The Solar Revolution is Happening, with or without Duke Energy

by David Pomerantz

April 2, 2013

Fred Terranova assembles a solar array on the roof of the Eagle Learning center at Eastern University in St Davids.

© Tim Shaffer / Greenpeace

Tim Shaffer / Greenpeace

Last week, the largest producer of power in the United States took a radical step to acknowledge a basic fact: the solar energy revolution has finally reached the United States, and it cannot be stopped.

The company, NRG Energy Inc., said that it will start installing solar panels on rooftops of homes and businesses, according to a story in Bloomberg. NRG has recognized that its old way of doing things building big, polluting power plants that contribute to global warming, then selling that electricity to a utility who distributes it is quickly becoming antiquated in a world where solar power is simply cheaper than coal.

What does this mean for the utilities who have acted as middle-men, selling dirty brown power to Americans for the last century? Remarks from a big name in the power industry in that Bloomberg story revealed a lot:

It is obviously a potential threat to us over the long term, saidJim Rogers, chairman and chief executive officer ofDuke Energy Corp. (DUK), the largest U.S. utility owner.

Theres been a huge effort to build solar on the rooftop, both residential and commercial. All of this is leading to a disintermediation of us from our customers.

Greenpeace has campaigned aggressively over the past year to change Duke Energy from one of the biggest coal-burning polluters in the country into a clean energy champion. Duke is the largest utility in the U.S., with massive political power and capital; if it were to switch from selling brown power generated from coal, nuclear and gas plants to selling power made from solar energy, it would signal a sea change in the U.S. energy landscape.

So, will Duke adapt to the times and embrace solar energy? Well, Rogers seems scared enough in his remarks to at least consider it. He ought to be. Disintermediation is a fancy word to describe what happens when the middle-man in a business transaction in this case Duke Energy is made obsolete.

Disintermediation happens every time society undergoes rapid technological change. How many people have used travel agents to book flights in the last five years? Whens the last time you dialed into a telephone switchboard operator? Suffice it to say, if youre in business, and you start hearing the word disintermediation applied to your industry, you better run for the drawing board, and fast.

We dont have to get too imaginative to see how renewable energy has caused disintermediation in the energy sector. The process is in full swing right now in Germany.

Rooftop solar has grown so fast in Germany that solar and wind together now account for 22 % of the countrys power needs. Its worth noting that this didnt happen because Germany is any sunnier than the U.S. Germany gets less sunlight than Alaska its hardly the desert.

No, German solar energy growth happened because of forward-thinking policies by its government to support clean energy development. Now that the rooftop revolution is under way there, utilities throughout Central Europe are being disintermediated, as Rogers would put it. A UBS study shows that utilities are shutting down coal plants throughout Europe because their market is being cannibalized by the rapid growth of rooftop solar power there.

Unfortunately, the US hasnt enacted the same kinds of solar-friendly policies, so were a few years behind the Germans. We still need to enact policies like a carbon price and greater supports for the wind and solar industries doing so will help us decrease our dangerous global warming pollution far faster and more smoothly, and allow us to reap more benefits from the growing solar economy.

But regardless, its clear that as solar energy keeps getting cheaper, the exact same dynamic that I underway in Germany is taking hold in the U.S. Graphs of U.S. solar energy development by state show the characteristics of an exponential growth curve that is accelerating rapidly. All new electricity growth in the US in January was powered by either wind or solar power (the same was true last September.)

All that brings us back to Duke Energy and Jim Rogers, who is leaving the company at the end of this year. Rogers has crafted an image for himself as something of an oracle for the industry, the first one to see the next big thing coming around the corner.

His recent words sound like those of a man who sees the solar revolution coming fast, and knows that it wont be a bright one for Duke if the company doesnt adapt. Unlike the German utilities that never saw their own irrelevance coming, Duke has the fair warning and the time to make a choice: it can either be a leader in the solar revolution, or it can continue on its coal-fired path to the ignominy of disintermediation.

Rogers has eight months before he retires to make that decision.

David Pomerantz

By David Pomerantz

David Pomerantz is a former Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace USA, based in San Francisco. He helps lead Greenpeace's campaign for an economy powered by 100% renewable energy.

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