The Remarkable Weirdness of Incentives


The Nov./Dec. issue of Mother Jones has some interesting feature reporting on the expansion of personal home solar power in the U.S., now that you can, in many places (it's not clear from this story if it is everywhere, that I could tell–any insights, please tell all in the comments thread) sell back any excess power you generate to the grid, leading to the phenomenon colorfully expressed by article author Bill McKibben as "mak[ing] the meter spin backward."

This, of course, gives people a wonderful personal incentive beyond being cutting-edge techies or reducing greenhouse gases or saving the planet to go solar–it not only saves them money on the electric bill, it gives them a marketable commodity that they own and can sell. Obviously, all of us who pay our own power bill could save money now by using less power. But those of use without solar can't make that power bill negative.

And something distinct happens in the human mind when you know you are dealing with something that's yours, that you and your family can personally profit from…something so unfamiliar to the usual Mother Jones mindset, where personal property and profiting therefrom are not the usual favored movers of social change, that McKibben uses adjectives like "remarkably" and "weird" to describe this change–the realization that they want to conserve even more now that they are using power that they made, they own, and they can sell–that comes over people with marketable home solar power.