Power to the people

Something very exciting is happening. Something that was once discussed only by highly trained experts is now the talk of ordinary people. Something that was once the exclusive preserve of huge corporations is now within the reach of small business and middle-class individuals. Something that everyone once had to buy, they can now make for themselves.

It’s like the advent of democracy all over again. But it’s not political power moving into the hands of the citizenry. It’s electrical power.

All across Ontario, people are discovering that electrical power can be like vegetables. With a bit of effort, investment, and TLC, you can grow your own – a few solar panels can bring your net electricity bill down to zero, or even earn you a few extra shekels. And like homegrown veggies, homegrown power encourages people to take a fresh look at the commercial alternative. Is it produced in a way that doesn’t harm people or the ecosystems on which people depend? Is the supply as reliable as it could be? Is the price fair?

People are learning that the answers to these questions are no, no, and no.

Most of our energy comes from fossil fuels or nuclear power, which present a host of threats to our environment and our society. The link from fossil fuels to global climate change is well established. Our economy’s dependence on often hostile and frequently unstable petro-dictatorships presents a threat to national security. Nuclear power plant construction projects suffer from chronic cost overruns as high as 250%. Nuclear accidents have poisoned crops and public opinion, and the problem of how to store and protect nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years remains unsolved.

Solar energy, on the other hand, is comparatively benign. Photovoltaics are manufactured using traditional energy, with all its warts. However, a day will come when solar panel manufacture is also solar panel powered.

Our electricity grid has remained largely unchanged since it was built fifty years ago. Back then it didn’t matter if the power went out for a second or two. Nowadays, a tiny outage like that can cause untold damage to computer systems, and can result in the loss of vast amounts of precious data. The unreliability of the grid led to the creation of an entire sub-industry, producing a product called an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). No server room worthy of the name would be without one. But why do electricity customers accept the fact that a UPS is a must? Why do they not demand twenty-first century reliability from their local utility?

Solar power, coupled with local energy storage (for when the sun isn’t shining, or isn’t shining enough) as well as advanced fault-tolerant electricity supply management devices, will help mitigate the reliability problem. Some industry commentators and researchers point to electric cars as the ideal energy storage device. You won’t have to pay for a UPS when sitting in your driveway (or company parking lot) is all the necessary capacity to handle a temporary dip in supply. And you won’t have to worry about the wires going dead when you can isolate yourself from the fault by temporarily establishing your own “microgrid”. Bob Galvin, former CEO of Motorola, has extolled the virtues of such a system in his book Perfect Power, and continues to promulgate the idea through his Galvin Electricity Initiative.

Then there’s the price. Historically, utilities were rewarded for building more and more generation capacity just to meet peak demand. Many of the power plants would only be brought online during peak times; they would sit idle (or nearly so) the rest of the time. The price you pay would reflect the cost of all those plants, whether they were running or not. Even more nonsensical, if the plant cannot be throttled back during slack times – as is the case with nuclear plants – the utility actually pays customers to use up all the excess power.

Today, at least, the utilities have woken up to the fact that with proper price signals, people can be encouraged to make more economical decisions about electricity use. Hence, time-of-use pricing and smart meters. Instead of having to invest in more power plants, the utility just has to shift usage from peak to off-peak times. Solar energy generation goes hand-in-hand with time-of-use. Solar panels generate the most electricity at high noon – the exact time when demand is highest.

With Ontario’s Green Energy Act, anyone can get into the solar game. If you have a roof, you can buy a solar array and start generating electricity. If you don’t, you can buy stock in a company like Canadian Solar Inc. that produces the panels, or buy a share in an organization like the Hall’s Pond Solar Cooperative. It’s even more democratic than voting – you don’t even have to be of the age of majority to get in on it.

Solar energy is already helping to cultivate a new breed of informed electricity consumer. Such consumers will demand that their electricity utility deliver a service with a level of quality appropriate to the twenty-first century. They will demand that their energy expenditures stop funding hostile regimes and environmental degradation. They will demand the ability to influence their own electricity bills by adjusting their usage to reflect the cost.

Solar energy is helping to bring about an era where electricity is clean, reliable, and fairly priced. And produced not solely by a remote, hidebound, and unresponsive corporation, but rather by people like you and me.