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The Battle Over True Energy Independence Heats Up

More Americans are turning to solar and wind to power their homes and businesses, but the utility monopolies aren’t about to relinquish their market share without a fight.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/ Uwe Landgraf


Recent news reports revealed global investment in renewable energy slowed over the last two years. Yet beneath these gloomy headlines, the cost of renewable technologies continued to plummet and capacity saw exponential growth over that same period. As a consequence, more and more Americans are relying on distributed, or decentralized, energy such as solar or wind to power their homes and businesses and have happily watched their electricity bills dwindle.

But the utility monopolies, backed by powerful corporate and conservative interests, aren’t about to relinquish their market share without a fight. The battle lines are being drawn, even as the further expansion of distributed energy appears to move inexorably forward.

John Farrell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is a national expert on distributed renewable energy generation. Farrell recently spoke with AlterNet from his home state of Minnesota (which boasts an impressive use of solar for such a chilly region).

In the phone interview, Farrell lays out the benefits of distributed energy expansion, the ongoing battle to free individuals and businesses from the 100-year grip of fossil-fuel driven utility monopolies, and why he remains optimistic in the face of mounting attacks on so-called “ freeriders” from the likes of the Koch brothers and their minions.

Brad Jacobson: We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the slowdown in renewable energy investment worldwide. But what is happening now in the U.S. with the growth of smaller distributed energy generation such as solar or wind?

John Farrell: The economics of renewable energy has been changing considerably and all of a sudden we’re at this time where, in particular places in the country because of their renewable resource like sun or wind, and different places where energy is particularly expensive like the West Coast and the Northeast, it’s competitive with grid electricity, especially if you’re putting it on your own property and off-setting your energy use.

So we have this obvious moment where all these people who are starting new businesses and individuals are saying, “Gee, I never really liked my utility company that much and paying an energy bill, and all of a sudden I might have a cheaper alternative.” And maybe it’s because someone can get it to me or maybe I can buy it myself. So I have this opportunity and if there’s incentives involved too then it may be even more economically attractive, and so it’s really starting to take off.

And I think utilities are looking at it and saying it’s only going to get worse [for us] because we keep raising our rates. More and more places in the country and to greater and greater extent it’s going to be more economical for people to go for the alternative. So our whole business model is blowing up in our faces and we better do something about it.

BJ: What do you think will be the impact of the expansion of smaller distributed energy on the fossil fuel and utility industries? I’ve heard a lot recently about how if utilities don’t get into the distributed energy game or at least change their game, then they could eventually become obsolete. Is it the utilities or is it the actual energy companies themselves who might be threatened?

JF: Well, it’s a little bit of both. The fossil fuel companies really don’t have another business model. That model, should everything go the way that it should in terms of fighting climate change and not emitting carbon, we won’t be buying their product anymore. So those guys are basically needing to find a new business.

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