One of the keys to better and more progressive governance is to find ways to address different public policy challenges simultaneously. There’s no question America needs more renewable energy. And there’s also no question right now that the American middle class needs way to build new assets from those they already possess.
That’s the genius of the ideas Anya Schoolman (executive director of the Community Power Network) presents in her contribution to the July/August issue of the Washington Monthly, “Rooftop Revenue,” which focuses on ways to encourage homeowners to become solar energy producers. It’s something that’s part of the landscape in Europe, where, notes Schoolman, “nearly 900,000 Germans have become renewable energy entrepreneurs, and Germany itself now gets more than 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.”
Duplicating that success in the United States isn’t easy because of our complex system of federalism, utility regulation, and tax subsidies for “green” activities. But it can be done, and is being done Colorado, California, New Jersey, Vermont, and in the District of Columbia (where Schoolman lives and is herself a home solar energy producer). These are jurisdictions “where governments have put two key policies in place:”
The first is the enactment of rules that require utilities to accept onto the grid any power homeowners and other small players produce themselves, a practice known as “net metering.” The second is the setting of renewable portfolio standards that are designed to allow average families to be paid for that extra green energy they produce, just as the big boys are.
Even in those jurisdictions, says Schoolman, the ability of homeowners to reap the financial harvest of solar energy generation is being threatened by aggressive corporate efforts to encourage people to instead lease solar panels, which will cut electricity bills for consumers but also lets the leasing companies and their financial backers pocket tax credits and revenues from the sale of the generated power. If states require that utilities provide “net metering” to allow sale of energy back to the power grid; set up “renewable portfolio standards” to enable receipt of tax credits by homeowners; and make it easier for lower-income homeowners to secure financing for the purchase and installation of panels they will own; we could move more rapidly along the path blazed by the Germans.
Until now, elected officials who support renewable power have stressed its environmental benefits and potential to create “green jobs.” Yet the number of Americans who can realistically imagine themselves working in a green job is limited, whereas every American family gets an electric bill, and two out of three own their own homes. The prospect that anyone could turn an unused roof or piece of land into a moneymaking asset, and help the environment in the bargain, ought to be hugely appealing.