The biggest machine on earth delivers $400 billion of electricity a year across 2.7 million miles of transmission lines. It’s the U.S. power grid, an interconnected system of generating plants, wires, transformers and substations that literally keeps the lights on for the homes, offices and factories of the world’s largest economy. It’s also an aging dinosaur that sorely needs an expensive upgrade to its $840 billion in infrastructure. Improvements would make the grid more reliable, resilient and efficient, cutting the nation’s carbon emissions. It’s not clear where the money will come from. More and more power customers are bypassing the grid, many in search of cleaner energy, most often from solar panels. Every one that unplugs is another blow to the utilities that must keep the power flowing.
U.S. consumers and businesses are increasingly making their own electricity. Instead of big, centralized plants that make power for utilities, these smaller sites pump out juice that goes straight to the user. U.S. homes and businesses had enough solar panels at the end of the second quarter to produce 5.1 gigawatts of electricity, up 46 percent from a year earlier. Companies including Google and Apple are developing solar farms to power their data centers. Verizon is spending $100 million on solar panels and fuel cells for offices and call centers. Hospitals, universities and manufacturers are installing on-site fuel cells that turn methane into electricity through a chemical reaction. Even the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas is installing a 6.2-megawatt solar project. President Barack Obama did allocate $4.5 billion of the 2009 economic stimulus package to build a “smart grid” that combines remote monitoring, two-way information flows and automation to boost efficiency. But the administration has steered billions more to solar and other forms of renewable energy. Solar power’s share of the energy market is tiny — about 2.9 percent in 2012 — but as price barriers drop the trend has utilities worried.
The 3,200 utilities that operate the grid haven’t changed their business strategy since Thomas Edison switched on the first power plant in 1882. Massive, centralized facilities — think Hoover Dam and the 104 commercial nuclear reactors in 31 states — generate energy that’s sold to residential and commercial customers. It’s a monopoly industry that’s now facing a fundamental threat because customers who once had only one choice for purchasing electricity now have the option of producing it themselves.
If a robust grid is a public good, even for households or companies that brew their own electricity, who should pay for its upkeep? Traditionally, grid maintenance has been a fixed cost for utilities, funded through kilowatt-hour charges. But power companies worry that folks going partway off the grid are acting as free riders. Worse, the more customers pull out of the system, the more heavily its costs fall on the ratepayers who remain. That could give them more incentive to install rooftop solar panels, setting off a vicious cycle that would hurt households too poor to afford them. California’s top three utilities say that trend could shift $1.3 billion in annual grid costs to customers without solar panels within a few years. Solar proponents say that distributed resources cause less strain on the grid and will reduce utility maintenance costs for everyone. The battle has been joined in states like Arizona, where utilities are pushing for rules that solar proponents say will bring rooftop installations to a halt. Regulators in all 50 states will determine who wins.
The Reference Shelf
- The Edison Electric Institute conducted a study of the disruptive challenges facing utilities.
- A Bloomberg Businessweek article explored “Why the U.S. Power Grid’s Days Are Numbered.”
- The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which favors distributed generation, sees its mission as “democratizing the energy system.”