Sunday, April 19, 2015 | 2 a.m.
A word we increasingly hear, as our world becomes more environmentally fragile, is “sustainability.” Do we have the know-how to appropriate our resources intelligently to protect the environment and allow us to get the most bang out of our buck? The challenge applies to food production, water usage, recycling, energy production and consumption and more.
Sustainability is advanced by technology that gives us new ways to spread our resources further. Among those advances is our increasing ability to generate clean, renewable energy. Most of the efforts have been on the wholesale level — groves of towering wind turbines, geothermal plants that tap underground steam, a landscape of mirrors reflecting sunlight onto a receiver, creating heat to turn water into steam.
Who among us hasn’t muttered that it would be nice if we could do that in our own backyard?
We can, thanks to increasingly affordable and efficient photovoltaic cells — solar panels that convert light into electricity.
That relationship was discovered in 1839, and Albert Einstein won a Nobel Prize in physics in 1921 for his studies of photoelectric effects. The space program embraced the technology, and by the 1970s, its benefits were gaining broad acceptance.
The issue is: Who is able to tap those benefits? Big utilities are doing it, of course. NV Energy boasts that of all the power it distributes to customers, 16 percent is sun-generated.
Homeowners also can plug into solar power, thanks to technology that has been miniaturized to allow homeowners to install photovoltaic systems.
The relatively nascent rooftop solar industry is marketing this opportunity, which operates on a strategy known as net metering. It allows homeowners to generate power for their own use and get credit for supplying the rest to the grid. Such systems are in place in 44 states.
This is an appropriate evolution in the operation of our utilities — that we allowed NV Energy a monopoly but now are maturing with the ability to create our own electricity. It is fitting, too, because we also are ground zero in establishing an industrial-scale solar industry.
Unfortunately, the state Legislature has limited to 3 percent the number of NV Energy customers who can plug into rooftop panels. That cap probably will be reached by year’s end. (Rooftop systems cost about $20,000 or can be leased without putting any money down, instead paying for electricity at a lower rate and compensating the solar companies with the power produced by the panels.) NV Energy complains that as some customers abandon the utility in favor of cheaper rooftop systems, other customers still will pay for the utility’s fixed infrastructure costs.
NV Energy’s full retail rate — including recouping for fixed costs — is about 12 cents per kilowatt hour, while rooftop solar power has an average value of about 5 cents per kilowatt hour. The utility contends that customers who turn to rooftop panels are being subsidized by NV Energy to the tune of about 7 cents per kilowatt hour.
The solar industry rightfully dismisses that argument. Rooftop installations reduce the cost of transmission and the demand on other power generators. Besides, one industry executive says: Rather than whining about customers going off on their own and no longer paying for NV Energy’s fixed costs, the utility — whose rates include a profit margin — should find other ways to reduce operating costs.
Nevada lawmakers are trying to avoid this fight with their silence. They need to engage. Nevadans sanctioned the utility’s monopoly, and now it’s time for us, living in sun-drenched Nevada, to have the right to small-scale power generation, some of which will enter the grid for everyone’s benefit.
We embrace rooftop photovoltaic cells as the next step toward sustainability, NV Energy’s anxieties notwithstanding. They can be addressed. It’s time to declare power to the people.