An Electric Dilemma: Is This The End of Solar Panels?

How much are you willing to pay for independence?

I’m not talking about starting a new nation or cutting the chord with civilization. I’m referring to a part of modern life that is crucial to our standard of living, and which most people take for granted — a steady flow of electricity.

In a world where more of what we do is under surveillance, having the ability to grab back some control is admittedly attractive (wouldn’t you like to tell your electric company to take a hike?).

But as more people install solar panels and force electric companies to buy back their excess power, utilities are suffering with soft demand and higher costs.

Installing your own solar panels can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but today you can lease them for little to nothing. In return, the solar companies accept all federal and state rebates earned, along with a monthly portion of the expected savings on electricity. But that doesn’t free homeowners from the power grid.

A typical solar installation turns a home into a small power generation source. However, that power isn’t used in the home until it travels up the line and back to the power company. The idea is that it will return to the home when the company distributes it.

This loop, which keeps the power company in the middle, is why homeowners with solar panels are still vulnerable to blackouts. To truly be energy independent, a home needs to store enough solar power for reserves, not to mention everyday evening use. This requires having a lot more battery storage available than most consumers are willing to buy.

But that could change.

As batteries become more efficient at storing power, and companies sell enough of them to bring down the cost, the price tag for installing them falls as well. And this is only part of the story.

As I’ve written before, electric utilities face a dilemma. They don’t want to discourage renewable energy, but as more people turn their homes into mini solar power stations, they lose money.  Not only are they required to buy excess power from homeowners, but they also must maintain all the lines and connections to homes that now consume much less power and therefore contribute little to their bottom line.

Now, electric companies are hitting back.

Hawaii Electric stopped approving solar-panel installations altogether, before the state’s public utilities commission ordered them to restart the program. In Arizona, the Salt River Project utility received approval to charge solar powered homes around $50 per month. This takes a bite out of any savings that consumers thought they would achieve by going green.

The main issue is that while utilities suffer from falling revenue with consistent expenses, homeowners just want to spend less on energy. Something’s got to give.

Today, sticking with the grid, selling power back to the local utility, and being content with a lower overall bill is the clear economic choice — especially with high battery costs. But as power companies and regulatory commissions have shown, they’ll do anything to stay profitable, even if it means changing the rules.

For a higher price, consumers can completely sever the lines that tie them to the grid. That not only lowers their power bill, but also takes them out of any future decisions made by their local power companies.

Think about never having to worry about a rate hike, a special fee or surcharge, or a tree limb that brings down the grid by falling on a power line on the other side of town. Sure, they might be thousands of dollars poorer, but they can take comfort (I think) in the knowledge that they control their own electric destiny!

I’m not sure how much I would pay for this level of independence, but I’m certain that it’s much lower than the current cost. Which means for now, my power and my rates still fluctuate with the whims of the electric company.

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Rodney

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Categories: Economy

About Author

Rodney Johnson works closely with Harry Dent to study how people spend their money as they go through predictable stages of life, how that spending drives our economy and how you can use this information to invest successfully in any market. Rodney began his career in financial services on Wall Street in the 1980s with Thomson McKinnon and then Prudential Securities. He started working on projects with Harry in the mid-1990s. He’s a regular guest on several radio programs such as America’s Wealth Management, Savvy Investor Radio, and has been featured on CNBC, Fox News and Fox Business’s “America’s Nightly Scorecard, where he discusses economic trends ranging from the price of oil to the direction of the U.S. economy. He holds degrees from Georgetown University and Southern Methodist University.