Your Electric Bill at Work

How Pacific Gas and Electric is giving clean tech a jolt.

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Behold the chicken-and-egg problem of renewable- energy technology: Not enough people build it because it's expensive, yet it's expensive because not enough people build it. Enter California's old-school utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, which may have discovered a way to give clean tech a push. In April, PG&E agreed to pay approximately $1.5 billion to BrightSource Energy, which will build a cutting-edge solar plant to power more than 175,000 homes. The deal came with an unusual condition: PG&E will earn royalties on the company's future sales. The utility is betting that by shelling out for the plant, it's helping BrightSource reduce production costs and become a dominant force in the commercial solar energy market. The arrangement, in essence, turns the utility into a venture capitalist. If BrightSource pays off, says Hal LaFlash, PG&E's director of clean technology policy, it's a win for consumers too: "That revenue would offset future [electricity] rates." In January, a major French electric utility announced a similar deal with solar manufacturer Nanosolar. If other power companies follow suit, the leading lights of green investing could be...your lights.