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Will Solar Panels Destroy Electric Utilities' Business Model? Yes, They Say

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Solar Panels by Flickr user Chandra Marsono

Solar Panels by Flickr user Chandra Marsono

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Technology can be a real drag. CDs killed cassettes. MP3s killed CDs. Video killed the radio star. Bummer.

Now, a new threat looms in the dark pit we call progress: solar power. According to Grist, utilities are worried that wiring up photovoltaic cells to human ingenuity will soon upset the delicate monopoly that those companies have maintained for the past 100 years. 

The article details a report from the Edison Electric Institute (PDF), which paints a bleak picture of the utility sector's future. In addition to rate hikes that make energy more expensive and tax incentives that encourage consumers to make their homes more energy efficient, the industry is also witnessing a rapid drop in the cost of solar energy hardware. Between 2008 and 2012, the price of photovoltaic panels fell from $3.80/watt to $0.86/watt -- and hold onto your hats, because it could go lower. 

Adding to these dark burdens are improvements in energy storage technology. Every week, it seems like someone or other develops a new battery that can hold more power and do so longer than those on the market today. Pair those batteries with a solar setup, and you give customers something terrifying: access to 24-hour power.

Analysts at EEI worry that all these factors may encourage more customers to switch to solar. As they do, they'll begin using the grid as mere backup, in much the same way that cellphone owners hold onto their rarely used landlines -- putatively as a backup, but really, just for nostalgia's sake. 

That, in turn, will lead to a drop in profit at utility companies, which will force upper management to scale back on their consumption of gold-plated golf tees and also reduce the dollars they spend maintaining the grid. That will cause the grid to become even less reliable than it is today, forcing even more customers into the bright, shiny embrace of solar energy. 

In common parlance, that's called a vicious circle, but the technical term is "Oh crap, we've reached the tipping point."

At the moment, solar makes up less than 1% of the U.S. energy mix, but the article cites Bloomberg Energy Finance, which predicts 22% annual growth in photovoltaic sales for the coming years. By 2020, such expansion could begin drying out some utility companies' swimming pools full of cash and Franklin Mint collectibles.

So what are the utilities to do? Judging by the wrap-up on page 19 of the EEI report, it appears as if they're going to do what they've always done: charge customers more while begging states and municipalities for breaks so they can remain profitable. Oh, and maybe identify a few as-yet-unknown business models to keep themselves afloat.

This is terrible. These people aren't used to innovation -- certainly not on the scale of folks in other industries like telecommunications and automobiles. They're in deep trouble, and all because of that stupid ball of hydrogen sitting at the center of our solar system, giving away its energy for free. 

Really, something must be done. 

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Comments (70)
  1. Of course this is true. However, why should we not improve just because some industry cannot adapt or do other things? Protecting old industries is a sure way to send ourselves to the bottom. How would everyone like to go back to using paper and typewriters while the rest of the world uses computers? It makes no sense. The best thing that could happen is for there to be a plan for transition. However, given the sold out nature of our leaders that seems unlikely.
     
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  2. The article talks about batteries, but the truth is that 99% of home solar systems are grid-tied. This type of solar system doesn't require batteries. The electric grid essentially acts like a big battery. When your solar system produces more than you consume, your electric meter spins backward. At night, your electric meter spins forward. Most home solar systems are only designed to cover 50-80% of your average electric use.

    So for the utilities, the answer is pretty clear. They will start charging a fixed monthly service fee, plus some number of cents per kWh. As more and more homes use solar panels, the fixed portion of the electric bill will rise.
     
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  3. When the percentage of power generated by renewable means, in this case solar, reaches a certain point, batteries or grid storage of some other kind, becomes a necessity. On the upside, that will lead to a much more stable voltage, as the utilities will no longer need to turn on and off wasteful oil fired power stations to keep up with peak demand.
     
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  4. True, but 'batteries' won't be needed as the grid will have all those EVs plugged in waiting to provide a huge power reservoir... assuming the utilities stop trying to maintain the status quo and embrace 'Smart Grids', of course. If they don't, they should be forced to. Or are they just as powerful in Washington as Big Oil? I think we all know the answer to that one. MW
     
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  5. Around Chicago it isn't the Electric Companies that are fighting the 'Smart Grid', it is the customers. Not sure what they are afraid of, but many are protesting every effort to install the meters needed.
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  6. @Martin: Auto companies are NOT happy about the notion that their vehicles--whose battery life they have very carefully tested for a range of transportation uses--may be used as storage devices.

    Additional discharge/charge cycles that have nothing to do with the transportation use of the car may well NOT be covered under the battery warranty.

    One or two emergency uses may be fine, but routinely plugging in your car to help your local energy company load-balance is FAR from what automakers would consider to be a reasonable use.
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  7. @James: I believe I've seen a figure of 14% renewables as the level at which unpredictable fluctuations in power begin to pose a serious threat to the grid.

    A number of CA utilities are already experimenting with bunkers full of carefully climate-controlled lithium-ion cells as storage for that unpredictable renewable power. It's especially good for wind, which comes mostly at night--just when you don't need it.
     
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  8. John you've missed the boat on this one. Tesla is VERY likely to offer, in conjunction with Solar City, the ability to use your vehicle as grid backup.

    This fits in with their business model and would help defer the cost of the vehicle.
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  9. @Samo: Sources for your "VERY likely to offer" statement? Worth an article if there's more than just rumor.

    I'd be very curious to know how the vehicle warranty will read in covering that use. I'd bet it would be limited to Solar City, and specifically preclude owners from letting utilities (or anyone else Tesla can't control) do the same thing.

    The implications for battery life are real.
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  10. Regarding your comments on vehicle-to-grid and battery life, I don't see what the big deal is.

    The Volt uses 34 kWh to travel 100 miles, presumably in 2 hours. That's a bit more than the average daily usage of an American house and at a draw of 17 kW - which would blow the fuse on your typical 110V circuit.
    Fast charging can deliver energy at 20-60 kW and from what I've read, a daily fast-charge may decrease your battery life by an additional 5-10% over 8-10 years.
    To knock another 5%-10% off of that, you'd have to another full charge-discharge cycle daily for years. That seems HIGHLY unlikely.
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  12. 99% of home systems are grid-tied (mine is) and the outcome that you describe could happen without the future battery back-ups that Richard speaks of. Once the individual has a economic solution they very well could function without the utility company in the future. At the current rate of battery advancement, such an alternative could be less than a decade away. I personally would prefer working with the utility company with a grid-tied system. It will be the utility company that determines this outcome. The sobering reality is that in the future we will have a choice. Those of us with PV and an EV have already tasted of such a reality.
     
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  13. "CDs killed cassettes. MP3s killed CDs. " The better analysis is while Format wars such as LPs killing 78s and Cassete killing 45s, these format wars did not kill the record companies or the distributors. All the way through the 90's there were lots of places to buy CDs, that used to sell cassettes, that used to sell LPs. The distribution of plastic boxes remained a good business for CBS, Columbia, Tower records, etc.. The MP3 however as Napster, iTunes, Pandora, Slacker, bypassed all these distributors and killed their business model.

    The big record companies are still scrambling a decade after the iPod because the MP3 meant they were no longer selling plastic bits. The record companies had no idea how to sell bits
     
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  14. Love the writing and tone of the article. Well played.

    One thing that get very little attention with solar power, is net metering laws. This allows me, as a solar panel owner, to contribute almost nothing to maintenance of the grid. This will not be sustainable if the number of solar panels increases beyond a certain percentage.

    But I hope I live long enough to see affordable reliable batteries for my home, because going off-grid, sounds awesome.
     
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  15. Well that's not 100% true. We have solar panels and net metering. we "sell" electricity to the power company during PEAK time and we buy back at night during off peak for the same price. so the electric company is still making money off of us even if we only pay the $12 per month in service fees and $2 in state taxes. I do see their point. when we installed the solar panels the cash flow from our account went to almost nothing
     
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  16. I was just trying to say that maintenance of the poles and wires is a fixed cost that is distributed to everyone. But for me, I don't pay anything for that benefit during the summer as I am Net Positive.

    That situation is fine for now, but at some point of solar market penetration, it would need to be revisited much like road taxes on EVs.
     
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  17. yes I agree. The few dollars the solar owners pay to the electric companies does NOT cover the maintenance on the distribution system. Yes if enough people go solar it will hurt the electric company and they will have to come up with some other plan to collect for the distribution fees. Right now the NET Metering law is protecting us.
     
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  18. Not all states have Net metering Laws. Isn't that true? In Texas it is voluntary. Only certain electrical utilities do net metering.
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  19. @Ralph: Yes, that's correct. AFAIK, no utility has voluntarily offered net metering until it is required by state regulators. There may be one or two exceptions, but in general, utilities view it as a huge complication from which they get very little benefit (which they would define as large volumes of power on a known and predictable basis, even if generated by non-utility sources).
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  20. I have net metering at this time,but I am on the grid here in Texas. I would like to be off the grid. What would that currently entail, a battery pack?
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  21. We have solar on our roof and participate in net metering her in CA. The argument of solar supporters that they are providing 'peak' energy to the grid is a little over the top, I'm afraid--peak demand does not align with peak solar production, which is around solar noon (~1pm during summer). If you look at the charts from CA-ISO, you will see that peak demand on hot days is much later in the day, more like 6 or 7pm, just when solar production has almost stopped. The power market is driven by demand, not supply. Solar production is driven by supply, and doesn't necessarily match demand at all. Wind is even worse, of course.
     
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  22. I like the overall article except for the tone. A little to smug for me. I think most utilities are regulated well enough - it's certainly not as profitable as Wall Street. But one point I think that was missed is: With all this solar generation, and battery electric cars, and the inevitable use of used EV batteries for a storage cushion, there could be a major shift in the electrical standard back to Thomas Edison's original preference for Direct Current. Why do all that inverting and rectifying with corresponding losses between panel, car, storage, and grid. Of course, today many products in your home have an AC plug on them... and a rectifier inside to convert the power to DC for the device. Hmmmm...
     
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  23. The reason AC won out over DC is the humble transformer, which provided an inexpensive way to step voltage up and down: high for long distance transmission with minimal losses, low for (relatively) safe domestic use. In other words, the large-scale grid would not have been practical using DC. With modern solid-state electronics an all-DC grid might be possible, but that would mean junking all the existing AC infrastructure. DC microgrids might have a future--there are DC appliances available to the off-grid crowd, after all. However, having a connection to the macro grid is such an advantage, I don't foresee a big move towards DC, personally.
     
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  24. I love the dripping sarcasm, richly laced with the painful truth in your article. What a breath of fresh air your writing is!
     
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  25. Electric companies must evolve and find new business models. Providing reasonably priced services in the growing rechargeable plugin car market is a big opportunity. Partnering with plugin car stakeholder and users would accelerate this new huge opportunity for them.
    Electric companies could provide fast electric car charging stations and services and become the number one automobile fuel source. If done right. That means partnering with home and business solar to add to that equation. Not stifle it.
    You can't fight technology. You have to embrace it.
     
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  26. Our electric company execs don't use "gold plated tees"- they're just bureaucrats doing jobs. As for solar cells displacing power plants: unlike cell phones, which displaced landline phones due to low cost and convenience, there is still nothing inexpensive or more convenient about solar cells. Quite the opposite: solar is still used mostly by rich folks and it is irrelevant to the average working stiff. Despite this report, the fact is, centralized power will be with us for at least another 100 years, if not longer. Because, just like the fantasy articles about personal flying cars in Popular Mechanics, for most folks, having solar panels on their house is too impractical, expensive, & complex.
     
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  27. Jeff,

    1) Solar PV has dropped 100X in costs from the 70's.
    2) convenience can be getting off the grid.
    3) Solar has gone from the game of millionaires to a game for people with decent incomes. Wait a couple more years, it will become common for everyone.
    4) If Solar were the joke you say it is, utilities wouldn't be investing into it.
     
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  28. Couple with that the fact that the states and local governments are giving incentives that cut the cost in half makes it that much more cost effective.
     
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  29. Solar Lease can be started with $0 down, $0 out of pocket and pay only what it generates...
     
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  30. We'll see...

    The age of the battery is just round the corner!

    Cheap, power dense, electricity storage is going to change the way the human world works, in as dramatic and fast a way, as the advent of the functional internal combustion engine did 100 years ago.
     
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  31. Jeff, I recently attended an AZ RUCO meeting on net metering. APS wants to stop that from continuing in the state of AZ. APS says that there are 500 solar roof units per month being installed in their monopoly area, primarily as a lease from companies like Solar City. APS is concerned. You see in 2010, APS drastically reduced the incentives they were offering. That did not kill solar, as people began leasing. That business plan has exploded, hence a desire to eliminate net metering. http://www.azcc.gov/Divisions/Administration/Meetings/Agendas/2013/2013_Other_Meetings.asp
     
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  33. Poor them! Guess they'll have to go drown their sorrow with the buggy whip makers and the Flat Earth Society. And don't forget, if you fuel your car with those solar panels it will cut your payback time in half!
     
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  34. That is what I am doing.
     
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  35. The electric utilities will just need to get their hands on water instead. In locations where solar panels will likely be a threat to their business, selling water will become more and more lucrative.
     
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  36. Utilities can compete by producing power cheaper than solar, or for customers who need more density than their panel-able land can provide, or for renters. I reckon when LFTRs finally get built and deployed that they'll provide cheaper energy than any renewables, and can do so with thorium that will last for thousands of years which would otherwise be radioactive waste.
     
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  37. A lot of utilities are supplying a greater percentage of electrical power in the form of wind and solar not to mention nuclear and Natural Gas.
     
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  38. When I interviewed someone at Southern California Edison, SCE in 2008 (name withheld) he seemed to tell me that SCE was actually looking forward to solar panels tied to the grid. SCE said they were working on load balancing and energy management, and not interested in building more power plants. The idea was to eventually use private home solar panels and their local storage as an integral part of its smart grid. We never got on the actual subject of how they would work out financially for utilities and home owners. It was too early in the game to figure it out. Even back then this topic was the white elephant in the room. If utilities play their cards well, they will go into energy management, not energy manufacturers.
     
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  39. nicolas,

    it's a tradeoff, the Utilities don't invest into the capacity but they have to pay for the net-metering.
     
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  40. Last week at a science fair a young lady showed how to charge up a phone in 2 seconds! She used a capacitor to build up the charge and then release it. Now in a few years that will make its way into recharge stations for cars. Awesome I say!
     
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  41. The amount of power that a cellphone uses is "tiny" comparing to cars...

    You have NO freaking clue on what you are talking about, most of the time... Yet, you are "self-claimed" physics teacher.

    I am really worried about the quality level of the so called "teachers" these days...
     
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  42. @Xiaolong: I am also a physicist and a physics teacher and after re-reading BM lines I still do not find a reason to trigger such a derogatory rant of yours against physicists and physics teachers. This site is not exclusive for engineers and/or journalists, I think. First, using capacitors as charging stations is in no violation of any law of physics. Besides, I do not see a proposition of the inference type from those lines stating: if a capacitor can charge a cellphone in 2s then it can also charge a car battery in 2s. Since there is no reference to size, then the statement made by BM is not exclusive i.e. if there is a capacitor that charged a cellphone battery in 2s, there may another capacitor that can charge a car battery in 2s...
     
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  43. Let me tell you than physicists and teachers invented among other things: capacitors, batteries, and photovoltaic cells. When Ewald Georg von Kleist invented the capacitor almost 300yrs ago, he probably was concerned about the conditions under which objects can store electric charge and energy most. It is up to engineers to find materials, sizes, and costs that best apply to a given application. Thanks to the so called physics teachers there is a Tesla car today with a battery and a solar charging station, there is an engineer like you and there is your job, there is this a blog and a topic to talk about; and I am a nuclear physicist and a teacher for 40 years (longer than you probably have lived) and I approve this message..Peace... ;-)
     
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  44. @Burke,

    Maybe I wasn't clear enough. My angry statement was directed at Barry Meister, aka Ford salesperson who claims to be a "physics" teacher. He has repeatly shown his ignorance on the topic of MPG/MPGe and how other cars work.

    Now, as far as the topic of "Now in a few years that will make its way into recharge stations for cars" go, that is that part he failed to understand.

    Battery is a chemical energy storage that converts chemical energy into electric energy. Capacitors are NOT. They store electric charges in electron form. There is a major difference between the two. If he is talking about charging speed, then that is really on the battery side instead of the charging station side.
     
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  45. @Xiaolong: I understand your point
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  46. A typical phone battery is about 5-10Wh.

    That is barely enough energy to move your "overweight" C-Max Energi for about 150 ft...
     
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  47. The problem for a battery of any size is the heat generated in charging that fast. It will fry the batteries in no time. I don't think anyone driving an EV with a $6000 battery pack will want to be replacing them every year or less.
     
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  48. 1. This is assuming that Utility company ONLY makes profit on residential customers. That is UNTRUE. In fact, most industrial customers pay far higher in per KWh than the baseline rate of the residential customer.

    2. Most solar panel owerns are grid tied system. They can easily fix this by removing varying rate on the solar system.

    3. Utilities does charge a "base fee" even for solar customers to cover some of the infrastructure cost. It shows up in my bill every month.

    4. Even with my co-workers who over produce, PG&E is paying them back at FAR BELOW the rate. So, in effect, they are "generating" power for the utility at even lower cost than the power company.

    5. Power company can always become public EV charging provider
     
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  49. @Xiaolong: Do you have data to support the contention in # 4?

    I can't speak to CA, but in NY state, utilities pay for power bought through net metering at a *wholesale* rate that's some average of their costs to buy and/or generate it.

    I'm skeptical of the notion that utilities are buying residential renewable power at cheaper rates than they pay to produce it themselves. If so, there's a powerful business incentive for them to ENCOURAGE residential solar!

    Which they do not seem to do absent encouragement/mandates from state regulators ....
     
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  50. @JV.

    Yes. You can check on PG&E's website for E-6 rate. But let me make a point more clearly. They are ONLY doing it when you produce more than you use as an end of year net credit. So, during "net-metering" phase, you are paid at a much "higher" rate since they are time varying and they are there to "offset" your "lower rate" usage. However, if you over generate and end up with a lot of credit at the end of year, then you typically "lose" them. However, CA recently forced PG&E to pay customer for it. So, once you offset all your usage (at higher rate), your overproduction is paid at much lower rate (off-peak) rate even though those power were produced at peak rate. (Typically at $0.06/KWh).
     
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  51. @Xiaolong: Ah, thanks for the clarification. That makes rather more sense. I'll have to quiz my friends in NY state as to whether net metering works the same here.
     
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  52. My electric provider does not offer time of day rates and any overproduction at the end of the year is paid to us at a wholesale rate.it seems fair to me.
     
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  53. Paying you "wholesale" rate is great for power company. b/c they don't have to worry about "transmission". Your power basically goes to your neighbor...

    It is fair and beneficial to the power company.
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  54. Some of my co-workers installed way too large system than what they need (~300-400KWh more per month than they use). At the end of the year, PG&E just paid out those credit at $0.06/KWh (lowest priced tier rate).
     
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  55. @Xiaolong: After re-reading this entire exchange, I conclude we're basically saying the same thing. Thanks for taking the time to clarify.
     
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  56. I do not believe it. If we are going to halt climate change, the electric utilities will prosper because we are going to have to electrify many things that currently use fossil fuels. Solar panels will probably force the utilities to shut down all of their peaking power plants. Energy storage will be useful to maintain grid stability, but I am skeptical that the costs will ever get low enough to store solar generated electricity to use at night. We will probably end up with a mixture that includes enhanced geothermal, which will require large capital expenditures and expertise, which is what the utilities are good at.
     
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  57. more likely, PV will kill Coal plants, but gas turbine peaker plants will be
    needed to handle drop outs.
     
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  58. Or they can develop Solar on an industrial scale and beat the homeowners at the price war
     
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  59. They can't beat the homeowner at the industrial scale because after the utility builds the solar plant, the homeowner will be able to buy panels for 20% cheaper the next year.

    Only the distributed method of solar (over time) will ratchet down the cost in a way the utility won't be able to match.
     
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  60. What's stopping the utilities from getting in the solar game themselves? They know the ropes, have all the contacts and the capital.
    What they should do is stop bitching and get to work.
     
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  61. There has been a large price decrease in photovoltaic cells over the last few years and that is part of what killed Solyndra since cheap Chinese photovoltaic cells put them at a huge price disadvantage. Since cell prices are expected to continue to drop I can see more people putting up a solar array to charge their EV and to help reduce their electric bill. Once home solar arrays become more prevalent I could see there being enough panels that could eventually mean reduced revenues for the utility providers. I would love to have a large solar array and an EV to charge with it as well use it to provide 50 to 80% of my general electricity needs.
     
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  62. Well, power companies can also get into the business of providing Fast Charger network for EVs. In fact, they can offset the revenue from oil company to themselves by providing those services.

    Many people install solars NOT b/c it is the "best business" decision, they do b/c it is cleaner and they get to offset future rate increase and control their own usage.

    Solar panels returns are typically 7-9 years if NOT longer. So, it is NOT an obvious advantage. But many people do it b/c it is cleaner and it will provide shape.

    Once you get ride of "time varying" rate, the appeal/return of solars will be diminished somewhat.

    Also, once Federal/State/local and Utility credits are gone, their return will be even slower.
     
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  63. used to be the power company would give away light bulbs to encourage usage, and some even sold electrical appliances cheap.

    maybe the power companies need to start subsidizing EV Chargers.
     
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  64. I think that is the logical next step.

    They are basically taking away sales from oil companies and gas stations. That is one way to increase sales.

    However, I don't know how much freedom they have in charging the rate since most of the utility rates are somewhat "regulated"...
     
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  65. The utility companies will adapt two ways: they will buy and install solar panels themselves and sell the juice to their customers, and they will compete with the private sector by offering solar panel installation at homes.
     
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  66. The monopolistic, anti-competitive Big Utility model can't die soon enough! http://solarchargeddriving.com/editors-blog/on-going-solar/1181-utilities-need-to-stop-whining-about-home-solar.html
     
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  67. Yes, as more people can generate their own electricity at home that has to negatively affect the old grid system. Look what mobile cell phones have done to the old landlines system. Today less than 25% of the populace still pays for a land line. So what the phone companies had to join them and the old utilities will have to invest in the solar cell industry. Some are investing in thermal solar plants to hopefully curb the rush to home solar panels. One way or the other, more of our energy is going to be coming directly from the sun and its up to the old power companies to either invest and take a piece of it, or go die and get buried with the other dinosaurs.
     
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  68. "Between 2008 and 2012, the price of photovoltaic panels fell from $3.80/watt to $0.86/watt -- and hold onto your hats, because it could go lower. "

    Yes, currently the thin-film PV panels costs less than $0.60/watt - so that is an accurate 'prediction'.
    ref: http://pvinsights.com/
     
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