Imagine generating solar, wind, or geothermal power for your home and selling the excess to your neighbors. In the future, will you be the power company? If we are serious about renewable energy, the answer could be yes.
In many other countries, they have successfully put in place feed-in tariffs to accelerate this. Unlike "net metering" which allows cleanly generated electricity to be fed into the grid to offset electric bills, feed-in tariffs basically require utilities to pay a premium price for renewable energy they purchase from homeowners and businesses that install wind turbines, solar panels, or other clean-energy generating devices on their properties. Many see this as a faster way to get to more renewables, while creating green jobs and avoiding the barriers that have slowed the changeover here in the US. Germany in particular has used this model very successfully.
What's the alternative? California has a 33% renewable energy target for the year 2020. Unfortunately, using large scale solar and wind projects to meet this goal (mostly in remote areas) creates the need for an estimated $12-15 billion for transmission lines alone, a figure that will no doubt go well beyond $20 billion if and when they actually build them. T. Boone Pickens' project to install hundreds of massive turbines in the Texas panhandle was abandoned due to similar transmission line issues, and a fight is brewing over who should pay for a $12 billion project to connect wind from the plains to the large cities in the Midwest.
Centralized power generation could be a thing of the past. Fast Company described the renewables push in the United States as "big, expensive, slow, and spectacularly uncertain." Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute compares the push for "big renewables" as similar to proposing more hardwired telephone exchanges and mainframe computers in a world that has moved on to internet telephony and laptops. The large power generators have some interesting technologies on the horizon, but creating a vibrant decentralized industry where individual energy customers can compete with the utilities is likely to create more change and a better long-term outcome. A variety of bills are moving through state legislatures and and congress...keep your eyes open!
Photo copyright mjmonty at flickr.com (Creative Commons license)