Since the discovery of oil in the mid-1800’s, the energy industry has existed as an oligopoly. Corporate executives and autocrats have used fossil fuels to consolidate power and extract wealth from the common people of the world. And while these executives and autocrats have surely benefited from capitalism, imperialism and a whole host of other -isms, they’ve also benefited from the fossil fuel industry’s natural barriers to entry.
Think about it: What do you need to enter the fossil fuel market as a producer? You need lots and lots of land to drill or mine on. You need millions (if not billions) of dollars of equipment. You need an expansive network of transporters, refiners and distributors. In short, you need several boatloads of money. Regular people can’t enter this market and therefore, they can’t produce their own energy. Like ants walking by a six-year old boy’s foot, we exist at the mercy of energy companies.
Solar energy has the potential to reverse course and place power back in the hands of the people — where it belongs. The executives and the autocrats won’t let you know it, but they’re terrified.
And although the executives and autocrats would surely like to keep the status quo, they’re not scared because solar itself threatens their profits. When the investment make sense for their bottom line, they’ll gladly transition to solar energy.
What they’re really scared of is solar’s potential to bring about energy democracy. They’re scared because solar threatens their century-and-a-half-long stranglehold on energy supply. They’re scared because decentralized, democratized solar is antithetical to their exorbitantly profitable business model.
Let’s think through this again: What does it take to produce solar energy? For most of human history, nothing. Humans have been using the sun since the dawn of time to dry their clothes, cook their food and heat their dwellings. In 2019, your average person needs little more than a few solar panels to become their own mini power plant. Solar energy can be decentralized and locally owned. Citizens can detach their energy costs from the whims of Middle-Eastern princes or the American war machine.
Even for folks who don’t own a home, solar is a boon. Low-income renters in particular can benefit from community solar, a model in which residents buy shares in a local solar array. This cooperative ownership of power generation is made possible because of solar’s decentralized nature.
In a world of decentralized solar, fossil fuel companies will no longer be able to maintain their iron grip on the working class.
This is what scares the fossil fuel industry: Loss of control. Since Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly, fossil-fuel executives around the world have had their foot on the necks of the average energy consumer. Decentralized solar threatens almost two centuries of consolidated power.
This threat is why Eversource, the company which provides energy for most of Connecticut, lobbies against net metering, a regulation which essentially allows homeowners to operate their solar as a mini power plant.
It’s why when oil and gas companies do invest in solar, they put their money in giant solar farms, not decentralized, distributed solar. These solar farms attempt to recreate the centralized power plant model by consolidating power at the point of supply.
Solar won’t solve all of our energy problems: There is doubt regarding its viability on a large scale. Energy storage remains a relatively unsolved problem and no one has figured out what to do with solar panels after they’ve outlived their useful lives. However, solar still presents a tremendous opportunity for the common folk to control their own energy.
All levels of the fossil fuel industry — from Exxon Mobil to Eversource — will fight this shift in power. They will fight it just like they fight the expansion of inarguable public goods like public transit — because it threatens their hold on the energy supply.
If you care about freeing regular folks from the centuries-long stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry (or if you just experience existential dread about climate change), you should care about protecting and expanding decentralized solar. Alongside other power-shifting policies — like creating accountable public utilities — we can bring about a truly democractic energy system.
Harry Zehner is the opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.