Researchers at Stanford University suggest that America should make its cities solar hubs. It says currently we are looking at solar power through the wrong end of the telescope. Sure, solar panels on residential rooftops are all the rage, but the real action is in huge multi-gigawatt installations way out in East Overshoe, where the only inhabitants are jackrabbits and tumbleweeds.
According to Gizmodo, that’s a problem because it preserves the current American model of transmitting power over long distances via extensive networks of high-tension wires. That long-distance transmission infrastructure costs as much or more than the solar installations themselves. And a significant proportion of the solar energy created out there in the desert is lost due to transmission losses. In other words, the study says we should think outside the grid!
They suggest instead that we turn our cities into solar hubs and generate electricity where it is needed most and can be distributed at the lowest cost to customers. The Stanford researchers reject California’s current state policy of promoting remote solar installations such as the 550 megawatt facility recently completed in Riverside county. They say turning California’s cities into solar hubs would not only be more efficient, it could generate three times more electrical power than the state presently needs.
Other countries have policies that promote solar panels on the sides or rooftops of city buildings. France has just passed a law requiring all new buildings in commercial zones to have either vegetation or solar panels on their roofs. The nub of the policy debate comes down to our relationship with our utility companies. Some are receptive to solar energy, but let’s face it: They are in the electric business to make money. If cities became solar hubs, there would be no need for vast solar farms far away and no need for most of our existing coal, oil, gas, and nuclear generating plants. Utility companies would essentially become obsolete.
Uh, oh. Utility companies have hundreds of billions of dollars locked up in their generating and transmission facilities. They have stockholders who expect regular dividends to continue over many decades. They have employees and executives who depend on the present model for their livelihoods. If we change the game, all those facilities and transmission lines become what financial people call “stranded assets” and all those stockholders, workers, and executives will be out of luck.
That is the curse of disruptive technologies. They disrupt the status quo and some people suffer as a result. And that explains why some utility companies have dug in their heels and are resisting the oncoming tidal wave of electrical power from renewable sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal.
At the heart of it, utility companies want to continue being the lords and masters of electrical power. They want to own the hardware that makes the electricity and they want to control the price consumers pay for it. The Stanford study suggests utility companies are like the telephone companies were 20 years ago when the cell phone first appeared — dinosaurs heading for extinction. They just don’t know it yet.