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Why is Rooftop Solar Getting a Bad Rap?

A recent article in the left-wing mouthpiece Mother Jones has right-wing anti-solar critics cheering. What is all the fuss about?

The January/February 2016 issue of Mother Jones  features an article by Tim McDonnell entitled The Problem With Rooftop Solar That Nobody Is Talking About: Where does the green energy from your panels really go? McDonnell does a very good job of explaining how solar Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) can be retained by solar power installation companies and then used by utility companies to do an end-run around their legal obligations to reduce carbon emissions.

From the article: “Because RECs have value—ranging from under a penny to a buck or two for each hour’s worth of electricity your roof produces, depending on the state, companies like SolarCity can sell them and thus help justify giving you the solar panels for little to nothing. The biggest buyers of RECs are power companies looking to satisfy state-mandated clean-energy requirements, known as renewable portfolio standards. In effect, the power company pays for the right to claim the climate benefits of the panels on your roof.”

McDonnell continues: “It sounds like an esoteric distinction, but it matters: By selling the RECs instead of keeping them for yourself, you could just be helping the utility meet a goal it was already mandated to meet—thus helping excuse it from building more solar capacity itself. In other words, your direct net contribution to reducing greenhouse gas pollution is nil.”

Well, yes and no. At least in theory, the electrons flowing from your rooftop array are offsetting some of the fossil fuel generation by reducing demand. In reality, because of the structure of the grid, this isn’t necessarily true. And, RECs have definitely served as a dubious financial instrument by which large solar installers make projects cash flow. However, these deals have also opened the door for solar in a utility industry that has, in the past, a hard nut for solar advocates to crack.

McDonnell’s piece is short and not terribly in-depth, but it is fair, and it is factual. However, it didn’t take long for anti-solar click hunters to pounce on the opportunity to make their own headlines with Mother Jones’ less-than-glowing assessment of the RECs market. Over at the Daily Caller, fledgeling energy and environmental reporter Andrew Follett’s headline shrilly proclaimed Progressive Mother Jones Finally Realizes Why Rooftop Solar Is A Total Scam. Oh my. Is this really what McDonnell’s piece proposed?


Follett states: “Mother Jones argues credits and subsidies ensure rooftop solar companies aren’t actually helping fight global warming and instead are just enriching themselves while distracting from real solutions to global warming. The magazine claims RECs ensure someone who buys a rooftop solar panel isn’t actually fighting global warming…”

Follett relies heavily on another anti-solar article published earlier in the Wall Street Journal. In The Hole in the Rooftop Solar-Panel Craze, Brian H. Potts writes that:

“Most people buy rooftop solar panels because they think it will save them money or make them green, or both. But the truth is that rooftop solar shouldn’t be saving them money (though it often does), and it almost certainly isn’t green. In fact, the rooftop-solar craze is wasting billions of dollars a year that could be spent on greener initiatives. It also is hindering the growth of much more cost-effective renewable sources of power…The primary reason these small solar systems are cost-effective, however, is that they’re heavily subsidized. Utilities are forced by law to purchase solar power generated from the rooftops of homeowners and businesses at two to three times more than it would cost to buy solar power from large, independently run solar plants. Without subsidies, rooftop solar isn’t close to cost-effective.”

Sadly, so-called conservative commentators who claim to be “energy experts” often show their true colors when it comes to the subject of solar. They lump all rooftop solar into one category and point at nebulous “subsidies” with which they make apples to oranges comparisons between the new and booming solar business and the the long-mature coal industry. They fail to mention the benefits of the truly distributed generation that rooftop solar projects bring to the grid. Rooftop solar require no additional buffering or load-following, and they require no new transmission lines or substations. They also provide individuals with more choice and more freedom in a utility marketplace that has never known a free market. They point to the California power-purchase model (where REC trading can be abused) and then make blanket condemnations of all of private solar owners, small, regional installers and state regulators where REC trading is not even an issue. And in most states, RECS are NOT an issue. Yet somehow, even in states with few or no subsidies or PPAs, solar is still growing quickly. Why is that? Is that a “scam”? A “craze”?

It’s easy to point fingers at RECS now and cry foul, but that die was cast years ago. Of course it is time to re-examine these policies. But this is a question of validity of policy, not of the technology itself.  Sadly, even the environmentally friendly website Grist couldn’t resist jumping on the bandwagon, reposting McDonnell’s piece under the title “Rooftop solar isn’t quite as great as you thought it was (but it’s still pretty great).” Sheesh- with friends like that, who needs enemies? ——————– About the Author: Rich Dana has spent the last 18 years in and around the solar industry. He is a former energy specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology and senior partner at Plan B Consulting LLP. His clients have included GoSolar, ReneSola, Bergey Windpower, The Union of Concerned Scientists, Alliant Energy and the USDOE.


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