One of the major news items this week was Elon Musk unveiling the Powerwall, a battery pack aimed at making renewable energy sources more useful. The idea isn’t a new one. People, especially those living in remote areas, have been making homemade energy storage mechanisms, usually out of car or marine batteries, charged by solar panels for some time now. What the Powerwall brings to the table is an affordable prepackaged solution that you can have professionally installed. Advocates of renewable energy have been cheering this announcement while detractors have been pointing out the return on investment:
But as of right now, the ROI still takes too long to reach break-even for people to view it as an economic benefit.
Why? Basically, it boils down to how much you pay per kWh put into the battery, which is then retrieved later. And if you don’t already have a big enough photovoltaic system to get off the grid, paying the estimated $0.30/kWh for electricity through the Powerwall may not make much sense. On average, grid prices for electricity in the US are about $0.12/kWh. Rooftop solar PV is estimated to reach grid parity in most places by 2016, but it’s not quite there yet.
The author of this statement makes a common economic mistake by assuming the only return one gains from an investment is monetary. Value is subjective and there are many advantages to a product such as the Powerwall other than saving money on the power bill. For agorists the biggest advantage may be decentralization.
Relying on a centralized power infrastructure has several downsides. First, if the complex centralized system goes down you have no power. This is becoming a bigger deal as we come to rely on our electrically powered appliances and devices more heavily. By having your own solar array and battery to storage energy for cloudy days and nights you can keep your gear running even if the centralized power grid goes down.
Second, and this is a big one for agorists, a centralized power system is more easy for a state to tax. One of the reasons states prefer big businesses over small ones is that they reduce the costs of enforcing a tax scheme. It’s easier for a state to keep tabs on a handful of large businesses than thousands of little ones. Since businesses act as tax collectors themselves by withholding payroll taxes for the state having a handful of large employers further reduces the state’s overhead. Power is the same. By having everybody hooked into a centralized system the state can collect power-related taxes easily by putting the power provider in charge of collecting. Even if the state declared a tax on power generated by personally owned solar panels it would be a nightmare to enforce. The more decentralized the power infrastructure is the more difficult it is for the state to use it as a tax collecting mechanism.
Third, and this is probably even more important for agorists, the state can more readily utilize a centralized power infrastructure to enforce its decrees. It’s possible for the state to utilized power usage to detect cannabis growers. With a centralized system it’s trivial to convince the power company to report large spikes in customer power usage by either offering a reward or through coercive means. Any prohibited activity that requires a large amount of power could be caught by monitoring the centralized power system. By relying on your own solar panels you can more readily conceal you power usage since you don’t have nosy power providers checking how much you’ve used every month.
By making solar power more accessible the Powerwall stands to be a good product for agorists because it allows one to further decouple themselves from the state. Because of that it stands to have a much quicker return on investment that most people are giving it credit for. I know the value of being able to further separate myself from the state is enormous, especially if the means of separating myself open up additional revenue sources that were otherwise too risky.