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Won’t anyone think of the seniors!? April 30, 2014

Posted by Maury Markowitz in power grid, solar.
Image of people pulling out their hair due to their bills

No trip to Florida this year, dear. Damn those solar panels!

It came as no great surprise to learn that recent anti-solar ads being played in the US were funded by the power companies.

Only slightly more surprising was how the money turned into a TV spot, via the Koch brothers’ “Americans For Prosperity“.

What really interests me about all of this is that I’ve had people quote the argument from this TV spot to me. In spite of the argument being made up, it’s getting repeated, and defended, in that great marketplace of ideas. It’s astonishing to see it regurgitated without giving it a second thought.

So let’s give it a second thought.

Blending; what’s good for whiskey…

So here’s the basic argument; your power bill is a mixture of a whole bunch of rates and numbers that don’t directly reflect the price of power or the cost of delivering it to you. The total at the bottom does represent some sort of analog of the total costs involved, but each of the line items in the middle are basically just made up.

Generally there’s two major costs involved, the cost of generating the power, and the cost of delivering it to you on the grid. In the past the distribution side was lower than the generation, but that’s changed over the years. Sure, power plants are capital intensive and might burn fuel, but think about all the line crews you see out there keeping the grid running.

But if you look at your bill, that’s not what you’ll see. Almost always the line item for the cost of delivery is much lower than the price of the power itself (except New York!). That’s because the power rate is “blended”, slightly higher than it should be, and some of that money is given to grid operations, so that line is slightly lower.

And here’s how

Imagine you have a shack with a single light bulb. You pay maybe $5 for the power over the month, and $50 for the connection. The guy next to you with the McMansion pays $500 for his power, and $50 for the connection. So the two houses pay 5 + 50 + 500 + 50 = a total of $605.

So now you’re wondering where the problem is, right?

We want to punish people who use too much power, so what we do is Robin Hood the whole thing, and charge Mr. Mansion more than his actual fair share. So he pays $550 for power and $25 for delivery, and Mr. Shack pays $5 for his power and $25 for delivery. 550 + 25 + 5 + 25 = $605 again.

But now Mr. Shack pays a smaller part of the pie. Because we like him better. Or something.

So now the solar part

So what does this have to do with solar, you ask?

Ok, lets say you put some panels on your roof. Now when the sun is shining, it offsets your use. So let’s say you’re Mr. Mansion and you put up enough panels to offset 1/2 of your use. Now his bill drops to $275 for power and $25 for delivery.

You see the problem?

Wait, you don’t?

The problem is that the rate that Mr. Mansion was paying includes some grid fees in it. So by offsetting his consumption, he’s surreptitiously lowering his grid connection fee. And that means, in relative terms, that Mr. Shack is now paying more of the grid fee.

Of course Mr. Shack doesn’t actually pay any more for his connection, it’s still $25. But if everyone put up panels, and the grid-connection-offset-BS actually did start to move beyond the decimal point, then maybe we’d have to up that to $30.

And who lives in a shack? Well according to the AFP, it’s all those poor seniors. You know, like Charles and David Koch.

Now to everyone reading this, the solution should be painfully obvious. Get rid of this stupid billing system! That’s the actual problem.

This is going to get a little crazy…

So the power companies are saying that by putting up panels, I’m shifting the burden of the grid maintenance costs to other people. And apparently all of  those “other people” are poor seniors. And so letting people put up panels will be bad for poor seniors.

I-See-What-You-Did-There-Fry1Ok, watch what I’m going to do here…

Let’s say I put a single 250 Watt panel on my roof. On a normal summer day I’ll get about 6 hours of direct sunlight, so I expect to make 6 times 250 = 1500 Watt-hours of power. 1500 Wh is about what a central air conditioner unit burns in about 15 minutes.

As far as the grid is concerned, putting up a solar panel is exactly the same as turning off my aircon for 15 minutes a day. If you want to be a pedant, I’ll spread that 15 minutes out over 6 hours. I can do that by turning up the thermostat one degree.

Now if they actually believed what they’re saying, I should have to pay an extra fee to turn up my thermostat. I should also be charged more to buy power saving appliances, installing LED lights, turning off my lights at night, or getting a Nest thermostat.

Boiling it down you get this: according to this argument, anything that lowers my bill should raise my bill. Because not doing that would be unfair.

So unfair, in fact…

Makes a great coaster,

Makes a great coaster.

This whole idea is so terribly unfair that we have this.

That’s right, this is a program that pays you to turn off your air conditioner for 15 minutes a day. Practically every power company is offering something like it these days.

You know, precisely the thing that the exact same companies are saying we should be billed for turning off our air conditioner 15 minutes a day.

Now for the surreal

So if that whole weirdness wasn’t enough, there’s this…

Imagine everyone put up a panel. Since panels generate power during peak, all those panels would help lower the amount of stress on the network. That means they can avoid upgrading the network to handle all those new gadgets we keep buying.

So how much is that worth? Well when you consider all the avoided construction, the interest on that, time of use purchases, etc., the utilities should be paying you. In one case, that was calculated to be about 8 cents/kWh. That’s right, the power company should pay you to put up panels because it saves them money.

That’s kinda obvious, right? When someone else pays for generation and distributes to themselves, that would lower your costs. Like, duh.


You know, I don’t blame them for trying. Distributed generation must scare the crap out of the power companies. And if those companies are also in charge of distribution, then I totally see why they’d be willing to resort to this sort of nutso campaign.

But what really freaks me out are the people that quote it as if it’s a real problem. Check out this thread from a while back. It’s a bad enough argument all on its own, but to go around quoting it to other people? Youzers.


1. shanghailoz - November 16, 2015

We have this exact argument in South Africa, except the incumbents (municipalities) cream off the top on the KW charges also vs the monopoly provider Eskom.

So its in their interest to actively discourage solar at a consumer level, despite the fact that the lack of investment in anything due to blatant theft and corruption means we get regular outages due to grid overloads.

Cutting off their nose to spite their face..

2. Another Failure of Scientific Peer-Review: a Completely Wrong Paper on the Energy Return of Photovoltaic Energy | Tera News - November 8, 2016

[…] run the numbers myself. That’s because the field is utterly filled with bogus information from thinly disguised coal company shills to the nuclear true […]

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