Solar homesteads

A suggestion to wrap policy for renewable energy in the homesteading myth.

The Democratic establishment, led by Barack Obama, are scared of defending renewable energy as the last chance of avoiding climate catastrophe, which it is. Messages must be positive, they think. (Winston Churchill after Dunkirk did not agree.) The goal of American technological leadership looks more frayed by the day, as Chinese solar panel manufacturers wipe the floor with their competitors. That leaves energy independence and job creation, which are fair enough but not inspiring.

They are missing a striking feature of one technology, solar PV. This turns households into energy producers, not passive consumers of energy supplied by large corporations. They acquire a long-term financial interest in details of energy policy – like spot market pricing, net metering and renewables obligations – previously reserved to a handful of engineers and financiers.

Consider poor Chris Christie, Republican Governor of New Jersey. In the days when climate change was recognized by his party and renewable energy a bipartisan cause, he started a pro-renewables policy that has made his small and northerly state the second US state for solar PV, with 15,578 installations. Now he’s stuck, and refuses to follow the party line.

It isn’t just that there’s an industry of installers and suppliers, with growing clout. 10,000 installations at least must be on New Jersey house rooftops, with plenty more being planned. Solar householders don’t just have a financial interest in maintaining pro-renewable policy; they have a psychological one too. Installation is complex in the American Permit Raj, so householders have invested time and trouble. Their roof makes a public statement to their neighbours of civic responsibility: we are doing our bit. Like Christie, they are trapped by their own investment, in a good way. Trashing renewables, as the Tea Party GOP is doing, insults them personally by ridiculing them as impractical idealists. And aren’t these pioneers likely to be opinion-formers and models for others?

The other renewables also create lobbies and vested interests, but in the traditional way. Backyard wind turbines are a quixotic niche; the typical wind farm is multiple turbines of at least 1.5 megawatts, so they are put up and run by largish firms. Landowners get rent, municipalities get taxes. communities get construction and maintenance jobs. The same pattern holds for CSP, geothermal, biogas, hydro, tidal, and wave, which all fit into a conventional corporate model.

Solar PV is different, in a way that taps into powerful American narratives. The original Homestead Act was passed in 1862, codifying the Free Soil principle of the Northern abolitionists: the vast lands stolen from the native Americans would be settled by small independent farmers, not slave-owning planters. After the defeat of slavery, conflicts continued between homesteaders and ranchers. Western films slotted these conflicts neatly into archetypes of the small man ruggedly asserting his independence against greedy and cynical aggressors in a beautiful but unforgiving landscape. The community is sometimes indifferent, sometimes supportive.

Still from Shane

My suggestion is to wrap support for renewable (and especially solar) energy into this narrative of the brave homesteader. The enemies are the weather (dust storms, tornadoes, and drought), and the evil barons of oil and coal. The hero or heroine is defending himself/herself and his/her nuclear family, but also a wider principle of right and solidarity. The ads and songs almost write themselves.

Footnote: homesteading is currently the slogan of radical greens and survivalists aiming at complete self-sufficiency. Fair enough, but given the history they have no exclusive claim to the term and its resonance.
PS, update: in related news, heartwarming story about Grameen’s booming microsolar scheme in Bangladesh: 1m small loan-financed, revenue-generating systems at $400 a pop, serviced by a small army of women entrepreneurs.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

14 thoughts on “Solar homesteads”

  1. Timely post. My home PV array was turned on yesterday. As I type, I’ve got another tab open that shows what it’s producing, how much the house is drawing and how much is being sold back to CL&P. Today, I hate clouds. 😉

      1. Don’t pander to me, James. Save it for the simple farmers. The people of the land. The common clay of the new west. You know, morons.


        1. I’ll pull the arrow out of your pioneering back, assume a grim expression, square my shoulders, and spit out: “The Chevrons are on the warpath!”

  2. Here is a question that wants an answer:

    If the government subsidies that go to big oil and big gas were instead given to homeowners (in the form of generous solar PC and solar hot water tax incentives), how much money would be available and what sort of a positive push might we expect?

    Of course this is taking money out of the hands of consolidated wealth and spreading it as sort of fertilizer to regular people, to grow their local economies and businesses, so it goes against the grain of government by the rich, for the rich and of the rich. Ergo it isn’t going to happen in Acirema, but still, the question is a good one and the math begs doing. That is, if James hasn’t already done it…

    1. I was under the impression that direct subsidies to oil/gas aren’t that huge, but the indirect subsidy of allowing them to pollute as much as they do is worth a lot.

      I could be wrong.

      In any case, the PV system I now have was HEAVILY subsidized. In the end, I’ll have paid for about 45% of it. The new CT subsidy is generous, and then I get the 30% federal tax credit.

    2. I don’t think we need to answer that question. The wholesale price of solar modules, in a general glut, is now around 75c/watt and rapidly heading south towards 50c. If you can have German balance-of-system costs, that would mean installed prices today of under $2.50/ watt. In that case you no longer need a cash subsidy at all in many places.

      I agree that in a level playing field, solar should get a price advantage over fossil fuels by carbon tax or green subsidy, but it’s not practically essential to keep the revolution going. Very fortunately, as it’s not going to happen any time soon in the USA. But “German BoS costs” won’t arrive by magic. They require solar-friendly policies other than cash: wide permit exemptions, streamlined utility hookups, clear rights to net metering, quick and credible tecnical standard-setting. Roughly speaking, the California or New Jersey environments. Since US federal policy is gridlocked by GoP obstructionism, it’s down to the states.

        1. In some parts of the American West, companies will lease your roof to generate solar power, and sell you power for less (or give you a monthly stipend). Not sure we’re staying here, so haven’t pulled the trigger, but we may.

  3. Perhaps Bill Clinton could make an ad declaring that “The Era of Big Energy is over”.

  4. So, I live in LA in a multi-family building. If we wanted to explore going solar, how do we find a company that is reputable, to come out and look at our roof and so forth? Do you find that on Yelp, or what?

    1. American Solar Energy Society. You’ll likely want a ‘solar garden’ and you may very well find a firm that will lease your roof that will meet your needs. Can’t really recommend anyone back there, as I moved from CA in 2003…

  5. Interesting subject. I too am a solar producer, 5.4 Kw system.

    On the New Jersey story, I am not sure how much credit Christie deserves, since PSE&G is responsible for a large chunk of the New Jersey story, in that they put one or two panels on virtually any utility pole which “qualifies” from a light perspective.

    I am across the river from NJ in Delaware, and here we have a bit of a donnybrook going on about who is going to get the subsidies for alternative fuels. Our Governor, and legislature, in the interest of bringing jobs to the state signed a deal with Bloom Energy, which includes allowing the utility company, Delmarva Power, to buy several of the natural gas driven fuel cells from Bloom, BUT, to allow that installation to count as renewable/alternative energy. This deal is really roiling the waters.

    I am of two minds about the Bloom type of technology. Part of me says it is just another way to make energy from natural gas, but part of me also recognizes its value as a distributed energy production technology. (In fact a lot of Bloom’s customers are corporate data centers and the like, who are using these as opposed to backup diesel generators….although with the advantage of using it full time). So what I am starting to believe is that in terms of policy there should be tiers for subsidies or incentives, and that perhaps distributed energy should be its own tier as should actual renewable and actual “clean feedstock” energies such as solar and wind. And perhaps we should consider systems which allow a technology like PV Solar to qualify for multiple incentives. Unfortunately, we in Delaware have front row seats to the “fight to the death” over the subsidy dollars. As the utility has signed up for the Bloom fuel cells, (having now thrown the offshore wind effort to the dogs) the lobbying dollars are going in directions which are far too corporate.

    Having gone through a 12 hour power outage at the hands of the large east coast derecho, I am looking at possible solutions for power outages, as I expect these to become more common. A propane generator running a 200W system chews up approximately 50 gallons a day. (No NG here …sigh…) . My solar system, even on the sunniest of days, is useless if the grid is down, as that was a condition of installation. Grrr.

    Glad to here others have installed systems.

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