Many an irate utility customer aspires to “living off the grid,” but the reality is most who try rely on an Avista or other local utility to back up their system when it cannot produce enough electricity to keep the lights on.
These home-based installations, called “distributed generation,” have been encouraged for several reasons; jobs, independence from imported fuel, environmental benefits and their potential to negate the need for expensive new central generating stations. Washington offers several incentives, notably net-metering. When a home solar array generates more electricity than lighting and appliances consume, the power is fed back through the meter onto the local distribution system for others to use.
Conceivably, a utility could owe the homeowner money at the end of the month. But in a region with abundant low-cost hydropower, it takes a special set of circumstances, or true off-the-grid self-reliance, to make distributed generation work for homeowners. And for utilities, electricity coming back onto their system from 205 W. Kilowatt Street raises a number of issues, safety not least of all.
During the 1996 ice storm, crews trying to prepare lines supposedly dead were ambushed by power from home generators. Wind and solar generation pose a similar problem.
Last week, the Utilities and Transportation Commission delivered a report to a legislative committee that examines many of the issues raised by distributed generation. Besides the safety threat, for example, power going on and off the grid as the sun shines or the wind blows can compromise grid reliability. And even though a home with a windmill might not need electricity from a utility for any given day or hour, the utility must have the reserves to supply that home.
Does the homeowner pay for that, or should utility customers who get little or no direct benefit from their neighbor’s solar panels?
In its comments to the Utilities Commission, Avista Utilities says the technology of distributed generation has a long way to go before costs become competitive with conventional resources, such as coal- or natural gas-fired generating plants. The Spokane utility has focused on conservation as a lower-cost resource; a kilowatt saved is a kilowatt earned.
So the commission study and possible legislative follow-up are timely.
The wind farms seemingly along every ridge line in the Northwest have driven home the rule of unintended consequences. In high winds, the huge machines churn out more electricity than the transmission grid can deliver to utilities. Some days, the congestion is so great the windmills are shut down.
Living off the grid, or almost, has to work for everybody.