The Uber model is changing America. First, he made a family car business. Then he made a business out of the guest room or vacation home. Soon, this could make a business the roof over your head.
It’s the dream of a group of wildly successful entrepreneurs who see rooftops as the next big monetization of a widely held asset.
This group, which currently chooses to remain anonymous, believes that with the right communication network and a smart computer link, the country’s solar rooftops could become a new source of electricity; and, if connected to home batteries, a virtual powerhouse of scale and reliability.
What Uber did for ridesharing and what Airbnb did for accommodations, these entrepreneurs believe could be done for the electric utility industry.
One of them said to me: “A network can be many different things, but in the context of a network of millions of potential solar rooftops, it means the capture and analysis in near real time of billions of data points. Only a wireless network, using the latest broadband technologies, similar to those that support our smartphones, can handle this workload.
Rewind the clock to when solar cells became generally available: utilities encouraged their use and bought electricity from customers when it was produced, not when it was needed.
At the same time, large solar power plants began to be developed and owned by utilities, which worked better for them, and they degraded on rooftop solar.
Talking to utilities, I find they are cold to indifferent to rooftop solar, but enthusiastic about producing solar power plants, especially if tied to battery storage. Generally, utilities like solar generation because of its predictability.
The idea of connecting a vast array of millions of rooftop solar panels with their own batteries puts demand back in the hands of utilities, giving them the flexibility to have a terrific new resource.
Also, like the Uber model, there would be variable pricing: in times of crisis or high demand, the utility or system operator would order power from the owner’s batteries at peak prices, suitable for all. Owners of solar rooftops and battery configurations would become “citizen solarizers”.
The concept of a vast on-demand virtual power plant is not entirely speculative. Brian Keane, president of SmartPower, told me that what could be a precursor is already being tested in Connecticut.
“All residential customers who choose Connecticut Green Bank‘s CT Storage Solution option receive generous upfront rebate incentives for agreeing to have their battery pulled every weekday afternoon in June, July, and August, as well as on ‘essential’ days on weekends, in September, and for a few days during the winter months. Customers will receive a payment each year based on the amount of electricity drawn from the battery,” Keane explained.
Developing a national virtual power system would enhance something that is happening quietly, what I call “grid hardening”.
This could be seen as the tacit acceptance that the network will not be substantially rebuilt, but will be strengthened by new generation and limited new transmission. The uberization of rooftop solar could be an important part of that boost – and a gift to the nation both as a source of clean energy and citizen engagement.
Whether regional solar arrays would be subject to federal or state regulation remains to be seen.
In the future, a rooftop solar installation could be more than a convenience for a household and a way to signal a green virtue.
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His email is [email protected] and you can follow him on Twitter @LlewellynKing2. This column was provided by InsideSources.