We’re very busy. Literally as a company we put in hundreds of these every day.

Derrick Shore: And large utilities say those solar customers should contribute to the grid. In fact, a new law may allow power companies to charge them up to $10 per month.

Mark Irwin: What we need is – we need all the users of the system to pay for the cost of that infrastructure. So part of the "battle" is whether net metering customers pay for any or some of their fair share.

Derrick Shore: Do you believe utilities want to kill rooftop solar?

Sheila Bowers: I wouldn’t say kill, I would say emasculate. I would say they want to marginalize it and make it this endeavor that never allowed to blossom to a legitimate power generation source that’s fairly compensated and it’s a major part of our new grid.

Derrick Shore: But they’re saying that they are supportive of rooftop residential and they’re connecting customers every day.

Sheila Bowers: Well they have to be, that’s the law.

Derrick Shore: Edison says they simply want to provide reliable service for all customers, no matter what energy source they use.

Mark Irwin: In our ideal scenario, what Edison will do is provide the infrastructure to allow you to get your energy from whatever system and whatever device you want. For Morgan, that system is solar.

Morgan Page: People think "oh, this is future technology it's not there yet and it's complicated.” People have all these excuses why stuffs not possible. But the reality is that this is here now.

Derrick Shore: Do you think solar is a disruptive technology? You know I think it’s disruptive to the old school and old ways of doing things.

Derrick Shore: Helen is looking forward to years of savings. This is just day one of her 20 year lease and the beginning of a little education for her grandson, Jacob.

You're 11? And you did some research on solar?

Jacob: Yeah, I did it on the solar system.

Derrick Shore: Oh, on the solar system – the planets. Oh wow.

Jacob: She kind of confused me.

Helen Butac: Hahaha.

Derrick Shore: She confused you. He isn't the only one who is confused. As more energy choices come online and the power struggle continues .... the future is likely to be as confusing as your electric bill. I’m Derrick Shore for “SoCal Connected.”

Do you have solar panels installed on the roof of your home?

Rooftop solar panels are becoming easier to install and more affordable than ever, providing a growing number of homeowners with cost-effective renewable energy. But big utilities have been accused of slowing the rooftop movement down.

Derrick Shore interviews solar panel companies, residents, and utility company execs to find out more about the effectiveness and misconceptions behind solar panels.

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