Utilities companies won’t let you sell your own solar power. Why not?

The electric utility sector is broken – but the transformation we need will be virtually impossible so long as a handful of wealthy elites are calling the shots

Utilities companies have their sights on ending net-metering: your ability to sell excess power at market rates.
 Utilities companies have their sights on ending net-metering: your ability to sell excess power at market rates. Photograph: Rex

new report from the US-based Energy and Policy Institute last week found that investor-owned utilities have known about climate change for nearly 50 years – and done everything in their power to stop governments from doing anything about it.

From their commitment to toxic fuels to their corrosive influence on our democracy to their attempts to price-gouge ratepayers, it’s long past time to bring the reign of privately-owned electric utilities to an end.

Recent findings about utilities mirror a 2015 investigation by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, in which reporters discovered that ExxonMobil – secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s former employer – had sponsored cutting-edge climate research as far back as the 1970s. Like Exxon, utility industry groups hired scientists to investigate the impact of carbon dioxide on the environment. Also like Exxon, they then proceeded to funnel millions into lobbying efforts and misinformation campaigns that cast doubt on those same scientists’ research.

A 1988 report from the Edison Electric Institute and the industry-backed Electric Power Research Institute advised that “climate changes possible over the next 30 years may significantly affect the electric utility industry”. A year later, the country’s investor-owned utilities had become enthusiastic members of the Global Climate Coalition, an international lobbying outfit whose crowning achievement was convincing George W Bush to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol.

Climate forecasts are more dire now than they were when utilities and oil companies started looking into them, and a key piece of avoiding the most severe impacts of warming is to rapidly change how we turn on our lights. Electric power currently accounts for about 35% of all of the United States’ energy-related carbon emissions. Nearly 70% of that stems from the coal-fired power plants utilities have spent millions trying to keep running. Scientists say we have a rapidly closing window of time to decarbonize the whole of our economy, a large part of which involves making huge swaths of it run off of electricity.

The utilities needed to make that change happen, meanwhile, seem dead-set on doing exactly the opposite. The industry has set its sights in particular on rooftop solar. In backing campaigns to end net-metering – a policy that lets people with solar panels sell excess power back to utilities at market rates – investor-owned utilities are deliberately stymying changes that could be as good for ratepayers as they are for the environment. On this and their other political priorities, electric utilities spent more than $114.3m on lobbying in 2016. Already in 2017 that figure is up to $59.9m.

What’s clear now is that the electric utility sector is broken, and its biggest and most influential firms can’t be trusted to work in the public’s best interest. Massive transformations in the electric power sector are both desperately needed and eminently possible. Updating our outmoded grid system, for instance – making it easier for customers to sell back power to their power providers – could yield fairer rates for customers and hundreds of thousands of well-paid jobs. The only way to get there is to take investors’ endless thirst for short-term profits out of the equation.

Of course, America’s many publicly owned utilities are in need of massive reforms, too. The sector as a whole is beholden to a series of archaic regulations written before solar and wind generation was possible. But the kind of wholesale transformation science demands of it will be virtually impossible so long as a small handful of wealthy elites are calling the shots.

Dethroning the utility barons isn’t such a crazy idea. The Labour manifesto Jeremy Corbyn ran on in the last UK general election called for a “transition to a publicly owned, decentralised energy system”. In the US, we have our own examples for how to put electric utilities back under democratic control. Some of them, like our New Deal-era rural electric cooperatives, already are. And towns and cities here and around the world are moving to make power provision more low-carbon and democratic.

There’s no need to stop at electric utilities, either. Since the financial crisis, people on both sides of the Atlantic feel out of control of their economic lives, saddled with both mounting debts and stagnant wages. All the while, the rich are getting richer.

That so many aspects of our economy are controlled by so few people represents as much of a crisis for the planet as it does for democracy. Putting it back into public hands is an opportunity to start mending both.