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December 18, 2014

Sierra & Tierra: Your Present from Power Utilities: a Lump of Coal

By Javier Sierra

‘Tis the season to give and share and not to receive, to show our generosity with the less fortunate.

Unless, of course, it comes to the dozens of power utilities across the country that want to turn off the lights of the bright future of clean and renewable energy.

The threat for these energy monopolies powered by dirty fossil fuels lies in the explosive growth of solar energy in our country. In the last decade, this clean source of power has grown by 140,000 percent, and since 2010 by more than 400 percent. By 2016, solar energy will be as cheap or cheaper than conventional power in all but three states. And we owe more than half of this expansion to rooftop solar panels in homes and business.

NREL 3Solar energy has grown by almost 140,000% in ten years (Photo: Sierra Club)

In California alone, two thirds of these installations took place in low- and middle-income homes, which has created more than 47,000 jobs, 20 percent of them among Latinos. To thousands of our families, this blessing has saved up to half of what they used to pay for conventional electricity.

On the contrary, for public utilities, this is a curse. In more than a dozen states, including California and Florida, they have launched a legal offensive against solar power to protect their dirty monopoly.

The great incentive for the installation of rooftop solar panels lies in the capacity to export excess power to the grid in exchange for credits to the electric bill. The utilities, however, are plotting to end this popular incentive alleging that solar power generators take advantage of the grid without paying for the service or maintenance.

California’s three major utilities, for example, want to charge all customers an extra $10 per month, which will discourage homeowners from going solar or making their homes more energy efficient. Additionally, the utilities want to flatten rates, which will ultimately lower the bills of those who consume the most power. According to The Utility Reform Network, these changes would increase the electric bill of 70 percent of the state’s residential consumers.

In Florida, thanks to the utilities’ undue influence, the Public Service Commission a few weeks ago passed a proposal that completely dismantles the state’s energy efficiency goals and eliminates all of the state’s rooftop solar panel programs. The new, retrograde regulations will remain in place for a decade in a state whose southern half is economically more at risk of sea level rise due to climate change than any other part of the world.

The utilities’ arguments indeed sound like a spoiled brat’s tantrum. Generating energy through rooftop solar panels actually reduces the wear and tear of the electric grid. Also, it saves billions of dollars in construction of new conventional power plants and reduces dependency on existing sources of dirty energy.

What the utilities propose would smear with soot the face of future generations, especially for us Latinos who already have the misfortune to live disproportionately in the parts of the country with the worst air quality. Southern California, for instance, includes the cities with the dirtiest air in America —a daily punishment for the health of millions of Latinos, especially our children.

During the Christmas holidays, a star called sun is leading the way toward a clean energy future that will save us from the worst consequences of the climate crisis. The alternative of the energy monopolies? A huge lump of coal.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him of Twitter @javier_SC

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