Climate Now

Building Solar Neighborhoods

August 21, 2023 James Lawler Season 1 Episode 110
Climate Now
Building Solar Neighborhoods
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

There are over 8 billion square meters of rooftops in the US that are viable for solar energy generation, and could produce as much as 40% of national energy needs. And yet, only 8% of US households have installed rooftop solar panels. With so much available space, and with the average cost of energy from solar much lower than the cost of energy from the grid, why aren't more homeowners installing solar?

 Climate Now sat down with Solar United Neighbors Executive Director Anya Schoolman to discuss how upfront costs and legacy business models for utilities companies have slowed the adoption of residential solar, and how Solar United Neighbors is working to help homeowners, businesses, communities and even entire cities overcome some of those barriers and go solar.

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James Lawler: [00:00:00] I'm James Lawler, and this is Climate Now, a podcast that explores and explains the ideas, technologies, and solutions that we’ll need to address the global climate emergency. In a series of episodes over the next few months, Climate Now will explore the future of energy generation, storage, and distribution.

This programming decision is motivated by a simple question. According to the U. S. Department of Energy, the sun delivers 430 quintillion joules of energy to planet Earth every single hour. All of humanity uses 410 quintillion joules of energy over the course of an entire year. So, we have 9,000 times more than enough energy coming to our planet free of charge to do everything we want to do.

The challenge, of course, is how to capture it and how to deliver it at the lowest possible cost. To deliver it, we need wires and storage devices, but how much of these things will we need? Will it really [00:01:00] be this simple? One vision of the future is that we will produce most of our energy from solar panels, solar fabrics, films, and paints. Installed, adhered, or painted on homes, car rooftops, and really any surface, and that we'll use the massive batteries in the exploding fleet of electric vehicles to provide power locally when the sun isn't shining, and the wind isn't blowing.

This is a deeply appealing idea because of the vanishing costs of solar energy production in a world where solar energy is captured from nearly every built surface, the elimination of reliability issues, and improved resiliency. Why produce energy from costly, polluting, single point of failure mega facilities if we can do it in a low cost, local way?

Is this fantasy or could this actually happen? And if it could, how would we get there? We think the story of Anya Schoolman and her organization, Solar United Neighbors, is a big part of the answer. In 2022, Pew Research Center found that 8% of U.S. homeowners said they had already installed solar panels, up from 6% in 2019 [00:02:00] and 4% in 2016.

While the number of households with solar panels is growing in the United States, homeowners still face challenges in the process of installing panels on their property. Anya Schoolman is the Executive Director of Solar United Neighbors, a nonprofit that gives homeowners and small businesses the knowledge and resources that they need to go generate their own solar power.

In addition, the organization works with solar supporters to push for policies that protect what they refer to as "solar rights." Anya and I discuss how she founded Solar United Neighbors, the costs, and benefits of going solar, and what it will take to make solar panels a staple of American neighborhoods and rooftops.

But first, our news segment this week in climate news. Darren, great to have you on, nice to see you. 

Darren Hau: Great to be back. 

James Lawler: So we've got a handful of stories to cover today. The first that we want to draw everyone's attention to is a really wonderful article in the New York Times, “The Clean Energy Future is Arriving Faster Than You Think,” that came out in the Times on August 17th.

And essentially, it it tracks quite a few things that we've, we've talked about on this, on this podcast, but I think does a really nice job of kind of bringing them all together. So everything from, you know, building decarbonization to electric vehicles, to, you know, renewable energy generation to storage.

And one of the, the through lines of the article is just how you know, this, this transformation that we're seeing is really driven by economics more than anything else across the country. And as those economics continue to improve, we're likely to see an acceleration. I think that often we can get lost in sort of, there's so much going on that it's, it's easy to kind of focus on one specific thing and lose sight of that bigger picture and this, this article does a really great job of bringing the reader sort of up a level and looking economy wide throughout the United States and just looking at how quickly this transition is occurring.

It's really happening right under our [00:04:00] noses right now and there's so many opportunities for, you know, businesses and, and individuals to participate in all kinds of ways with a little creativity. So this was one that all of, you know, everyone at Climate Now really enjoyed reading and we highly recommend it to our listeners. 

Darren Hau: Yeah, it's really interesting to see how much excitement has been generated by the IRA. And there's- one of the things that article mentioned is that while it was originally estimated to provide 391 billion for between now and 2031, there is so much interest around those tax breaks that estimates are now putting the cost as high as 1.2 trillion according to that article. I think this is an interesting question. Do you have something to mention there, James? 

James Lawler: Yeah, that figure is quoted not just in that New York Times article, but there have been a number of stories on this. So Bloomberg also reported on this on August 16th, you know, a year into Biden's climate agenda.

The price tag remains mysterious but is certainly a multiple of what [00:05:00] it, what it was originally forecast to be. I read these articles with a fair amount of frustration, actually, because you know, sure, it's more expensive, but so much of that money is going to create value in the economy, like it's going to, to build things that will have a return, right?

That's sort of making it easier for companies that provide future value to get started or to begin to, to finance their operations in some way. So without seeing kind of that side by side analysis of the value creation next to the cost, it's, it's, it's kind of a meaningless assessment. 

Darren Hau: My take on this is it is a double-edged sword, right?

Um, on one hand, people can say, look how popular this is, look how successful this act is. Uh, there's three times as much interest and therefore it's going to spend three times as much money. You know, on the other hand, like, that's just... tax credits, that's subsidies, right? Like that doesn't necessarily tie inherently to value.

That being said, even if some of [00:06:00] it is wasteful, there is going to be some non-negligible part of that, that generates, as you mentioned, a lot of follow on value and these tax credits are stimulating private dollars to come in. So it's not like only the government is paying 1.2 trillion if that ends up being the final figure. That means more than that is being pumped in through private industry. 

James Lawler: As you noted with tax incentives and subsidies, you're basically you're making it easier for consumers to purchase products, right? And making it easier for consumers to do things, which then increases demand for those things, which then increases finance ability of infrastructure to build those things.

And in order to actually make what you need to make, you need people who can build it, companies that can build it. And all of that is, is a giant stimulus to, you know, to economic activity around the nation.

 Another story that we saw this week was that Carbon Engineering, which is the Direct Air Capture Company, co-founded by David Keith, [00:07:00] whom we've had on this podcast quite a few times, was sold to Occidental Petroleum. This is interesting because Oxy and Carbon Engineering have been in business together for some time now co-developing a South Texas Direct Air Capture Hub, which was just recently awarded several hundred million dollars by the Department of Energy.

In that particular project, 1.5 is the name of the company that's a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. They're the owner of the site in South Texas. Carbon Engineering is the technology provider and there's other groups involved as well, you know, performing various functions on that project. Darren, what do you make of this?

Darren Hau: Well, I thought this was a really interesting announcement, especially since a few weeks ago, you guys released a podcast episode debating the merits of investing in CCS. And I think, I think broadly, this is a net positive outcome because you see that there can be exits that are made in this space and out of curiosity, I looked at, you know, ow much they had raised in the past, what was their [00:08:00] valuation and how does that compare to the current valuation that Occidental is paying.

 From what I can tell, we should really have Julio answering this question, but from what I can tell publicly, it seems like they have raised around $110 million.

Their latest funding round was at a 340 ish million dollars valuation, and Occidental is paying $1.1 billion. So we're talking about like a 3x return on valuation from the last round, and that seems pretty promising. So the fact that there is an exit opportunity here from the oil and gas majors should be helpful for this space on the last point.

Some folks are leery of having oil and gas companies participate in efforts like this. I think they are A- concerned about whether this is greenwashing and enabling them to extend the lifetime of fossil fuel assets, or B- maybe there's a sense that they should not be participating or diluting the purity of the climate movement.

Personally speaking, my view is oil and gas [00:09:00] companies have a ton of capital and a ton of engineering expertise, and it's much better to have them involved in the fight rather than exclude them from it. 

James Lawler: Right, I mean, it's very interesting. So this is the second huge deal where an oil and gas company has bought a company offering some element of CCS or carbon capture and storage infrastructure in the last few weeks. Um, again, this most recent deal is 1.1 billion for carbon engineering. 

A few weeks ago, Exxon bought the CO2 pipeline operator, Denbury for 4.9 billion. So, you know, these amounts of money are more than marketing budgets. Like, this is about more than just greenwashing. This is about more than just messaging. I think this signals a real intent on the part of these oil and gas companies to try to figure out their path forward, right? They realize they can't be they're not going to be oil and gas companies in the same way they have been for very much longer.

And so... what are the options? Well, you've seen a lot of [00:10:00] diversification, so a lot of developing of renewables on the parts of oil and gas companies, and then increasingly these sorts of large deals to sort of pivot towards carbon management companies. And so the future is kind of in that mix, very likely.

We do have some, uh, EV news as well this week, Darren, right? 

Darren Hau: Yeah. I'd love to, I can't let this week go by without talking about one in particular. So there was a recent article in Canary Media titled “E-Bike Manufacturers are Fighting Right to Repair.” And this is a topic that's near and dear to my heart because I personally own an e-bike. I really love it, it's probably the best purchase I've made in the last several years.

 So this was an interesting article because the context here is that e bikes have been surging in popularity. Uh, they are obviously one of the most effective things we can do for climate because if you can replace a car trip with an e-bike trip, that is far better than replacing an ice vehicle trip with an EV vehicle trip. The issues that [00:11:00] have been cropping up have been mostly around kind of cost and safety. 

Obviously, e-bike prices have actually been going down quite a bit, they're more accessible than ever. But we have also seen a spate of battery fires in cities like New York, which have caused concern about how rigorous the testing and certification are of e-bike batteries. So in response to this, there have actually been some laws passed recently. I think they're mostly local laws saying, hey, you have to have certain documentation and certifications in order to import e bikes. And one of the things that industry is doing, and you know, we're kind of generalizing here is these manufacturers are sort of, they want to keep a tighter lid and control better the process of managing the battery systems on their bikes. On one hand, it's very reasonable because if they're going to deal with a safety issue, they want to make sure there's a certified installer working with certified parts, et cetera.[00:12:00] 

On the other hand, I think some bike advocates are worried that that kind of control will keep low-cost e-bikes out of the hands of folks who might benefit most from them. I think it's just a matter of, is there a way to expand access to certified parts and instructions and tools for any bike repair shop to go do that work.

James Lawler: Indeed. Darren, thanks so much for joining us and I hope to see you next week. And now for our interview. In 2007, Anya Schoolman’s 12-year-old son saw Al Gore's seminal climate film, An Inconvenient Truth, and became passionate about climate action, specifically the power of solar. Anya's son and his best friend convinced her to help them create their very first solar co-op.

A community of solar owners who share knowledge, provide technical assistance, and lobby their local government for solar friendly policies. Over time, that small group grew into Solar United Neighbors, which now supports more than 300 local [00:13:00] solar co-ops around the country. Anya Schoolman is here with me now to tell us more.

Anya, welcome to Climate Now. It's great to have you on. 

Anya Schoolman: Thanks. 

James Lawler: So, Anya, maybe you could start by telling us what is Solar United Neighbors? 

Anya Schoolman: Solar United Neighbors is a national based nonprofit, and we work to help people go solar, join together and fight for their energy rights. So we do technical assistance, we do education and organizing, and then we do advocacy work around expanding solar for everyone.

James Lawler: Mm hmm. And so, what groups do you primarily direct your messaging toward?

Anya Schoolman: I'd say that the center of what we do is individual homeowners. That's the bulk of our work, but we do everything. So we've helped municipalities go solar. We helped the whole Cleveland go solar, the Cleveland government. We, so we work with cities.

We've helped lots of [00:14:00] nonprofits go solar, a lot of churches and synagogues, and we help businesses. We've organized business solar co-ops. And we're really leaning into helping farmers go solar right now and taking advantage of the USDA Rural Energy for America program, which is a grant for rural farms and businesses to go solar.

And then we also work some in community solar and by going into community solar, we can help renters and apartment dwellers go solar as well.

James Lawler: Interesting. So could you tell me more about the early days of getting solar on roofs? After your 12-year-old son convinced you to start this, what did you first focus on?

Anya Schoolman: We actually got started in a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., in my neighborhood. We got a list of every installer in the area and not a single installer returned our call because back then, solar wasn't really in the city, it was a suburbs thing, and they were not willing to come into downtown D.C. This is a neighborhood with [00:15:00] attached row houses and flat roofs. And so they organized something called the Mount Pleasant Solar Co-op. 

James Lawler: These are your 12-year-old son and his friend?

Anya Schoolman: Yeah, they went door to door with these flyers that says if you could go solar and save money or at least no more than what you're paying now, would you like to join this group? And two weeks later we had 50 households join up.

James Lawler: That's such a great story. So did you know at the time that if you could get 50 households together that it would be economical for installers to come into the city and install solar? How did the sort of the economics of this first co-op work out?

Anya Schoolman: I think that the big lesson was it helps the economics for sure, but what it really helps is the politics. And so we were really early in the solar market and one of the things that we discovered early on was that there was no way to register a [00:16:00] rooftop solar system, to register your interconnection with the public utility commission, and that's the only way you get the solar renewable energy credits, which is part of the DC market.

And we went and met with the public service commission, and they said, ah, you're right, we should probably have a process for that, but you're going to have to sue us to get us to do it. You want it to be a priority? It wasn't sympathetic. It was, we got too much else on our plate, unless it's litigated, you're never going to.

We got 50 houses together. By the, by the end, we had 150 houses, and they did it without us suing them. 

James Lawler: Interesting. And so, fast forward to today, essentially the basic concept is this idea of a solar co-op, which is just a collection of homeowners who are local to one another, so regionally clustered or locally clustered homeowners, and they all want solar, and you've worked to educate and sort of identify and then bundle [00:17:00] these groups of people, right?

And, and then you leverage their collective political power to overcome whatever the local or regional or state level barriers might be to installing solar? 

Anya Schoolman: That’s basically right, yeah. And the only thing I wanted to add to your description of our co-ops is that the co-ops are community led and we facilitate it.

James Lawler: Okay.

Anya Schoolman So every co-op, it's again, it's, we call it a co-op because that's what the first one was that the kids started, but it's not a co-op like a cooperatively owned business, it’s a co-op of a bunch of people working together. 

James Lawler: How is Solar United Neighbors structured? How does the organization work and what are some of the outcomes that the organization is achieving today?

Anya Schoolman: So we've done more than 300 of these co-ops all over the country. Some of them are giant, some of them are small. We've done, I think more than [00:18:00] 30 megawatts of rooftop solar through these co-ops. It's a lot of people.

James Lawler: Got it. And it's all rooftop, is that right? It's solar panels on rooftops, plus behind the meter.

Anya Schoolman: Behind the meter. There's obviously there's in rural areas a lot of people do ground mounts instead of rooftops, you know, if they have property, but it's behind the meter. 

James Lawler: Okay. And is storage often part of that as well? 

Anya Schoolman: Increasingly. It depends on where people are. So for storage, one, we do, we make that an available option with all our groups, but in certain places, it’s very, very common like Texas. Right now, Puerto Rico, right now, most of the people going solar are getting storage because the resiliency issue is so critical to the people going solar. In fact, that's the main motivator for most people going solar. And we also have led some efforts to do battery retrofits.[00:19:00] 

So for people who already had storage, how do you then after the fact add a battery? And we have a guide, a free downloadable guide on storage. And the other thing we do is we incorporate home EV charging. So for a lot of people, it's very convenient. You've already got the electrician in to heavy up your panel for your solar.

Why not add a fast charger or level two charger or whatever at the same time. And then you become sort of energy literate, you know, what's the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt hour, you know, how much you use, you know how much you save. And all of a sudden, the kids are running around the house, turning down the lights because they don't want to waste their electricity. 

James Lawler: That's awesome. That's great. So, let's say that, you know, you're a homeowner and you do want to go solar, where would you suggest that you turn first? Like you don't, let's say you're not particularly energy literate, you know, you maybe use fuel oil if you're in [00:20:00] the northeast, for example. Where is your first stop, would you suggest? 

Anya Schoolman: Well, I, I would go to our website first, We have lots of materials, and like I said, we have a free help desk. So one of the things that our help desk will do for you is give you a free roof review, where we'll look remotely at your roof, and we'll give you a sense of roughly what it might cost and whether you have a viable location for solar.

Because we do not encourage people to go solar if their, you know, their roof faces north and there's six pine trees, you know, around the house. So you, we don't want people to waste money. So I'd start with Solar United Neighbors, get a basic sense, get a roof review. It'll say like probably this size system at an average cost of such and such.

James Lawler: What are those averages? Do you happen to know offhand? 

Anya Schoolman: You know, it [00:21:00] really varies by location. I think that the national numbers are still in the high $3 a watt, or $3,000 a kilowatt. So, if you, let's just make the math easy and say it's $3 a watt. If you have a 5-kilowatt system, that's 15,000. So that's the starting price.

And then there's a 30% federal tax credit. So we'll take off five to make the math easy. So it's about 10K. And then there may be local incentives and then there's the energy savings. So that's roughly, you know, ballpark. Could be a lot more, it could be a lot less depending on where you are, size of system, how much electricity you want to offset, et cetera.

James Lawler: So a stat that I pulled up in 2021, the average annual electricity consumption for us residential utility customer is 10,000 [00:22:00] kilowatt hours and average about 900 kilowatt hours per month is how much total energy that you're using. And then in terms of power, I just want to see what's the easiest way to kind of set it, set this math out for folks that are listening.

What size system would the average homeowner need? 

Anya Schoolman: Yeah. It, the easiest way to think about it, because houses are so different. Some are tall and thin like mine. Some are flat and wide. So what you can fit on your roof and how much energy you use, you know, are there eight people in your house? Is there one?

Do people watch TV? So there's so much variety. I think the easiest way to think about it is, for most people, solar is going to knock somewhere between a third and a half of their electric bill off. Now, there's a lot of people every day on our listservs, we have people coming back and saying, I had a two-dollar electric bill, it was so cool.

Some people could knock it all off and [00:23:00] some people it's less, but I'd say for most people, if you're going into it, sort of what you're working assumption, I'd say somewhere between a third and a half gets knocked off your bill. 

James Lawler: So rooftop or parking lot, solar structures we've read can be two to five times more expensive than a utility solar installation on open space and wondering why that and is there a solution to that? 

Anya Schoolman: There's a bunch of reasons. So the first is lots of customers versus one customer. So remember I said, $3,000 acquisition costs per customer. So for the size of like a utility scale thing, you're talking, you know, 200 customers.

That's a lot of people, a lot of transaction costs, a lot of time, a separate permit for each, a separate electrical inspection for each, separate interconnection. And then the engineering is more complicated. You know, you have to get on the roof, you have to [00:24:00] make, you have to have a conduit down to the panel, etc. So there's just more involved in rooftop solar, but in some ways I think that it's the wrong comparison. Like you shouldn't be counting the cost because they're in two different markets. The utility scale is in the wholesale market. So you're talking, you know, three, four, five cents a kilowatt hour.

And rooftop solar is in the retail market. And you're talking 14, 15, 16, 25, if you're in California cents per hour. Just to be clear, you can make your own power cheaper than you can buy it for the utility almost everywhere in the United States. 

James Lawler: As you've been doing your work and your, you know, the scale of your organization has been expanding, what have you found remain the roadblocks to what more widespread adoption of rooftop solar?

What are the current challenges that you are trying to overcome [00:25:00] in this market?

Anya Schoolman: So I think the biggest challenge is that utilities don't like it. 

James Lawler: Okay. 

Anya Schoolman: And what we've seen in the past 10 years is that utilities have gone from being opposed to the clean energy transition to, for the most part, accepting that it's going to happen and fighting tooth and nail that they will own all of it. So they don't care exactly what kind of energy it is, as long as they own it and we pay for it, and they do not want to change the relationship that we could own it and pay them less. 

And I sometimes say it's like, you know, the grocery store. If they suddenly realized that people were growing their own tomatoes and then wanted to come out and tax them because there's less [00:26:00] revenue. They built that giant grocery store, you know, the big Safeway on the corner thinking that they would always have tomato revenue, and then suddenly all these people are like making their own tomatoes because they're cheaper and they taste better and they like them better, and it's higher quality energy coming off the tomatoes, et cetera. And so their utilities are systematically putting up barriers to rooftop toll. 

And they, some of it's very subtle, like interconnection. You have to be interconnected to the grid, most people that go solar are grid type systems. 

James Lawler: Now, could you just explain how that works? What do you mean by interconnected to the grid?

Anya Schoolman: So, your panels are only generating electricity during the day. And, at night, you're just using electricity from the grid and, traditionally, how it works if you don't have storage. If you have storage, you could be putting your excess energy on your battery and drawing from that at night, but you've got to come out exactly [00:27:00] right in terms of the amount.

So what people do is they generate as much as they can during the day. And literally, if you have an old analog meter, if you're generating, mine is probably right now, if you're generating more than you use, it just makes the meter roll the other way.

 James Lawler: Roll backwards. Mhmm.

Anya Schoolman: And then at night, when you're using electricity that you're not making, the meter's then rolling in the normal way, but now what's happened is that utilities are using that mechanism. Because they have smart meters, which are digital, they're saying you don't get the same amount for that way as this way. It may cost you 14 cents a kilowatt hour, but we only want to credit you 3 cents a kilowatt hour, even though that electricity is just going to the house next door, at 14 cents a kilowatt hour. 

So there's a big fight nationally. It's an orchestrated fight. The plans have been generated and thought through and tested [00:28:00] by Edison Electric and Utility Trade Associations to try to stop net metering, to lower the compensation for solar. And, and it's part of what I was describing before, is the utilities are trying as hard as they can to make sure that they own all the assets in the clean energy transition. 

And part of the problem is these fights create uncertainty, which everybody knows is the worst thing for an evolving market, or any kind of market. So even more than changing the price, it's the uncertainty, it's the change, it's the news that puts this huge damper and people are like, ah, I don't know, you know, let me wait, you know, wait till this settles and the utilities have it in their power to make sure it never settles, to bring a bill every year, to bring a proceeding every year. And they're doing it very effectively. And it's, it's a huge damper on the roll out of rooftop [00:29:00] solar. 

James Lawler: So how do you think this will play out? It seems like you're well positioned to make a prediction on this because, you know, your whole organization's been predicated on this idea that you can overcome sort of these systemic barriers by organizing individuals and individual consumers.

Why should this fight be different, I guess? Why wouldn't you win? 

Anya Schoolman: Yeah, it's, I mean, it depends on whether you get me on a good day or a bad day, right? Because this is really, really hard work and very frustrating sometimes, because they have so much money and so much power and A huge sort of very focused interest in stopping competition and energy.

I think that with rooftop solar, it's kind of inevitable because as more and more people realize that you can make higher quality, a hundred percent clean, cheaper electricity yourself and buying it at a certain point, people will just do [00:30:00] it no matter what. 

James Lawler: When you say they'll just do it no matter what, I mean, How's that possible? How would people just do it no matter what? 

Anya Schoolman: The utility couldn't stop you if you do it without a grid connection.

James Lawler: Right.

Anya Schoolman: People would have to do storage with it, or ground the electricity or something,

James Lawler: You know, as solar continues to decline in price and storage declines in price, you're probably going to see an increasingly kind of retail oriented markets for these, these things, right? And that know how of how to go off grid and what that, you know, will become more and more consumer friendly. And I would agree with you that it does feel sort of inevitable. Like you have these things that are essential products for our, for modern life, their costs are going to come down and down and down.

And like the utilities must know that, so their whole effort is then geared toward slowing it. 

Anya Schoolman: It, yeah, and for, if you care [00:31:00] about climate, that pace issue is critical. 

James Lawler: It’s critical.

Anya Schoolman: Right. The other tragedy of this whole thing, and I think this is what really comes up in the California issue, is that we don't want succession to be the outcome of this.

Like, we don't want everybody to be off grid. The huge opportunity of rooftop solar is bringing people into a new distributed energy market that is more resilient, more cost effective, more democratic. And so if solar is everywhere, storage is everywhere, you have dynamic pricing, you have dynamic tariffs, you could be cutting the peak off every utility usage profile in the country, lowering costs.

If there is an outage, you know, giant hurricane or whatever, you'd have distributed solar and storage across the network, there'd be little resiliency hubs in every neighborhood. So [00:32:00] you can envision a new energy system that's so much better, so much fairer, so much more affordable, and so much more reliable than the one that we built really at the turn. You know, it was designed in the late 1800s. 

James Lawler: Yeah, I mean Anya, I think this trajectory of the utilities is really, really interesting. So at the turn of the century, or even slightly before, all of the energy generation was owned, sort of vertically owned, right, and operated by the utilities.

 So you had large coal plants, for example, that were producing electricity, and all of these were owned assets by the companies that were delivering the electrons to customers, right?

And so this system existed and grew with mostly fossil fuel generator, all fossil fuel generation through the 60s. and into the 70s, where you had, because of the oil crises, and in 73 and 79, you had the beginnings of wind energy, which came first, [00:33:00] because solar was still prohibitively expensive then. And you had these wind generators that were saying, we put these turbines up, we can create electrons, do you want them?

And the utilities said, sure. And so you had these this PPA concept that I think originated like sometime in the 70s, where utilities would purchase power purchase agreements, they would enter into these agreements with, you know, mostly wind at the time, because they thought, well, we don't have the expertise and we don't really want to be developing these wind projects so much.

So that kind of gave rise to this class of companies called developers, right? And so you had wind energy developers and then solar energy developers. But now we have kind of the next wave of this, where you've got individuals that can produce their own power. And so it's, it's almost like the utilities are like wait, we may have made a mistake back there in letting anyone be in charge of any of this, except for us.

I know [00:34:00] that that's how it's kind of coming into focus for me as I've been learning more, but how would you amend that story or what would you say the trajectory is? 

Anya Schoolman: I think what we've seen is that there's been a massive amount of mergers and consolidations with utilities. So it used to be that a utility was really local, like here in D.C., Pepco was-just covered D. C. And in, you know, Baltimore, Baltimore Gas and Electric, you know, just did Baltimore, and that utility was part of that community. Now they are part of a giant vertically integrated holding company called Exelon that's based in Illinois that's been accused of and convicted of bribery and they do not have their roots in the local community.

And yeah, there's local faces of the company and local names of the company, but at heart, these giant holding [00:35:00] companies are playing a totally different game. They’re vertically integrated, they own development. So those development companies are also owned by the utilities. They own merchant assets, so assets that compete on the wholesale market.

And they are blocking competition at every level, not just the rooftop solar. They're blocking competition from independent wholesale developers through throttling interconnection and throttling transmission. They're blocking this whole new wave of sort of what I call the smart grid, right? Digital, like dynamic pricing on, you know, where you could go onto your iPhone and say, yeah, lower my energy use and I'll save, you know, five bucks today.

They're blocking that by not making customer data available or system data available, and it's intentional. It's a [00:36:00] corporate strategy at all aspects. And I think part of the problem is our policy makers and regulators only see a piece of it. 

James Lawler: Yeah. Well, thanks Anya for coming on Climate Now and talking with us today.

And that's it for this episode of the podcast. To learn more about the future of the energy sector, check out our other podcast conversations at And if you'd like to get in touch, email us at contact at We hope you'll join us for our next conversation.

Climate Now is made possible in part by our science partners like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy Applied Science and Research facility. More information on the Foundation's climate work can be found at[00:37:00] 

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