Reversing the Grid

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In the late 1800s, as more and more people began to have electric lights in their homes, the utility companies began looking for a good way to measure how much electricity each customer was using.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Actually way back when Thomas Edison built the first electric power stations, there were no electric meters in people’s homes. So he billed a monthly fee based on how many light bulbs they had.

Roman Mars:
That’s Sam Evans-Brown of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Sam Evans-Brown:
That billing per light bulb system wasn’t great, so people came up with a meter that did the job well enough. It’s the same basic meter that most of us in the US have in our homes today. And the way it works is when the electricity comes into your house, a little dial turns forward and shows how much you’ve used. And even though the original designers never really intended for this to happen, if you send electricity back into the grid, the dial turns backwards to show electricity leaving your house.

Roman Mars:
If you’re like me, there’s no electricity leaving your house, it’s only coming in. But if you’re like Sam who has solar panels on his roof, electricity is leaving the house and going back into the grid.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah, that’s because my solar panels create more energy than I can use. That excess energy goes back into the grid and out to my neighbors. And in my state, New Hampshire, I get credited for that extra energy I create. It’s a practice called net metering. And for a while, it was totally not controversial, but now it is. There are huge political battles being fought over this.

Roman Mars:
Sam and his colleagues at New Hampshire Public Radio actually did a whole episode of their podcast ‘Outside/In’ about net metering, because they are even nerdier than we are. And I’m actually just going to hand it off to them now.

Roman Mars:
So here’s Sam and in a little bit, you’ll hear the voices of his colleagues, Maureen McMurray and Taylor Quimby.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So before we get into the controversy over net metering, I want to go back and introduce you to the guy who accidentally started at all. His name is Steven Strong.

Steven Strong:
“Sun energy, the license plate, appropriately. Oh and then we’ve got a plugin.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
So like me, Steven is an energy nerd. He’s the guy who when Toyota came out with the Prius, he got his engineers to hack the thing.

Sam Evans-Brown:
“Oh my gosh. All right. So can you describe what we’re looking at here?”

Steven Strong:
“This is a lithium-ion battery pack that’s shoehorned into the spare tire.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
So he and his engineers made a plugin Prius and they did it years before the car company.

Steven Strong:
“And also Toyota went bananas when we told them we were doing this.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
So way back before he started messing around with Prius’s, Steven founded a company called Solar Design Associates. This was at a time when solar power, besides being something on satellites in outer space, wasn’t really a thing yet.

Maureen McMurray:
And when was this again? Is this the ’70s?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah, mid ’70s.

Steven Strong:
“It was a heck of a hard way to make an easy living in the ’70s and the ’80s, and the ’90s.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
So Steven Strong is this hard-charging, ready to drop everything and get his hands dirty kind of guy. And he kicked off what eventually became kind of a revolution in the way a lot of people are getting their energy. He did it by putting solar panels on an apartment building for people with modest incomes.

Steven Strong:
“There it is, that’s the building there.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
“Oh wow, it’s huge.”

Steven Strong:
“Yeah. It’s huge. With a wide brim. It’s pretty wide. It’s huge.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
So this building looks kind of like a big college dorm. It’s brick and pretty unremarkable.

Sam Evans-Brown:
“I think we’re not supposed to drive this way.”

Steven Strong:
“Well, that’s the story of my life.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
But when it was built on its roof, there was this massive array of solar panels. One of the first of its kind.

Steven Strong:
“This was a one of the largest solar thermal systems in New England and it met something like 80% of the annual hot water requirements.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
But this was like the early days of solar. So this was solar thermal. It’s just like heating hot water, it didn’t make electricity.

Taylor Quimby:
Wait. It’s solar thermal. Oh, it uses solar panels, but all it does is heat up hot water. And that was cool?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Solar thermal is like the simplest technology on the planet. It’s so simple. It’s got this big box and on the inside you’ve got some tubes that are colored black and you put water in it or some sort of coolant or refrigerant in there. And the sun shines on the black tubes and heats it up, and then you can circulate that back into a tank and that’s all it was.

Taylor Quimby:
I feel like I could come up with that. I feel like that’s on the level, technology-wise, of using a magnifying glass to heat to set a piece of paper on fire.

Taylor Quimby:
Wait, the solar panels that Carter put on the White House, were those the solar thermal ones?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah.

Taylor Quimby:
That was stupid.

Maureen McMurray:
That’s it? He was just heating water at the White House.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah. In any case, it was mostly solar thermal panels up there, but Steven Strong convinced the developer to let him install a couple of solar photovoltaic panels too. Photovoltaic panels are the ones that actually make electricity and at that time there were a brand new technology.

Steven Strong:
“As soon as the technology was available, we were employing it.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
But there was this question, how should I do the wiring?

Maureen McMurray:
Wait, what do you mean?

Sam Evans-Brown:
So whenever the sun is shining, obviously the electricity will go towards running all the stuff in the building. Water pumps, hot water heaters, whatever. But what happens when the sun’s not shining or what happens if the sun is shining and there’s nothing going on in the building? So what he decided to do was just configure it so that when there’s no sun, the building would work just like any other building. It would buy electricity from the utility company and the little dials on the electric meter would roll forward. Five kilowatt hours, 10 kilowatt hours, 20, 30, 40, 50.

Taylor Quimby:
I don’t know what a watt-

Maureen McMurray:
It’s a watt of money.

Taylor Quimby:
Oh my God. A watt of money.

Sam Evans-Brown:
You don’t have to know what a watt is or what a kilowatt hour is. You don’t have to know. All you need to know is that it’s the measurement for electricity use. So getting back to Steven’s solar panels, what he did that no one had ever done before was to wire it up so that if the sun was shining and the building wasn’t using any energy, the unused electricity would flow out into the grid and the little dial on the meter would just roll in the other direction, backwards. 50, 40, 30 20, 10.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Which means, at the end of the month when the person comes to check the meter, the owners of the building would pay for whatever the dial said. So if they use 60 kilowatt hours, but they put in 40, the dial would say 20 and they would only pay for 20 and it worked.

Steven Strong:
“It was intuitive. It was almost like that’s just the way it should be. It’s like we’re producing electrons that are just as valuable as the ones provided by the coal plant or the heavy residual fuel oil driven plant, why shouldn’t they receive the same value? And so it just made sense.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
“I mean, did you talk to the utility at all? Did you show them your design and say, this is what we’re going to do?”

Steven Strong:
“No, the developers said, ‘You don’t worry about that. You just get the technical side of this done and get it working and we’ll take care of … We’re going to be interfacing with the utility.’ It turned out that they didn’t say anything about the system to the utility purposefully and told me at the time, ‘There’s one thing in your career that you should learn early and that is, it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission’.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
And that ladies and gentlemen is how we got a little policy called net metering.

Maureen McMurray:
So why wouldn’t he tell them?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Well, this is uncharted waters. He didn’t know what the utility would say and he didn’t want to be told no.

Taylor Quimby:
So net metering, it’s the net of when the meter goes forward and goes backward. It’s what’s in between?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah, net as in net versus gross. I mean, the only reason that it was designed that way is because that is what the meter could do. You know that little spinning disc, electric meter? All it can do is spin forward and backwards. So that’s what they used.

Steven Strong:
“But it was well and truly the first one that was connected to the utility grid outside the fence of a government laboratory.”

Maureen McMurray:
Okay, so he puts in the solar panels on the roof of this building. What happens?

Sam Evans-Brown:
So the utility company, they were actually fine with the whole thing. In fact, they praised Steven’s innovation, but the solar panels didn’t last very long. They actually blew off the building in the first year.

Taylor Quimby:
They didn’t glue them on or whatever?

Maureen McMurray:
It’s Massachusetts. It gets windy.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So not a terribly auspicious start, but what it did was kick off some intense interest in this idea that solar could serve the needs of a home, but also produce electricity for the grid, like a tiny part-time power plant. And this concept of homeowner as power plant is actually important in thinking about how people with solar panels on their homes will be paid for the power they’re producing. Because big established power plants sell power to the utility companies at a cheaper wholesale cost. And then the utility companies can sell their customers that power at a higher retail rate so they can make profit and pay for their costs. So then the question becomes, do people with solar panels, do they become like the mini power plants? Should they be paid the lower wholesale rate or the higher retail rate?

Taylor Quimby:
Yeah. So are they like Costco or are they like mom and pop? Is that it? Did I nail this analogy?

Sam Evans-Brown:
I think that’s pretty good. In any case, state’s eventually started passing laws about this very question. And that was all through the ’80s and the ’90s. And for the most part, these laws said that the utility companies should pay people the higher retail rate because it’s expensive to put solar panels on your house and this would incentivize solar.

Sam Evans-Brown:
And eventually 41 States passed laws allowing people to get this higher retail rate for net metering and utility companies, at the time, they didn’t put up much of a fight about it.

Maureen McMurray:
Yeah. But the utility companies at this point, they’re like dancing with the devil and they don’t even realize it.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yeah. And nobody had any reason to say, ‘Oh, this might not be a good idea.’ Because solar was just like this weird thing that probably was never going to be cost effective. And that’s how it was for a bunch of years, until suddenly solar started to get cheap.

News Clips:
“For decades, solar power was so expensive and unwieldy if you could afford it and that is changing in a mind-bendingly rapid pace.”

“Solar related stocks rallied on Wednesday on the news that Congress plans to extend a solar investment tax credit by five years.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
Starting in the mid 2000s a bunch of really ambitious, well-financed companies started saying, “Hey, we could make some money doing this.” And so from 2009 to 2010 the amount of solar in the US doubled. It doubled again from 2010 to 2011, it doubled again from 2011 to 2013, and from 2013 to today it’s on track to triple again.

Taylor Quimby:
Okay, so what are these companies doing that’s different? Like, how are they making money? What’s their model?

Sam Evans-Brown:
What they’re doing is they’re offering people solar for no money down. They pay for the cost of the panels and in exchange, they take a chunk of the money that you would earn by producing power. And so if you had someone come and knock on your door and say, “Hey, want to be part of the next renewable energy era, and you could have solar panels on your roof right now, and it’s not going to cost you any money, and we’re going to give you a discount on your power bill?” I’d say, “yeah”.

Sam Evans-Brown:
And that business model is made possible by net metering, by getting this higher retail rate for the power people are producing with solar. And I think it’s fair to say that the utility companies basically did not see this coming, and so now they’re starting to push back. They don’t want to be paying the retail rate, they think people generating electricity with solar should get the wholesale rate just like a power plant would. So where are the fights happening now then? Where are the really high profile fights over net metering?

Krysti Shallenberger:
Well, so obviously Arizona is the number one.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So that’s Krysti Shallenberger who works for this industry news site called Utility Dive that tracks all of this stuff. She points out that we’ve seen net metering battles in California-

Krysti Shallenberger:
And of course you have Nevada, which has basically become the byword for what you don’t want to see.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Nevada’s fight got really crazy.

Krysti Shallenberger:
Huge, huge blow back from all walks of life. Basically, you have celebrities, you have presidential candidates.

Bernie Sanders:
“I do not often get involved in state or local issues other than my own state, but I find it rather incredible that the public utilities commission here in Nevada has made a decision which makes it harder for people to install solar panels.

Taylor Quimby:
Wait, who was that?

Sam Evans-Brown:
That was Bernie Sanders.

Taylor Quimby:
You’re joking.

Sam Evans-Brown:
But anyway, you’ve got this crazy obscure policy that’s getting tons of attention. Hillary Clinton talks about it when she went to Nevada and talked to local newspapers there. There are fights in Iowa, Texas, Maine, Vermont, New York, Utah, Hawaii, and of course right here in New Hampshire. It’s a battle that’s happening all over the country, state by state. The local electric companies pushing back and all of the solar installers fighting against the utilities. And each state has like its own local flavor to this argument.

Maureen McMurray:
Okay. But I still don’t understand a little bit about this fight. Why would me having solar panels on my roof, why would it make the utility company so angry? Is it just money?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Well, yeah. Of course it’s about money. But who’s money? The utility companies want to reframe this argument so that it’s not just about their interests, but it’s about the interests of the people who don’t have solar panels.

Sam Evans-Brown:
So, okay. Here I talked to Michael Harrington, who here in New Hampshire, he used to be one of the guys who regulates electric companies.

Michael Harrington:
It’s taking from the people that have not so much and giving it to people have more. Say, I was a retired school teacher in Manchester living in an apartment. There’s no way I’m going to put solar panels on that apartment roof and get any benefit from net metering, but I’m going to have to pay for it because some guy in Bedford … I just use Bedford as an example, got no problem with Bedford.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Bedford, if you’re not from New Hampshire, is a wealthy suburb of Manchester, which is our biggest city.

Michael Harrington:
But he might have a 4000 square foot house and he says, “Boy, if I do this net metering thing in five or six years, I’ll be getting basically free electricity.” So it’s a reverse distribution of wealth from the way we normally do things in the United States and I don’t think that’s right.

Maureen McMurray:
I get it. So it’s like someone ultimately has to pay and if all of these people who are people of means who are homeowners have solar panels, then the cost of the other utility will go up. And that means that people who are renting or anything like that, they get screwed because I want solar panels on my house.

Taylor Quimby:
And that’s me.

Sam Evans-Brown:
This is how rate structures work, right? A utility is a big company that invests a ton of money in poles and wires, in energy to send across those poles and wires. And then they take all of their customers and they divide the cost of that up between all of them and they spread it around.

Sam Evans-Brown:
And under that business model, if say 50% of the people in the US went solar and started net metering, a big chunk of the money that they’re saving is money that’s not going towards paying for the poles and wires. So this is the argument against net metering, which is you or let’s say me, because I actually do have solar panels on my roof-

Maureen McMurray:
So you’re screwing me because I don’t.

Sam Evans-Brown:
I’m screwing you. Yeah, me putting solar panels on my roof costs you money.

Taylor Quimby:
What the hell, Sam?

Sam Evans-Brown:
What the hell, Sam? Except the problem is we’re not 100% sure that’s true.

Cliff Below:
“Hold on a second. I’m going to look something up because-”

Sam Evans-Brown:
So this is another former regulator, Cliff Below.

Cliff Below:
“Where is that?

Sam Evans-Brown:
He’s the one here in New Hampshire who wrote the first initial net metering law here in New Hampshire and he says that even then there was this intuition, like this feeling that maybe there were actually benefits to solar.

Cliff Below:
“So the feeling was solar might be higher than average in value, and I think the evidence has proven that out over the years that solar tends to produce at higher than average price hours.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
So Cliff Belo is literally saying the exact opposite thing from Michael Harrington. He’s saying that me putting solar panels on my roof actually saves you guys money.

Taylor Quimby:
Okay, well this is a pickle.

Maureen McMurray:
I don’t know if I believe him. I don’t think it’s going to save enough money.

Sam Evans-Brown:
All right, so let’s first maybe dig into why it might be. Even though we pay the same amount for every unit of energy on our electric bills, all electrons are not created equal. In reality, every five minutes there’s a new auction for energy. So every five minutes we’ve got a new price for energy.

Sam Evans-Brown:
When demand is low, prices are low and they can actually go negative. Like, power plants will pay us so that they don’t have to shut down. Usually that’s at night. And when demand is high, prices can be insane. Like a hundred times higher than normal. And again, the utilities take all of those costs, they average them all out, and they divide them by their customers. So the thing is solar panels are producing at times of day that’s really high value. Sunny, hot. Those are usually the times where electricity is expensive and that’s when you’re producing solar power.

Taylor Quimby:
And so by feeding back into the grid, we’re cutting usage so much that it lowers the price during those peak times?

Sam Evans-Brown:
Exactly. And so Cliff Below is arguing, these people are actually … even though they’re getting paid more than a regular power plant, they’re actually getting paid less than the energy is worth. And that means that there’s savings for every solar panel you put on the grid.

Maureen McMurray:
But that’s only true up until a certain point, right? I mean, if you suddenly tip it and it goes from 20% of the population on solar panel to 50 to 70, then I’m sorry Cliff, your math doesn’t work out.

Sam Evans-Brown:
That is exactly right. You should go work for MIT. So people do have ideas about how to solve all of this, which we can talk about or we could not.

Maureen McMurray:
Give us one. Give us your favorite.

Sam Evans-Brown:
All right. Well, the most interesting to me is from a guy called Don Kreis.

Sam Evans-Brown:
“Do you think that the way that we pay for electricity is just dumb?”

Maureen McMurray:
That’s a leading question.

Don Kreis:
“Yes. It is clearly inappropriate in today’s technological age to continue to charge people the same price for electricity 24/7 when the cost of providing people with electricity varies, sometimes by orders of magnitude. Depending on the time of day, and the time of year, and the grid conditions that apply.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
“So is it not then by extension also kind of dumb to not vary the price that we’re paying customers who are generating solar power from their roofs?”

Don Kreis:
“I agree with that as well.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
“Don is the state’s consumer advocate. His job is to watch out for people who pay electric bills. So basically he’s supposed to be keeping costs down and looking out for the little guy.”

Don Kreis:
“It simply isn’t fair to take a retired school teacher living on a fixed income in Manchester and force that customer to pay subsidies to a wealthy hedge fund manager living in Bedford who has a McMansion that’s covered in solar panels.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
“Is there, is there some actual retired school teacher in Manchester and some actual hedge fund manager in Bedford? Because Michael Harrington gave me the exact same analogy.”

Don Kreis:
(laughs) “Not that I’m aware of.”

Maureen McMurray:
There totally is.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Where are those people? But anyway, I mean Don Kreis also thinks that this cost shifting thing is a problem. And so this is what Don Kreis wants to do. It’s called a “time-of-use rate”. As in you get paid more if you’re solar is going during those high price times, like later in the afternoon. But you also pay more if you’re using more energy in the afternoon.

Sam Evans-Brown:
And so to make this really simple, every day there’d be a different price, a higher price between 2:00 PM and 8:00 PM, which is when electricity is pricier. And this is cracking open the door to a radically different way to pay for energy. Instead of abiding by this crazy illusion that every electron is worth the same amount, it’s acknowledging that when demand is high, electricity gets expensive and maybe we should let people know that.

Jessika Trancik:
“I think that we can provide that more frequently updated information to consumers.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
So this is Jessika Trancik. She’s a professor of energy studies at MIT.

Jessika Trancik:
“I think that that should be possible. Yeah.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
But she wants to take it even a step farther. Remember there is constantly a new price for electricity every five minutes and she thinks we should have a display in our houses that says here’s the price of energy right now.

Sam Evans-Brown:
“Like something that literally follows the every five minutes the market clear you get a new price?”

Jessika Trancik:
“Well maybe hourly, you know? I think five minutes might be a bit too much, but hourly.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
“Well, so if you ever find that utility that wants to do that, I’m ready to sign up. I’ll be in the pilot. I think that’d be fun.”

Jessika Trancik:
“Okay, great. I’ll let you know. I’ll let you know.”

Maureen McMurray:
No. See, I actually find that really interesting because I had no idea that it varied at all and it varies wildly. And I would think twice about turning the light switch on if there was a flashing red high price alert or something.

Sam Evans-Brown:
Yes. Right. Now there are some really important caveats to this approach. For one, rolling out new meters everywhere would be expensive and this would be a very big, maybe very difficult change in the way utilities operate. But for two, the markets can be brutal.

Sam Evans-Brown:
There are prices that can go up like a hundred times the average, which is crazy. And that’s why even Jessika Trancik thinks that they should have a cap and why Don Kreis wants this sort of declawed version of that, which is like a slightly more expensive period from 2:00 to 8:00 PM versus really following the markets. But they both think that it’s time we looked at redesigning the way our electricity is metered because solar has made everything more complicated. Here’s Don Kreis.

Don Kreis:
“Well, you know how net metering started? There was that architect guy in-”

Sam Evans-Brown:
“Steven Strong.”

Don Kreis:
“Yeah. Did you actually talk to him?”

Sam Evans-Brown:
“I spent a day with him.”

Don Kreis:
“Really? So you know that he just did it without asking anybody’s permission. He didn’t know. Like, “I want to see if my meter is going to run backwards if I just wire my building up and attach it to the Boston Edison grid. I want to see what happens.” And he was right.”

Don Kreis:
“But the fact is that it wasn’t like the commission on uniform state laws got together and said, “Let’s design a net metering statute that will promote the development of distributed generation.” In this really logical, rigorous way. No, it just happened by accident and now it’s everywhere. And so it is high time for everybody to take a look and see what a rational, well-designed bit of public policy would be.”

Sam Evans-Brown:
Or maybe we’ll just go back to billing by the light bulb.

Taylor Quimby:
Let’s do it. I’m going to reduce my number of light bulbs. I can handle that, it would be very cheap.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Sam Evans-Brown and Logan Shannon with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Molly Donahue. A longer version of this story aired on the podcast ‘Outside/In’ from New Hampshire Public Radio. Go listen to some of their other episodes. They’re great. They do nerd stuff just like we do and they make it really fun. You’re going to like it.

Roman Mars:
Special thanks this week to Bob Johnstone who wrote the book, ‘Switching to Solar,’ and Haskell Werlin. You can see pictures of that infamous first grid-tied solar apartment building at our website, 99pi.org.

Roman Mars:
Music this week was from Jahzzar, Jason Leonard, Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, OK Ikumi, and Sean Real. The Outside/In theme music is by BreakMaster Cylinder.

Credits

Production

99% Invisible was produced this week by Sam Evans-Brown and Logan Shannon with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Jimmy Gutierrez and Molly Donahue. A longer version of this story aired on the podcast Outside/In from New Hampshire Public Radio. Special thanks to Bob Johnstone, who wrote the book Switching to Solar, and Haskell Werlin.

Music this week was from Jahzzar, Jason Leonard, Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, OK Ikumi, and Sean Real. The Outside In theme music is by BreakMaster Cylinder.

Comments (30)

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  1. Tobin

    In New Zealand, we have a power company trying exactly this! flickelectric.co.nz – I have an app on my phone which shows me the spot electricity price (and also the current carbon output of the grid). I can make decisions accordingly!

  2. trey

    I love every story ever published by 99%. But this report is faulty. None of this makes sense when you consider every major utility buys and sells excess capacity on the national power grid.

    Renters who can form.their a co-op have significantly more leverage than McMansion hedge fund guy.

    Isn’t the story here that utility billing is antiquated? Utilities bill not on cost or margin, but on differences in estimated use against estimated weather patterns across a geogrphical area? And oh, your meter can disrupt this pattern.

    I don’t blame hedgefund guy for a $120 comcast bill just because he has a satelite dish.

  3. Sarah

    I was surprised that no one mentioned the potential downsides of switching to a more time-differentiated payment system for electricity. Billing with lots of price changes depending on things like seasons, time of day, etc. – let alone charging actual hourly prices – would be really hard to understand for the average consumer, and would punish those that may be able to least afford to change up the time of their consumption. In many parts of Eastern Europe and elsewhere, they have a system where energy *is* more expensive in some hours and cheaper at night, and that pushes poor families (and usually the women in those families) to stay up late into the night to do their washing and other electricity-intensive chores. If you start chopping up the prices even more (e.g. by true spot price), then bills become harder to understand, harder to control, and harder to plan for over the year, which can again be hard for people for whom their electricity bill is a major household cost. If the suggestion is just INFORMING customers how much energy costs the utility at different times of day, that would be one thing, and I’m sure the well-educated, well-to-do people interested in energy efficiency would think that’s cool. But to actually charge people based on a rate that can change dramatically hour-by-hour? Well, that would have a lot of disadvantages for the poor, the less educated, or people who are just working too hard to figure it all out.

  4. Joshua M Rudow

    I am a big fan of 99% Invisible, but I must say that I am disappointed by the
    “Reversing the Grid” story. It fails to mention the additional values of solar. In Austin, we rely on wind, nuclear, coal, solar, and natural gas power. Solar is completely renewable and clean. If we get enough solar in Austin, we can retire older dirty power plants (Fayette and Decker) that worsen climate change and pollute the air. By putting them side by side without mentioning these additional benefits, your story did not present a fair representation of the debate. Thank you.

  5. Spencer

    I was surprised to learn that time-of-use pricing is only just being proposed as a solution to this pricing problem. Time-of-use rates have been in effect in Ontario since 2006!

    1. andi

      So glad someone else mentioned this. Just catching up on my podcasts and was also very surprised to hear that time of use rates were being discussed as a far-out solution given that we’ve had it for so long in Ontario. I guess we’re just living in the future up here.

  6. Marian Moore

    There are two solar vendors and you don’t distinguish between the two. J own my panels; I see myself as the “mom and pop” that you describe. The amount of power that I contribute to the grid is probably small. Many of my neighbors lease their panels. The panels are owned by one of the 3 locals companies that set up leases. They can be considered wholesalers. As the tax benefits are phased out, many people are leasing now–not buying. Will that distinction help the local power company?

    The power companies should also consider that some of my neighbors already have battery backups. After a recent hurricane, I viewed their lighted homes jealously. Don’t they fear losing us altogether? (And why aren’t they building panels?)

  7. my electricity bills contains 2 cost
    1- energy charges (net energy charges )
    2- supply service charges (1 dolar per day no matter what)
    even if my net cost is 0 I am still connected to the grid and benefit from it. that means I will be paying the cost of maintaining that grid
    this simplifies what I am paying for what

    for the energy charges demand base meter management make sense too, as long as it is well regulated.

    1. Jason

      This is great info and brings up the point few consider: The cost of energy is small compared to the long distance transmission and local distribution costs to get it to location – those lines and transformers and the staff to keep them all working is very costly, not to mention the FERC/NERC regulatory compliance costs. There is the side benefit of getting to “bank” energy for “free” in the grid and get it back on par when you need it. This is a really bad arrangement if you bank during offpeak and consume during peak (fortunately, solar output mostly follows the load curve). Don’t want to pay the service connect fee? Then disconnect from the grid and see what a local battery system costs to purchase and maintain.

  8. Dave

    Time of day billing for the consumer is unfair to the poor. They will have to adjust their lives – when they watch TV, when they do laundry, etc – while the rich and middle class will be able to afford living their lives when they want.

    Also, how about this. Use net-metering at retail prices until the consumer reaches zero. If at the end of the month, they are below zero, that is the power utility owes them, then the utility buys at wholesale prices, but if they owe the utility, all electrons are equal, and the consumer only pays the simple difference.

  9. Marian

    I used to work for the local power company. Time-of-use meters used to cost a fortune so they were only used for businesses. The price must have come down because during a brief contract in Florida, I learned that one power company was changing out every meter in the city to make it a time-of-use meter. The meters could also be read remotely and that was the primary reason they were being replaced.

  10. Joseph

    I’m an electrical engineer for a utility, and I have to say this is a well-done episode. As you can imagine, many of the issues regarding fair billing and potential solutions go much deeper than discussed.

    But from my perspective, it boils down to this concept: Customer billing should based off the cost to serve the customer.

    That being said, the majority of the costs to serve a customer are not based on energy, they’re based on demand (the burden the customer contributes to the monthly grid peak). What does that mean? The grid is built for a certain peak capacity. If the grid demand exceeds capacity, black outs occur. Just imagine if our interstate system was built in the same way, to never have traffic jams. You would have 20 lane stretches that are typically underused but are build for that 1 hour of the year that demand is maxed out. So for the electric grid, the question is: how much does it cost to serve the customer to their full demand any time of the day?

    Example. Many regional grids are winter peaking, at 7:00AM. Most solar customers would not be contributing any power back to the grid, but they would be demanding power at that peak just like every other customer who doesn’t have solar. So since the utilities assets exists to serve both solar and non-solar customer alike, is it fair that the solar customer pays significantly less that the non-solar customer?

    This ins’t a perfect argument, but it just provides a different perspective. Again, great episode. I appreciate 99IP tackling this issue in depth and not as, “solar good, utility bad”.

  11. Joe Zydeco

    In Chicago, consumers have had the ability to purchase electricity on the real-time market (with 5-minute pricing) for almost a decade now. It’s not something an MIT professor is just wishing for.

  12. Toby Barlow

    I think it’s great that 99% aired this podcast, but I agree with some of the comments above. For starters, there was really very little discussion about the environmental benefits of supporting a solar economy vs the other sources the utility would be buying from, ie coal. That, to me, is an incredibly strong argument in favor of solar. Secondly, while you talk about companies like Solar City who install for free, you don’t then say “See, now it isn’t just for rich doctors.” Finally, there seemed to be two stories here, one about net metering and one about smarter billing, the second issue isn’t of all that much interest and I didn’t quite sense how the two were linked. What I like about 99% is that the stories have focus, this one seemed a bit rambly. But, really, I’m being rambly. I should have just focused on the first point – we need policies like Net Metering that will make a photovoltaic economy much more pervasive. A stronger solar economy means a weaker carbon economy.

  13. Daniel Przybylski

    While I enjoyed this episode, I find it disappointing that the narrators seem to dismiss photo-thermal energy systems as something, low tech or even laughably simple. I’m no industrial chemist, nor am I a materials engineer, but there is nothing trivial or low-tech about creating flexible tubing that can not only sit in the sun all day for years but also intentionally absorb and convert energy from the sun and transfer it to a liquid that is cooler than the outside of the tube.

    Just because something is about computers, the Internet or your iPhone, don’t assume that it is high tech. And just because something is about farming, steel, or just old, don’t assume that it is not.

    I look forward to the next episode of 99% Invisible.

    1. This is what struck me, too. They actually said that using the energy of the sun to directly heat water was ‘stupid’, and then within two minutes mentioned ‘heating water’ as one of the useful things you could do with the electricity that you’d just generated through the use of photovoltaics.
      …I mean, hello? No mention of efficiencies of energy transfer? Or the relative embodied energy / carbon footprint of either of these technologies? Or the costs of installation or maintenance? I know the episode was really more about billing structures relating to electricity only, but as long as we keep thinking ‘energy’ means ‘electricity’, we’re missing out on a lot. It’s probably different in parts of the US, but here in Scotland a VAST proportion of the energy we use in our homes goes into heating water.
      This episode could have actually helped peoples’ understanding of these issues but instead it perpetuated some common MISunderstandings.

    2. Marc

      Thank you! I almost rage quit the podcast after that segment. Heating water is one of the most efficient ways to harness solar energy (after passive solar house design :), and should definitely be considered even before installing photovoltaic panels. Hot water is also easier to store than electricity.

      The downside is that these systems are more complex to retrofit in an existing design.

    3. Nathaniel Green

      Their dismissal of solar-thermal raised my ire as well. Where I live in Canada, solar-thermal is much more economically viable than photo-voltaic.

    4. Daniel Przybylski

      Exactly, Dave Morris! It reminds me of people who think hydrogen powered cars are the future and not these “impractical” electric cars (like certain clowns on a certain British television program about cars).

      After all, where do you get hydrogen? As I’m sure you all know: electrolysis. Which requires a great amount of electricity, which presently we get from natural gas, nuclear power, and coal.

    5. Janine Duncan

      Thank you. I came to find this website specifically to comment upon the insulting tone with which the narrator and other voices on the podcast spoke about early solar efforts. In the 1970s, when I was in elementary school in Berkeley, CA, I was really interested in solar power. Solar power was a big deal, and the things you are mocking now were really exciting to a 5th grader at the time. I was so excited about what was going on around me (this was Berkeley, after all, where more people knew about solar options than in other parts of the country) I did my school science project on solar power–I was just a regular kid with no special science skills, and using the information out there I built a model of a water desalination system using solar power, and the things I learned about solar power at that time–the same things that your narrators laugh at–were the FOUNDATIONS of what solar has become today. The scientists working in the early stages of a technology are not idiots. They are pioneers. And they have been fighting for decades against a hostile energy industry. How can an industry that is being actively forced back by powerful interests be expected to thrive–or even survive?? The fact that those early innovators were doing anything at all is impressive, and their efforts should be praised, not mocked.

  14. Mark

    The people who made this podcast need to learn how to tell a story . The constant banter from the ancillary story tellers is like nails on a chalkboard. Sorry if you never had the joy of using chalk in school . A better way of saying this for people your age is ; it’s like someone calling you on the phone as asking what instagram is for .

  15. Robert Lehmert

    I am a huge fan of 99% Invisible, but this episode does not measure up. It is in the public interest to produce energy domestically, and in Vermont’s case “domestic” means in-state. With a population of 630,000, a $5+ billion cost of imported energy bleeds our local economy, while contributing to a purported need for a $600 billion a year military budget largely to defend America’s petro-state “allies”. Al Qaeda attacked the US in 2001 in response to American troops being stationed in Saudi Arabia.

    That is just one of the numerous external costs that are borne by the public for the use of fossil fuels. Our healthcare costs, water and air quality are affected by fossil fuels that I do not consume. Fossil fuels receive a long list of tax preferences that do not filter down to these who forgo the use of fossil fuels.

    By the way, using thermal transfer to heat hot water is not “stupid”. That comment typifies the substandard and jive quality of this episode.

  16. Pooya

    It is not a new thing, in Ontario Canada we have smart metering and time of day price for at least 10 years not. Also we can ask for a free installation of a small gadget in my living room that shows how much a kWh of cost at Any moment in time.
    It is doable and has been done for a long time.

  17. Jill

    Agreeing with Mark – the constant giggling, unnecessary comments, superfluous asides, and ‘question as exposition’ made this completely unbearable. I lasted halfway though. Interesting subject, awful delivery. Pun intended.

  18. Norm

    The presenters are off to a good start, but like others above, some aspects of this 99%I segment bothered me enough to comment. Like Daniel P above I was disappointed at the way the cast dismissed Solar Thermal as “stupid”. (3:43-4:39) Replacing 80% of an apartment building’s water heating requirements is pretty significant. Installing Solar Thermal on the White House was a promotional event to help the public see that the current agenda was not the only possible agenda, that everybody needed to focus on change, and that the President could live up to his own standards. It would have been interesting to ask whether the people who are the current front runners in solar advancement had their interests ignited by the “stupid” tech of the 1970’s. The giggling cast came off here sounding like proverbial millennials who have yet to pay a utility bill.
    Another aspect not touched on is Elon Musk and his Powerwall storage (or any competitor?). Rather than returning electricity to the grid, electricity generated by the homeowner can also be stored in batteries so their off-peak excess can be used in dark peak times. A system based on 1893 tech where entire city blocks can still routinely go out, illuminate the need for non-centralized individual battery backups, web distribution and alternative energy sources.

  19. Richard Hart

    Another great example of 99pi poking around in interesting corners to get the conversation started. This is a HUGELY important issue, because our society cannot survive without reliable electricity, so we have to find a way to pay for the infrastructure and the ongoing costs. Conversely, we cannot survive with the 1960s version of electricity generation and pricing.

    What’s so encouraging is that every country is struggling with this issue, so we have this worldwide lab of policy responses, not to mention the internal lab of 50 states in the US. And from what I’ve observed, countries and states are actually learning from each other.

  20. Chris Roth

    I agree with many of the other comments that the uninformed banter was distracting from the good information. What purpose does someone who doesn’t understand what a kilowatt-hour is have in this episode? It made me trust the information less wondering if those in the studio knew what they were talking about and if the proper amount of homework was done.
    Of the dozens of episodes I’ve listened to, this one tanks to the bottom 5% by delivery despite it being very interesting subject matter.

  21. Chris Oosthuizen

    I have 8 years experience in Electricity Utility industry and found the article is a good introduction into the topic.

    I think one huge cost that was failed to be addressed is that of the Distribution Network which is no longer used and makes up to 50% and growing contribution to one’s electricity bills.

    These networks are being built to transport electricity from the generators to the homes and are scaled to the capacity that cities need, not the usage. I.e. for those one or 2 hot days when everyone wants to be able to turn their aircons on. The days where the size of residential PV systems aren’t big enough.

    So, when you are exporting electricity back into the grid at a full retail price you are being compensated for network costs that you never had to bare. You are only putting power back into the grid. This is why this is not sustainable, because the utility then needs to use the grid to sell the generated electricity to another customer but isn’t able to be compensated for it.

    This will contribute to the reinforcing cycle mentioned on the podcast and ultimately in my opinion force the utility companies to change their revenue models from usage to usage and capacity models, similar to broadband i.e. 40GB @ 8MB/s. So if you want to run four aircons you’ll pay for the capacity, which is really much fairer than the model utilities are opting for now.

  22. Shauna Lynn Simon

    Interesting episode! In Canada (specifically Ontario), we are billed based on the amount of energy used at various times of the day. “Peak” times are a higher fee, and “super peak” times are even higher. As well, you have the option of receiving a monitor that will tell you how much energy you are using, and what it is costing you based on time of day and amount being used (I have attached a photo here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/l0o6qfp336bwtp8/IMG_2947.jpg?dl=0).

    Our system certainly isn’t perfect, and it has been a constant battle between consumers, utility companies, and the government, but there are some great resources that I think consumers simply need to be more aware of to be more efficient in usage and balance their utility bills.

  23. Robert

    Actually eletricity does not flow into or out of houses at at because we use alternating current..

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