It’s time to sunburn National Grid

Utility doesn't give a watt about energy costs

DURING A 2014 LEGISLATIVE HEARING, one state senator in Massachusetts compared our current utility structure to a Soviet system—bureaucratic, opaque, and inefficient with little public accountability. Hearing National Grid prevaricate about pipelines, energy costs, and privacy concerns in public, it’s really not hard to imagine Nikita Khrushchev yelling “We will bury you!” to the clean energy industry while banging a shoe on the table. But hold on a minute—the root of this problem ties straight back to private capital.

National Grid doesn’t give a watt about your energy costs. They care about their bottom-line, and the return on investment from expanding distribution pipeline and transmission lines by far exceeds the revenue they obtain from administering energy efficiency programs. Distributed generation such as photovoltaic panels cuts into their business model. The people of Massachusetts don’t need to bang a shoe on the table. We have solar power.

Solar is good for all communities. It diversifies our energy mix, creates jobs, cleans our air, reduces energy costs on the wholesale market, and, through community shared projects, allows low and moderate income neighborhoods and renters access to direct utility bill savings. Solar provides a complex slurry of benefits and costs to the grid, from avoided line losses (benefit: producing energy near home means less wasted power) to variations in voltage (cost: infrastructure investment) and yet the overwhelming evidence shows that solar is net positive, even for non-solar ratepayers, and good for ratepayers in Massachusetts. The Tea Party and the Green Party agree solar power works for communities and the National NAACP is a strong supporter of solar net metering.

So what’s the problem? Solar also cuts into utility profits. Badly. Any potential impact on ratepayers as we invest in massive grid transformation is overshadowed by the immediate income transfer from utility shareholders to the people who choose clean energy over fossil fuels. An investor-owned utility is therefore bound to fight clean energy tooth and nail or figure out a new business model, fast. Although commentators are outlining a path for first-class capitalists to make a profit with clean power, the utilities have by and large chosen the path of resistance.

Across the country, utility companies are spending millions to fight solar power and push gas tariffs. National Grid alone spent $250,000 on Massachusetts lobbying fees in 2014, and that discounts the advertisements, lawyers, and executive pay for figureheads who preach pipeline slant-rhyme. Repeated attempts to force New England ratepayers to subsidize construction of superfluous and long-lived gas infrastructure echo efforts by Florida Power and Light, which has charged their customers to frack.  (The Florida utility did its northern neighbors one better by seeking reimbursement for lobbying fees to combat Clean Water Act regulations).

Utilities fight clean energy with the most offensive, manipulative, and unsubstantiated narrative possible: the idea that solar shifts costs onto non-solar ratepayers, particularly those communities that have borne the greatest brunt of the fossil fuel economy. It’s true we need to do everything we can to ensure all communities benefit from the jobs and utility bill savings brought on by the green economy. One of the necessary prerequisites to accomplish that is the elimination of arbitrary caps on solar net metering that prevent municipal and shared solar projects from advancing.

Let me put this more clearly. Restrictions on solar harm low-income communities, renters, affordable housing complexes, businesses,and public school districts. They prevent cities and towns from cutting energy costs and saving their residents—taxpayers—money. From Dorchester  to Worcester to Williamstown, efforts to advance shared solar will be stymied if we allow solar to remained capped. For a utility company that charges its gas customers millions for fuel that never reaches their homes to suddenly complain about cost shift—while asking for pipeline subsidies and blocking local energy projects, no less—is beyond absurd.

This isn’t cost shift, it’s power shift. Investor-owned utilities must realize they operate our transmission lines and distribution networks as a privilege, not a right. If they continue to misbehave, the people can and will rescind that privilege by forcing the sale of the electric grid back into public hands. Ratepayers are furious that our infrastructure is unsafe while utility companies are robbing them for lost gas. They won’t take this much longer.

In 1935, the Rural Electrification Act, a key part of the New Deal, brought power to parts of the United States unserved or underserved by the existing grid, forming hundreds of electric cooperatives across the United States. Perhaps, in 2015, when utility customers are served technically but not adequately, cost-effectively, democratically, or in environmentally-sound ways, it is time to rethink the provision of power in New England. A series of municipal, or better yet, cooperative electric utilities might serve our states better than a pair of multistate and multinational energy companies who could care less if you breathe toxins or go bankrupt on high bills.

Perhaps what really terrifies National Grid and its ilk is the idea that the push for distributed clean energy runs parallel to a push for community control. In cities such as Worcester and Brockton, as well as Oakland, New York, and Detroit, communities of color, low-income people and partisans of local, sustainable economy are fighting for control of their food, water, and housing. Energy may well be the next step. Such is the struggle in Boulder, Colorado, where residents seeking local, affordable, clean power are fighting to transition from Xcel Energy to local ownership. This conversation is quite familiar in Massachusetts.

Whether the Bay State will shirk the tyranny of investor-owned utilities remains to be seen, but our next steps should be no mystery. We can begin the process of ensuring utility accountability by passing legislation to end ratepayer robbery for lost gas and expand solar energy. This is a sound pathway to empower communities while alleviating economic burden and creating jobs, and it is the right way to power forward.

Meet the Author

Joel Wool

Masters in urban and environmental policy/Boston City Council aide/Clean Water Action, Tufts University
Joel Wool is an advocate for energy and the environment at Clean Water Action.