solar panels

Solar power and other distributed renewable energy technologies could lay waste to U.S. power utilities and burn the utility business model, which has remained virtually unchanged for a century, to the ground.

That is not wild-eyed hippie talk. It is the assessment of the utilities themselves.

Back in January, the Edison Electric Institute — the (typically stodgy and backward-looking) trade group of U.S. investor-owned utilities — released a report [PDF] that, as far as I can tell, went almost entirely without notice in the press. That’s a shame. It is one of the most prescient and brutally frank things I’ve ever read about the power sector. It is a rare thing to hear an industry tell the tale of its own incipient obsolescence.

(now featuring cute animals!)
(Now featuring cute animals!)

I’ve been thinking about how to convey to you, normal people with healthy social lives and no time to ponder the byzantine nature of the power industry, just what a big deal the coming changes are. They are nothing short of revolutionary … but rather difficult to explain without jargon.

So, just a bit of background. You probably know that electricity is provided by utilities. Some utilities both generate electricity at power plants and provide it to customers over power lines. They are “regulated monopolies,” which means they have sole responsibility for providing power in their service areas. Some utilities have gone through deregulation; in that case, power generation is split off into its own business, while the utility’s job is to purchase power on competitive markets and provide it to customers over the grid it manages.