Interest in solar power faded in the 1980s along with memories of the1970s energy crisis. But as most of us cope with rising costs forheatingand lighting our homes this winter, some pioneers are turning to the sunonce again as a way out of high utility bills. They’re taking advantageof a little-known federal law and the new era of utility deregulation togenerate their own electricity. And some of them are even selling itbackto the utility companies. They say that despite what skeptics maybelieve, there’s enough sunlight hitting the Great Lakes region to makesolar power viable. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bud Lowell hasmore:
Interest in solar power faded in the 1980s along with memories of
the 1970s energy crisis.
But as most of us cope with rising costs for heating and lighting
our homes this winter, some pioneers are turning to the sun once again
as a way out of high utility bills.
They’re taking advantage of a little-known federal law and the new era of utility deregulation to generate their own electricity. And some of them are even selling it back to the utility companies.
They say that despite what skeptics may believe, there’s enough
sunlight hitting the great lakes region to make solar power viable.
WXXI’s Bud Lowell has more.
Bill Labine is a true believer. He drives an electric pickup
truck. He keeps it charged with panels of photo-voltaic solar
batteries in his back yard.
His garage and workshop are powered by batteries, kept
charged by solar panels on the roof. And then there’s his house.
“From the road it looks pretty much the way it did a hundred years ago when it was build. You know anybody walking their dog down the road is going to have no idea that this home is electrically self sufficient.”
Bill Labine and his family live in a century-old Victorian house, in
the heart of the Western New York village of Avon. He has what’s called
a “net metering” electric system.
“We have on the roof in this case, 20 solar panels. DC electricity, direct current, comes down from the roof. It plugs into this little white box on the wall, which converts it to utility grade AC electricity. Like we’re used to using for our appliances, and pretty much goes right into the breaker box.”
At night or on cloudy days, the Labines are buying electricity from
their local utility company — Niagara Mohawk. But when the sun is bright,
the solar batteries generate more power than they need.
Their electric meter then runs backwards – building up credits on
their bill as they sell energy back to the electric power grid.
The goal of a net metering setup is to have your energy credits
offset your energy purchases, so you’re left with only the monthly
The Labines have gradually replaced their appliances with new
energy- efficient models and have heavily-insulated their hundred-year-
With those changes, Bill Labine says it’s working out so far.
“As a whole, it works wonderfully. It’s past the autumn equinox, so we’re not making as much energy as we consume. But again, once we hit spring, I’m planning to put up a few more panels in the spring. And at that point I expect not to have an electric bill for the rest of my life.”
The genesis of net metering is a federal law signed by President
Jimmy Carter in 1978 to encourage alternate energy sources. The law
was mostly ignored until federal utility deregulation in the 1990s.
That’s when mechanisms were set up for independent power
producers to sell electricity back to the big utilities. And some states
even adopted their own laws forcing utilities to buy electricity back
from their customers at the same price they sell it.
Net metering isn’t very popular with America’s investor-owned
Mike Oldak is director of State Competition and Regulatory
Policies for the Edison Electric Institute – an industry trade group.
“It transfers cost of the system to other rate payers.”
Oldak says the cost of building and maintaining power lines is paid
by adding a couple of pennies per kilowatt hour to the cost of
everyone’s electric bill.
“This is zero sum game. If they’re not paying for their electric wires that are strung to their homes, and their transformers, and all of the infrastructure needed to deliver power to them. Then basically, under the regulated model, the other citizens, everyone else in the State, are going to pick up those costs. That’s not right and that leads to inefficient markets.”
Oldak says state net metering laws also force utilities to pay
retail price for electricity they could get for much less on the
Bill Labine says on the contrary — his net-metering system
produces high-value power when it’s needed the most.
“When you think about it happens during the summer in the middle of the day. That’s when anybody would have excess electricity to sell back to the utility company. And that’s precisely when the utility companies are cranking up every one of their last generators to try and meet the demand of all the air conditioners in the state. So it correlates very well with the utilities peak demand.”
It’s hard to get a handle on how many people are actually net
metering their electric power. The solar industry says thousands are
doing it. The electric power industry thinks the number is far smaller.
However, supporters of the practice say a long, cold winter this
year may turn more people into converts.
In Avon, New York, I’m Bud Lowell for the Great Lakes Radio