The latest developments in the world of clean energy suggest utilities are in danger of being left in the dust.
Let’s start with corporate America.
Fed up with the glacial pace many utilities have taken in rolling out renewables and facing pressure from both customers and their own sustainability departments, some of America’s largest companies have taken matters into their own hands — bypassing utilities altogether and inking deals with private wind and solar plant developers to meet their energy needs. The companies include operators of energy-hungry data centers like Microsoft and Amazon, as well as more traditional companies such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot.
This corporate buying is big business for the renewables industry. In its annual market report, the American Wind Energy Association said over half the wind power on offer last year went to corporations, universities, and other ‘non-utility’ customers. Experts say this buying may finally push utilities to take a more progressive stance when it comes to offering clean power.
In some cases, companies that build their own renewable plants may actually produce more energy than they need. What to do with the excess? Sell it back to the grid. That’s what Apple’s has recently been allowed to do. Regulators in California gave approval for the tech giant to sell excess power generated from a $850 million solar power plant the company owns in Monterey Country back to the utility. Apple will get wholesale rates for the electricity. No word as to whether customers will have to wait in line overnight to get it.
And two folks who may not normally see eye-to-eye on the role of utilities have teamed up on a lobbying effort. SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive, who has often accused utility execs of undermining his rooftop solar business, partnered with the head of Chicago utility ComEd on a letter to lawmakers in all 50 states urging them to write laws that will allow the utilities to shift from an energy-delivery pipeline business model one where they become energy-sharing platforms. Instead of making money solely by selling more electricity, utilities would morph into a kind of service provider, making money by charging for the use of their wires and other infrastructure to move power (ideally renewable) from where it’s produced to where it’s needed. While the idea is simple — and illustrates the crux of the problem for utilities as they transition from a world that uses ever more power to one that more efficiently manages energy — implementing it promises to be anything but easy.
In non-utility news, President Obama was revealed to be the most efficient president ever. Tell that to the Republicans.
Steve Hargreaves and Courtney St. John write for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow them at @shargrea and @CourtSaintJohn.