Progressive Mother Jones: Rooftop Solar Not as Shiny as It Seems

By Published on January 25, 2016

The progressive magazine Mother Jones recognized problems with rooftop solar Monday, including financial benefits the industry gets from renewable energy credits (RECs) and how rooftop solar doesn’t help slow global warming.

Mother Jones argues credits and subsidies ensure rooftop solar companies aren’t actually helping fight global warming and instead are just enriching themselves while distracting from real solutions to global warming. The magazine claims RECs ensure someone who buys a rooftop solar panel isn’t actually fighting global warming, they’re “just helping the utility meet a goal it was already mandated to meet — thus helping excuse it from building more solar capacity itself. In other words, your direct net contribution to reducing greenhouse gas pollution is nil.”

Rooftop solar is heavily subsidized by a 30 percent federal and state tax credits for home solar panels as well as RECs. Rooftop solar companies regularly install $10,000 or even more expensive systems at no upfront cost to the consumer, in exchange for simply collecting the profitable tax credits, RECs, and other subsidies. Solar power receives 326 times more subsidies than conventional energy sources, according to Department of Energy data.

Presently, utility companies are forced by law to purchase rooftop solar power at two to three times the rate it would cost to buy electricity from an industrial solar farm.

“Companies like SolarCity can sell them and thus help justify giving you the solar panels for little to nothing,” reads the article. “The biggest buyers of RECs are power companies looking to satisfy state-mandated clean-energy requirements, known as renewable portfolio standards. In effect, the power company pays for the right to claim the [lucrative] climate benefits of the panels on your roof.”

Solar subsides and tax credits are so large that even solar companies, such as SolarCity’s competitor Sunnova, claim they’re “hobbling the industry” and should be allowed to expire. A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that rooftop solar subsides are inefficient and costly. Industrial scale solar power is more economically efficient than rooftop solar, according to a study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Solar and wind power have been heavily subsidized since at least the 1970s. Federal subsidies for solar are about $5 billion annually, with more than half of that amount going to rooftop solar. Despite these huge subsidies, in 2014 solar power accounted for only 0.4 percent of electricity generated in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration.


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