Energy & Environment

Paying the Ratepayer

Can solar power come mostly from rooftops, rather than from vast solar farms in the desert? Proponents of renewable energy say yes--but only if state...
by | June 30, 2009
 

Can solar power come mostly from rooftops, rather than from vast solar farms in the desert? Proponents of renewable energy say yes--but only if state regulators and municipal utilities pursue an approach pioneered by Denmark, Germany and Spain.

It's called a "feed-in tariff." The idea is to encourage homeowners and businesses to install rooftop solar systems that produce more electricity than they actually need for their own use. As an incentive, they can sell excess power back into the grid and keep the profit. In theory, big new power plants would no longer be necessary, as each home essentially turns into its own tiny power plant.

That's a lot different from how rooftop solar works now in most parts of the United States. In sunny Palm Desert, California, homeowners who install large 5,000-watt systems typically add more energy to the grid than they give back. But they don't get compensated for it. Instead, they accumulate credits with the local utility--but at the end of the year, any leftover credits get wiped out. Palm Desert's Pat Conlon says that's not fair, and is a major obstacle that's holding back any further adoption of rooftop solar systems.

By contrast, European countries have used feed-in tariffs to underwrite striking buildouts of distributed solar energy, without the need for creating new transmission lines. Recently, the city of Gainesville, Florida, which owns the local electric utility, became the first city in the U.S. to give the idea a try. In March, Gainesville Regional Utilities began paying customers 32 cents per kilowatt-hour for excess power pumped back into the electric grid.

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