The Home I will Likely Never Build: The Sun Side

I have been building a house in my head for decades, now. It’s a place that doesn’t forget what has worked for centuries, but isn’t afraid of technology. It is a place where you can feel the hands of the people who built it; the ghosts in this place are the echoes of the wood carvers, tile makers, welders, and artists who made this place special. You can almost hear them cursing.

You have by now taken a gentle walk through the garden, and while it is pleasant, and creates a crucial link to the land the house is built from, it is hard to ignore the structure in front of you any longer. You take a few more steps past the whimsical bird bath (that services the bats as well), and appreciate the humor of the artist who created it. But now it is time to turn our gaze to the house itself.

Today is a sunny afternoon, warm for the altitude, and the breeze is fresh.

The home seems to be embracing the garden, its wings like arms wrapping protectively around the quiet ground. The center section of the house is open, no walls facing you at all; the line between outdoors and indoors is not clearly defined. Softening this transition further is a patio and the long eaves shading the home from the summer sun. The eaves are built with math that has informed buildings in the Southwest for hundreds of years. The eaves provide shade in the summer, but let the warming sun into the dwelling in the winter.

You don’t need to know, but might find interesting, that these eaves are covered with photovoltaic cells.

The center of the house is two stories, with an observation deck on the highest roof. Both floors are open right now, allowing you to see common areas above and below. As you approach, you find yourself on a wide flagstone patio with a full barbecue. It is the outdoor kitchen, for days and nights when it is simply too lovely to go inside to cook. There are gas burners, of course, and a griddle, but also a place to light the charcoal when the moment calls for it. A refrigerator? Sure, why not. Don’t want to have to go inside just to get a frosty beverage.

Around the barbecue are tables, with umbrellas for shade. There is music coming from somewhere.

Suddenly, it is winter. Your nose is red from the crisp, cold air. The smell of burning piñon lightly scents the air. You squint in the bright light as the sun reflects off the light snow that coats the slumbering garden. Where moments before the house was open, you now see walls of glass. The sun, lower now, shines through the glass and warms the dark walls and the dark earth-toned tile on the floors where the sun can reach. You are in no hurry, but you can imagine feeling the warmth of those floors through your socks once you go inside and shed your boots.

This home, you realize, is powered and warmed in large part by the sun. While the techno-scientists try to achieve sustained fusion here on Earth (go, techno-scientists!), we’ll just draw from the one that is already up and running, even if it’s only available half the time.

On both floors, the glass walls curve gently, following the arc defined by the garden wall. “That must be preposterously expensive,” you muse. “Why not just have a whole bunch of French doors?” Because it’s my damn house, that’s why. If I can’t afford it anyway, why hold back?

Summer again. The house is open, and you hear laughter from the upper level, and the crack of a break at the pool table. You cross the patio into the shade of the eaves. It’s time to go inside.


My Conflict Over the Attack on Rooftop Solar

Most of us now can become energy producers. We might not produce as much as we consume, but we can put solar panels on our roofs and reduce our energy bills. And if our panels produce more energy than we’re using at the moment, it seems like a good idea to put that energy back on the grid for others to use. Energy storage is inefficient. The burning question: how much do we get paid for that power?

The law differs everywhere but where I live right now, People can sell electricity back onto the grid at the same price they pay for it. While that is great for those with rooftop solar, I’m not so sure it’s great for all of us. The question is: Why is the electricity I sell back to the grid worth twice as much as the electricity utilities buy from other power generators? The utility is forced to pay way more for electricity homeowners produce than they pay anyone else.

The power companies are fighting back by imposing huge fees on solar homes. In some states now, like Arizona (which… solar… duh), if you put in a solar installation you’re slapped with a huge tax to pay for “your share” of the old-world electricity infrastructure. That is also ridiculous. The message in those states: if you go solar, go big enough to get off the grid. A total lose-lose scenario, since the surplus generated by homeowners goes to waste.

And in that battle, I am the biggest loser of all. My euphemistically-named ‘manufactured home’ can’t support the panels. Next-gen solar panels might be light enough. I hope so. But in the meantime, my rates are inflated because some of the electricity I’m buying was bought by my power company at a ridiculously high price.

If I make more electricity than I need, the price I sell that power back to the grid should reflect the cost to the power company to get that energy to its destination. Right now in my neighborhood the power company is required to buy electricity at a loss from schmoes like me. While I have no sympathy whatsoever for the assholes who run the power companies, assholes who endangered public safety to bilk Californians out of billions of dollars and then hid the money behind bogus bankruptcies, I still have to move forward on principles of fairness.

Brief aside: Documents sealed in the Enron trials could get a lot of energy executives serious jail time.

Back to the small. If I produce electricity I don’t need at the moment, I should be able to sell it. The value of that power should be a contract between me (or a collective of people like me) and the power company I’m selling to. The price could change minute-by-minute, based on demand. But it shouldn’t be retail. Sorry, my hippie friends, when I’m producing electricity I am just another power plant; I shouldn’t have an unfair advantage over any other electricity producer.

BUT! While I accept that I should sell my electricity at wholesale, that doesn’t mean I accept the ridiculous taxes on energy-producing households to maintain the grid. The power company can profit from the power I generate the same way it does with power it purchases from big producers.

Power companies across this great nation wish to punish the small producer. They have brought forth taxes to combat the little-guy-friendly laws in many states. Solar power is starting to make real economic sense, even with the government underwriting of fossil fuels.

I think the key was in a parenthetical a couple of paragraphs back: millions of rooftop solar owners combining to form a collective — a single power company that negotiates its rates with the power companies the same way all the other generators do. As solar technology improves, the cost of generation goes down, where the cost of the fossil competitors may enjoy periodic drops, but ultimately must move upward.

If our nation were to say in the meantime that poisoning our water and killing our children is illegal again, even for frackers, that would dramatically increase the leverage of alternative power generators.

Let’s make solar power officially just another source of electricity. Solar is ready to compete on its own merits, without price controls, and despite the staggering portion of our taxes that is spent to maintain the oil industry. PG&E is not going to impose wacky grid taxes on its most cost-competitive supplier. But it’s the people making the electricity who need to speak, not governments. It’s time to take the training wheels off and let solar ride.