Monday, March 25, 2013

Fighting the Power

Imagine, for a moment, you could go completely off the grid, in terms of energy usage. Would you do it?


You may get the chance. In fact, it may be easier than you thought:

NRG Energy Inc. (NRG), the biggest power provider to U.S. utilities, has become a renegade in the $370 billion energy-distribution industry by providing electricity directly to consumers.

Bypassing its utility clients, NRG is installing solar panels on rooftops of homes and businesses and in the future will offer natural gas-fired generators to customers to kick in when the sun goes down, Chief Executive Officer David Crane said in an interview.

Now, this is not exactly the image one has in mind when one thinks “off the grid,” to be sure. After all, you’re still dealing with someone who is most definitely on the grid and most definitely part of the energy cartels that partly control our society.

But it’s a start.

The one thing this could potentially undo is the monopoly your local utility continues to hold on you, despite the sham of deregulation which saw the delivery of electricity and gas decoupled from the supply. Much like cable television, you’re still forced to genuflect to one company in order to light your home, you just have choices on how to minimize the cost. You do not, however, have complete control except to forego electricity and natural gas full stop. Those monopolies still exist, the delivery monopolies.

Back when things were simple, the monopolies on utilities made a lot of sense (and to a degree, they still do). Utilities were forced to cap prices under supervision by a board overseen by a local government. However, they were permitted to make as much profit at that price point as they wanted (provided they continued more than adequate service to their customers, which fell under the domain of the oversight board.)

This is why utility stocks were owned by widows and orphans: they paid almost guaranteed dividends, and prices rarely fluctuated.

Now, while there’s still some price control in place, pretty much whatever the market bears is what gets sold to you, except you don’t even have the service guarantees you used to have. This is possibly the most unhealthy situation possible for consumers and the economy, which is now subject to the vagaries of energy policy and supply and demand.

And if you’ve ever tried to figure out your monthly utility bill, you know how hard it is to uncover just how much you are truly paying for power and energy.

In this new paradigm, you’d be in better control of your energy choices: you could essentially generate free electricity during the day and store as much as possible in batteries for the night time, or sell power back to the grid, switching over to gas-powered generators for night time use.

It’s far from perfect, starting with the problem of trusting one of the energy cartel to treat you fairly, but in turn they are not going to be trusted by their cronies, so you have a little comfort there.

Stay tuned to this story.