Solar Industry – Solar Tribune https://solartribune.com Solar Energy News, Analysis, Education Thu, 24 Sep 2020 15:02:57 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.1.1 Plenty at Stake for Solar Industry in 2020 Presidential Election https://solartribune.com/plenty-at-stake-for-solar-industry-in-2020-presidential-election/ Mon, 31 Aug 2020 12:36:09 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=68184 With the political conventions behind us, the 2020 presidential race now starts in earnest. And while the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting economic recession are top-of-mind for most voters, it is also clear that the outcome of the election will also have a significant impact on the U.S. solar industry. Two Known Entities For renewable energy […]

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With the political conventions behind us, the 2020 presidential race now starts in earnest. And while the COVID-19 outbreak and resulting economic recession are top-of-mind for most voters, it is also clear that the outcome of the election will also have a significant impact on the U.S. solar industry.

Two Known Entities

For renewable energy voters one thing is for certain – you know exactly what you’re getting with both presidential candidates. The incumbent, President Donald Trump, has a 4-year record to run on and to defend. His record when it comes to renewable energy policy is, frankly, abysmal, but we’ll get into that later.

His opponent, Joe Biden, has long served in elected office and is likewise not a mystery to pro-renewables voters. The Obama-Biden Administration presided over what was unquestionably the most prosperous era for renewable energy in American history. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the U.S. had 0.62 million kW of installed solar electricity capacity in 2009 when Obama and Biden took office. That number sky-rocketed to 35 million kW by the time they left office in 2016, representing a staggering growth rate of 5,733%.

Source: Graphic generated by Solar Tribune using data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA)

The rapid growth of renewable energy capacity during the Obama-Biden Administration was due largely to the abundance of pro-renewables policies the Administration pushed.

It was Biden who was tasked with overseeing the implementation of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which dedicated nearly $90 billion alone to renewable energy priorities, representing at the time the largest federal investment in clean energy in U.S. history. The Administration also put significant public support behind a host of other pro-renewables initiatives including the $4 billion Clean Energy Investment Initiative, which encouraged investment in promising renewable energy technologies. A lengthy list of other pro-renewables accomplishments that the Obama-Biden Administration achieved can be found here: Climate and Energy Record.

Thanks to the array of pro-renewables initiatives the Obama-Biden Administration pursued while in office and the public monies put towards solar and wind energy technologies, the costs associated with solar and wind energy production were drastically reduced. This is a dynamic that we have highlighted before at Solar Tribune. The Department of Energy launched the SunShot initiative in 2011 with the sole purpose of reducing the total costs of solar energy by 75 percent by 2020. The DOE achieved over 90% of the cost reductions towards the 2020 goal by 2016, causing them to launch a new, more ambitious goal for 2030.

Photo Source: Energy.gov

In short, Joe Biden can lay claim to being in the White House during an era that saw the most rapid growth in solar capacity on record and the sharpest decline in solar costs. It is hard to imagine where the industry would be if not for the forward-thinking, pro-renewables policies that the Obama-Biden Administration prioritized over a decade ago.

Trump Ignores Solar’s Progress, Potential

To say that the Obama-Biden and Trump-Pence Administrations embraced different philosophies when it came to growing America’s clean energy sectors would be quite the understatement. President Trump has taken an adversarial position on all things renewable energy since Day 1. Strangely, his anti-renewables stance seems primarily born out of an infatuation with being “pro-coal,” given the strong electoral support he enjoys from coal miners and related constituencies in Appalachian states.

The myriad of executive roadblocks the Trump Administration has thrown at the solar industry have been covered in some detail previously at Solar Tribune. This article offers a good primer on the policies that the Administration has pursued to undermine the solar industry over the past 4 years. Since the publication of that article 8 months ago, Trump signed on to a budget deal that failed to extend the solar investment tax credit (ITC) – a key incentive in drawing residential solar users to the market. The ITC is now set to expire entirely for homeowners by 2022.

Even with all of, the solar industry has still grown rapidly during Trump’s first term. The solar industry is more mature and diversified than it ever has been, proving to skeptics that, yes, the industry can thrive on its own merits without significant inducements from the federal government. In 2019, solar accounted for over 40% of all new electric generating capacity in the U.S. at 13.3 in total installed GW. This represents the industry’s highest share ever. The residential solar sector itself brought on a record-setting 2.8 GW of installed capacity in 2019. The solar industry as a whole grew by 23% from 2018 to 2019 according to the SEIA’s Year-In-Review report, a somewhat miraculous accomplishment given the tariffs and related uncertainty the industry dealt with throughout the year.

President Trump’s efforts to stunt the promising growth of the U.S. solar industry has always been peculiar given his penchant for taking credit for the nation’s economic successes. In fact, solar jobs in the United States were growing at a rapid clip UNTIL President Trump came into office and injected a high degree of job-jeopardizing turmoil into the industry.

Photo Source: Solar Energy Industries Administration (SEIA)

But again, he views the electoral politics of coal vs. solar as a zero-sum game, and he clearly has no interest in pivoting from his full-on embrace of the coal industry even if there is no rational economic basis for doing so. Note that the solar industry employed 249,983 people in 2019, according to the above SEIA graphic. For comparison, the total number of people employed in coal mining jobs hovered around 50,000 throughout 2019, with that figure falling even further in 2020 amidst COVID-19 impacts.

Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of solar energy accomplishments or renewable energy campaign policies on the Trump campaign website.

Biden’s Vision

The difference in the level of commitment in growing the nation’s clean energy economy between President Trump and Joe Biden couldn’t be starker.

Joe Biden has outlined a vision for renewable energy policy – both economic and environmental – that is arguably even more audacious than what was pursued during the first 8 years he spent in the White House.

Earlier in the summer, Biden released a climate plan that closely resembles the plan released by former candidate and climate champion Jay Inslee, governor of Washington. Biden’s plan calls for investing $2 trillion over 4 years in clean energy in an effort to make meaningful progress in stunting the effects of climate change. This massive proposed level of investment is about 2,000 times higher than the $90 billion the Obama-Biden Administration set aside for clean energy investments in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) in 2009.

The staggering scale of the commitment shows that Biden understands the challenge ahead. Biden’s plan is significantly more ambitious than the plan he unveiled during the early stages of the Democratic primary which called for $1.7 trillion in spending over a longer 10-year time period. Biden understands the urgency of the moment when it comes to growing the clean energy economy and tackling climate change.

In his remarks delivered back in July on the day of the plan’s unveiling, Biden stated:

“We’re not just going to tinker around the edges. We’re going to make historic investments that will seize the opportunity and meet this moment in history.”

Biden’s plan also calls for achieving 100% clean electricity nationwide, moving his initial target date set in the Democratic primary up from 2050 to 2035. Achieving such a goal would likely require the installation of hundreds of millions of solar panels nationwide. The Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force – established to bridge differences between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party – called just for that in their set of clean energy recommendations. From page 47 of their report:

“Dramatically expand solar and wind energy deployment through community-based and utility-scale systems. Install 500 million solar panels, including eight million solar roofs and community solar energy systems, and 60,000 onshore and offshore wind turbines that are manufactured in America, creating millions of jobs, including hundreds of thousands of union jobs that cannot be outsourced.”

Put simply, Joe Biden has embraced a clean energy and climate change agenda on a scale this country has never seen a presidential candidate do before. The ambitious clean energy attainment goals he has laid out will be a shot in the arm for a solar industry that has suffered plenty of unnecessary setbacks over the past 4 years.

The United States of America needs to be a global leader when it comes to investing in renewable energy and addressing the most pressing challenge of our time – climate change. This year’s presidential election will soon tell us how serious we are as a nation about re-assuming that responsibility.

You can find out how to register to vote in your state here: https://vote.gov/

 

 

Cover Photo Source: Solar Magazine

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Solar Industry Hopes to Show Resilience, Overcome COVID-19 Downturn https://solartribune.com/solar-industry-hopes-to-show-resilience-overcome-covid-19-downturn/ Fri, 29 May 2020 18:47:40 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=67530 The solar industry is among the seemingly endless number of industries being pummeled by the economic fallout brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but with collective action, the industry will showcase its resilience and get back to its old ways of growth. Mounting Economic Impacts There’s no use in sugarcoating the scale of the disruption […]

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The solar industry is among the seemingly endless number of industries being pummeled by the economic fallout brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but with collective action, the industry will showcase its resilience and get back to its old ways of growth.

Mounting Economic Impacts

There’s no use in sugarcoating the scale of the disruption that the COVID-19 situation has inflicted on the solar industry. The suddenness and depth of the downturn are unlike anything the industry has ever gone through before. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) – the industry’s premier trade association – now anticipates that 38% fewer people will be employed in the U.S. solar industry through June. The SEIA estimates that just 188,000 people will be working in the industry by then as opposed to the 302,000 they projected earlier in the year pre-COVID. The anticipated amount of installed solar capacity has also been cut drastically by the SEIA with the group now expecting just 3 GW of solar capacity to be installed in Q2 2020, a decrease of 37% from pre-COVID forecasts.

Photo Source: SEIA

Unemployment figures provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics paint a similarly bleak picture for the broader “clean energy” sector. Over 447,000 people in the sector filed for unemployment in April alone. Total unemployment claims from March and April total up to 594,347 people, or 17.8% of the sector’s total workforce.

Southern States Positioned to Weather the Storm

The SEIA estimates that every state in the country will suffer losses in the solar industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact, however, in the South is expected to be noticeably less pronounced than in the rest of the country.

As noted in a previous Solar Tribune piece, 5 Southern states were listed among the top 10 states to add solar jobs from 2018-2019 – showcasing the region’s growing strength. Similarly, the SEIA projects that 8 of the 10 states likely to suffer the least in terms of the percentage of solar jobs lost due to COVID-19 are located in the South.

Image Source: Table created by Solar Tribune using SEIA data

The region’s ability to weather the COVID-19 storm better than any other geographic area of the U.S. is owed in part to the strength of the region’s solar industry going into the COVID-19 pandemic. The 15 states comprising the South (as defined by the SEIA) accounted for over 26% of the nation’s cumulative solar capacity (MW) in 2019. Moreover, the South accounted for just under 55% of all net job growth nationally from 2018 to 2019 in the solar industry. COVID-19 is sure to test the durability of these impressive growth numbers.

One major advantage that many Southern states will have working in their favor as they attempt to survive the downturn is the outsized role that large utility-scale projects play in many of these states. Utility-scale projects have ramped up significantly in the South in recent years. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) notes that since 2017, no region of the country has installed more new utility-scale solar than the South Atlantic region (see map graphic below).

Image Source: EIA

Favorable state regulations and renewable portfolio standards (RPS) are main drivers of the utility-scale solar boon in the South. As the EIA puts it:

“Growth in South Atlantic solar generating capacity has been driven by state government programs and policies in North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. These state programs and policies encourage large-scale installation of renewable energy technologies such as solar PV.”

The dominant role that utility-scale solar plays in many Southern states provides a degree of stability in the industry at a time when uncertainty is otherwise running rampant.

Unlike residential solar, utility-scale projects have long project timelines with projects being installed today having most likely been approved years ago. The declaration of construction jobs as “essential business” in most states has allowed these solar projects to largely continue unaffected by the halting impacts of the virus. Utility-scale projects don’t require a significant number of workers to install or maintain them, so job losses are naturally going to be more acute in the labor-intensive residential and commercial space. The total open-air environment that utility-scale projects are built under and the sheer expansiveness of the projects also lend themselves much better to social distancing protocols as compared to residential projects that require more frequent customer interactions.

To be fair, economic impacts in the utility-scale solar sector are likely just a lagging indicator and we are sure to see more noticeable signs of distress in the sector later this year. Hopefully the residential and commercial solar sectors will be on the rebound by then to help buoy the broader industry.

An Uncertain Future Ahead

With so much uncertainty swirling around the solar industry, the industry’s ability to get back on its feet in the near-term may rest primarily in the hands of policymakers on Capitol Hill.

None of the federal relief packages passed through Congress to-date have included solar industry-specific relief. Recognizing that some sort of financial relief may be necessary to spark a swift recovery in the industry, the SEIA and other solar stakeholders are lobbying hard for Congress to pass legislation that encourages the desperately needed flow of capital back into solar projects. Allowing for full utilization of the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and “direct pay” from the U.S. Treasury to homeowners of solar projects that help to bridge the financing gap that has emerged due to a constricting tax equity market are among the SEIA’s top priorities. A recent survey of solar company representatives conducted by the SEIA showed that 63% of respondents are concerned they can’t get access to tax equity – a pivotal aspect that many solar projects rely on. Read more here about the public policy priorities the SEIA is advocating for in an effort to mitigate the harsh impacts the current economic downturn has brought to the solar industry.

In the absence of meaningful federal action, the SEIA and partnering organizations have worked with state and local governments to innovate and allow for the vital solar permitting process to shift to virtual platforms. In a recent interview, Abby Hopper, President/CEO of the SEIA noted:

“We have really accelerated online permitting, instant permitting, remote permitting. Actually, I am hopeful (that) will continue past this crisis and make that process much more efficient.”

It’s still clear that much more needs to be done to get the solar industry back on its pre-COVID upward trajectory.

Consult the SEIA’s COVID-19 Resources page to learn more about the resources available to help solar companies in this uncertain time and to better understand the advocacy work being undertaken to push for the passage of pro-solar relief policies. This is a challenging time for the solar industry, but there is reason to be hopeful that the industry can overcome the current economic headwinds and get back to its thriving ways. The renewables sector needs to play a staring role in leading our nation’s economic recovery. Let’s make it happen.

 

Cover Photo Source: LA Times

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Solar Industry Employment Rebounds in 2019 https://solartribune.com/solar-industry-employment-rebounds-in-2019/ Wed, 26 Feb 2020 14:20:26 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=67326 After experiencing back-to-back years of declining employment, the U.S. solar industry rebounded in 2019, adding more than 5,600 jobs. An Industry on the Upswing The number of people employed in the solar industry grew in 2019 to a total of 249,983 solar workers – categorized as those who spend 50% or more of their time […]

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After experiencing back-to-back years of declining employment, the U.S. solar industry rebounded in 2019, adding more than 5,600 jobs.

An Industry on the Upswing

The number of people employed in the solar industry grew in 2019 to a total of 249,983 solar workers – categorized as those who spend 50% or more of their time on solar-related work. This according to the latest National Solar Jobs Census. The growth in employment in 2019 represents an increase of 2.3% from the previous year, and an increase of 167% from the first National Solar Jobs Census taken in 2010.

Photo Source: The Solar Foundation

The National Solar Jobs Census is annually produced by The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan solar industry educational and research organization based in Washington, DC. In its tenth year of production, the National Solar Jobs Census is a rigorous survey completed by solar industry establishments that collects a host of data primarily centered around industry employment trends. In 2019, 2,766 surveys were administered and 1,859 were completed, representing a margin of error of 2.27% for the national jobs data.

The Solar Foundation attributed the growth in solar jobs from 2018 to 2019 to “a significant increase in the capacity of solar installations over the previous year.” More specifically, the organization cited three main factors for spurring the year-over-year job growth:

  1. The continued decline of solar costs: As we’ve noted before at Solar Tribune, the solar industry is in an unprecedented era of rapid innovation that has led to steep cost reductions throughout the supply chain, making solar energy systems more affordable than ever for end users. From 2000 to 2018 alone, the global price per watt for solar panels fell from $3.50 to $0.30.
  2. The phaseout of the federal investment tax credit: 2019 was the last year that the 30% federal ITC was available, which caused solar energy users – especially on the residential side – to rush to install solar energy systems and take advantage of the lucrative tax credit.
  3. Easing of concerns over Section 201 tariff impacts: The tariffs on solar cells implemented in February by the Trump Administration stymied industry job growth in 2018. However, global price decreases in solar energy system components largely mitigated the impact of the tariffs in 2019.

The overwhelming majority of solar industry jobs are concentrated in “Installation and Product Development” jobs. Over 162,000 people – or roughly two-thirds – are employed in this sub-group out of the 249,983 total jobs in the industry.

Photo Source: Chart created by Solar Tribune; data from The Solar Foundation

Almost all of the sub-categories of employment type grew from 2018 to 2019, underscoring the broad health of the industry. The only sub-category within the industry to experience job reductions was the “All Other” group that includes consulting, engineering, finance, legal, and related support services.

The full report (downloadable here) is chock full of insightful tidbits about the state of the solar industry. Below is a sampling of additional key findings:

  • 31 states experienced job growth in the solar industry in 2019, up from 29 states in 2018.
  • Florida added the most solar jobs (+1,843) of any state in the nation.
  • Nevada leads the nation in solar jobs per capita (1:206)
  • Solar installation companies reported that 10% of their total employees focus on battery storage.
  • From 2014-2019, employment in the solar industry grew by 7.5% annually, almost 5 times greater than the 1.6% annual growth rate for all U.S. employment over the same time period.
  • The solar industry was responsible for one in every 150 new jobs created in the U.S. from 2014-2019.
  • The solar industry employs almost twice as many workers as the coal industry.

The South Leads the Way

The latest Solar Jobs Census revealed that the South is entrenching itself as the nation’s dominate region for solar job growth. Sure, California and legacy solar markets in the Northeast employ 100,000+ people (almost 75,000 in California alone), but changing state solar policies and the disruptive wildfires in California added job-halting uncertainty in many of these markets in 2019.

The real story is in the South where emerging markets and new pro-solar public policies have created abundant job opportunities for solar workers. For the purposes of the Solar Jobs Census, The Solar Foundation divides the country up into Census Divisions based on geography (see below).

Photo Source: The Solar Foundation

States in the South (purple region) were the clear national leaders in solar job growth. Florida, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, and Louisiana all were ranked among the top 10 state leaders for number of solar jobs created from 2018-2019. By comparison, just two states from Southern markets (Florida and Texas) accomplished the same feat in the year prior.

Photo Source: The Solar Foundation

The South’s emergence as a hotbed for solar industry growth is somewhat counterintuitive given the region’s rock bottom average price of electricity. According to the EIA, the average price nationally per kWh for residential electricity is around 13 cents. The majority of Southern states boast avg. rates lower than this national benchmark, while California and most New England states are paying 20+ cents/kWh. Low electricity rates typically disincentivize residential solar adoption since the financial incentive for disconnecting from the power grid is less apparent. The abundance of sunny days in the South, however, helps to counter this reality. As noted in the report:

“Low electricity prices tend to make solar less cost competitive, increasing the time it takes to recover the costs of a solar installation. However, the Southeast has a higher solar resource rank than many other areas of the country, leading to greater energy yield. As in much of the rest of the country, falling solar costs have pushed solar into positive economic territory in the Southeast.”

The South’s global dominance as a manufacturing hub has also helped the region spur solar industry job growth by attracting ever elusive solar manufacturing operations to American shores.

Expect to see more Southern dominance in the U.S. solar market in coming years as elected officials in emerging markets, like South Carolina, are moved to enact pro-solar state policies. The South Carolina legislature passed and Gov. Henry McMaster (R-SC) signed into law the Energy Freedom Act (EFA) last year. The EFA eliminates the 2% cap on net metering, which will surely fuel more residential solar adoption in the state, while the bill also includes a number of provisions that will free up backlogged utility-scale projects that major utilities, like Duke Energy, are itching to bring to market.

For a state with an overwhelmingly Republican legislature and a Republican governor to support such a pro-solar piece of legislation in the Deep South is no small success, and it may be indicative of a broader culture change in the works as the favorable economics – and job creation potential – of the solar industry become harder to ignore. As Gov. McMaster put it:

“South Carolina’s economy is booming and the growth of our renewable energy industry is a significant part of our success. As our state grows, we must continue to look for new ways to generate clean, affordable energy and make it accessible to our citizens. We look forward to doing all that we can to enhance the economic impact of the solar industry in our state.”

Promising 2020 on Deck

What a difference a year makes. The choppy waters that the solar industry experienced in 2017 and 2018 have given way to much calmer seas.

“The coming year is expected to be a historic time for solar energy development. In 2020, Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables expects 19 GW of new solar capacity to come online, a 46% increase over the pace of new deployment in 2019 and representing the largest year ever for U.S. solar. While over 70% of new capacity will come from utility-scale solar in 2020, residential solar development is also expected to see modest growth.”
– National Solar Jobs Census, 2020

National Solar Jobs Census respondents themselves were quite bullish on the industry’s prospects for growth in 2020, with respondents projecting employment growth of 7.8% at their respective firms.

There’s plenty of reason to support this glowing outlook for the solar industry in 2020. Consider the following:

  • Solar storage will become more mainstream in 2020, as battery costs continue to plummet. In California – the nation’s largest solar market – the safety-related power shutoffs by utilities during last year’s wildfire outbreaks will fuel more residential and commercial interest in solar storage. By 2023, industry analysts predict that 20% of all commercial solar capacity will include solar storage.
  • 2020 will be the first full year that California’s Title 24 mandate for residential solar on all new residences will be in effect.
  • Penetration into low-and-moderate income (LMI) communities via community solar projects will continue to expand in 2020. Since 2011, 15 states and Washington, DC have implemented programs to encourage community solar investments in LMI communities.
  • 2020 will be the first full year that Washington, DC’s mandate to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2032 will be in place. The law includes a solar carveout requiring 10% of DC’s electricity to be produced from local solar generation by 2041. Solar permits more than doubled in DC last year – that trend will continue in 2020.

Newly adopted pro-solar policies implemented in states like Virginia, Maryland, Illinois, South Carolina, and elsewhere will also continue to draw new solar users to the market in 2020. Consumer pressure and improving solar economics will likewise help fuel rapid growth in the corporate procurement of solar power. Meanwhile, the EIA projects that overall utility-scale solar capacity installed in 2020 will increase by almost 100% from 2019.

Simply put, 2020 is shaping up to be a history-making year for the solar industry. Let’s enjoy the ride!

 

Cover Photo Source: Publicwire.com

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As Costs Fall, Global Solar Capacity Ramps Up https://solartribune.com/as-costs-fall-global-solar-capacity-ramps-up/ Thu, 25 Jul 2019 18:48:42 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=14756 The US is seeing record amounts of solar energy production recently. In April, renewable energy – including solar, wind, and hydropower – actually outperformed coal for the first in U.S. history. However, solar is still a small percentage of the nation’s overall electricity. How do we compare with the rest of the world? And with […]

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The US is seeing record amounts of solar energy production recently. In April, renewable energy – including solar, wind, and hydropower – actually outperformed coal for the first in U.S. history. However, solar is still a small percentage of the nation’s overall electricity. How do we compare with the rest of the world? And with the recent replacement of Obama’s sweeping Clean Power Plan and 180 on the Paris Agreement, what does the future hold for solar energy in the U.S. and world at-large?

U.S. second after China in solar capacity

As of mid-2019, the total installed capacity of solar installations across the world has reached about 500 gigawatts (GW), as reported in the IEA’s 2019 Snapshot of Global PV Markets.

Of that 500 GW, China dominates the landscape, with a cumulative capacity of 176 GW, driven largely by massive solar farms – some of the biggest in the world. The Tengger Desert Solar Park in northern China, for example, covers almost 17 square miles and can produce 1,547 MW of electricity – more than any other solar plant in the world.

Image Source: Data from IEA Snapshot of Global PV Markets, Graph from Solar Tribune

After China, the United States falls second with 62 GW – about a third of China’s capacity. While the U.S. also boasts large utility-scale solar plants, smaller residential and commercial installations make up a large percentage as well. Japan falls in third place with 56 GW of solar capacity and Germany falls in fourth place at 45 GW.

It’s no surprise that the U.S. and China are the single biggest adopters of renewable energy, as they’re also the world’s biggest consumers of electricity as well.

Solar production per capita is a different story

While China and the U.S. lead in total capacity, thanks largely – though not exclusively – to their huge population sizes, it’s a slightly different story when looking at different data points.

When comparing the amount of solar penetration (the % of total electricity that solar energy constitutes), the global leaders look quite different. Honduras enjoys the greatest percentage of solar-sourced electricity, producing 14% of its energy via solar panels. Germany, Greece, and Italy follow with 7.9%, 7.5%, and 7.3% respectively, followed by Chile and Japan.

Both China and the U.S. fall far down the line on this data point, with China covering 3.3% of its energy needs via solar and the U.S. covering 2.6% – actually below the global average.

When looking at each country’s solar production per person (kWh per capita), we see many of the same countries above. Germany and Japan lead in per-capita production, producing 463 kWh/person and 390 kWh/person respectively. The U.S. comes in 10th place with 173 kWh/person and China falls all the way down to 25th place, with 47 kWh/person.

Image Source: Data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Graph from Solar Tribune

While China and the U.S. lead in total installed capacity, the actual penetration of solar energy is quite low in both countries. Japan, Germany, Italy, and a handful of other countries cover far more of their energy needs via solar.

What drives solar installations in the U.S. and abroad?

While the explosion in solar energy over the last 15 years has been driven by quickly falling prices, countries encourage solar for a variety of reasons, including emissions reduction, financial savings, safety, and energy security.

Regardless of location, the cost of solar panels has fallen like a penny off a skyscraper since the late-20th Century, and prices have continued their sharp decline in recent years. In 2014, the global spot price for multi-crystalline silicon solar panels (the most common PV solar technology) was $0.67 per watt, according to NREL’s 2018 Solar Cost Benchmark. By 2018, that had halved to just $0.30 per watt. Going back even further, the difference is even starker. In 2000, solar panels cost $3.10/watt. In 1980, they cost $24/watt!

Image Source: Data from Renewable Energy World and NREL, Chart from Solar Tribune

While 6 kilowatts of solar panels (enough for a typical U.S. home) would’ve cost $144,000 forty years ago, today they cost about $1,800. At this price, both homeowners in developed countries as well as utilities and businesses can easily jump that investment hurdle.

Beyond the falling cost of solar technology, government policy to encourage PV adoption has played a major hand in the growth of solar, though the underlying reasons vary country to country.

In the U.S., 29 states and four territories have passed clean or renewable energy goals. Eight states and territories have even pledged 100% clean energy goals, including Washington DC, California, and New Mexico. Generally, emissions reductions are the main impetus for these clean energy goals, though energy security and cost reduction also play a part. Upon signing the 100% mandate into law in early 2019, New Mexico Governor Michelle Grisham said:

“The Energy Transition Act fundamentally changes the dynamic in New Mexico. This legislation is a promise to future generations of New Mexicans, who will benefit from both a cleaner environment and a more robust energy economy with exciting career and job opportunities.”

In other parts of the world, countries are moving towards renewables for emissions reductions, but also the safety and financial savings it can help bring about.

Germany and Japan were two of the first countries to adopt solar energy on a wide scale, when they both became the first countries to install 1 GW of solar capacity in 2004. Seeing the destruction that nuclear energy can wreak after the Fukushima earthquake in 2011, both Japan and Germany pushed forwards on renewables as a way to diversify and increase the safety and resiliency of their respective energy portfolios.

Japan adopted a Feed-in Tariff for renewable energy connected to the grid, and subsequently has seen major leaps forward, from 10% renewable in 2012 to 15% in 2016. In 2018, the country pledged to source 24% of all its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. It’s a modest goal, but a goal nevertheless.

After the Fukushima meltdown, Germany decided to phase out all nuclear plants earlier than planned and adopt more stringent renewable energy goals, mandating that 80% or more of electricity needs must be met with renewable energy by 2050, with intermediary goals of 35% by 2020 and 50% by 2030.

Suffering high electricity costs and energy rationing, Honduras began an energy reform in 2012. That year, fossil fuels accounted for 70% of its generation mix. The government hoped to spur utilities and private companies to move towards greater renewables and by 2018, renewables made up 75% of all electricity, a stunningly fast swing towards clean energy.

Renewables set to grow long-term, even in the U.S.

Image Source: Info from the EIA, graph from Solar Tribune

Solar energy production has increased drastically worldwide in the last two decades. In 2000, worldwide annual solar energy production was a dismal 1.15 TWh (terawatt-hours). By 2016, annual worldwide solar production had jumped to 333 TWh. In 2018, it jumped to over 400 TWh.

However, it’s important to keep these numbers in context to the larger energy industry. In 2018, the world consumed 23,000 TWh of electricity. At 400 TWh, solar energy made up just 1.7% of worldwide electricity production.

Solar energy though is set to continue expanding. The EIA expects solar production to continue biting ever-larger chunks out of the energy pie. It predicts solar will continue to steadily grow into the 2050s, driven by government incentives in the short-term and falling prices in the long-term. By 2031, solar production is expected to overtake coal permanently.

With the near-universal acceptance of the Paris Agreement, experts expect renewables – including solar – to make up an increasing portion of the energy landscape, as countries seek to curb carbon emissions and turn back the dial on global warming. Even in the U.S., where clean energy policy is notoriously difficult, solar energy and renewables will make up an ever-larger portion of electricity. The increase will not be driven by government mandate, but simple economics, as utilities continue to adopt renewables to replace expensive coal plants.

Image Source: Public Domain via Pexels

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New Solar Tech Could Outshine Conventional Silicon https://solartribune.com/new-solar-tech-could-outshine-conventional-silicon/ Fri, 28 Jun 2019 12:45:16 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=14709 Silicon is by far the most common material in photovoltaic solar, but that could all change in the next decade as researchers around the world continue to develop new photoelectric materials. In a June 2019 webinar for the publication, Nature Research, University of Notre Dame professor Prashant Kamat walked through some of the most promising […]

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Silicon is by far the most common material in photovoltaic solar, but that could all change in the next decade as researchers around the world continue to develop new photoelectric materials.

In a June 2019 webinar for the publication, Nature Research, University of Notre Dame professor Prashant Kamat walked through some of the most promising new thin film solar technologies that could one day take the place of silicon.

Searching for a silicon replacement

Why are we even looking for a replacement for silicon?

In the 1950s, when researchers at telephone company, Bell Labs, first discovered silicon’s photoelectric effect – that is, its ability to create electricity from sunlight – they were bucking almost 100 years of scientific research into selenium, at the time considered the most promising photoelectric element. While selenium was stuck around 1% efficiency, Bell Labs’ solar cell was a then-incredible efficiency of 6%. To prove the validity of this new source of electricity, Bell Labs sold a small toy Ferris Wheel powered by solar energy, the first commercial solar panel ever made.

Since then, the solar industry has largely focused on silicon for solar cells and today silicon accounts for the vast majority of solar cells produced worldwide.

Now nearing 70 years old, silicon is a mature technology, time-tested and reliable. However, silicon isn’t perfect. First, silicon’s theoretical maximum efficiency is 33%. Secondly, manufacturing silicon solar cells uses caustic chemicals and is so labor intensive, it suffers from a massively large carbon footprint. In the webinar, Professor Kamat noted that a solar panel needs about three years of electricity generation just to offset the emissions from its own manufacturing.

Researchers are actively looking to new thin-film solar technologies – a catch-all term for new photoelectric materials that are lighter, thinner, and easier to manufacture than silicon – to drive the next wave of solar. Similar to Bell Labs’ switch from selenium to more-efficient silicon, many of today’s new solar technologies also show potential far greater than silicon, whether it’s greater efficiency, lower production costs, or a smaller carbon footprint.

Photo Source: Cleanenergyreviews.info

Perovskite solar cells could be the next big thing

Perovskite solar cells are one of the most exciting solar technologies researchers are currently developing. Unlike silicon solar cells, which require specialized, expensive equipment and hours of labor, making perovskite cells is actually quite simple and can be manufactured in any lab. Just mix up the ingredients and stir for a couple hours. After that, spin the coating onto an electrode solution. The whole solution turns black, and you’re done. Sounds pretty simple, right?

Beyond the easy manufacturing process and the promise of low production costs, the solar industry has jumped on perovskite as the next big thing because of its incredible efficiency gains. In 2009, the best perovskite solar cells were just 3% efficient. Jump forward to 2019 and that efficiency has increased to 24%. This efficiency gain is light speed compared to silicon solar cells, which took about 40 years to see a similar increase.

While perovskite is a material found in the natural world, perovskite solar cells don’t actually use the perovskite mineral. Instead, they use perovskite’s crystalline structure. By combining different elements within this structure, scientists can produce different actions, including photoelectricity.

Of course, perovskite solar cells aren’t without their own challenges. Perovskites are still too unstable to be useful and two leading perovskite technologies – lead-halide and quantum dot perovskites –both use lead, a poisonous metal. Researchers are trying to create lead-free perovskites using tin, but at the moment they’re also highly unstable.

How about combining two types of solar?

All photoelectric materials, like silicon or even perovskites, have a limit to their own efficiency. Silicon maxes out around 33%. Perovskites max out around 26%. We’ve still got room to grow, as our best silicon cells are only about 25% efficient and our perovskites are 24% efficient, but researchers are already looking into how we can bypass these efficiency caps.

The most promising system is simply combining two different solar technologies. Perovskite and silicon both absorb different light colors, for example, so by placing a perovskite cell on top of a silicon cell, you can increase the overall efficiency of the product.

Photo Source: U.S. DOE

These combined solar cells, called multi-junction solar cells, can bump the efficiency of a single solar cell into the high 30s and even 40s. The coolest part? Multi-junction cells are already in use! Unfortunately, they’re prohibitively expensive and only used in spacecraft and other high-intensity applications.

Next big solar tech is anyone’s guess

While perovskite and multi-junction solar cells are some of the most promising new solar technologies, they aren’t the only ones out there. In the last decade, organic ternary solar cells – cells made from chains of carbon molecules – have emerged as promising new solar tech, thanks to their low production costs, thinness, and flexibility. But like the others, organic solar cells are still years away from commercialization, as they are still dreadfully inefficient and degrade quickly, lasting just a few years in the outdoors.

So what’s the big takeaway from all this? The next big solar technology is anyone’s guess. Kamat admitted during the Q&A that perovskites seem like the most promising new technology, but stressed that all the new cell types still need lab and field testing and are years away from commercialization.

Professor Kamat also noted that any new tech that wants to topple silicon – a mature and trusted product – must be transformative, offering features that silicon simply can’t. Whether that is greater efficiency like multi-junction cells, lower cost like perovskites, or greater versatility like organic cells – or perhaps even some yet-to-be-discovered product that offers all three – is yet to be seen.

Image Source: CC license via Flickr

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State of the Solar Industry Through the Lens of Solar Summit Attendees https://solartribune.com/state-of-the-solar-industry-through-the-lens-of-solar-summit-attendees/ Tue, 11 Jun 2019 02:20:46 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=14622 When the solar industry gathers, those across the field are able to share recent successes, future goals, pressing concerns, and more. On May 14 and 15, hundreds of industry professionals, financiers, and other stakeholders in the solar power industry gathered in Paradise Valley, Arizona, for the 12th annual Solar Summit put on by GreenTech Media […]

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When the solar industry gathers, those across the field are able to share recent successes, future goals, pressing concerns, and more.

On May 14 and 15, hundreds of industry professionals, financiers, and other stakeholders in the solar power industry gathered in Paradise Valley, Arizona, for the 12th annual Solar Summit put on by GreenTech Media and Wood Mackenzie to do just that. Marketed as the ‘premier conference for defining the latest industry needs for installers, developers, system manufacturers, financiers and regulators,’ this gathering of hundreds of the key players across the world of solar power provides critical functions as professionals who share the goal to increase the viability, market penetration, and future possibilities of solar technology and renewable energy more widely.

Such a gathering of diverse organizations and people who share these common goals gives those in attendance the opportunity to reflect on the past year while charting out their coming year in business. With that in mind, Solar Tribune had the opportunity to chat with a few attendees to hear how the conference went for them, hear what the priorities appear to be of the industry moving forward in 2019, and learn what the top benefits of the solar conference circuit is for a few different types of industry members.

Overall Impression

Clocking in at just a day and a half, the Solar Summit included panels, general sessions, and more narrow breakout sessions. Jordan Blanchard of Live Oak Bank, a financial institution that has become a major player financing solar projects, particularly enjoyed the breakout sessions. These sessions were separated into financing and developing sessions, and he attended the financing ones. “A lot of discussion now on solar plus storage,” he noted, which was one of the aspects that made the session of prime value to him compared with the more general sessions.

The size of the 2019 Solar Summit was just a few hundred professionals, which many deemed to be an ideal size where the major players were in attendance but it wasn’t so large as to make it overwhelming. Blanchard noted that some other conferences “are so massive that it’s hard to even find people, much less set up meetings,” but that the Solar Summit’s more intimate size allowed for high-value networking.

Photo Source: Valeria Luxury Living

Another key benefit of the structure of the Solar Summit is that it’s an area for thought leaders to converge, rather than just companies pushing specific products. As Chuck Ellis of SMA, a global specialist for PV technology, describes it:

“I prefer these kind of environments vs. trade shows because you typically have a different group of people that are attending. You tend to have more strategic forward-thinking representatives at these kind of conferences instead of just people trying to sell products in booths.”

Another unique selling proposition of the Solar Summit specifically is that it’s put on in conjunction with Wood Mackenzie. As Blanchard noted, “the Wood Mackenzie folks provide the data, and that is something that’s really unique to this conference…that’s the unique strength. I’m overall happy with it and planning on going again next year.”

Charting 2019 Solar Goals

The role of the Solar Summit, as well as other solar power conferences like this one, appear to play a more minor role in setting the solar industry goals as a whole, but the value of bringing all the minds together in one place is still notable.

Asked whether the conversations and education from the Solar Summit helps guide his company’s course for the next year, Ellis noted:

“I think it helps validate some of our strategy, but I don’t know that it really steers us in any one direction. Does it contribute? Absolutely. Does it validate things? Sure. But the overall strategy comes from our headquarters, not these conferences.” Blanchard shared a similar sentiment, noting of conferences as a whole that “I don’t think any of them really change the course of our business.”

That said, a few topics were brought up that were notable to those in attendance that Solar Tribune interviewed:

Energy Storage

Blanchard came into the Solar Summit eager to talk about energy storage, but had his impression confirmed that the technology is not yet ready for prime time. “But,” he noted,

“if I had heard at the conference that people thought it was ready and they were getting storage deals done then that maybe would accelerate our desire to finance solar plus storage more.”

Floating Solar

An area of excitement in the solar community for the expanded possibilities it provides when it comes to where installations can be planned is in floating solar. Teresa Barnes attended in her role with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to discuss just this topic, noting:

“We presented an update on the general status of the field and the results of a recent NREL publication on the potential for floating PV in the United States. We had very productive conversations with different stakeholders who are interested in PV.”

NREL finds that floating solar, which is not yet highly tapped into in the United States, could eventually account for 10% of the nation’s total annual electricity generation.

Photo Source: Energy Sage

U.S. Solar Policy

One topic that was at the forefront of Ellis’ mind heading into the Solar Summit was U.S. policy, such as the recent fight around solar tariffs. After talking with his peers he says he found a more or less consensus around his own ideas, which is useful for him to know moving forward. He told Solar Tribune that

“While I don’t want to get into what other people were talking about, certainly we’re going to see a short-term impact on business. It’s similar to the other tariffs that have been put into place and other obstacles that have happened in solar. The market will adjust and we’ll continue down the path we’re running. The real question I had is if it’s a long-term tariff or if we’ll reach an agreement with China and Trump will back off. I think it’s pretty relative, there seems to be such a dynamic market in this industry that there’s always something of this magnitude taking place. It’s the most dynamic industry I’ve been a part of.”

ITC Step Down

Despite noting in the preview of the conference that the Solar Summit “will cover how the ITC stepdown will impact project finance,” Blanchard notes he didn’t hear much about the topic. “No one seemed that concerned,” he relayed. Adding further,

“So maybe that will be a bigger topic next year. People will feel it, but it’s not enough to really diverge existing projects, especially because of the safe harbor rules. So it’s just not a huge topic of discussion.”

Evolution of the Industry

Another useful role these conferences play is one of a tent pole, where tracing the topics of concern, the major players, and the pending concerns from year to year is a great way to track how the industry as a whole has evolved. One example that Ellis noted was,

“the width and breadth of where solar is going is expanding pretty rapidly. You think back five to six years ago, you really just had inverters and modules and they were focused on residential, commercial, or utility-scale projects. You didn’t get into integration of grid management, you didn’t get into energy management, you didn’t get into virtual power plants or virtualization of all that stuff. Not only is the technology getting more advanced, but the strategies utilities can embrace when it comes to solar is expanding, the types of installations that are viable with storage and smart grid technology are advancing quickly, and the solar industry of tomorrow will seldom look the same as it did yesterday.”

Solar Conferences More Widely

As a whole, the real value of the Solar Summit and  similar conferences is the networking and community-building. The information is important, but innovation is moving at a pace that’s comfortable enough for organizations to keep up on their own without hearing anything new or game-changing at these conferences.

Photo Source: Solar Power Events

When asked about the value of these conferences, Blanchard described that it’s the law of diminishing returns:

“In 2016, when we first got into the industry, every conference was hugely helpful on the learning side and on the networking side. But every year that goes by, we’re far more knowledgeable about the industry and we’ve learned what we need to learn. And so, the learning opportunity diminishes, but the networking value is always increasing.”

Ellis agreed that networking is the true value, and while he enjoys hearing panels and speakers he says,

“I think the real value for me is being able to conduct with my peer group and get an understanding of where they see the industry going, what challenges they may be facing, and areas in which we can collaborate.”

In a similar way, organizations like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and other research-based organizations find these conferences as a key strategy to spreading their findings and analyses. Barnes said they attend solar conferences “to educate the U.S. solar community on our work and engage with stakeholders working in the downstream industry.”

 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates Chester Energy and Policy to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.

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Strategies to Minimize the Oft-Overlooked Soft Costs of Solar Installations https://solartribune.com/strategies-to-minimize-the-oft-overlooked-soft-costs-of-solar-installations/ Mon, 07 Jan 2019 14:33:49 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=14374 Despite many people assuming that the bulk of upfront solar power costs come from the manufacture of solar PV panels, soft costs– such as planning and installation labor– actually account for well over half of the average solar system.  Minimizing these soft costs presents great opportunity to increase the access to residential solar and hasten […]

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Despite many people assuming that the bulk of upfront solar power costs come from the manufacture of solar PV panels, soft costs– such as planning and installation labor– actually account for well over half of the average solar system. 

Minimizing these soft costs presents great opportunity to increase the access to residential solar and hasten payback periods for homeowners, breaking down a significant barrier for families to take advantage of solar and for installers to gain customers.

Given that solar PV systems can cost customers tens of thousands of dollars, any improvement to the affordability of solar can provide great impact to installers and the industry as a whole. Despite the focus on improving solar technologies, both in efficiency and cost, many strategies exist to minimize these initial and one-time soft costs that can be just as impactful to the propagation of clean and renewable solar power to homes and businesses across the world. The Solar Energy Industries Association agrees, noting that “the biggest cost-decline opportunity in residential and small commercial solar exists in soft costs.”

What Are Soft Costs?

Specific cost breakdowns of solar panel systems for homes vary according to numerous factors, including 1) size of the installation, 2) region in which the installation takes place, 3) government incentives available, 4) manufacturer and installer chosen, 5) periphery technology like tracking the sun, 6) the permitting process in a particular community, and much more. Regardless, though, soft costs actually make up a majority of the final investment for homes installing solar panels. 

Soft costs are any costs that do not pay for direct hardware of the solar panels or the inverter themselves. Those hard costs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, only make up about 36% of a customer’s initial investment and the remaining 64% goes to the variety of soft costs. Assuming an average 5.7 kilowatt residential solar rooftop system (a size used as a benchmark by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) that would cost $15,960, the breakdown of costs might look something like the following:

Hard Costs:

  • Solar Panel Costs: $3,990.00
  • Inverter Costs: $1,436.40

Soft Costs:

  • Permit Fee: $319.20
  • Permitting, Installation, Interconnection Labor: $319.20
  • Sales Tax: $798.00
  • Transaction Costs: $957.60
  • Installer/Developer Profit: $1,436.40
  • Indirect Corporate Costs: $1436.40
  • Customer Acquisition: $1436.40
  • Installation Labor: $1,755.60
  • Supply Chain Costs: $1915.20

While solar hardware costs have dropped dramatically in recent years, the low-hanging fruit of soft costs have not been addressed as widely. That said, soft costs are universally burdensome and any efforts to bring them down will be of wide benefit to the solar community. Obviously not all of those soft costs mentioned above can be targeted by everyone in the process (e.g., a customer can’t do anything about the indirect corporate costs), but some effective strategies to minimize the soft costs follow.

Photo Source: SEIA

Targeting Time Required for Installations

The first place to start when it comes to minimizing soft costs to solar systems is to address any inefficiencies during the installation process, both cost efficiencies and time efficiencies. The strategies for making installations quicker and easier expand across technology and process. According to a study from the Rocky Mountain Institute, the greatest opportunities in this regard include:

  • Enhancing technologies and processes to the point that installations can be completed in a single day; 
  • Integrating strategies to improve the racking base installation process; and
  • Using standardized solar systems, where possible, to eliminate the need for excessive design work for each individual project.

Each of these methods will have significant results in bringing down the length of time workers need to labor in order to get solar systems up and running. To complete installations in a single day, careful planning of the install strategy can ensure the right workers are there to maximize efficiency and reduce the iterative costs of various fixed costs associated with each individual visit. This goal can be achieved through task specialization, designing systems consistently so workers know exactly how to implement them upon arrival on site, or even with the aid of satellite/aerial imaging of the install site to get ahead of any potential challenges. 

Improving the rack base installation process could require periodic evaluations of the racking base systems used by installers to determine if new products come available to the market that can cut install times and costs. Esdec, for example, recently came to the U.S. market offering its innovative twist on solar rooftop mounting that utilizes self-levelizing baseplates that are designed to reduce installation times (read more about Esdec in Solar Tribune’s interview with Esdec’s CEO of U.S. operations, Bart Leusink). 

Photo source: Esdec

Lastly, solar installers who manage to integrate a handful of standard solar designs for common roof types will find design time and costs drop. Rather than create a fully custom solar installation design for each project, best practice says to identify when designs can be reused or adapted and have the solar design completed more quickly for the customer. They’ll get their solar panels installed sooner, need to pay less for design labor, and everyone involved will be better off for it. 

Innovative Market Disruptions to Customer Acquisition

From the perspective of solar installers, becoming creative with their part of the process can be critical. Finding innovative ways to increase their market reach and decrease their customer acquisition costs can bring down the overhead costs for solar installers. Many organizations have harnessed new software solutions to these issues, such as centralized marketplaces to address inefficiencies in supply chain processes. Other solar installers have notably taken to embracing online platforms and e-commerce to more effectively and affordably reach customers. These digital solutions increase the total efficiency of finding customers and installing solar, which can in the end bring the soft costs (and overall costs) down for the consumer. 

Embracing the Second Life of Components

The solar industry is, in the grand scheme, rather young, and so the conversations and actions related to end-of-life equipment is starting to really heat up for the first time. While much of the focus on used solar equipment has focused on how to dispose of and/or recycle solar equipment in an environmentally responsible manner, some growing buzz has come from finding ways to effectively reuse old equipment. Whether that equipment comes from old installations a specific installer replaces or from “developing a marketplace for what happens with the second life of components,” effectively embracing used, recycled, or refurbished parts can drop down supply chain costs– not to mention the sustainability benefits of reusing products and avoiding their disposal needs. 

Photo source: Saur Energy

Campaign to Reduce Local Solar Permitting Costs and Other Bureaucratic Processes

The process to get new solar projects permitted can be notoriously cumbersome, especially because every jurisdiction (both local and state governments) can have a different process that installers and customers must follow. This variance requires significant additional resources for companies conducting solar system installations, both in terms of time and money. Additionally, these lengthy permitting processes often result in customers purchasing their solar system but needing to wait long times before getting them installed, frustratingly pushing out the time period before the savings from the solar system will pay back the upfront costs. 

These types of soft costs are difficult to address on a case-by-case basis for individual customers, but a number of programs and campaigns have been organized by the solar power industry to try and solve the problem. The Department of Energy (DOE) implemented the SunShot Prize competition to “motivate local governments, communities, solar companies, and electric utilities to collaborate towards improving the ‘going solar’ experience.” Similarly, the DOE-funded SolSmart program recognizes “communities that have taken key steps to address local barriers to solar energy and otherwise foster the growth of mature and local solar markets.” By highlighting the local jurisdictions who minimize permitting costs and barriers, the SolSmart program holds up examples and road maps for other localities who want to embrace rooftop solar in their communities.

The continued focus of the solar PV industry will likely remain on technological breakthroughs in efficiency and price. While those aspects are certainly critical to solar power’s continued upward trajectory, recognizing that the hardware of rooftop solar doesn’t even account for 40% of the cost to customers should serve as an eye-opener about the vast additional opportunities afforded by attacking solar costs. 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates the Chester Energy and Policy blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.

 

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Answering the Internet’s Pressing Solar Questions Using The Open PV Project https://solartribune.com/answering-the-internets-pressing-solar-questions-using-the-open-pv-project/ Mon, 03 Dec 2018 14:08:04 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=14323 While solar power continues its accelerated adoption in the U.S. market, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) tracks photovoltaic (PV) installations nationwide. As the sector evolves, this tool provides invaluable access to public data. The Open PV Project, run and operated by NREL, tracks and makes publicly available such solar data and provides vital information […]

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While solar power continues its accelerated adoption in the U.S. market, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) tracks photovoltaic (PV) installations nationwide. As the sector evolves, this tool provides invaluable access to public data.

The Open PV Project, run and operated by NREL, tracks and makes publicly available such solar data and provides vital information for any stakeholders across the solar energy industry. The dataset is undoubtedly massive, so a first glance proves intimidating. However, digging through Quora for the most common type of questions about the solar industry provides the ideal opportunity to walk through the data for anyone (even those who aren’t experts in solar) on how to take advantage of such a valuable resource.

Photo Source: Ridge

What is The Open PV Project?

As stated on the dataset’s homepage:

The Open PV Project is a collaborative effort between government, industry, and the public that continues to compile a database of available public data for photovoltaic (PV) installation data for the United States. Data for the project are voluntarily contributed from a variety of sources including solar incentive programs, utilities, installers, and the general public.

NREL’s data represents the best crowdsourced resource to identify the country’s solar installations, both large and small. NREL, one of the laboratories under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Energy, offers this information to the public to help people, government entities, and industry to understand past and current trends of the U.S. PV industry.

Keeping the data complete, up-to-date, and accurate is critical for The Open PV Project to retain its value, so NREL notes that data are collected from all contributors willing to offer data– including state-run incentive programs, utilities, PV businesses and installers, solar advocacy organizations, consumers, and more.

Photo Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Exploring the dataset

When opening The Open PV Project, the homepage you’ll find appears as follows:

Screenshot via The Open PV Project

Users have the option to “Search and Download” the data, “Upload Data” to contribute information, learn “About” the project, and see some of the visualizations created with the data in the “Gallery.” For the purposes of learning how to use this data yourself, let’s step through the “Search and Download” option.

Search and Download

The Search page appears as follows:

Screenshot via The Open PV Project

From here, you can search the dataset in the browser, download the full dataset for your own review, or download Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Tracking the Sun report that summarizes the important trends in the data for you. But, to answer specific questions you may have, you’ll likely have to search through the data yourself.

The “Solar Search” option allows you to zero in on the type of solar installations in which you’re interested. This option can be particularly useful if you want a quick answer to questions such as “How much solar capacity was installed in Virginia since the beginning of 2016?” Simply fill out that criteria and find the following view:

Screenshot via The Open PV Project

As we can see in the top right corner of the screen, this dataset includes 25 such installations for a total capacity of 1.39 megawatts (MW) with an average cost of $2.75 per watt (W). You can also download the information for each of the relevant installations to analyze them in more detail yourself. This “Solar Search” option is ideal if your question is brief and only concerns the criteria of: state, zip code, size, date of installation, or contributor.

However, the full data include many more details to sort through, so more in-depth questions will require you to download the full Open PV Dataset. To explore through the full data, click the download button, but be forewarned– this dataset has over one million entries and the file is a behemoth. Make sure you’re on a computer that can handle processing such a large file before diving in.

In collecting this completed dataset, NREL encourages contributors to include as much information as they have and find relevant, with categories including (but not limited to) the following:

  • State/city/county/zip code
  • Date installed
  • Incentive program used
  • Type of installation
  • Size, in kilowatts (kW)
  • Installation type (e.g., residential, commercial, or utility)
  • Installer
  • Cost per watt
  • Total cost
  • Annual production

Not every entry includes data for each category– the only data fields required to be filled out are date installed, size, location, and total installed cost (before any incentives).

Photo Source: Solar Energy Industries Association

Answering Quora’s pressing solar questions

To prove how useful this dataset can be, I’ll now answer some of Quora’s most pressing questions on the solar industry using just the information found on The Open PV Project. For those unfamiliar, Quora is an online question-and-answer resource where community members can seek out answers from experts to any question, with the top answer often ending up the top result on Google when someone asks the same question.

Equipped with the invaluable information from The Open PV Project, we can now provide the solar industry answers demanded by the Quora community:

Which U.S. state has the most solar powered homes?

This question is exactly the type that The Open PV Project was built to answer. By downloading the full dataset and filtering so only the residential installations are shown, we’re still left with over 908,000 entries from the original 102,000,000 entries, but where are those residential installations focused? By sorting the 908,000 residential installations by state, we get the following top 10:

Author created table; data courtesy of The Open PV Project

California is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the country with almost 600,000 residential solar installations for over 4,000 MW. Other states in the Southwest join California in the top 10 of residential solar, including Arizona, Nevada, and Texas. The Northeast joins as the other region of the country highly represented, with large solar installation counts in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.

We must consider, though, that some of these states might only fall in the top 10 because they are populous states. To check for that, we can factor in each state’s population to find the top 10 states  in per capita installations:

Author created table; data courtesy of The Open PV Project

As this list shows, many states are represented in the top 10 when calculated on a per capita basis. Even though California is so populous, they are still kings based on one residential solar installation for every 69 residents. However, Texas, New York, Maryland, and Pennsylvania fall out and are replaced with Delaware, Washington DC, New Mexico, and New Hampshire, who are each doing more with their smaller populations.

Why are there no solar panels installed on the Southwestern deserts?

Answering this question shows how publicly accessible datasets like The Open PV Project represent an opportunity to quash misinformation. Assuming this question is asking why the deserts of the American Southwest, with their abundant sunshine, are not being utilized for utility-scale solar power, then a quick analysis shows that there in fact are plenty of solar panels in these areas.

The Southwest almost always refers to Arizona and New Mexico and can also include California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Texas, and Oklahoma, depending on the context and who you ask. Given these states, a quick analysis of the data shows the following count of utility installations across the Southwest states:

Author created table; data courtesy of The Open PV Project

Based on this, we can see that most of the states do indeed utilize their solar resources on a utility scale, and in fact they’ve done so for going on a decade or longer. But the person who asked this question is correct to ask why more isn’t being done, particularly in Utah and Oklahoma where no utility installations of solar are recorded.

Are solar installations expensive?

After questions about the prevalence of different types of solar installations, the other most common inquiries are those asking about the costs. This question gets straight to the point, asking if solar installations are expensive.

Such a broad question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no, but The Open PV Project provides us with the necessary data to describe cost trends. Focusing on the three most common installation types– residential, commercial, and utility– the range of total system costs are shown in the following table:

Author created table; data courtesy of The Open PV Project

Overall, residential systems appear the least expensive and utility the most expensive. Such a trend is unsurprising, as residential systems are typically the smallest, with commercial installations somewhat larger and utility-scale solar by far the largest. To gain further insight, we can look at the cost per watt information in the dataset:

Author created table; data courtesy of The Open PV Project

Based on the more informative cost-per-watt numbers, we can see that residential and commercial systems tend to be about the same price, as they use the same rooftop solar technologies. Utility-scale installations, though, are somewhat more expensive because they are not simple rooftop installations, but rather full-fledged power generating sites that must include additional features– cooling considerations, transmission and distribution systems, etc. However, those additional features reportedly do lead to higher utilization rates and capacity factors, meaning the ultimate cost for electricity generation is more economic for utilities than for residential or commercial operations. However, all types of solar are already cheaper than new fossil fuel generation projects in many parts of the United States.

Photo Source: Energy Innovation

Not only does The Open PV Project elucidate the affordability of installations, but we can also plot the data over time to see how prices have evolved:

Author created graph; data courtesy of The Open PV Project

As is evident from the scattering of data points, much goes into the determination of a solar installation’s cost– factors such as size, location, installer, and unique aspects of the rooftop. Thus, coming up with a one-size-fits-all answer to “How expensive are solar installations” is difficult. But the trend lines do demonstrate that, on the whole, the cost per watt of solar is consistently falling across these three most common sectors. The dataset would also let you separate data to see what trends pop up across different regions, time periods, rebate programs, and more. But I can’t have all the fun on my own, so dive into the data for your own analysis.

But in short: solar installations do have significant upfront capital costs, but those prices are dropping and becoming cheaper than other conventional energy generation sources. For residential and commercial installations, solar typically pays for itself in six to eight years through energy savings, with all savings after that point pure profit.

What’s the average cost of a 2-kilowatt solar installation?

Ending with a narrower question, this person wanted to specifically know how much a 2 kW solar system would cost. To answer the question we can focus on all entries of the dataset within 10% of 2 kW, of which there 32,788 installations (88% of which are residential, so we can also narrow our view into those entries since the person asking is likely asking about such residential systems).

Graphing the total system costs of residential solar installations between 1.8 kW and 2.2 kW gives the following:

Author created graph; data courtesy of The Open PV Project

Unsurprisingly, given our previous findings, the costs have been trending downward but remain spread over a wide range. Across data from The Open PV Project, the price range of ~2 kW residential solar installations extends from $1,800 (1.8 kW system installed in 2015 in California) to $62,608 (2.1 kW system installed in 2010 in Arizona). On average, 2 kW residential solar systems cost $13,968. To demonstrate how that’s changed over time, though, note that from 2000 through 2009 the average 2 kW system cost was $17,317 and that average cost over 2010 through 2018 fell to $12,540.

As you can see, The Open PV Project makes available countless opportunities for everyone to analyze the U.S. solar industry. The only question left is: what questions will you find the answers to next?

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates the Chester Energy and Policy blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.

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Utility of the Future: Insights from Colorado’s Energy Transition https://solartribune.com/utility-of-the-future-insights-from-colorados-energy-transition/ Tue, 13 Nov 2018 14:37:33 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=14222 Technocrats, sitting in their colorful offices in Silicon Valley and the hallowed halls of Cambridge institutions, would have us believe that to solve the biggest global energy challenges, we will need to journey down a path of massive, unprecedented disruption.  Ubiquitous presentations promise to digitize the world’s problems away, and assure us that legacy utilities […]

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Technocrats, sitting in their colorful offices in Silicon Valley and the hallowed halls of Cambridge institutions, would have us believe that to solve the biggest global energy challenges, we will need to journey down a path of massive, unprecedented disruption.  Ubiquitous presentations promise to digitize the world’s problems away, and assure us that legacy utilities with their old business models and boring dress codes will soon have zero impact on our daily lives.  However, Xcel Energy and its Colorado Energy Plan may offer a striking counterpoint to this logic.

Researchers from MIT  shared their vision for the Utility of the Future, where a decentralized, “self healing” grid would replace the heap of old wires we have today. New business models would materialize if only regulators would accept total market transformation. These pronouncements fill the pages of Wired Magazine and give us something to chat about at cocktail parties, while the real future is quietly unfolding right under our noses in Colorado.

MIT’s Utility of the Future study, published in December 2016.

Tucked away in unexceptional office buildings and dated municipalities, Xcel Energy, a legacy utility with a boring dress code and a century old business model, is working alongside policy makers, public utility commissioners, and engaged stakeholders, to transform the State’s power grid. In an effort similar to Germany’s Energiewende, Colorado is on track to meet 55% of its electricity supply with renewable energy by 2026, and reduce CO2 emissions by 60% below 2005 levels over the same period.  They are pulling this off without significant rate hikes to consumers or disruptions to reliability. This energy transition is challenging long standing assumptions on the economics and technical feasibility of a carbon free grid. Where it is headed offers a far more tangible carbon free energy future than any proclamation has yet offered.

Background on Colorado’s Energy Transition

Xcel Energy’s commitment to energy transition was not a unilateral proclamation. It came about as a response to customer demand. In 2011, residents of the City of Boulder voted in favor of a ballot to divorce itself from Xcel Energy and establish its own municipal utility. As one ballot supporter stated, “They [Xcel] don’t have our interests at heart,” referring to the portfolio of coal assets that Xcel continued to operate, and that comprised 57% of it’s portfolio at the time. This initiated a 6-year process of joint working-groups and often adversarial negotiations. Among the issues that needed to be resolved was the transfer of assets from Xcel to Boulder.

Throughout the rounds of negotiations, public hearings, PUC filings and even a lawsuit that proceed, the City of Boulder offered Xcel several opportunities to “partner” with the city, including asking that Xcel reduce the price of wind power for Boulder customers and remove a cap on wind generated south of Boulder.

Part of Xcel’s Cherokee Generating Station is a 928 MW Coal Plant outside of Denver.

Under the specter of more customers following Boulder’s lead, Xcel Energy submitted a new Electricity Resource Plan (EPC) in 2016, changing its posture, and adopting a commitment to “better serve our customers across the state…” by “keeping your energy costs low” and to “deliver increasingly cleaner energy…” In August 2016, CPUC approved a series of filings whereby Xcel would move forward with programs that offered customers greater resource diversity and access to renewables, while removing the transmission premiums that it had levied on renewable power. This met more customer demand for renewables, and it established conditions that would make municipalization an even less feasible option for customers seeking affordable, clean energy.

In 2017 Xcel unveiled its proposed Colorado Energy Plan (CEP), laying out a more defined roadmap to meet rising energy demand with more renewable energy and lower carbon emissions, at rates that still undercut the national average. Xcel laid identified three clear goals: 1) increase total production to meet growing demand; 2) meet 55% of its total supply with renewable energy by 2026; 3) reduce emissions to 60% below 2005 levels, also by 2026. To get there, Xcel plans on cutting its coal power supply by 30% and reducing 50% of it’s natural gas generation. As a first step, the CEP requested approval to retire place 700 MW of coal powered generation in early retirement, and replace that capacity with wind and solar power. As additional coal plant move to retirement beyond 2026, Xcel believes that it will be on the road to achieve a zero carbon portfolio.

Source: Western Resource Advocates

In early 2018, Xcel received 350 proposals for solar and wind projects, many of which included energy storage. The median prices offered for wind, solar, and combined storage projects all fell sharply below the lowest documented prices previously offered anywhere else in the US, and they significantly undercut coal and natural gas.

This past August, CPUC gave final approval for Xcel’s CEP. In moving forward with its plan, Xcel will move to invest $2.5 billion to add over 1,100 megawatts of wind generation, more than 700 megawatts of solar generation, and 275 megawatts of battery storage onto Colorado’s grid. Xcel will also retire the Comanche 1 and 2 coal plants, comprising 700 MW of existing capacity, a decade early. Despite this lofty investment, Xcel is promising to save money for the rate payers. The CEP outlines $200 Million in anticipated savings for Colorado ratepayers. Decommissioning coal plants and operating lower cost resources offsets the burden of the associated capital investment. Furthermore, Xcel anticipates that it will drive further savings by avoiding compliance costs for anticipated emissions regulations as it moves to downsize its coal fleet.

Xcel Energy’s phased plan to increase resource diversity and lower carbon in its generation portfolio.

As Xcel Energy takes on bold moves for a regulated utility, Colorado’s biggest cities and counties are upping the ante even higher. At least ten of the state’s most populous and prominent regions have set 100% renewable energy goals, most of which are set to be achieved by 2030, and none of them any later than 2035. As one executive from excel put it, “We will eventually have a zero carbon power grid. Xcel would rather lead in that direction, than get dragged there.” With so much customer demand, Colorado provides a unique foothold for Xcel to assume that leadership.

Turning Customers into Allies and Taking Advantage of the Stakeholder Brain Trust

During the rounds of public hearings and back room meetings between Xcel Energy and the City of Boulder, the latter gained volunteer support from a team of experts, including researchers from National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and University of Colorado. These experts assisted Boulder in assessing the cost and technical feasibility of various generation portfolios. The team, referred to as “RenewablesYES!”, provided Boulder with a roadmap to double its renewable energy supply, halve its carbon intensity and “greatly reduce other forms of fossil fuel-related pollution at rates that would meet or beat Xcel’s.”

Through ongoing rounds of negotiation, public hearings, a lawsuit, and PUC filings, citizen leadership in the technical review process influenced Xcel’s process of evaluating its own portfolio. This helped Xcel fuel its own effort to devise a more ambitious renewable energy roadmap, and likely contributed to the partnerships that it formed with renewable energy and environmental advocacy groups. These many of these groups aided Xcel in formulating the CEP, and that have been strong supporters of Xcel’s efforts in front of CPUC.

Xcel intelligently turned its proceedings with Boulder into an opportunity to draw a new relationship with the stakeholder groups that would be difficult opposition if they were not key allies. In its 2017 CEP filing, Xcel listed numerous renewable energy coalitions, consumer advocacy groupd, and even energy think tanks that participated in the plan formulation. The Western Resources Advocates was one of the major partners.

Cities and counties across Colorado are seeking to go 100% renewable.

Firm Renewable Power Beats Natural Gas

In January 2018, Xcel released the results of the All-Sources-Solicitation that it issued in late 2017. The response was striking. In contrast to the 55 responses that Xcel had received in its 2013 solicitation, this time around 430 bids were submitted, 350 of which were for solar and wind projects comprising 100 GW of total capacity. Over 100 of these proposed renewable projects included battery storage, comprising 27 GW of total capacity. In other words Xcel was looking at 27 GW of firm renewable energy, with the same dispatchability and load control as the traditional fossil fuel resources.

If that is not astounding enough, the game changer was in the costs that were proposed for these projects relative to Colorado’s existing fossil fuel resources. The median price offered for Solar + Storage came out to $36/MWh while Wind + Storage was offered at a median cost of $21.50/MWh. With natural gas selling at $40 – $60/MWh and the state’s coal power supply selling for even higher, Colorado is seeing a new reality unfold where renewable energy, made firm and dispatchable with battery storage, is technically and economically scalable, even in the most competitive power markets.

The Vertically Integrated Utility-of-the-People

Xcel’s guiding principles to working with partners such as municipalities and coops. Xcel has taken a tone that utilities operate best when planning is a multi-lateral activity taking place outside of formal regulatory hearings.

Energy market deregulation was intended to establish competitive markets that would stabilize, if not lower costs for rate-payers, while creating greater transparency. The data on whether or not deregulation helped achieve these goals is inconclusive. Natural gas has been a major factor in driving down the cost of electricity since 2005. The same market construct that enabled the rapid expansion of natural gas generation led to rapid growth in wind and solar power in these markets. That same mechanism, however, limits their continued scalability. As fossil fuels comprise a smaller portion of the resource mix, renewable energy generators must rely more and more on long term power-purchase-agreements to ensure that they will achieve a viable return. But wholesale markets are not going away any time soon, and a 10-year power purchase agreement does not make sense to most customers. The answer to this challenge falls back to benefits of regulation.

These truths lead to difficult questions about the chances of achieving grid transformation in deregulated markets. Colorado would not be on track to deliver on its 2026 goals were it not for the centralization of accountability and oversight that can only be promised by a vertically integrated utility. But owning the entire energy value stream is not enough. The challenges of energy transition require significant changes to the governance and planning culture of most regulated utilities in the US today. Again, Colorado is charging ahead to create this future.

Xcel took many lessons away from its experience with Boulder, and the utility institutionalized the way it works with cities, municipalities, and other governance organizations as a result. As cities like Denver, Longmont, Pueblo and Fort Collins have approved county-wide RPSs of 100% renewable energy by anywhere from 2020 to 2035, Xcel has opted to partner with them in achieving these goals, maintaining its role as their utility. According to Jaren Luner, a public policy analyst at Xcel Energy, when cities approach Xcel with a plan to meet 100% of their demand with renewables, “’No that’s now how it works’ isn’t an answer that is acceptable to our cities. We need to incorporate their goals into our resource planning.”

Why Look to Colorado?

Colorado is not the only state that set ambitious clean energy goals. California and Hawaii have both committed to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2045. They are seeing rapid growth in their renewable portfolios. In both states, however, rate payers are seeing their energy bills escalate to over 50% above the national average. In contrast, Xcel Energy met 28% of its Colorado energy supply with renewables last year. Its customers’ paid energy bills were an average of 33% below the national benchmark. The Colorado Energy Plan estimates that customers will continue to see savings, and by 2030, Colorado rate payers will save as much as $200 million.

An energy transition similar to Colorado, is necessary if we are going to collectively meet the emergent challenges of climate change, resource scarcity and infrastructure vulnerability. On the face of it, the US power grid is a regulatory jungle of balkanized markets and aging infrastructure, making massive transformation almost impossible. At closer look, Colorado may be the oracle that can providing a roadmap for other states to follow. What might that energy future look like?

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Ensuring Installation Costs Don’t Slow Down Solar Progress with Esdec https://solartribune.com/ensuring-installation-costs-dont-slow-down-solar-progress-with-esdec/ Mon, 05 Nov 2018 15:30:00 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=14199 Most exciting innovations in solar energy relate to improved solar panel efficiencies or software solutions to improve the business case of adopting solar, but Esdec shows that saving time and money on installation of solar systems can provide a huge boon to the solar industry. Installation of rooftop solar panels can require one to three […]

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Most exciting innovations in solar energy relate to improved solar panel efficiencies or software solutions to improve the business case of adopting solar, but Esdec shows that saving time and money on installation of solar systems can provide a huge boon to the solar industry.

Installation of rooftop solar panels can require one to three days, with labor times averaging 75 man-hours and associated labor costs eating up about 10% of total system costs. While improving the rate at which solar photovoltaic (PV) panels can convert sunlight into usable energy will continue to make such installations more worthwhile, installation costs don’t typically receive the same degree of attention despite their significant contribution to upfront capital costs. As such, any innovation that can minimize installation costs will likewise decrease the payback period before residential and commercial solar systems become profitable and make solar energy accessible to more people. Such efforts encompass the goals that Esdec hopes to achieve by finally coming over to the United States.

Esdec, a European leader in solar rooftop mounting, has been operational for 14 years, having approached 2 gigawatts (GW) of total installed capacity as the leading market share holder in several countries. Featured as their initial U.S. product offering, the FlatFix system uses “self-levelling baseplates” and utilizes “innovative design [to] enable rapid assembly, allowing commercial projects to significantly reduce installation times compared with other systems on the market.” Esdec made a splash with this product at Solar Power International (SPI) 2018, the site of their U.S. coming out party.

The CEO of Esdec’s U.S. operations, Bart Leusink, graciously agreed to answer some questions I had about Esdec’s history, what finally brings them to the U.S. market, and how their products differ from other mounting and installation systems already commercially available:

Esdec’s Debut at Solar Power International

Matt Chester: Thanks so much for agreeing to speak with me today. To start at the beginning, what’s the origin story behind Esdec as a company?

Bart Leusink: Esdec was started by a group of rooftop solar installers who became increasingly dissatisfied with solar mounting and racking systems and the level of customer service– or, more accurately, the lack of consistent service– available at the time in the Dutch residential market.

Chester: You used Solar Power International (SPI) 2018 as your platform to officially launch into the U.S. market. What was the reception at the conference? How excited was your team to have such a large stage on which to debut?

Leusink: Frankly, the show exceeded our expectation. We had high hopes going into SPI, as we believe we’re bringing an innovative commercial and residential mounting system to the United States, offering installers a simpler, quicker-to-install solution compared with what is currently available. However, as with any debut, we were also a bit nervous as to how the U.S. solar community would respond.

Across the three days, we received more leads and higher traffic at the booth than we anticipated. Our commercial rooftop system, FlatFix, generated fantastic feedback from installers, distributors, and developers who were very enthusiastic about its clickable assembly, aesthetics, and durability. Among the most memorable quotes were “The product speaks for itself” and “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

People also loved the videos we created that helped tell our story, as well. SPI was a great way to start our U.S. journey and we can’t wait to build on it in the coming months.

Chester: Not only that, but you were selected as the official PV mounting system for the SPI Smart Energy Microgrid outside the convention center. How did you land that? What type of opportunities did that provide? 

Leusink: Yes, that was an excellent opportunity for us. We were approached by the organizers of SPI who knew our FlatFix product was very quick and easy to install. It ended up being an ideal way for us to demonstrate what our product can do in a real-life use case. My colleague and I, who are not installers, were able to install the 27-panel system adjacent to the convention center in just over an hour, which shows how quick and easy it is to install. The microgrid powered over 90 booths through SPI.

A two-panel FlatFix system was also featured on the Smart Energy Microgrid Marketplace inside the convention center, and I presented our products at the official MarketPlace, bringing further visibility to FlatFix and Esdec.

Esdec Changing the U.S. Market

Chester: Esdec has long been a force on the European market, but you are only now entering the United States. What felt right about entering the market at this moment?

Leusink: It’s true that Esdec has established itself as a leader in PV roof mounting systems in Europe. Since 2004, we’ve delivered nearly 2 GW of systems and worked with some of the biggest global corporate brands to deliver commercial solar systems in Europe. We’ve always known there was plenty of room in the U.S. solar market for an agile, customer-centric innovator like Esdec to help installers and EPCs (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) accelerate their installation velocity and improve their bottom line with a reliable, proven world-class product. And our experience at SPI affirms this belief. People at the convention had great feedback on our system, and the success of the product over 14 years in the industry provided U.S. visitors with evidence that we are a reliable partner.

Chester: Are there unique aspects to installations in the United States compared with in Europe that require an adjustment in how your products are made or marketed?

Leusink: The key difference between the U.S. and European solar markets is the various regulations and code compliance requirements for mounting solar panels, which are more stringent in the United States than in Europe. We incorporated these requirements into our specially designed U.S. systems. We have UL1703 Class A fire rating on all products and are also UL2703 listed for bonding, grounding, and loading. This gives us added credibility and helps us stand out as a new company in the U.S. market.

Esdec’s Products

Chester: Usually when new and exciting solar innovations are reported, they’re related to the efficiency of panels or the price of solar cells. What is it you think Esdec mounting solutions will bring that can excite people?

Leusink: Esdec is not an ordinary mounting solutions company. We’re driven by innovation. Unlike other PV mounting manufacturers, Esdec combines large-scale R&D, patented advanced technology, and customer input into rapid product development. We 3D print most of our prototypes and use lightweight space-grade plastics and self-repairing metals on our components.

I mentioned earlier that Esdec was founded by installers who were unsatisfied with the systems and customer service within the industry. Since then, we have worked closely with installers to identify improvements for our systems and their key points for residential and commercial installations. It is this collaboration that inspires our next generation of mounting system innovations.

Last month, we opened our innovation center at our Netherlands headquarters in Deventer, taking our installer collaboration to the next level, with the goal of delivering the most reliable, highest quality mounting systems on the market.

Chester: Within the mounting solutions arena, what do your products bring to customers that they haven’t seen before? What’s the differentiator?

Leusink: Esdec brings many key differentiators to the U.S. market. FlatFix features self-leveling baseplates unlike anything available to U.S. installers. Our one-tool design is completely unique, with integrated snap-on attachments that make installation quick and simple. FlatFix also provides a unique cable management approach that installers at SPI loved.

Add to that our flexible setup: single or dual; south; east-west; or north-south; and a 20-year warranty. Together it’s a complete package that U.S. installers have never seen before. We are also one of the few companies that offer both commercial and residential, flat and pitched roof solutions. This complete suite of products is another differentiator.

Chester: Among the advantages that Esdec touts are the speed and ease of installation. Can you quantify how much time and, more importantly, money can be saved on a typical installation by using your systems?

Leusink: FlatFix has been shown to significantly reduce installation time on rooftops across Europe, in some cases up to 40%. On one recent project in the Netherlands, 400 panels were installed using our system with just four people in only four hours.

We will soon be launching our calculator on our U.S. website that allows installers and developers to see just how much time and cost our mounting system can save them, based on the exact specs of their project.

Chester: Are there any misconceptions about your products or solar mounting in general that you’re eager to clear up? Anything people don’t know but they should?

Leusink: As we’re new to the market, and the majority of U.S. installers haven’t come across Esdec before, there aren’t any existing misconceptions about the company in the United States. One misconception we quickly quashed for any visitor to our booth at SPI, though, is that we are like every other mounting system supplier in the United States.

For more information on Esdec’s continued developments, visit their website for regular updates and follow them on LinkedIn.

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Washington DC, studied engineering and science & technology policy at the University of Virginia, and operates the Chester Energy and Policy blog and website to share news, insights, and advice in the fields of energy policy, energy technology, and more. For more quick hits in addition to posts on this blog, follow him on Twitter @ChesterEnergy.

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Off-Grid Solar and the Path to Universal Access https://solartribune.com/off-grid-solar-and-the-path-to-universal-access/ Mon, 08 Oct 2018 18:28:50 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=14127 One in seven people around the world live without access to electricity, and that is leaving a devastating human toll. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where over 60% of these affected populations live, people are dying from basic ailments because vaccines cannot be refrigerated; lack of lighting for school-work leaves the region with the lowest literacy rate […]

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One in seven people around the world live without access to electricity, and that is leaving a devastating human toll. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where over 60% of these affected populations live, people are dying from basic ailments because vaccines cannot be refrigerated; lack of lighting for school-work leaves the region with the lowest literacy rate in the world; and 300,000 children die each year from inhaling toxic fumes after burning dung and firewood.

The UN  and the World Bank both estimate that 1.1 billion people lack access to electricity. This points to significant progress over the last 2 decades. In 2000, the estimate was 1.7 billion people. However, it has only been in the last few years that real strides have been made towards addressing some of the endemic challenges that are leaving almost 15% of the world’s population in the dark. The rapid maturity of Solar PV technology, advancements in energy storage, and the adoption of new business models are the primary catalysts for recent progress in energy access.

Reliable, Affordable, and Clean Energy for All

Energy access has long been a major development challenge. In 2015, the UN’s 193 member-states ratified the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), defining 17 measurable objectives to eradicate poverty by 2030. Goal 7 aims to provide universal access to affordable, reliable, and clean energy. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) stated in its assessment of progress along this goal, “Energy is not only a global goal in its own right but is at the heart of the sustainable development agenda…”

“Goal 7: As Seen Through the Eyes of Children” by Margreet De Heer.

Since 2000, the total number of people living without access to affordable, reliable energy has dropped by 35%. The World Bank reports that since 2012, access to energy has expanded by an average of 118 Million people per year. Over half of that need has been met by off-grid solar (OGS) projects, which have enabled countries to address some of the biggest challenges in supplying reliable energy to remote populations and has been an affordable alternative for impoverished populations. This has fueled massive growth in off-grid solar, with global capacity tripling over the last decade.

These are promising indicators, but the progress is not evenly distributed. Over half of the 1 billion people who lack access to energy live in Sub-Saharan Africa, while the remainder live predominantly in Asia. However, less than 30% of new OGS capacity since 2008 has benefited Africa. Asia, on the other hand claims 67% of new OGS capacity over the same period.

Project Require Strong Fundamentals and Rule of Law

The disparity in new capacity reflects broader regional issues beyond technical project feasibility. In a report on the African energy problem, The Independent pointed to a range of factors from poor management of utilities, to misappropriation of funds and political corruption.

“But it’s also because utilities are vehicles for political patronage and, in some cases, institutionalised theft. US $120m went missing from the Tanzanian state power utility last year though a complex web of off-shore companies.”

The majority of OGS projects over the last decade have resulted from public-private-partnerships (PPP), or multilateral collaborations where, ultimately, a commercial provider takes on the long-term management of decentralized assets. Many of these projects are funded through matching agency funds from international development agencies or NGOs. Under the Power Africa Program, for example, USAID is providing technical assistance to expand energy access in Sub-Saharan Africa, but it will only support initiatives when there is active cooperation and participation from the host country government. Third party implementation partners typically face numerous challenges that USAID is unable to address. Lack of steady Government involvement, weak institutions, and corruption have been major barriers to projects moving beyond exploratory stages.

This 500-watt PV system, installed by SolarNow and financed by Power Africa partner SunFunder, provides clean power for a home, a public broadcasting system, a barbershop and a video hall in a rural village in Uganda. / Sameer Halai, SunFunder

 

Other OGS projects obtain more traditional development financing from institutions such as the World Bank, regional development banks and the International Finance Corporation (IFC). IFC upholds commercial feasibility standards, like those of a conventional commercial bank, but tailored to the conditions of development projects. In these projects too, host government cooperation is key, and without sufficient regulatory clarity, they lack the assurances that implementation partners need to take on the long-term risks associated with operating distributed generation assets.  As the World Bank stated in an issue brief:

“…the biggest challenges are poor policies, inadequate regulations, lack of planning and institutional support…successful countries have also balanced the objective of the financial viability of electricity suppliers with the need to keep consumer prices affordable…”

Achieving this balance requires the type regulatory clarity and market market reciprocity that can only be achieved through stable institutions of governance.

OGS and the Path Forward to 2030

A range of factors are contributing to the continued rise of decentralize solar PV, and OGS is projected to make up an even larger proportion of new generation projects over the next decade. IEA points to cost as a primary advantage of OGS in closing the energy-poverty gap. The price of solar today is lower than natural gas and coal, making it more affordable than any other generation resource on the market. According to IEA, “To deliver universal energy access by 2030, decentralized options are the least-cost option for 60 per cent of people currently lacking access.”

There is evidence that prices could continue to drop. London based Crown Agents released a report that found that the installed cost of solar plus storage in developing countries may be as much as 80% lower than most project developers are currently estimating on their early stage proformas. One area, where the report noted cost discrepancies, was in the way proformas typically estimate energy storage costs. The cost assumption for energy storage are often still based on outdated lead-acid technology verses the lithium ion batteries that are now the prevalent form of storage. When accounting for lower installation and encasement costs for these batteries, the total cost of storage comes down considerably. Project estimates often use other outdated cost assumptions on panels and balance-of-system components as well, leading to inaccurate phase 1 proformas that render potentially viable projects unfeasible on paper.

Better technology also enables these projects to perform better financially when they are operational. The move towards microinverters enables commercial suppliers to obtain better real time analytics on system performance, minimizing downtime, and maximizing productive return from these projects.

Mobile payment technology, termed Pay-as-you-Go (PAYGO), has enabled a secure and consistent flow of revenue from customers to solar power providers, increasing the the accessibility of these projects for customers. This is particularly relevant in Sub-Saharan Africa where mobile payment has given many customers access to digital currency for the first time. By not having to collect cash payments from customers distributed across large regions, projects cost less to manage and operate. Customers can quickly connect to new systems and access energy, and they have more real time visibility how much they’re consuming through their mobile phone payments. Nearly $800 million has been invested in mobile money systems over the last 6 years. West African markets are seeing significant growth in PAYGO traction, and CGAP estimates that as much as 50% of new accounts in the region (outside of Kenya) are created to pay for electricity. PAYGO may eliminate one of the key challenges to electrifying Sub-Saharan Africa. But without stronger regulatory institutions, it will still be difficult to attract outside partners necessary to build capacity and deliver technology.

President Barak Obama looks at a Pay-as-you-Go solar power exhibit during a 2015 Power Africa Innovation Fair in Kenya. (Credit: AP Images)

The UN’s goal-setting strategy has enabled a multi-lateral suite of players, from Governments and NGOs, to banking institutions to establish a common understanding of the biggest barriers to universal access, and a shared timeline to closing that gap. However, despite current progress, the 2030 goal will not be met if new generation cannot be accelerated further. With many lessons learned under their belts, development agencies and financing arms are getting more rigorous in their vetting standards. For Asia, there is still a tall mountain to climb. Regions such as Myanmar are still in early stages of development and conflict has made it nearly impossible to reach the most remote populations. In Sub-Saharan Africa recent successes in Ethiopia, Zambia, and Ghana may be signs that energy access is accelerating. But the largest populations without access to electricity are those in the areas with the weakest institutions. Off grid solar offers the greatest hope for rapid scalability of access to energy. Technologies such as PAYGO systems enable providers and customers to get around market inefficiencies, and all indications are that these contribute to increased living standards. However, stable institutions are the only mechanism that will convert these short term achievements into long term long term solutions.

Case Studies

The following two case studies provide a glimpse into the factors discussed above. The Paluan project illustrates how lower system costs are leading to rapid acceleration of access in the Philippines. In the case of the Bangladesh Solar-Home-Systems program, this program provides an example of how customer side financing innovations are facilitating major changes.

Paluan, Philippines: Solar-Battery Storage Microgrid

Brownouts are a common occurrence across the Philippines, affecting as much as 70% of the country’s population. Approximately 25% of the population lack access to electricity at all or only have access to sporadic, unreliable supply. To address this issue, and to close key vulnerabilities that the country faces as a result of climate change, President Duterte has been a strong proponent of decentralizing the nation’s energy supply, liberalizing energy markets, and transiting to more sustainable energy sources. His administration has set a goal to end energy-poverty by 2022.

It is against the backdrop of this national agenda, that Solar Philippines, a 4-year old company that has quickly accelerated to become one of the largest solar providers in Southeast Asia, recently completed Southeast Asia’s largest Solar PV – Storage Microgrids.

Last December, Solar Philippines completed construction and began operations on a 2 MW Solar PV facility. Combined with 2 MW of Tesla Power Pack battery storage, and a diesel generator for backup supply, this system has enabled the Paluan to benefit from 24/7 electricity service for this first time. Prior to the launch of this project, Paluan’s 16,000 residents frequently experienced brownouts. Napocor, the national utility, limited supply to 16 hours per day, and prior to 2014, village was served by a regional co-op that delivered 4 hours per day and eventually ceased operations.

Residents from the Town of Paluan hold a banner that reads “No More Brownouts” next to the Solar Philippines 2 MW Solar-Storage facility that serves their town with uninterrupted, affordable power. (Credit: Philstar)

According to the Philippine Star, Solar Philippines has reduced the electricity rate for Paluan residents by 50% and enabled them to eliminate the $550,000/year subsidy that the town previously consumed to afford Napocor’s rates.

This Project’s success has led to follow on projects. In June 2018, Solar Philippines flipped the switch on 3 more solar-storage microgrids serving towns in the province of Masbate. The company’s CEO announced plans to deploy a dozen more microgrids serving 500,000 people, all without taking grant or subsidies.

Bangladesh Solar Home Systems (SHS) Program

Bangladesh has seen the sharpest increase in energy access of any country. With a per capita annual income of $1,010, and 60% of its population living in remote areas or areas that need to be accessed via narrow waterways, Bangladesh has not been able to carve a feasible path to supplying electricity to majority of its citizens. Since 2009, Bangladesh has increased access from less than 50% of its population to 76% at the end of 2016. Almost half of this new generation capacity has been met with Solar Home Systems (SHS), stand-alone, turnkey systems that provide direct power to individual homes and businesses.

In 2002, the national government set a goal to achieve full electrification by 2020. In support of this goal, the Infrastructure Development Company Limited (IDCOL), a state-owned financial institution, launched the SHS program to provide cost-effective electricity to the country’s rural population. With subsidies from several international agencies, the SHS program partnered with Participating Organizations (POs) to reach customers in the country’s most remote regions, sell subsidized SHS to those customers, and enter into payment arrangements with those customers. IDCOL arranged the subsidy structure and provides backing for the credit that the POs extend to customers.

POs are responsible for purchasing the systems directly from suppliers. Because of the strong backing of the Government, suppliers have been accommodating and agreed to differed payment from the POs. While the POs are responsible for upfront costs, the majority of the capital was initially funded through international agency grants managed by IDCOL.

Different financing mechanisms have been used by the POs. Grameen Shakti, the largest PO responsible for 50% of the SHS installations, provided customers with a system ownership structure, rather than a pay-for-service arrangement. Customers were offered microfinancing arrangements, paying 15% up front, and the remaining balance over 12, 24 or 36 months. Average payments are around $17/month which is less than the cost to run a generator, and once the system is all paid off, Grameen Shakti continues to provide annual system checks for free.

The SHS program was just the beginning of Bangladesh’s rapid electrification process. But it illustrates the critical importance of devising financing mechanisms tailored to customers in the developing world, and it shows how strong regulatory institutions with active government involvement attract international development agency funding.

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Small Modular Reactors: Launching in 2018 https://solartribune.com/small-modular-reactors-launching-in-2018/ Tue, 14 Aug 2018 18:13:11 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=13994 Small modular reactors (SMRs) are an innovation on nuclear plant design that could replace coal-fired steam turbines with zero or near-zero carbon emissions.  While there are approximately 50 SMR designs around the world, only NuScale, an SMR-startup based in Portland, Oregon, has sought US licensing.   NuScale cleared stage one of the US Nuclear Regulatory […]

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Small modular reactors (SMRs) are an innovation on nuclear plant design that could replace coal-fired steam turbines with zero or near-zero carbon emissions. 

While there are approximately 50 SMR designs around the world, only NuScale, an SMR-startup based in Portland, Oregon, has sought US licensing.  

NuScale cleared stage one of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval process in April, 2018 leading to hopes for a renewed US nuclear energy program.  

“Renewables are not capable of meeting 100 percent of our global energy needs,” says NuScale Communications Director Mariam Nabizad. “By adding the reliable, flexible carbon-free energy NuScale can provide to complement solar and wind, we can make a real difference in mitigating climate change. This remains a top priority for our customers and prospects, both across the U.S. and around the world.”

Here’s what you need to know about this technology in the context of renewables:

BASICS OF SMR

The key word for the SMR nuclear reactor design is ‘flexible’.   

  • They can provide variable output to “load-follow”, which keeps an electrical grid balanced as renewables like sun and wind rise and fall, and demand varies.
  • They can power small grids or provide graduated support on a big one.
  • They can provide options for utility companies to diversify into reduced-carbon nuclear power without the large scale investment of standard plants.

SMRs currently represent a favorable interim investment for North American nuclear energy, which has slowed construction of standard nuclear designs in recent years.

The US leads the world nuclear industry in reactor design.  But while the US has more operating reactors (61 plants, 99 reactors, constructing 2 reactors ),  recently China (40 reactors, constructing 20 reactors) and Russia (35 reactors, constructing 20 reactors) have become far more efficient at rolling out the technology for public use.   

Civilian use of nuclear power has geopolitical implications. In 2016 the US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz warned that the failure to invest in nuclear energy had the potential to significantly weaken the US’s position in global non-nonproliferation negotiations.

As the first, and only SMR design to seek US licensing NuScale is leading the pack to restore the US nuclear economy.  NuScale’s product design was funded by $228 million in grants from the US Department of Energy, it’s first customer is the municipal association Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and the potential buyers reported by the New York Times include Tennessee Valley Authority.  Future design competitors may include Westinghouse with an SMR design on hold, GE as a recent market entry with a boiling water design, and even smaller “microreactor” designs from HolosGen and Oklo.

Across the border, Canada’s federal authority, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), is rapidly collecting public feedback in the midst of updating its regulatory strategy for SMRs.

CNSC is addressing key questions about the regulatory and licensing implications presented by SMRs,” says Cristina Canas, a senior communications advisor. “To meet regulatory requirements, safety claims must be supported by suitable scientific information.”

No energy technology is without debate. SMRs haven’t had a chance to prove themselves in the day-to-day life of North Americans. This is why there are both passionate proponents and dire predictions of gloom regarding their future.

However, when it comes to utilizing new technology, society always includes a wide spectrum of tech innovators, early-adopters, late-adopters and laggards. So, the best way to beat the hype, pacify naysayers, and determine the true commercial viability of a new product is from a trial of pragmatic implementation.

Here’s hoping NuScale can execute its vision to offer the world a safer and more flexible energy to complement renewables!

By Drea Burbank, MD, Peter Worden and Prachur Shrivastava.  Drea is a science writer, Peter is a veteran journalist and Prachur is an experienced researcher.  Image NuScale Small Modular Reactor Design courtesy of NuScale Power.

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Political Climate Change and the Path to Clean Energy https://solartribune.com/political-climate-change/ Mon, 30 Jul 2018 11:18:48 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=13958 Could a change in the US political climate spark rapid growth in renewable energy? A group of progressive Democratic candidates believe that it can and voters are listening. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old New York Bartender turned Bernie Sanders campaign organizer, achieved a stunning political upset last month when she beat incumbent 10-term Congressman Joe Crowley […]

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Could a change in the US political climate spark rapid growth in renewable energy? A group of progressive Democratic candidates believe that it can and voters are listening.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old New York Bartender turned Bernie Sanders campaign organizer, achieved a stunning political upset last month when she beat incumbent 10-term Congressman Joe Crowley in the primary elections for New York’s 14th district. In a predominantly Democratic, working class district, many see the upcoming mid-term elections as a mere formality on her path to public office.

More noteworthy than who she defeated is what Ocasio-Cortez represents. She is one of 42 candidates running in federal, state, and local elections who are being endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organization that aims to transform the US to a socialist economy through political change. As the organization’s website states:

“As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow, DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people.”

These candidates have embraced a set of uniform policies that disrupt the moderate appeal that mainstream Democratic leaders have sought to maintain. They are promising voters that if elected, they will fight to legislate Medicare for All, a Federal minimum wage of $15 per hour, free higher-education, and aggressive federal action on climate change. These positions, and their refusal to accept corporate donations has put them greatly at odds with the Democratic establishment. If elected into office, they could disrupt some of the fundamental Democratic footholds including clean energy legislation.

Ocasio-Cortez campaigning in the Pride Parade in her home district in Queens ,NY a week before the primary elections. (Jennifer Mason / LA Times)

Clean energy and the path to economic empowerment

Climate change is a pivotal issue for the DSA candidates. According to them, it disproportionately affects disadvantaged populations, while the activities causing it primarily benefit wealthy elites. Coal executives, for example, earn incomes as high as 600 times that of average mine workers, while it is the latter who contract black-lung and incur the high cost of medical treatment. Similarly, industry executives and their families were not among those affected by the contaminated groundwater in Flint, MI. On the other hand, combating climate change by transitioning to a clean energy economy will create millions of jobs and facilitate the economic mobility necessary to support a more equitable society. As Ocasio-Cortez’s website states,

“radically addressing climate change is a potential path towards a more equitable economy with increased employment and widespread financial security for all.”

Ocasio-Cortez has made clean energy central to her campaign. She points to low-income communities in her own district that are being affected by erosion and sea level rise, and she is proposing a “Green New Deal” that she says will not only increase employment, but also support national security through global climate action. Like Ocasio-Cortez, DSA backed Kaniela Ing, running for Hawaii’s first congressional district, relates the effects of climate change to the lives of his voters. In a 2017 Facebook post, Ing wrote that:

“Climate change is already impacting our islands. Hawai‘i must act now to keep our shorelines and our economy from ending up underwater.”

He is referring to the shrinking coastline of Waikiki and the impact that it is having on the island’s mainly native, economically struggling population.

Ocasio-Cortez, Ing, and other DSA candidates are proposing bold climate policy that would transition 100% of energy in the US to renewable energy by 2035. They believe that this will close economic and labor gaps. They are promising that a strong, resilient and fair economy can be achieved by directing the ingenuity and skill of the American workforce towards the energy transition. This, they say, will create millions of jobs and lead to a more equitable society in the process.

Breaking the deal with the Devil

Ambitious Climate policy is not new in the Democratic political landscape. Some of the party’s most influential leaders have put their weight behind bold legislation to curb Greenhouse Gas emissions and transform the US energy sector. In 2009, the Democratic House passed H.R. 2454, a bill that outlined a national cap-and-trade market and mandated a renewable portfolio standard of 25% by 2025. The bill never made it through the Senate. It was ambitious, even by today’s standards, and most experts believed that implementing its mandates would spark significant growth in clean technology. More aggressive measures have recently been proposed. Just last year, H.R. 3671, the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, was introduced into congress. Thirty-seven cosponsors signed onto the bill including Joe Crowley himself. This bill set the – 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 – goal that Ocasio-Cortez later adopted in her lead-up to the primary race.

Despite these initiatives, progress in transitioning to carbon-free energy has been slow.  As candidates like Ocasio-Cortez, Ing and others see it, establishment democrats lack the political will to turn climate bills into laws, because in large part, their campaign treasuries are filled high with donations from the fossil fuel industry. Ocasio-Cortez and Ing, along with Rashida Tlaib from Michigan, Randy Bryce vying for the Wisconsin seat being vacated by Paul Ryan, and 310 other Congressional candidates signed on to the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, refusing to accept donations from PACs, executives, or “front-groups” of fossil fuel companies. They say that by avoiding this conflict of interest, they can take the firm action on climate change that current Democratic lawmakers are only able to give lip service to.

Many however, see turning down fossil fuel money as too big a campaign risk in an election process where cash is king. OpenSecrets.org reports that in the 2016 elections the fossil fuel sector contributed over $100 Million in campaign contributions, making it the largest contributor of campaign funds out of every measured sector. The tide, it seems, may be turning on the importance of a campaign treasure chest to winning voters’ hearts and minds. Both Ocasio-Cortez and Ing were outspent by their primary opponents at a rate of 10 to 1 before they both delivered the startling upsets that ushered them into national attention.

It’s not the What, but the How

Another key factor that differentiates the climate policy vision of the insurgent candidates from that of the old guard lies in who would lead the massive investment that energy transformation will require. Since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, renewable energy and climate policy has mainly focused on market driven solutions. Policies relied on tax credits, loan guarantees, and grant funding to incentivize private sector investment in energy technologies. The Production Tax Credit (PTC) and Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), for example are recognized for catalyzing the rapid growth in solar and wind power that took them from less than 1% of total US energy production in 2007 to over 10% today.

Experts see the PTC and ITC as having been vital to the growth of US wind and solar energy over the last decade; Total installed Solar PV and Wind capacity in the US: 2006 – 2016. (GridLion Analytics)

Underlying the Democratic-Socialists’ plan for energy transformation is a firm belief that Government has the capability to invest trillions of dollars directly into industries currently controlled by the private sector, if only legislators had the political will to authorize such expenditure. Ocasio-Cortez, who calls herself an “Environmental Hardliner”, criticizes market-based approaches as half-measures. Instead, she is calling for a centralized approach, empowering Government to lead the way rather than hoping for private sector action. She points to Puerto Rico, which has been slow to regain a stable power grid, as a prime example of why central planning from Government is the only way forward on energy.

On her website, Ocasio-Cortez outlines her vision for a Green New Deal that, like FDR’s program, would entail massive direct investment by the Government. Under this plan, the Government would directly invest trillions of dollars to expand manufacturing and implementation of renewable energy and electric vehicle technologies. This, she says, will create “millions of high-wage jobs”, and provide the resources needed to dismantle America’s reliance on fossil fuels. As she was quoted in a recent Huffington Post interview:

“The Green New Deal we are proposing will be similar in scale to the mobilization efforts seen in World War II or the Marshall Plan.”

Over the last month, however, beyond reiterating the high-level concepts of a Green New Deal or new Marshall Plan, Ocasio-Cortez has not provided any insight into her strategy for achieving these lofty policy goals.  In an email inquiry trying to obtain more information on the candidate’s plan, her staff responded saying that they “hope” to be able to provide more concrete information soon.

Another Democratic Socialist who is positioning climate action at the epicenter of his platform is Hawaii’s Kaniela Ing. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Ing is hitting on two issues with one solution. His website states that:

“he will fight to commit our nation to‍‍‍ a 100% renewable energy goal in order to save our planet from climate change and put millions of rural Americans back to work.”

Ing plans to achieve this by partnering with labor unions and environmental groups to generate groundswell in congress for federal job guarantees, labor agreements, and community owned renewable energy.

Congressional candidate Kaniela Ing has experience legislating on clean energy market transformation through his work in the Hawaii State Legislature.

Ing has direct, first-hand experience passing similar legislation. During his time in the Hawaii legislature, the Ratepayer Protection Act (SB 2939) was signed into State law. This law ties utilities’ reimbursement to their performance on achieving Solar PV and Energy Storage benchmarks to meet the State’s 100% renewable energy goal. Furthermore, he has taken a strong stance against a proposed gas pipeline, and in a verified Reddit post, he claims success for preventing the pipeline altogether “I successfully fought to stop fracked natural gas from reaching Hawaii.”

Randy Bryce is another candidate whose platform ties clean energy to job creation. A former steel worker, Bryce believes that the job insecurity faced by today’s steel workers can be eliminated by retooling the industry and focusing it on domestic wind production. Like Ocasio-Cortez and Ing, Bryce sees Government investment as the key to this.

Can they really live up to their promises on clean energy?

The change that Ocasio-Cortez, Ing, and others are committing to deliver will require immense political capital that freshmen in Congress typically do not have. Furthermore, as Ocasio-Cortez herself points out, it will require deep structural change and trillions of dollars of Federal investment. That could lead to a rapid increase in the nation’s debt. On the other hand, if these candidates do enter the next class of freshman Congress-men-and-women, it will be without being beholden to either fossil fuel interests or their own party’s leadership. That may empower them to disrupt the legislative cadence enough to make real progress in their first terms. There is little insight into how, exactly, these candidates will attempt to turn their respective visions into realities. But any progress on the ground could mean significant steps forward for solar and wind companies. Even if the DSA candidates’ initial progress is limited to tax credit extensions or direct, program specific investments, this would mark a significant turning point for clean energy, thrusting into the limelight as a first-tier issue. That, ultimately, is what may open the pathway towards full decarbonization.

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North Carolina Island Rolls Out Microgrid https://solartribune.com/north-carolina-island-rolls-microgrid/ Sun, 26 Feb 2017 18:11:46 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=10629 Ocracoke—a popular tourist destination in the Outer Banks of North Carolina— is addressing weather-related power outages with a state-of-the-art battery-based microgrid. According to the Ocracoke Observer,  a cooperative venture by the North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation (which owns the island’s 3-megawatt diesel generator) and Tideland Electric Membership Corporation (the local utility company) have installed a […]

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Ocracoke—a popular tourist destination in the Outer Banks of North Carolina— is addressing weather-related power outages with a state-of-the-art battery-based microgrid.

According to the Ocracoke Observer,  a cooperative venture by the North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation (which owns the island’s 3-megawatt diesel generator) and Tideland Electric Membership Corporation (the local utility company) have installed a solar + storage facility at the site of their current diesel generator.  The project is in response to recent winter power outages on the island that overwhelmed the backup generator and left the island’s winter-time population of 900+ residents without power.

Heidi Jernigan Smith, Tideland spokesperson, , Bob Beadle, project manager for the NCEMC’s electric microgrid on Ocracoke, Ocracoke Observer writer David Mickey. Photo by P. Vankevich

The heart of the project is ten Tesla Powerpack units. The 3,575-pound Powerpacks are made up of 16 individual lithium-ion battery pods which are built with a cooling and heating system adapted from the Tesla Model S automobile batteries. Each unit is capable of storing up to 200 kWh of energy.

“This is a learning laboratory for Tideland,”Heidi Jernigan Smith, company spokeswoman told the Observer.  “We’re exploring the potential for a microgrid.”

Smith pointed out that by no means could the Powerpacks power the island during an outage on their own, but they could assist the generator during start up to overcome the initial demand placed on the generator which often exceeds capacity.

For example, on a freezing day in March 2015, power went off from Hatteras to Ocracoke due to “galloping lines,” or ice on the power lines that shorted the power. Tideland tried to start the island’s 3-megawatt generator, but even in the winter with mostly just residents here, the electric usage exceeded the generator’s capacity.

“The Tesla batteries could potentially help us get over that start-up load,” Smith said. “It will be interesting to learn what benefits can be derived from the various microgrid components over time.”

The Rise of Microgrids

The Ocracoke project is just one of several microgrid pilot projects in the news in recent months.

In January, Kaua’i Island Electric Cooperative announced that it will be purchasing 11% of its generation from a new solar plus storage facility, below the cost of its current fossil fuel-powered generation. This is huge news, even in spite of the fact that Kaua’i is one of the nation’s most expensive energy markets. As storage prices start to come down, “low hanging fruit” like Kaua’i will be the first to be picked by solar + storage developers. The Kaua’i project will also use the Tesla Powerpacks in their system.

Not all of the microgrid projects are in remote areas. Last year, we reported on the new Brooklyn Microgrid Project. The New York City project aims not to replace utility power, but like Ocracoke, to add “firming” to the local grid by providing peak shaving at times of heavy loads and creating a neighborhood back-up system to avoid the types of power outage problems experienced by Brooklynites during Hurricane Sandy.

Projects Like Ocracoke, Kaua’i and Brooklyn all serve as excellent test beds for what many see as the future of distributed energy generation and a major paradigm shift in how utility companies do business. While Tesla is leading the way in high-profile microgrid projects, competitors like German battery giant Sonnen are entering the microgrid market. Microinverter pioneer Enphase and even iconic auto manufacturer Mercedes are getting into the game.

“Tideland is pleased to serve as host for NCEMC’s first microgrid project and the opportunity it affords our employees to learn about next generation energy technologies,” said Paul Spruill, Tideland’s chief executive officer and general manager. “We are also appreciative of our sister co-ops across the state for funding this project, which will all stand to gain from our collective knowledgebase as the energy industry evolves.”

 

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The SunPower Freak-Out https://solartribune.com/the-sunpower-freak-out/ Sat, 13 Aug 2016 16:22:15 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=10199 Business media outlets have solar investors running for cover in the wake of SunPower’s revised earnings forecast. San Jose California-based solar manufacturer SunPower is the second-largest panel producer in the US, so it is no surprise that the market responded negatively this week when company reps reported that it expects to lose as much as […]

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Business media outlets have solar investors running for cover in the wake of SunPower’s revised earnings forecast.

San Jose California-based solar manufacturer SunPower is the second-largest panel producer in the US, so it is no surprise that the market responded negatively this week when company reps reported that it expects to lose as much as $175 million this year.  Early this summer, they announced that they expected to earn $50 million. Media outlets jumped on the catchphrase  “guidance bomb” to describe what appears to be

Their stock immediately tanked, taking the single biggest hit in seven years with a loss of 31% of its value. Bloomberg, Forbes and other business media outlets were quick to jump on the story. However, it seems that no one can decide if it is time to declare the entire solar industry in trouble, or if it might not be a great time to buy solar stocks.

As might be expected, SunPower was not the only company that took a hit after the announcement.  Other North American solar manufacturers also caught the fallout of the SunPower freak out. Canadian Solar Inc., the world’s second-biggest panel maker, slipped 8.9 percent to $13.16, the lowest since August 2013 and U.S. solar giant First Solar Inc., fell 7.2 percent to $38.66, the lowest since September 2013.

Company spokespeople cited the extension of a federal investment tax credit as one reason for the adjusted estimates.  Also, sunPower will close a Philippine panel assembly plant and transfer the equipment to Mexico, cutting 15 percent of the overall workforce, or 1,200 employees, in the process.SunpowerCeo

“We wanted to re-position supply closer to the end market,” Chief Executive Officer Tom Werner said in an interview after the company posted second-quarter earnings. “We’re in transition. We’ve been through this before.”

Forbes ran the headline “SunPower The Latest Victim In Solar Stock Death Spiral.”  Contributor Jim Collins lays it out like this: “One has to ask oneself:  does this mean that remaining solar stocks will be bid up in price as the market sees a scarcity of solar pure-plays or is this in reality a rational response by industry executives to worsening fundamentals and plunging share prices–a throwing in of the towel, if you will?   I can’t see how anyone could come up with the former answer instead of the latter, and the market is telling us that solar is dead as an equity play.  The death spiral is upon us.”

A slightly less hyperbolic analysis of the situation comes from Kumquat Research at Seeking Alpha. In an article entitled Sunpower:Buy on the Drop? Kumquat concludes: “Even at a $1.63 billion market cap, I don’t think buying shares in SPWR is a particularly wise decision. There are plenty of other solar companies out there, namely First Solar , that are coping with changing market conditions much more effectively and have better fundamentals. Yet at the same time, SPWR has already lost so much value that I don’t see selling the stock as a necessary decision at current price levels either. Obviously, it is up to each SPWR investor to conduct his or her own due diligence, but I think holding onto SPWR is the best decision in a very bad situation.

I rate SunPower a Hold on the drop.”

By the way, according to the author’s bio,”Kumquat Research is a college student and fund manager who has been investing for 4 years.” From the mouths of babes, as they say…

Another Seeking Alpha commentator, Giovanni DiMauro is looking at First Solar’s depressed numbers as a potential opportunity to make money. “First Solar has taken a beating over the last 5 months down 50%. Technically speaking the stock is oversold and due for a bounce. One would be wise to stay nimble in the space and look for panic entry points.”

The takeaway message from all of the kerfuffle over SunPower is that these are financial sector and banking problems, not solar problems. The drop in stock price has everything to do with financing, and nothing to do with technology. A slow year in American solar sales caused by last year’s speculation over the fate of tax credits does not affect the advances in efficiency, nor does the monopoly utility industry’s attempts to suppress the market ultimately mean that the solar revolution is over. That train has left the station, and now we are watching the market speculators figuring out how to make money off of a temporary downturn.

An interesting side note here is that Elon Musk’s SolarCity, which was last month’s problem child, seems to be chugging through the recent freak-out in relatively calm waters. It may be that the mad genius will come out a winner again, despite the critics. Musk’s long-term goal of integrating solar into a broader portfolio of energy products may prove to be a winning strategy.

 

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Solar + Storage: Update https://solartribune.com/solar-storage-update/ Tue, 07 Jun 2016 21:14:44 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=10106 Battery storage is the name of the game in 2016. Will the solar dream of “cutting the cord” become a reality? In a January 2016 article entitled Solar Trends to Watch in 2016: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, I predicted that “Residential battery storage will not be ready for prime time in 2016. […]

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Battery storage is the name of the game in 2016. Will the solar dream of “cutting the cord” become a reality?

In a January 2016 article entitled Solar Trends to Watch in 2016: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, I predicted that “Residential battery storage will not be ready for prime time in 2016. After the Tesla PowerWall hype, it’s going to take a few more years to become reality. Expect a lot of smoke this year- and hopefully we’ll see fire in 2017.” Six months into 2016, let’s take a look at where the energy storage market headed. Will we see batteries hit the mainstream by the end of the year?

A recent report from the Clean Energy Group, based in Montpelier, Vermont, looks at the possible impacts of battery storage on energy bill reduction in multi-family rental housing in California.  The report states that; “Battery storage systems not only provide economic returns today, they can also preserve the value of solar in an evolving policy and regulatory environment. Because batteries empower owners of solar photovoltaics (PV) systems to take control of the energy they produce and when they consume it, storage can deliver deeper cost reductions that can be shared among affordable housing owners, developers, and tenants.”

The major findings of the study are the following:

      • Adding battery storage to an affordable rental housing solar installation in California can eliminate demand charges for building electricity loads, resulting in a net electricity bill of essentially zero.
      • Adding battery storage to California affordable rental housing can almost double the building electricity bill savings achieved over the savings realized through solar alone.
      • Adding battery storage can achieve incremental utility bill savings similar to solar for about a third of the cost of the solar system for owners of affordable rental housing properties in California.
      • Solar+storage projects result in a significantly shorter payback period than stand-alone solar projects.

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However, Jessica Lovering, director of energy at the Breakthrough Institute, thinks the authors of the report are too optimistic about the current state of battery storage. Lovering told the San Diego Union Tribune; “In theory this looks like it would save money and would help make your solar system more economic for affordable housing but the battery technology isn’t there yet, especially not at a cost that would make sense for low-income housing.”

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, sides with the Clean Energy Group when it comes to being optimistic about energy storage. Musk believes electricity storage will be a faster growing business than selling cars for his company. “No one is really doing it right,” said Musk about battery storage. “[Tesla’s] Powerpacks can scale on a global basis faster than the cars do. … I think the rate of growth will be several times that of the car side of Tesla.”

Are Musk and Clean Energy Group a little too optimistic about the state of solar + storage? Beyond the hype, where exactly are we when it comes to battery tech?

Besides Tesla, the big players in the battery storage space right now are Bosch and Sonnen, both German manufacturers. GE Ventures recently purchased a minority stake in Sonnen, reflecting the global interest in battery storage. With feed-in tariffs being phased out in much of Europe, battery storage may grow more than five-fold by 2020, to at least 170,000 from 30,000 last year, according to the German Energy Storage Association. With Lithium storage prices dropping and demand rising, indications are that storage is on track to pop in the next few years.1_Ameresco-Solar

Not only storage pioneers like Musk are thinking about the implications of batteries, however, and not all of those considering batteries are entirely enthusiastic. According to Energy Wire; “Local utilities’ distributed resources, particularly customer-owned solar and storage facilities, may become large enough before long to pose potential threats to the interstate grid. Disruptions in cities or small towns — whether they’re accidental or intentional — could move upstream to the wider grid, said participants at a daylong grid security conference at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission headquarters.

“There needs to be a lot of work done on distributed resources and how they are effectively integrated into the grid,” said FERC Chairman Norman Bay.” In fact, utilities painted storage as a major threat to grid reliability, along with hackers and terrorism. For the utility industry, which has had every opportunity to integrate solar into their business model, it sounds a bit like the boy who cried wolf.

Meanwhile, battery storage is advancing, in spite of utility industry complaining and foot-dragging. Industry, businesses and institutions in the US are the first wave to see the benefits of battery storage. One example is an Iowa college that has been at loggerheads with its utility over interconnecting renewable energy projects may find it more economical to go it alone with energy storage.

An analysis done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory concluded that Luther College could save approximately $25,000 in energy costs for each of the next 25 years if it installs a 1.5 MW solar array and a 393 kW battery.

With these examples becoming increasingly common, battery storage may advance ahead of my January predictions.

 

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California Low Income Solar Program Spreads to East Coast https://solartribune.com/california-low-income-solar-program-spreads-to-east-coast/ Mon, 23 Nov 2015 22:46:50 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=9721 GRID Alternatives is a non-profit organization founded to bring high-tech solar technology to low-income homeowners who need the cost savings the most. In 2001, two California engineers launched a non-profit organization with the lofty goal of making free, clean electricity from the sun available to everyone, regardless of income level. At a time when residential […]

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GRID Alternatives is a non-profit organization founded to bring high-tech solar technology to low-income homeowners who need the cost savings the most.

In 2001, two California engineers launched a non-profit organization with the lofty goal of making free, clean electricity from the sun available to everyone, regardless of income level. At a time when residential rooftop solar was strictly a luxury item, it may have seemed to some as more of a fantasy than a mission statement. However, since the project’s inception fourteen years ago, GRID Alternatives has gone on to create job training and educational opportunities as well as affordable solar installations across the United States.

In 2008, GRID Alternatives was selected by the California Public Utilities Commission to manage its $162 million Single-family Affordable Solar Homes (SASH) incentive program, the first program of its type in the nation, providing solar rebates for low-income families. Since then GRID Alternatives has gone on to manage projects not only in California, but in Colorado, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, D.C., Virginia and Delaware, as well as internationally. Their solar project portfolio totals an impressive 6,046 systems, totalling 20,745 kW. That adds up to just under $159 Million in lifetime savings.

One of the keys to GRID Alternatives success is its model, which operates a bit like Habitat for Humanities in that it relies on volunteers. A recent article on slate.com called GRID Alternative’s projects the “Barn-Raisings of the 21st Century.” The article follows an installation in Sunset Park, Brooklyn NY which will save the working-class homeowners an estimated $600 annually. “We hatched this idea of transitioning as a country to clean power and doing it in a way that includes everyone—everyone as consumers having access to it, but also everyone having access if they want to [have] jobs in the growing industry and the training,” Erica Mackie, a co-founder of Grid Alternatives, told Slate.

Mackie and her co-founder Tim Sears have received numerous awards for their successful program, including the 2014 White House Champions of Change award,  2013 Clean Energy and Empowerment Award,  2011 Excellence in Renewable Energy Award for Innovation in Policy from Renewable Energy World and 2008 Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA).

One of GRID Alternative’s most exciting projects is the National Women in Solar Initiative, in partnership with SunEdison. This program is designed  to bring more women into the solar industry and support them in their professional advancement. “We Build” events are women-only installations where participants get to network with their peers while getting hands-on training in solar technology.
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GRID Alternatives also hosts an Americorps program called SolarCorps. According to their website; “The SolarCorps Fellowship is an opportunity for highly motivated and enthusiastic people to join GRID Alternatives for a one-year term in service to their community.  Fellows will gain valuable experience in the solar and non-profit industry to help launch their career while making significant contributions to GRID Alternatives and the broader community.

The Fellowship experience includes self-paced career development opportunities, as well as attendance at 3 events: New Member Orientation at GRID Headquarters, Staff Summit (GRID’s annual training retreat), and a week-long Photovoltaic training at the Solar Living Institute which qualifies participants to take the NABCEP Entry-Level Test.”
Through these programs and others, including tribal energy and veterans programs,  GRID Alternatives is bringing down installation costs by using its projects as educational opportunities for the next generation of solar industry professionals.

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Lithium Batteries and Solar: Where are We Headed? https://solartribune.com/lithium-batteries-and-solar-where-are-we-headed/ Sat, 06 Jun 2015 15:21:14 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=9047 Residential Battery Systems (RBS) are the topic of much excitement and speculation in the solar world recently. Tesla, the electric car giant led by entrepreneur and futurist Elon Musk recently rolled out their new “Powerwall” system to much fanfare. Hot on their heels is Trina, the Chinese solar giant, who announced one week later that […]

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Residential Battery Systems (RBS) are the topic of much excitement and speculation in the solar world recently.

Tesla, the electric car giant led by entrepreneur and futurist Elon Musk recently rolled out their new “Powerwall” system to much fanfare. Hot on their heels is Trina, the Chinese solar giant, who announced one week later that they, too will be  rolling out a new RBS with a soft launch in Australia this summer. Bosch, GE, LG, Sony and Samsung are all close to releasing similar products.
Both the Tesla and the Trina systems, although very different, are built on a backbone of Lithium Ion batteries. Up until recently, Lead Acid batteries were the only realistic option for RBS because of the high cost of Lithium Ion technology. Now, it would appear that Lithium Ion is ready for prime time in the RBS world. The question is, are Lithium Ion batteries a game changer for solar, or just a stepping stone to the next energy storage technology?

Lithium Ion 101

InternationalBatteryCellLead-Acid (LA) batteries, similar to those in a car, have long been the only viable option for residential storage when it comes to solar. The cost was relatively affordable, but there are a lot of downsides to lead acid batteries. They require a lot of maintenance, they release gases that must be vented, and they are very heavy. Large Format Prismatic (LFP) Lithium Ion batteries have a lot of advantages, (and a few disadvantages,) over LAs.

  • LFP is about one-third the weight of a lead-acid (LA) battery.
  • LFPs take up about half the volume of an LA battery with equivalent energy storage
  • LAs don’t perform well at low temperatures. LA performance drops by 50% at -4°F, compared to 8% with LFP.
  • LA batteries’ discharge voltage tapers as charge decreases.LFP batteries’ voltage remains steady until they are close to being fully discharged.
  • Stored LA batteries lose up to 15% of their electrical capacity per month, compared to 1% to 3% for LFPs.
  • Wet LA batteries need constant maintenance. LFPs require no additional liquid to maintain their electrolyte levels.
  • LA batteries have an average lifespan of about five years; LFP batteries have an estimated longevity of 10 years.
  • LA batteries are cheaper up-front than LFPs, their lifetime price per kWh can be higher.

Until recently, the need for a battery management system (BMS) for integrating Lithium Ion batteries has been the limiting factor in their use in renewable energy applications. Tesla, Trina and others are finally tackling that problem, and it appears that LFP batteries for storing solar energy is a market where we will be seeing a lot of action in the next few years.

Are LFP Batteries the Answer?

Right now, Lithium Ion technology is ready for prime time, and appears to be both affordable and scalable. Electronics manufacturers have vast experience with Lithium Ion batteries which currently power everything from mobile phones to cordless power tools. For companies like Bosch and Samsung, scaling up to residential storage is a no-brainer. For the near-term, it looks like there will be a gold-rush in LFP batteries, and despite the hype surrounding Tesla’s Powerwall, the real action appears to be with the tool and electronics giants.

However, like Nickel Cadmium (NiCAD) or Nickel-Metal Hydride (N-MH) batteries (does anyone remember them?) battery technologies come and go. Lithium Ion technology has taken a long time to come to this point, and it is still considered too expensive for many applications.

Trina-Solar-batteriesSince 2009, a consortium comprising IBM Research and five U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratories (National Renewable, Argonne, Lawrence Berkeley, Pacific Northwest, and Oak Ridge) have hosted an annual symposium at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee called “Beyond Lithium Ion.” Held last week, Beyond Lithium Ion VIII featured discussions of Sodium Ion technology, Lithium Air batteries, Lithium Sulphur, Zinc Air, Vanadium Redox Flow batteries, and Liquid Organic Redox batteries (ORBAT.) Of all the various technologies being explored, ORBATs appear to be the most revolutionary, bringing forth a non-toxic technology that requires no precious metals to the world of large-scale energy storage.

None the less, while we wait for ORBATs to become a reality, Lithium Ion technology is where the action is for the near future, and consumers are enthusiastic. While non-standardized BMSs may keep total system costs high, the actual price of Lithium Ion storage is expected to fall 50% in the next 5 years, according to executives at LG.

Reference: Home Power

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The Little Utility That Could https://solartribune.com/the-little-utility-that-could/ Mon, 18 May 2015 13:29:04 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=8976 Warren McKenna, the Manager of Farmers Electric Coop in Kalona, Iowa is a soft spoken fellow. However, it only took one sentence to bring an auditorium full of solar installers and electrical contractors to their feet for a standing ovation. After a full day of presentations from state and local leaders on solar energy at […]

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Warren McKenna, the Manager of Farmers Electric Coop in Kalona, Iowa is a soft spoken fellow. However, it only took one sentence to bring an auditorium full of solar installers and electrical contractors to their feet for a standing ovation.

After a full day of presentations from state and local leaders on solar energy at the Iowa Solar Installers Summit in 2009, McKenna presented on a panel along with representatives of investor-owned and municipal utilities. When McKenna took to the podium, he smiled, cleared his throat and said, “Well, I don’t have a powerpoint presentation. But I DO have a feed-in tariff!” The crowd roared with approval.

Warren McKenna of FEC  photo:presscitizen.com

Warren McKenna of FEC photo:presscitizen.com


Since 2008, Farmers Electric Coop (FEC) has been a national model for utilization of solar. The tiny, 650 person cooperative electric utility serves customers in the heart of Amish country and is the states oldest electric utility, but despite its long history, FEC is leading the way into the future. McKenna’s savvy, cost-effective approach to providing clean, locally produced power has caught the attention of much larger utilities across the country, and his start-small, pay-as-you-go business plan has proven to be a hit with co-op members as well as the solar industry.

FEC has a multi-tiered approach to reaching its goal of 15% renewable energy by 2025. First, co-op members can contribute $3 per month to a voluntary program that helps offset the cost of their solar feed-in tariff for local members who want to install solar. It also pays for biodiesel for their back-up generators.

Next, McKenna began training his own in-house team to keep installation costs low. FECs own licensed electricians started by installing some small projects, including 1.8 kW at two local schools, and at McKenna’s own home, proving that McKenna was willing to put his own money where his mouth is. “I might be the only utility manager in the nation that gets all of his kwhrs from the sun.”

The FEC feed-in tariff (FIT) was one of the first of it’s kind in the nation. Co-op members who own their own solar arrays get two electric meters, one to measure their consumption and the other to track monthly solar generation. For solar production up to 100% of monthly use, the credit is determined at the cooperative’s retail rate. Production above and beyond 100% of the members monthly use is paid a rate of $0.06/kWh. The FIT has a term of 10 years, which allows the producer to pay down the system faster, and guarantees the utility less expensive solar generation (between $0.08 and $0.10/kWh) in the future.

Members also have the option of using solar rebates rather that the FIT. The rebates amount to $0.50 per watt up to a maximum of $2,500. The rebate option adds flexibility to the individual member and how they choose to finance their project.

After six years of research, training, number-crunching, planning and careful investments, McKenna quietly lead FEC to the top tier of the nation’s solar utilities. Last year, (2014) FEC opened the largest solar farm in Iowa. The 2,900-panel solar array is capable of generating more than a million kilowatt-hours a year. With the solar array, Farmers Electric Cooperative is capable of generating 1158 watts of solar per customer, putting it among the highest per-capita solar generation rates of all the utilities in the country. In fact, it provides more than double its next closest competitor, and only recently was passed up by the Pickwick Cooperative in Tennessee, which now generates 1679 watts per customer. The ranking of utilities come from a recent report from the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA). But McKenna doesn’t plan on being #2 for very long. “By the end of 2015 we should exceed 2000 watts per customer.”

photo: 25X25blog

photo: 25X25blog


What’s in the future for Warren McKenna and FEC? “With the help of Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association we are working on passing Iowa PTC legislation to free up existing tax credits so that we can double the size of our solar farm… We started down this road doing experimental projects that proved successful. When we had consultants tell us the payback was 20 years and their recommendations weren’t favorable, the Board of Directors looked back at these first projects as proof that this technology worked and that we could count on it long term. The customer response and feedback has also supported our efforts to keep moving in the direction of adding even more locally sourced renewable energy. It’s been a win-win for the cooperative and its membership.”

FEC may be small, but their message is loud and clear. Like the innovators who started the Farmers Electric Cooperative to bring reliable electricity to rural residents in the last century, FEC continues to innovate, with a model that is leading the utility industry into the 21st century.

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Tesla’s Powerwall: Giant Leap or Small Step? https://solartribune.com/teslas-powerwall-giant-leap-or-small-step/ Wed, 06 May 2015 17:54:58 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=8914 Tesla’s announcement of their new Powerwall stationary battery created quite a whirlwind of excitement. As the dust begins to settle and the initial volleys of hyperbole from from both critics and fans die down, what does the launch of Elon Musk’s new brainchild actually mean for solar users? For those of you who have been […]

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Tesla’s announcement of their new Powerwall stationary battery created quite a whirlwind of excitement. As the dust begins to settle and the initial volleys of hyperbole from from both critics and fans die down, what does the launch of Elon Musk’s new brainchild actually mean for solar users?

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For those of you who have been under a rock for the last week, Uber-entrepreneur Elon Musk stepped out on stage at the Tesla Motors Hawthorne Design Studio on April 30th to announce the much anticipated release of their new, not-so-top secret product: a stand alone energy storage device called the Powerwall. According to the Tesla press release: “Powerwall is available in 10kWh, optimized for backup applications or 7kWh optimized for daily use applications. Both can be connected with solar or grid and both can provide backup power. The 10kWh Powerwall is optimized to provide backup when the grid goes down, providing power for your home when you need it most. When paired with solar power, the 7kWh Powerwall can be used in daily cycling to extend the environmental and cost benefits of solar into the night when sunlight is unavailable.

Tesla’s selling price to installers is $3500 for 10kWh and $3000 for 7kWh. (Price excludes inverter and installation.) Deliveries begin in late Summer (2015).

Powerwall specs:

Mounting: Wall Mounted Indoor/Outdoor
Inverter: Pairs with growing list of inverters
Energy: 7 kWh or 10 kWh
Continuous Power: 2 kW
Peak Power: 3.3 kW
Round Trip Efficiency: >92%
Operating Temperature Range: -20C (-4F) to 43C (110F)
Warranty: 10 years
Dimensions: H: 1300mm W: 860mm D:180mm”

One enthusiastic Blogger immediately proclaimed “Tesla’s Elon Musk Just Changed The World Forever” and followed the bold title with the statement that “Not since Karl Benz was tinkering around in his garage engineering what would become the automobile has history had a more defining moment than when Elon Musk unveiled the solar powered Tesla Energy Wall (sic).

It was a dream of Nikola Tesla to bring free energy to the world that eluded him his entire pioneering life but Elon Musk is going where no business heretofore has ever gone by smacking the faces of the most entrenched energy Robber Barons that have long suckled the profiteering teat of unsustainable energy.”

Forbes was one of many other, less enthusiastic news sources to take a major shot at the Powerwall with an article by Christopher Helman entitled “Why Tesla’s Powerwall Is Just Another Toy For Rich Green People.”

Despite the scathing title, The article is riddled with inaccuracies and questionable assumptions. For instance, the author states: “And here’s where the economics of the Powerwall break down. If you do not have a big enough solar system to get your home entirely off the grid, then there is simply no point whatsoever in paying 30 cents per kwh to get electricity via the Powerwall. At night, when you’re not generating solar power, you could simply get your electricity from the grid. For an average 12.5 cents a kwh.” Not only is he assuming that the power wall is only going to be used to store solar generation, but he is also adding the kWh cost of solar generation from a LEASED system to the kWh price of the Powerwall, then comparing it to an average kWh price, with no mention of the on-peak price in an expensive power market like California or Hawaii (or Jamaica, or Saudi Arabia), where the Powerwall would excel. Readers in the comments section pounded Mr. Helman, and he finally had to respond by saying: “… I honestly hope we all have economically sensible battery backups in our homes in 20 years. I’m thankful that rich, green early adopters lead the way.” In the fine print he is thankful for “rich, green early adopters,” despite the contemptuous tone of the articles title.

Ramez Naam may have the laid out the best, most comprehensive, big picture analysis of the significance of the Powerwall in his article, “Tesla Battery Economics: On the Path to Disruption.” Naam, unlike Helman, looks beyond the Power Wall’s ability to compete directly on simple economics against current, dirty U.S. fossil fueled electric generation. He notes that the U.S. is not the only market for the Powerwall. In many sunny countries, electrical prices are far higher. “Even Germany,” Naam points out, “gets enough sun that the price of rooftop solar is below that of grid electricity. And in Germany, feed-in-tarrifs to homes that put solar on the grid are plunging. There’s now a roughly 20 euro cent difference between the price of retail electricity and the feed in tariff in Germany. That’s 22 US cents. So if the Tesla battery is really 15 cents per kwh, it makes more sense for German solar customers to store their excess solar electricity in a battery than it does to provide it back to the grid.”

Naam also points out that:” For some parts of the US with time-of-use plans, this battery is right on the edge of being profitable. From a solar storage perspective, for most of the US, where Net Metering exists, this battery isn’t quite cheap enough. But it’s in the right ballpark. And that means a lot.

Net Metering plans in the US are filling up. California’s may be full by the end of 2016 or 2017, modulo additional legal changes. That would severely impact the economics of solar. But the Tesla battery hedges against that. In the absence of Net Metering, in an expensive electricity state with lots of sun, the battery would allow solar owners to save power for the evening or night-time hours in a cost effective way. And with another factor of 2 price reduction, it would be a slam dunk economically for solar storage anywhere Net Metering was full, where rates were pushed down excessively, or where such laws didn’t exist.
That is also a policy tool in debates with utilities. If they see Net Metering reductions as a tool to slow rooftop solar, they’ll be forced to confront the fact that solar owners with cheap batteries are less dependent on Net Metering.”

Even detractors like the writer at Forbes can’t completely hide their enthusiasm for what Musk has done. It has got to warm the heart of the most cynical free-market capitalist to see the rise of a figure like Musk. A disruptor, a big picture technologist on par with Thomas Edison, bringing forth innovation and a Master Plan by laying his own money on the table and taking personal responsibility for his failures, as well as successes. Unfortunately for the Forbes crowd, this time, the innovation is coming from outside the old boys network.

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Solar: A Good Technology in Bad Times https://solartribune.com/solar-a-good-technology-in-bad-times/ Wed, 29 Apr 2015 13:54:40 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=8872 No one can deny that the solar industry is booming. There may be disagreements as to why…opponents claim that solar is too dependent on government subsidies, while supporters point out that solar’s rise is due primarily to market demand for a solid new technology. One thing’s for sure, though– solar is flourishing in times that […]

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No one can deny that the solar industry is booming. There may be disagreements as to why…opponents claim that solar is too dependent on government subsidies, while supporters point out that solar’s rise is due primarily to market demand for a solid new technology. One thing’s for sure, though– solar is flourishing in times that are very uncertain, both economically and environmentally.

One of solar’s strongest selling points has always been its fixed cost. Paying up-front for electrical generation (or offsetting natural gas, in the case of solar thermal systems) has always been seen as a solid hedge against the inevitability of rising energy prices, or against other negative economic impacts, like inflation. The U.S. Energy Information (E.I.A.) that “Residential electricity prices increased during 2014, with growth ranging from 1.3% in the Pacific Coast states to 9.8% in New England.” Many consumers see this upward trend as a good reason to make the jump to solar.

Of course, the off-grid solar system is the energy source of choice of those who want a solid source of back-up electricity, are located in remote areas where grid power is impractical, or want to “cut the cord” to the utility company completely. Battery storage technology is a hot topic right now, with high profile investors like Elon Musk looking at the solar/battery option as a strong contender for future energy development. In addition, the “prepper” community has always seen solar as part of a portfolio of technologies necessary to survive against what they see as an inevitable collapse of society as we know it. As unlikely as some of these “doomsday scenarios” may seem to others, solar is proving to be an important tool for dealing with more localized catastrophes that are happening right now.

140226-folsom-lake-drought-january-720a_de41fd3a95ca62916f185ca9f8831f93For California farmers locked in the grip of a record-breaking drought, solar is providing a very real key to economic survival. California is suffering from a one-two punch from the drought– not only are crops suffering from lack of water, but hydroelectric dams are unable to generate electricity due to the low water levels. Almond farmers are among the worst hit, and some are adapting by downsizing their agricultural operations and installing large solar generating plants. Not only does this provide much-needed alternative income to the farmers, but it helps in offsetting the loss of the hydro-powered generation. According to Grist:

“Solar power has exploded in California over the past two years as a number of enormous utility-scale projects have come online. California has almost 10,000 megawatts of solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a national trade group, producing enough power to meet 5 percent of state demand in 2014. Over half of that is from big utility systems, which fill acres and acres with both photovoltaic and mirrored solar systems.”

Even in earthquake ravaged Nepal, solar is being utilized by search and rescue teams, triage centers and hospitals. A small non-profit organization, Empower Generation, was already working in Nepal at the time of the quake on April 25th, 2015. According to their website:

“On 27 April we set up a solar powered charging station at our office in Lazimpat and we are donating solar lights to hospitals in Kathmandu. We have also started working with fellow clean energy social enterprise Kopernik so we can distribute lights to Dhading, a region devastated by the quake, where we have three women entrepreneurs based…Rescue and relief efforts currently underway are being hindered by unreliable access to energy in the areas most affected. In the wake of this tragedy, Empower Generation is in a unique position to offer immediate relief on the ground with our existing inventory of solar power kits and our strong local distribution network.”
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Empower Generation is accepting donations to cover the cost of providing solar lighting to emergency workers and others as recovery efforts move forward in Nepal.

Aside from the more mundane day-to-day reliability of solar power as a source of clean, renewable energy, the very nature of solar generation makes it an ideal tool for mitigating the negative impacts of natural catastrophes, as well as man-made economic disasters. In good times or bad, solar helps to light the way to a bright future.

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Chinese Solar: The Sleeping Giant Is Waking To A New, Smoggy Sunrise https://solartribune.com/chinese-solar-the-sleeping-giant-is-waking-to-a-new-smoggy-sunrise/ Thu, 09 Apr 2015 22:13:10 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=8778 The Chinese government has set an ambitious new goal of 17.8GW of new installed solar capacity for this year. Can they reach it, and if so, what does it mean for the global solar industry? China’s National Energy Administration (NEA), has set a new PV target for 2015, which amounts to a whopping 27% more […]

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The Chinese government has set an ambitious new goal of 17.8GW of new installed solar capacity for this year. Can they reach it, and if so, what does it mean for the global solar industry?

China’s National Energy Administration (NEA), has set a new PV target for 2015, which amounts to a whopping 27% more than the 2014 target of 14GW. Also last month, it was announced that the last of Beijing’s four major coal-fired power plants will completely shut down. China Huaneng Group Corporation’s 845-megawatt power plant will close in 2016. Worldwide and domestic outrage over air-quality account for one reason for the new and ambitious moves to expand renewable energy development, but major economic factors are at play as well.

Last year, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, announced “Historic” CO2 reduction plans that would see the Chinese carbon emissions peak “around 2030” and then level out or begin to decline. President Xi also promised that by then, 20 percent of China’s energy will be renewable. Many question how effective this policy will be, as China’s emissions continue to skyrocket. Also, with the Chinese governments dictatorial authority over energy policy, why will it take so long?
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For better or worse, Chinese energy policy has generally been coherent, well organized and nimbly executed. When the nation required more energy to power it’s meteoric rise as the world’s industrial powerhouse, it needed only to proclaim that new coal-fired power plants be built, unhindered by any of the types of environmental debates held in democratic governments. By the same token, those plants can be shut down and replaced by cleaner gas-fired plants and new solar generation just as quickly, without any pushback from advocates of the “free market.”

Melanie Hart, a Policy Analyst on China Energy and Climate Policy at the Center for American Progress wrote in 2012: “Those policies are often difficult to parse because China’s economic system is not like that of the United States. It is a non-market economy with a top-down, command-and-control energy planning process that is often nontransparent with even more opaque interactions between the central government in Beijing and the provincial and local governments when these policies are implemented.” Hart was writing at that time about the trade dispute over China dumping low-cost solar panels in the U.S. market and the effect it was having on fledgeling American manufacturers.

Not only has China gained global dominance in Solar manufacturing, but it used its massive, unregulated coal plants to achieve that dominance. Hart pointed out three years ago that: The problem is China is particularly good at making things cheaply. At the lower end of the value chain, that is primarily due to the country’s low labor costs and massive supply chains. Also advantageous are China’s lax labor, safety, health, and environmental standards. At the higher end, that is often because the Chinese government provides generous subsidies and other forms of support for high-technology research, development, and commercialization. Low-cost Chinese manufacturing plays a large role in driving prices down for a wide range of products, including renewable energy technologies. Chinese manufacturing also plays a large role in pricing some U.S. manufacturers out of business, with many of those manufacturers claiming that the “China price” is driven by Chinese government intervention rather than natural market forces. If the Chinese government is intervening in a way that breaks trade rules then that type of rule breaking should be remedied in some way.”

The LED screen shows the rising sun in Tiananmen Square which is shrouded with heavy smog.

The LED screen shows the rising sun in Tiananmen Square which is shrouded with heavy smog.


The U.S. government has finally set tariffs on Chinese panels, but the measures are probably too little, too late. China has externalized the environmental costs of gaining industrial dominance (including the solar industry) by recklessly adding to global air and water quality problems through the construction of so many new coal-fired power plants. However, China may have been its own worst enemy. Despite the popular factoid that states “China builds a new coal fired power plant every week,” growth in demand for new generation is slowing, due to a contraction of the Chinese economy. Coal-fired capacity is over-built, and yet they have continued to build more plants. Now, their citizens are suffering from the governments environmental recklessness, their economy is in decline, and their access to US markets has been limited. The new, ambitious goal for solar installation may be less about forward looking vision, and more about damage control.

Regardless of the motivations behind the rapid movement toward a solar economy, the new solar push is a win/win situation all around. If the U.S. tariff does have an impact on the Chinese solar industry, the increased domestic demand will take up the excess supply, and hopefully, the Chinese people will begin to see a bright sunrise in clearer, less smoggy skies.

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Enviros and Tea Party Agree: Solar is Good for Florida https://solartribune.com/florida-ppa/ Mon, 23 Feb 2015 14:24:08 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=8703 Far-left environmental activists and far-right small government conservatives may seem like odd allies, but when it comes to making Florida a leader in solar energy, both sides agree. The time has come to open the market to solar power. California, Texas and Florida have a lot in common. They are the nations three most populated […]

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Far-left environmental activists and far-right small government conservatives may seem like odd allies, but when it comes to making Florida a leader in solar energy, both sides agree. The time has come to open the market to solar power.

California, Texas and Florida have a lot in common. They are the nations three most populated states. All three enjoy warm, sunny climates. All three have perfect conditions for producing massive amounts of solar power. However, Florida lags far behind the other two mega-states in solar electricity production. Why?

“Florida is the best solar market in the eastern United States, and it’s clearly underperforming,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which is part of a coalition of groups called Floridians for Solar Choice.

Florida is one of only five states in the United States that by law expressly denies citizens and businesses the freedom to buy solar power electricity directly from someone other than a monopoly electric utility. Now, Floridians for Solar Choice is working to place a question on the 2016 general election ballot asking voters to decide on expanding solar choice to Florida’s families and businesses. The ballot initiative would remove a barrier that currently blocks clean, renewable solar power.

One of the remarkable things about Floridians for Solar Choice is the diversity of its membership. According to In a recent poll, 74% of Florida voters said they would support a proposal to change Florida’s current law and allow Floridians to contract directly with solar companies to power their homes or businesses with solar energy, and the makeup of Floridians for Solar Choice reflects that broad base of support. The impressive list of supporters of Floridians for Solar Choice includes such diverse groups as the Christian Coalition of America, Conservatives for Energy Freedom, Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy, Florida Retail Federation, Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, Libertarian Party of Florida, Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, Republican Liberty Caucus of Tampa Bay, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, WTEC, Clean Water Action, Environment Florida, Evangelical Environmental Network, Greenpeace USA, IDEAS for Us, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Florida, ReThink Energy Florida, Sierra Club Florida and The Tea Party Network.

According to a recent article on The Wall Street Journal “…Utilities have long argued that customers should go through them for solar energy because they should help pay for the cost of maintaining the grid, which they still rely on for at least part of the day.”NA-CE750A_SOLAR_9U_20150220171510

Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Duke Energy Florida, which provides electricity in the central and northern part of the state, said the company was committed to working with lawmakers “to achieve energy policies, incorporating solar, that are fair and beneficial to all of our customers.”

As with the wind power industry before solar, many state-sanctioned monopoly utility providers have attempted to hold independent renewable energy generators at bay until the cost of solar production drops to the point at which it is profitable for them to jump in to the market. Now, utility companies like Duke Energy are looking to develop “Community Solar” projects. These “Solar Farms” do offer customers the option of buying clean energy and offsetting dirty coal powered generation, but without the personal and local economic benefits of rooftop solar. In addition, utility-scale solar continues reliance on an aging transmission and distribution system.

“What’s happening now in Florida is really blocking the free market,” said Tory Perfetti, state director of Conservatives for Energy Freedom. Meanwhile, activists in Georgia, Utah, Colorado and Iowa have all recently fought to open up their states electricity market to third party power providers.

Solar growth in states that allow third party power purchase agreement, particularly in the form of solar leases, illustrates clearly that the inability of Floridians to purchase solar power electricity directly from someone other than a monopoly electric utility is one of the major reasons that Florida’s Solar industry has not taken off. In California, for instance, solar installations skyrocketed with the implementation of solar lease agreements. According to a 2013 report from the Climate Policy Initiative:
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“Recently, steep solar panel cost reductions as well as strong federal and state policy supports have helped to catalyze substantial growth in rooftop solar PV deployment in California. Interestingly, this growth has happened in the face of declining financial incentives for solar installations at the state level through the California Solar Initiative. This growth has also been accompanied by a shift in market demand: Most homeowners in California are no longer purchasing the panels on their rooftops, they are leasing them. Over 75% of California’s new residential solar systems in 2012 were leased as compared to less than 10% in 2007.”

The fact that solar installations in California went up “in the face of declining financial incentives” is key to the successful alliance of far-right and far left in Georgia, and now in Florida. $0 up-front costs make installation a no-brainer for many people who want to make the jump to solar with little or no additional cost. Small-government, anti-tax conservatives like the “no government incentives” aspect of third party leases, and see it as a free-market solution which provides the individual with more energy independence. They are not required to agree with their environmentalist allies’ carbon-reduction goals or desire to reduce the effects of anthropogenic climate change.

Debbie Dooley, of the Georgia Tea Party and the Green Tea coalition stated the position clearly in an essay she wrote for Grist:

“The premise is simple: Those who believe in the free market need to reexamine the way our country produces energy. Giant utility monopolies deserve at least some competition, and consumers should have a choice. It’s just that simple, and it’s consistent with the free-market principles that have been a core value of the Tea Party since we began in 2009.”

Could the far-right and far-left find common ground on other issues? With the increased influence of corporate money in politics and the increase in government surveillance of citizens, it is within the realm of possibility that we may see these groups reunite again in the future over issues.

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Solar Adds to Home Sale Value, New Report Shows https://solartribune.com/solar-home-value/ Fri, 23 Jan 2015 19:54:47 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=8403 Over the last 10 years, there has been a great deal of debate over residential solar and its impact on the value of homes. Up until recently, information was incomplete and most information on the subject was anecdotal. A new study led by researchers at Lawrence Berkley labs finds that a solar installation does indeed […]

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Over the last 10 years, there has been a great deal of debate over residential solar and its impact on the value of homes. Up until recently, information was incomplete and most information on the subject was anecdotal. A new study led by researchers at Lawrence Berkley labs finds that a solar installation does indeed add significant value to homes.

Rooftop solar PV (photovoltaic) systems increased the sale of homes an average of $15,000, according to researchers led by Ben Hoen and Ryan Wiser of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkley Laboratory’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division. Berkley Labs worked on the report in cooperation with researchers from Adomatis Appraisal Services, Real Property Analytics/Texas A&M University, University of California at San Diego, San Diego State University, and Sandia National Laboratories.
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Their new study (entitled “Selling into the Sun: Price Premium Analysis of a Multi-State Dataset of Solar Homes”) found that home buyers are definitely willing to pay more for homes with a host-owned PV systems. Host-owned means that the system is owned by the property owner, not a third-party-owned or leased system. This study did not include information on third-party owned systems (but future research on the value of third-party-owned systems is planned for the future.) However, the study did cover eight states and various housing markets, PV markets and home types. The team analyzed nearly 22,000 sales of homes– almost 4,000 of which contained PV systems– in eight states from 1999 to 2013. This doubled the number of homes analyzed in previous studies and producing the most authoritative estimates to date of price premiums for U.S. homes with PV systems.

The researchers found that the “average premiums across the full sample equate to approximately $4/W or $15,000 for an average-sized 3.6-kW PV system. Only a small and non-statistically significant difference exists between PV premiums for new and existing homes, though some evidence exists of new home PV system discounting. A PV green cachet might exist, i.e., home buyers might pay a certain amount for any size of PV system and some increment more depending on system size. The market appears to depreciate the value of PV systems in their first 10 years at a rate exceeding the rate of PV efficiency losses and the rate of straight- line depreciation over the asset’s useful life. Net cost estimates—which account for government and utility PV incentives—may be the best proxy for market premiums, but income-based estimates may perform equally well if they accurately account for the complicated retail rate structures that exist in some states.”

“Previous studies on PV home premiums have been limited in size and scope,” says Ben Hoen, the lead author of the new report. “We more than doubled the number of PV home sales analyzed, examined a number of states outside of California, and captured the market during the recent housing boom, bust, and recovery.”

Interestingly, Forbes reported on an earlier 2011 report on the California real estate market Understanding the Solar Home Price Premium: Electricity Generation and ‘Green’ Social Status and found: “For the average installation, the authors found that solar panels added a $20,194 premium to the sales price of the house based on repeat sales data (houses were in the mid-$500,000 range). Solar is really expensive to install—the average total system cost is $35,967, but the effective price to homeowners with subsidies including the federal tax credit is $20,892. Thus, homeowners appear to recover approximately 97% of their investment costs – in addition to the savings associated with reduced energy bills.”

Reading the rather unimpressive report and the lukewarm response by Forbes only 4 years ago reflects the huge advances that the solar market is making as installed costs continue to drop. With more and homes featuring host-owned solar generation, the real estate industry is desperately in need of reliable methods to value the rapidly growing number of solar homes. The number of US homes with solar PV installations has grown to more than half a million, as of 2014.
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“As PV systems become more and more common on U.S. homes, it will be increasingly important to value them accurately, using a variety of methods,” says co-author Sandra Adomatis, an appraiser who helped develop the Appraisal Institute’s Green Addendum and who has written and spoken extensively on valuing green features. She noted, “Our findings should provide greater confidence that PV adds a quantifiable premium to a wide variety of homes in California and beyond.”

The research was supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative. The SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort that aggressively drives innovation to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade. Through SunShot, DOE supports efforts by private companies, universities, and national laboratories to drive down the cost of solar electricity to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour. Learn more at energy.gov/sunshot.

Readers who would like to read more about the research and the findings can download the full 2015 report, “Selling into the Sun: Price Premium Analysis of a Multi-State Dataset of PV Homes”, as well as a fact sheets, and a summary slide deck here.

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Gatherings of the Tribe: Grassroots Solar Events Build Community Support https://solartribune.com/gatherings-of-the-tribe-grassroots-solar-events-build-community-support/ Fri, 12 Dec 2014 03:27:09 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=8274 For many years now, I have had the pleasure of attending renewable energy expos, solar industry conventions and meetings of the “solar community” both large and small. As the solar energy industry has grown from a niche market into a mainstream technology, the media often focuses on large, international trade shows. But what about your […]

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For many years now, I have had the pleasure of attending renewable energy expos, solar industry conventions and meetings of the “solar community” both large and small. As the solar energy industry has grown from a niche market into a mainstream technology, the media often focuses on large, international trade shows. But what about your local solar get-together?

The Solar Power International conference turns 15 this year, and The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) held its 19th annual National Solar Tour in 2014, with fledgeling events like PV America offering new forums for solar pros to get together and see the latest that the industry has to offer. But what about the regional, state and local events? Some of these grassroots solar pow-wows have been around even longer than the “big boys,” and are still going strong. What I love about these more “homegrown” events is that they really foster a sense of community. They are also the first step for many solar newbies into the wonderful world of sustainable living.

Texas Renewable Roundup   photo:digitaljournal.com

Texas Renewable Roundup photo:digitaljournal.com


For example, the Texas Solar Energy Society has fourteen years under its belt with their annual Renewable Energy Roundup and Sustainable Living Expo, which takes place in Belton, Texas. In 2014, they featured speakers on not only solar issues, but topics like “Rainwater Collection: 10,000 Years in the Making,” “Combining Wind and Solar Power Systems in the Home” “Backyard Aquaponic Farming: From Small to Large Systems,” “Building a High Performance Home- the Balance Between Your Vision & Wallet,” and “Electric Vehicles: Creating the Market in Texas.”

SolWest is Oregon’s long-running renewable energy fair, now going into its 17th year. SolWest takes place every June, where, according to their website, “Dozens of one-hour workshops help participants understand the basics of solar electricity, low-cost do-it-yourself solar projects, setting up wind, microhydro, or solar hot water systems, creating an off-grid paradise, constructing green buildings, raising small livestock, gardening, preserving food, and more.”

SolarFest in Vermont started in 1995 when a “group of friends with overlapping passions for music and renewable energy planned a big party.” In 2015, Vermont SolarFest will celebrate their 20th anniversary by staying true to their roots, celebrating music, art and renewable energy.

Way up North,the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) has hosted their annual Alaska Renewable Energy Fair for 10 years. They feature workshops on self-sufficiency topics, off-grid living, residential and commercial solar, and even sustainable 401K investing!

The grandaddy of all of the grassroots renewable energy gatherings is the Midwest Renewable Energy Associations Energy Fair. In 2015, they will celebrate 26 years of gathering in the woods of Wisconsin near Custer, just outside of Stevens Point. This event draws as many as 25,000 people each summer, and offers three days of non-stop classes, workshops, demonstrations and camaraderie. Every major manufacturer of solar equipment exhibits at the Energy Fair, but unlike the big industry trade shows, MREA’s event has the added attraction of locally brewed Wisconsin Beer and live music under the tall pines, not to mention the VERY Wisconsin tradition of a Sunday morning pancake breakfast, with a LIVE POLKA BAND!! You haven’t lived until you have done the “Chicken Dance” with a bunch of hung-over solar industry reps, jacked on fresh maple syrup and organic coffee!

photo:MREA

photo:MREA


These renewable energy fairs, sustainable living of expos and solar festivals may lack the slick polish of a major international trade show, but they retain the “hippie spirit” that kept solar and windpower technology moving forward during the dark days of the 80’s and early 90’s. After President Reagan “pulled the plug” on subsidies for renewable energy projects in the early 80’s, these technologies were orphaned, and subsequently adopted by off-griders and “back-to-the-landers.” In the late 90’s, There was a bump in interest in solar due to concerns about grid-security related to the “Y2K bug.” Thankfully, Y2K came and went with only comparatively minor computer issues, but the interest in solar and wind power remained. Now, these gatherings of the “solar tribe” have gained main-stream legitimacy, but in many cases, they have kept their backwoods roots. At the MREA festival, you find an amazingly eclectic mix. From Silicon Valley executives to Amish farmers, Chicago IBEW electricians to organic farmers, visitors and solar enthusiasts from Iceland to India. The workshops continue to showcase workshops on “Do it Yourself” (DIY) projects, but increasingly they also include sessions on tax issues, grants loans and other financing options, building and electrical code issues, professional certification and other issues relevant to solar pros.

Next summer, if you are a solar professional, a homeowner exploring the possibilities of solar for your home, or a business owner looking into the opportunities to take advantage of the benefits of solar, take a look at the events close to home. Chances are, you will have a great time, learn a lot, meet some wonderful people, and come home at the end of the weekend with a new-found excitement for solar.

To find a local, state or regional solar, renewable energy or sustainable living event in your area, check the following resources:Home Power Magazine– Events page

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