The holidays are descending upon a nation torn asunder like a poorly carved turkey. The alcohol-fueled congregation of extended families across generations and lines of longitude threatens to create a tinderbox, where the slightest spark could ignite a Hieronymus-Boschian hellscape in which grown adults prove incapable of civil discourse, and the after-dinner cheese plate goes uneaten.
Those wishing to eschew such a fate would do well to consult written guides of etiquette, yet most such documents fail to grapple expeditiously with the elephant in the room, the gathering storm around which conflict strikes. That leviathan is, of course, the future of the electric grid -- a topic so powerful and personally relevant to every American that it can be daunting to speak of it coolly and dispassionately.
And so, the editors of Greentech Media see fit to provide for their readers a roadmap to navigating the conversational pitfalls of discussing the grid edge around the holiday dinner table. May it serve as a balm in these trying times.
Know your audience. Politely ask your host in advance for a guest list, so you can check the names against the Open Secrets database and determine how much money your guests have received from large corporate utilities. Tailor your remarks appropriately, e.g., “I was very sorry to hear about that amendment in Florida, I hope you didn’t lose too many millions of dollars on it.”
Consider prefacing the meal with a simple request. “I know there have been a lot of unexpected and even unsettling developments this year in the ways electricity is generated, transmitted and delivered to end users, so why don’t we agree to steer clear of that at the dinner table and focus on each other?” This noble endeavor is certainly worth a try, but don’t hold out hope that your fellow diners will be able to resist the siren call of self-consumption tariffs and duck curves as the night, and the alcohol, flows on.
If a loved one, with fair or ill intent, attempts to steer the discussion toward the grid edge, consider a subtle conversational redirection. This maintains a friendly atmosphere while keeping the attention on a more personal topic that everyone can relate to. For instance, “That’s a very interesting point about the usefulness of blockchain for microgrids, Nathaniel, but why don’t you tell me more about your views on race relations?”
Discussing finances at the dinner table can make your companions uncomfortable. If the topic cannot be avoided, remember this tip from Shayle Kann, GTM Research's senior vice president of solar etiquette: "Don’t ever use the term 'subsidies.' Call them incentives."
Keep a weather eye out for teachable moments to delicately introduce core concepts of grid optimization and decentralization. If the table runs low on wine, you might offer, “I’ll replenish your glasses with the bottles we keep on reserve in the kitchen. Say, wouldn’t it be great if the grid could do that with electricity?” This plants the intellectual seed of grid-scale energy storage in a low-conflict environment, allowing you to water and nurture the topic at a later time.
Even these trusty precepts may fail to untangle the knots of conflict liable to arise this season. Lest you find yourself unprepared to engage with conflicting or alternative viewpoints, we have prepared guidance for the thorniest imbroglios that you might encounter.
Your uncle is a coal miner
Honesty must serve as the baseload power for any productive family dialogue.
If you are working actively to eradicate the use of coal power -- or believe doing so would benefit local health and global prosperity -- you may consider choosing to be honest about something else. For instance, without getting into the details, you might extend an empathetic pat on the back and say, “It’s about time those politicians in Washington got out of the way and let the market decide what fuels we use.”
Your cousin thinks you’re speaking a different language
Suppose this amiable relative, who’s visiting from out of town, asks what you’ve been thinking about recently. Innocuous enough, but tread lightly.
Your family members are not necessarily familiar with the various informative and user-friendly acronyms employed by the cleantech industry, notes Daniel Finn-Foley, senior decorum analyst at GTM Research. Be sure to enunciate, so you don't accidentally construe TPP, for instance, as CPP.
"After all, if you're discussing PV and the role of ASEAN in the absence of TPP and the PRC's growing influence and how the resulting decrease in I/E could be good news for NG in ICAP and UCAP, not the EPA and POTUS' plan to reduce GHGs while the DOE coordinates with various CPUCs, all as FERC continues to issue NOPRs on EETs while the ISOs wait to see how it will affect their LMPs, making customers seriously consider some DSM, but you reference CPP, you'll be sure to see some blank faces from your family members," Finn-Foley explains. "Keep your acronyms straight, and make sure the only turkey at your Thanksgiving is on the table!"
Mixing up your acronyms can lead you down a dark conversational path from which you will never return.
Your great aunt says distributed energy is ruining the country
One must never contradict a family matriarch, especially if she holds the keys to the pie cabinet.
But suppose your great aunt pulled herself up by her bootstraps back in the Depression so that she could pay a hefty monthly bill to the electric utility with monopoly control over her hometown. Now she hears dark murmurs about new folks moving to town who want to “skip the line” and get electricity without paying anything up front for it.
She’s even heard that if enough people try to do this, her dependable utility will have trouble extracting a profit from the investments it financed with ratepayer dollars. And all these new arrivals never once asked her what she thought about it.
Graciously demur from explicating third-party-owned solar financing models. Instead, try a forward-looking tack: “You know, Auntie, the latest report from GTM Research finds that most rooftop solar customers will purchase their systems rather than lease them by 2017, so they actually are paying for it!”
Learning new things can take time, though, so fall back on a conflict-resolution approach.
“It may feel like the utility is going through a lot of changes right now, but it won’t be going away anytime soon. Its customers might look different in the future, they might pay more for the service of connectivity than for volumetric consumption, but they will still be connected by the same electrical grid as you and me. There’s no reason we all can’t enjoy good American electricity, even if our load profiles and generation capacities vary. That’s what makes our country strong!”
Your grandmother is convinced she should buy a solar roof
She pulls you aside after the dessert course, as your companions shuffle off to recline on the couch, and makes a startling confession.
A charming gentleman with slicked back hair and a double-breasted suit has been going door to door drumming up interest in a new “solar roof.” The breakthrough idea: it generates solar power, on a roof. He’s almost convinced your grandmother to spend a hefty portion of her fixed income on this newfangled product. And this is coming after you’d finally succeeded in chasing away those fellows soliciting investments for the cash-strapped fuel cell manufacturer!
But love is no part-time job. Your grandmother needs your help.
First, do some due diligence. Ask her if she can name a profitable pure-play solar roof company. Verify how much less efficient the cells are compared to standard PV modules. Inquire whether the firm in question has any established channel partnerships with professional roofing companies, because she wouldn’t want to take a chance with something as essential as her roof, would she?
If she persists despite the undoubtedly negative responses to said queries, you might propose that the large oak trees that provide that lovely shade for her house will also diminish the solar resource. "Solar works best where there’s sun," notes Kann, before trailing off into some wonky stuff about microinverters.
If that approach fails, there's always this gem: "That's a great idea, but you should really wait and see how far the costs come down next year."
Stay cordial, and have fun
That's all we have time for in this installment. Next up, cracking the great climate science debate with biscuits and jam, and how to address the avid birders in your life who think wind turbines are the devil.
Greentech Media takes no responsibility for any familial strain that may arise from holiday energy discourse. If an insurmountable conflict does arise, adds GTM Research's Shayle Kann, "Your biggest mistake was talking about energy in the first place. Stick to something easy like politics."
May your holidays be filled with light and relatively seamless interconnection.