Solar Energy News – Solar Tribune https://solartribune.com Solar Energy News, Analysis, Education Wed, 26 Feb 2020 14:20:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.4.1 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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Elon Musk’s Complete Master Plan https://solartribune.com/master-plan/ Sun, 16 Feb 2020 12:24:10 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=11110 Sustainable energy and transport, shared autonomy, and saving the world. Here’s how Elon Musk’s vision is becoming reality. Tesla Master Plan, Part 1 From 0 to Mainstream: Hot off the heels of his PayPal victory and determined to change the status quo, Musk launched Tesla in 2003, at the same time he was building SpaceX. His […]

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Sustainable energy and transport, shared autonomy, and saving the world. Here’s how Elon Musk’s vision is becoming reality.

Tesla Master Plan, Part 1

From 0 to Mainstream: Hot off the heels of his PayPal victory and determined to change the status quo, Musk launched Tesla in 2003, at the same time he was building SpaceX. His Master Plan for the nascent company was essentially as follows:

  • Build sports car that runs on zero-emission electric power generation
  • Use the revenue to build an affordable electric car
  • Use that revenue to build an even more affordable electric car

“The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium, and then drive down market as fast as possible to higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model,” he writes on Tesla’s blog.

1. Create a low volume car, which would necessarily be expensive

Source: Tesla.com

The Roadster, Redefining The Electric Car: Tesla debuted the Roadster, a luxury electric sports car, in 2008. The vehicle was the first mass-produced electric car to use lithium-ion batteries, and the first to travel more than 200 miles on a single charge.

Just as he envisioned, the Roadster immediately broke preconceptions about what an electric car could be. The vehicle set the world distance record of 501 km for a production electric car on a single charge in October 2009; It could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds.

Tesla sold 2,450 of these high-end sports cars at a base price point of $109,000, and funneled the revenue into development of the Model S.The company stopped producing the Roadster in 2012, and plans to replace it with a second-generation version in 2019. Even so, the original Roadster served its purpose by raising eyebrows, funding the Model S, and setting Tesla’s Master Plan into motion.

Musk put as much of the profits from the Roadster as possible back into research and development, with the aim of creating a slightly more affordable but still luxurious family-oriented car.

2. Use that money to develop a medium volume car at a lower price

Source: Tesla.com

Model S, Setting the Standard for Luxury Cars: Telsa released the Model S, a second-generation luxury vehicle at a lower price point, in 2012. The new model became one of the top-selling all-electric vehicles in the world and won numerous awards, including Time Magazine’s Best 25 Inventions of the Year Award in 2012 and Motor Trend Car of the Year in 2013.

Model X, Addressing the Other Half of the Car Market: Tesla rolled out the Model X, a luxury SUV sporting falcon-wing doors, in September 2012. While the model was absent from the company’s original master plan, Musk couldn’t ignore the fact that SUVs comprised 50% of the vehicle market.

The car was difficult to manufacture, and the pace of deliveries suffered. Soon after its release, a litany of glitches appeared. While many were related to the falcon-wing doors (such as the possibility of injury while closing), customers also reported issues with stubborn front doors, frozen touch-screens, and underperforming heaters. Elon now refers to the Model X as “step 2.5” of his Master Plan, and claims that Tesla’s “hubris” in adding so many new features was the source of its flaws.

3. Use that money to create an affordable, high volume car

Source: Tesla.com

Model 3, Mass-Market Adoption: With the Model S and Roadster under its belt and the Model X behind it, Tesla is now working on the key piece of its strategy—a high-volume car with a low price point. Meant for the masses, the Model 3 will start at a mere $35,000 before government incentives.

More than 100,000 pre-orders for the Model 3 flooded in sight-unseen in the 24 hours before Musk even displayed the prototype in March 2016. There were roughly 400,000 total pre-orders as of May 2017.

Production of the Model 3 is slated to begin in mid-2017 and ramp up to 500,000 cars per year in 2018. The first deliveries are scheduled for late 2017.

4. Provide solar power

Solar roof tiles. Source: Tesla.com

Tesla Acquires SolarCity for a “Whole-Home” Energy Solution: While the Powerwall can work in concert with solar panels and Tesla car chargers, truly seamless integration would require a merge between SolarCity and Tesla, Musk decided. Tesla bought SolarCity in 2016, moving Musk one step closer to his vision of a comprehensive energy solution for consumers, complete with rooftop solar generation, battery storage, and electric vehicle charging. SolarCity is slated to begin producing solar panels at its own gigafactory in Buffalo, New York in the summer of 2017.

Re-Inventing Solar for the Mass Market: With the other pieces of the renewable energy puzzle in place, Musk felt it was it was time to take rooftop solar to the next level. That meant a differentiated solar product with curb appeal for the masses—the solar roof.

Tesla rolled out roof tiles with invisible solar cells to widespread acclaim in October 2016. The tiles provide greater coverage with a seamless, integrated aesthetic. Homeowners can choose from four different styles that mimic traditional shingles. Made of tempered glass, they’re also quite tough; the tiles are designed to withstand hail impacts of up to 200 mph. Tesla’s solar roof lasts longer than a traditional roof, and at a lower cost when factoring in the electricity it generates.

The solar roof product was approved for permitting and installations by from Underwriters Laboratories (UL) in May 2017, and installations will begin in California in June 2017. Inventory has already sold out well into 2018.

 

Tesla Master Plan, Part 2

With the company’s initial goals well on their way to fruition, Musk publicly expanded his Master Plan in a 2016 blog post. He mapped out Tesla’s future endeavors as follows:

  • Integrate energy generation and storage
  • Expand to cover the major forms of terrestrial transport
  • Implement self-driving technology
  • Enable car sharing

1. Integrate Energy Generation and Storage

Source: Tesla.com

Home storage: Storage has long been considered the “holy grail” for solar. When paired with storage, intermittent renewables like solar and wind can be just as reliable as energy based on fossil fuels. Storage can also sync solar production (which peaks at midday) with demands on the grid (which spike in the morning and evening).

While there are various ways to store energy, batteries are the only practical option for homes. Still, household-sized batteries remained expensive and difficult to maintain. Musk knew that solving storage would change the game for solar.

He achieved this goal in 2015 when Tesla released the Powerwall, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery for residential storage, and the Powerpack, a larger version for commercial and utility-scale projects.

The attractive, sculpture-like Powerwall simply mounts to an external or internal wall, and requires little maintenance. It debuted at an astonishing $3,000, and sold out through the following year almost immediately.

Scaled Battery Production: Musk knew that making batteries attractive and affordable wasn’t enough—rooftop solar with storage had to meet or beat the utilities on cost per watt. That meant large-scale production.

In 2013, Tesla announced plans to build a massive “gigafactory” near Reno, Nevada. While the facility is still under construction, it began producing battery cells for Powerwalls and Powerpacks in January 2017. The factory is about 30% complete, with roughly 4.9 million square feet of operational space planned. That figure may eventually double. Even at its originally planned footprint, the facility is the world’s largest building by square footage. Boeing’s plant in Everest, Washington comes in second at 4.3 million square feet.

Source: Tesla.com

The massive facility will manufacture 35GWh of battery cells and 50GWh of packs per year by 2020, all with renewable energy. Production at the gigafactory will likely slash the cost of batteries by more than 30%. A total of just 100 such facilities could provide the storage needed to transition the entire world to sustainable energy.

While Tesla can’t build all 100 of them, Gigafactory 1 is just the beginning. The company will also release plans for 2-4 new gigafactories later this year. Musk is hoping that other companies follow his lead and build their own gigafactories to address the world’s energy needs.

2. Expand Into All Forms of Ground-Based Transportation

With the SolarCity deal locked in and construction on Gigafactory 1 underway, Tesla could focus on the next phase of its Master Plan—expanding its line of vehicles. A full transition from fossil fuels to clean energy would require heavy-duty electric trucks and vehicles for shipping goods, in addition to passenger sedans and SUVs.

Tesla Semi. In December of 2017, Musk unveiled the Tesla Semi. Musk projects the new vehicle will beat diesel trucks on cost per mile, and has an estimated range of up to 500 miles. Tesla plans to begin production of the vehicle in 2019.

 

 

Next-Gen Tesla Roadster. At the Tesla Sami unveil event, Elon Musk surprised the audience by revealing a refresh of the car that originally launched Tesla, the Roadster. Boasting a record-braking 0-60 mph acceleration of 1.9 seconds and 620 miles of range, the the new Roadster aimed to provide  “the hardcore smackdown” to internal combustion engine vehicles.

 

Cybertruck. On November 21, 2019 Tesla launched its entry into the lucrative pickup market with the unveil of Cybertruck. “It doesn’t look like anything else,” proclaimed Elon once the truck came onstage. As the demonstration continued, it became clear that the Cybertruck did not have the specs and performance of anything else, either. Drawing from innovations at SpaceX, the Cybertruck abandoned the traditional body on frame design of all other cars in favor of cold-Rolled stainless-steel exoskeleton.

 

During a demonstration gone awry, Franz von Hozhausen threw a steel ball that shattered two of the trucks windows. Between the botched demonstration and the futuristic cyberpunk appearance of the truck, the unveil made waves across the media, internet, and cultural zeitgeist.

 

3. Vehicle Autonomy

Musk plans to roll out autonomous capability as soon as possible, and not just for the coolness factor—he’s primarily concerned with safety. Tesla will integrate self-driving components such as cameras, radar, and sonar with all of its vehicles as the technology evolves, he reports. Autonomous systems will be fail-operational, meaning that a vehicle will still drive itself safely if a component system breaks. While it will be some time before self-driving vehicles become street-legal, Tesla cars will be ready.

“I should add a note here to explain why Tesla is deploying partial autonomy now, rather than waiting until some point in the future,” Musk writes on Tesla’s blog. “The most important reason is that, when used correctly, it is already significantly safer than a person driving by themselves and it would therefore be morally reprehensible to delay release simply for fear of bad press or some mercantile calculation of legal liability.”

4. Sharing

Once your car is self-driving, you can put it to work for you when you’re not using it, Musk says. It will essentially be an “Uber driver,” but in Tesla’s shared fleet. Your Tesla may eventually end up paying for itself, meaning that anyone could afford to buy one.

 

It’s a win-win for both Tesla and the consumer, and the final phase of Tesla’s Master Plan—as far as we know. Judging from the company’s history, it could be the path to funding “Master Plan: Phase 3.” Musk may just be getting started.

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Solar Industry Overcomes Trump, Thrives in 2019 https://solartribune.com/solar-industry-overcomes-trump-thrives-in-2019/ Fri, 27 Dec 2019 16:18:30 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=67209 The U.S. solar industry faced its share of headwinds heading into 2019, but through it all, the industry showed remarkable resiliency and is poised to experience another year of solid growth. Record-Breaking Quarter The record-breaking pace of solar PV adoption in the United States showed little sign of letting up in 2019. This was the […]

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The U.S. solar industry faced its share of headwinds heading into 2019, but through it all, the industry showed remarkable resiliency and is poised to experience another year of solid growth.

Record-Breaking Quarter

The record-breaking pace of solar PV adoption in the United States showed little sign of letting up in 2019. This was the main takeaway of the most recent edition of the U.S. Solar Market Insight report, jointly put together by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.

The report highlights a number of accolades, including:

  • Residential solar capacity added in the U.S. in Q3 2019 hit a new record at over 700 MW.
  • California remains the largest residential solar market in the U.S., with a record-breaking 300 MW of residential solar capacity installed in Q3 2019.
  • The U.S. solar market installed 2.6 GW of solar electricity capacity in Q3 2019, representing a 45% increase from Q3 2018.
  • A cumulative total of 21.3 GW of new utility PV projects were announced in the first 3 quarters of 2019, bringing the total contracted utility PV pipeline to a record high 45.5 GW.
  • Total installed solar PV capacity in the U.S. is expected to more than double over the next 5 years.

The continued maturation of the residential and utility solar PV markets is especially noteworthy.

Not only was Q3 2019 the best quarter ever for installed residential solar PV capacity, but it was also the first quarter ever that a Northeast state – a region noted historically as being a national leader in residential solar – wasn’t listed among the top 5 state residential solar PV markets. The top 5 states instead include legacy markets like California, Florida, and Arizona but also emerging markets like Texas and Nevada. This reality shows both the maturation of the solar industry over the past couple decades and the room still left for the industry to grow as emerging state solar markets in the Sun Belt and Mountain West continue to take hold.

Source: Solar Tribune generated graphic; data from Wood Mackenzie/SEIA report

The surge in utility-scale solar PV growth is being driven primarily by corporate users that continue to be drawn to the falling costs associated with utility-scale solar. As we’ve documented before here at Solar Tribune, major corporations like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and many others have signed on to significant power purchase agreements (PPAs) in recent years to help meet ambitious renewable energy goals. Approximately 4 GW of utility-scale projects that are expected to come online in 2020 will have a corporate user, representing just under 30% of the utility-scale solar market forecast in 2020.

Market pressure will cause more and more corporate users to make pledges to be powered 100% by renewables in the near future. This fact coupled with the demand by corporate users to take advantage of low-price PPAs before the step down of the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) points to there being little slow down in the utility-scale solar market. Cumulative figures for solar capacity in 2019 are not yet available, but the industry’s momentum is unmistakably strong.

 

Overcoming Tariffs, Trump, and Tumult

The fact that domestic solar energy production has grown so steadily in recent years is somewhat miraculous given the wholesale efforts by the Trump Administration to knock the industry down.

Reasonable people of all political stripes can debate how much effort the government should put into subsidizing the solar industry. However, its hard to justify the actions that the Trump Administration has pursued to cripple renewables – and prop up fossil fuels – unless done so on purely cynical political grounds.

Here’s just a sampling of Trump Administration policies that have undermined the solar industry:

These actions have made solar projects more expensive for consumers by hiking material costs and reducing attractive financing options. And this list doesn’t even include things like the rolling back of Obama-era regulations on power plant emissions and the withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord – symbolic gestures signaling the Administration’s lack of interest in investing in renewables.

Let’s be clear, the above actions by the Trump Administration have had a significantly negative impact on the solar industry, not to mention the untold number of people and families that rely on the industry for their livelihoods. An analysis by the SEIA notes that the tariffs imposed in January 2018 will wipe out over 62,000 jobs, $19B in investment and 10.5 GW of solar capacity. These estimates cover projected tariff impacts starting from the 2017 section 201 trade complaint filed by Suniva through the tariff life cycle ending in 2021.

Source: SEIA

 

Solar Continues to Trump Coal

President Trump has not made his love of the coal industry – and disdain of renewables – any secret. All evidence, however, continues to point to the Trump Administration’s all-out push to prop up the U.S. coal industry as being an exercise in futility.

Source: CNBC

The performance of the U.S. coal industry during the Trump Administration has mirrored much of what the industry has done this Century – it’s cratered. Don’t take my word for it, here’s what the Energy Information Administration (EIA) has to say:

“EIA expects U.S. coal production in 2019 to total 697 million short tons (MMst), which would be an 8% decline from the 2018 level. In 2020, EIA expects a further decrease in total U.S. coal production of 14%, to an annual total of 601 MMst, reflecting continued idling and closures of mines as a result of declining domestic demand.”

Further…

“EIA forecasts the share of U.S. electric generation from coal to average 25% in 2019 and 22% in 2020, down from 28% in 2018.”

Meanwhile, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) notes that the non-hydro renewables industry is expected to be the “fastest growing source of U.S. electricity generation for at least the next two years.” Trump’s own Department of Energy notes that solar installations since 2008 “have grown 35-fold to an estimated 62.5 gigawatts (GW) today.”

No fake news here, Mr. President. Just the cold hard facts.

Despite a harsher regulatory environment in Washington over the past couple years, the U.S. solar industry has plenty of upward momentum. California’s solar mandate for new residences, an uptick in corporate procurement of solar power, and more investments in solar by utility companies across the country are all positive trends helping the solar industry overcome the obstacles that the Trump Administration has put in its way.

 

Cover Photo Source: Cnn.com

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Solar-Powered Cars: The Future of Personal Transportation? https://solartribune.com/solar-powered-cars-the-future-of-personal-transportation/ Fri, 29 Nov 2019 15:14:25 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=67083 The widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles into our daily lives seems like an inevitability that is just around the corner. A recent flurry of activity in the auto industry around solar-powered cars, however, has momentarily supplanted autonomous technology as the most talked about innovation in the industry, as the once fanciful idea starts to enter […]

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The widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles into our daily lives seems like an inevitability that is just around the corner. A recent flurry of activity in the auto industry around solar-powered cars, however, has momentarily supplanted autonomous technology as the most talked about innovation in the industry, as the once fanciful idea starts to enter the mainstream.

A Brief History of Solar Cars

Despite their futuristic reputation, solar-powered cars have been around in some form or fashion for several decades. William G. Cobb of General Motors is credited with creating the first solar car back in 1955. Cobb’s invention – dubbed the “Sunmobile” was not a passenger car by any conventional measure as it was just a tiny 15-inch model car made of balsa wood and equipped with 12 selenium PV cells and a small electric motor.

Source: Wikipedia

The first functional solar-powered car built to-scale is thought to have been built in 1980 by a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University. Although weighing in at over 1,320 pounds, the clunky vehicle was neither functional nor visually appealing.

Source: ResearchGate.net

In this century, solar cars have mainly been associated with record-breaking speed pursuits and higher educational purposes.

The Innovators Educational Foundation (IEF) is a non-profit that has organized collegiate level solar car racing in North America since 1980. The IEF hosts two premier events annually, the American Solar Challenge and the Formula Sun Grand Prix, where teams of college students compete against each other to see who has the fastest solar-powered vehicle. The solar vehicles resemble bobsleds more than passenger cars, but they are marvels of modern engineering having the ability of reaching speeds of over 50 mph while using less power than a hair dryer.

The World Solar Challenge is a similar competition held biennially in Australia that welcomes 50+ international teams of competitors representing dozens of countries. The Ashiya University Sky Ace TIGA is the current Guinness World record holder for fastest solar-powered vehicle, achieving a top speed of 56.75 mph in Japan in 2014.

Musk Goes from Skeptic to Believer

Elon Musk once again captivated the attention of the global auto market recently in a way that only he can. No, he wasn’t launching another Tesla-made vehicle into outer space again (it’s still up there, by the way). He instead unveiled the much-anticipated Tesla Cybertruck – an all-electric battery-powered vehicle that represents Tesla’s first foray into the pickup truck market. As expected, the new-age Cybertruck comes with a number of outside-the-box features, including; an ultra-durable 30X cold-rolled stainless-steel body, armored glass windows, on-board power inverter, fully autonomous capabilities, and much more.

One of the more surprising pronouncements about the Cybertruck’s specs and capabilities came the day after the unveil when Musk revealed the following on Twitter:

Musk’s embrace of solar panels on cars represents a 180 of sorts from his previous stance on the topic. He has long been skeptical about the efficacy of generating power from solar panels affixed to the roof of a car, citing surface area limitations and the amount of time that cars spend in garages and in shaded areas as primary reasons to not embrace the technology. Musk most prominently shot down the idea during the Q and A portion of his appearance at the 2017 National Governors Association summer meeting in Rhode Island:

In responding to a question from Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont, Musk stated, in part:

“Putting solar panels on the car itself…not that helpful…The least efficient place to put solar is on the car…It’s way better to put it on a roof.”

Musk also mentioned that just a year earlier he flirted with the idea of offering a solar roof as an option on the Model 3 in the form of a “retractable” deployable solar shield in order to provide the surface area necessary to generate meaningful amounts of solar energy. He asked Tesla engineers to look into it, but they ultimately came to the same conclusion – putting solar panels on vehicles wasn’t a worthwhile pursuit.

So, what changed to make Musk do an about-face on the topic? For one, solar cells continue to get more and more efficient, as we’ve noted before. Technological advancements with malleable, thin film multi-junction cells in particular have significantly advanced the reality of equipping vehicles with solar cells. Industry-leading thin film solar cells can achieve solar efficiency scores above 30%, thanks to companies like Alta Devices that have broken new ground in the quest for making thinner, lighter, more flexible solar cells that remain highly efficient.

Secondly, Musk’s embrace of solar panels on personal vehicles is likely also a response to the evolving competitive landscape. Some of the world’s biggest automobile companies are developing hybrid electric vehicles equipped with solar capabilities. A direct competitor of Tesla’s in the pickup truck sub-market – Ford – plans to release a hybrid electric version of its famed F-150 as early as next year. By equipping the Tesla Cybertruck with solar energy capturing capabilities at such an early stage, Musk is establishing a key differentiator with what is likely to be their biggest competitor before that competitor’s product has even hit the market.

Solar-Powered Cars and the Consumer Market

Rest assured that Tesla isn’t the only company planning to bring solar-powered vehicles to market. In just recent years, the consumer market for solar-powered vehicles has taken shape as iconic global brands and little-known startups alike race to perfect the technology that will bring solar-powered cars into the mainstream.

In Japan, Toyota is experimenting with a version of its Prius Prime, equipped with 860 watts worth of high efficiency thin film solar cells on the car’s hood, roof, and rear hatch. Toyota claims that the solar panels affixed to the car have an efficiency rating of 34%, providing the car with enough energy to travel 35 miles on a sunny day.

Source: GreenCarReports.com

While Toyota’s Prius Prime is still undergoing testing and not quite ready for the consumer market, Hyundai released a solar-powered version of their Sonata Hybrid in August of this year. Hyundai claims that 30-60% of the car’s battery can be charged solely by solar energy, and with about six hours of charge per day from solar energy, the car can increase travel distance by about 807 miles per year.

The solar-equipped version of Hyundai’s Sonata Hybrid is available in South Korea, and the company eventually plans to enter the North American market in early 2020.

Source: CNBC

Auto giants like Toyota and Hyundai aren’t the only ones diving into the solar-powered vehicle space; the start up community is also getting in on the action.

Co-CEOs Laurin Hahn and Jona Christians founded Sono Motors in 2016 with the sole purpose of bringing a solar-powered electric vehicle to the market. That dream has been realized in the form of the Sion, the company’s lone vehicle offering that is scheduled to be introduced into the European market next year.

Unlike the aforementioned vehicles, the Sion is virtually covered in solar panels. A total of 248 solar panels cover every plausible part of the car’s body, including doors and side panels. This unique design was created so that the car could capture solar energy regardless of the sun’s angle in the sky. The company claims that the Sion can add an estimated 3,600 miles per year in driving distance from solar energy. When driven short distances – like by urban commuters – the car is completely self-sufficient.

The general lack of garages in European households and the car’s small, compact build and ridesharing capabilities make it perfectly equipped for the European lifestyle. The company is solely focused on the European market at this time for the Sion (priced at approx. $27,500) and has no current plans to introduce the car elsewhere.

If the budget-friendly Sion is the equivalent of a basic Honda Civic, then its counterpart – Lightyear One – may as well be the renewable energy version of a Rolls Royce. With an expected retail price of about $170,000, the Lightyear One is by far the most luxurious solar-powered car to soon be made available to consumers. The prototype of the vehicle was unveiled earlier this year and production is planned for 2021.

Lightyear the company is the brainchild of former University of Eindhoven (The Netherlands) engineering students who competed in the World Solar Challenge race and won in 2013, 2015, and 2017.

The sleek Lightyear One is outfitted with 54 square feet of solar panels covering its roof and hood that are able to charge the car’s battery at a rate of nearly 7.5 miles of charge per hour. The Lightyear One is equipped with batteries that will hold enough energy for up to 450 miles of driving, an impressive feat that eclipses the electric vehicle market-leading 370 miles range afforded by the Tesla Model S.

There are few industries in the world that are innovating as rapidly as the automobile and renewable energy industries. While there is reason to be skeptical about the unproven technology, solar-powered cars have the potential to make progress in combating climate change in ways that could have only been imagined decades ago. It will be interesting to see if solar-powered cars take off now that several models of solar-powered vehicles are soon to be made available on the consumer market. Regardless, the ongoing popularization of electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, and solar-assisted vehicles in lieu of the gas guzzling automobiles of yesteryear is a development worth celebrating.

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Climate Change Policy Measures: Identifying Priorities, Particularly Outside of the Usual Suspects https://solartribune.com/climate-change-policy-measures-identifying-priorities-particularly-outside-of-the-usual-suspects/ Wed, 16 Oct 2019 14:07:38 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=66390 With the 2020 Presidential race already heating up, issues surrounding climate change, clean energy, and what policy mechanisms are the most critical ones for the federal government to employ are getting more of a spotlight than ever before. While ideas like research & development, tax credits, and carbon prices are among the first policy levers […]

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With the 2020 Presidential race already heating up, issues surrounding climate change, clean energy, and what policy mechanisms are the most critical ones for the federal government to employ are getting more of a spotlight than ever before. While ideas like research & development, tax credits, and carbon prices are among the first policy levers candidates and pundits may look to pull, many are starting to advocate for new, creative, and even niche policies.

Decades after climate scientists first started sounding the alarm on climate change and a full 12 years after Vice President Al Gore stood on stage to warn us about climate change’s Inconvenient Truth, the Sunrise Movement and the policy package that came to be known as the Green New Deal finally seemed to bring desire for action to the United States federal government. While the complete package of a Green New Deal looks to be a long shot – at least at this point in time – to be passed, it succeeded in bringing the conversation about climate action to the forefront of American politics.

For example, whereas in previous elections it was simple enough to separate potential Presidential candidates by those who prioritized climate action and those who did not, the field of 2020 Democratic candidates are now forced to bring their actionable climate plans to voters and defend not just that climate action is necessary but that their particular plan is the one that will get the job done in time. While of course the question of how high on each candidate’s priority list energy and climate lie is up for debate, voters (and donors) are paying more attention than ever before and the seven-hour town hall on climate change that CNN hosted with the prospective candidates demonstrated the level of detail at which voters are now looking.

Photo source: CNN.com

All that is set up to say: what are the right policy measures that should be utilized by the U.S. government? The clean energy community certainly doesn’t speak with a singular voice, and you’ll have portions of the climate advocacy population ardently defending carbon taxes vs. renewable portfolio standards; investment tax credits vs. deregulating electricity markets; policies for transportation emissions vs. industrial emissions; and many more. This segmentation can be damaging in the short-term because those fighting against spending money on climate action or for placing regulations on corporations tend to be unified, but in the long run, it’s critical that the federal government’s role in climate action be chosen deliberately, carefully, and with all the facts. Germany’s progress towards emissions reductions, for example, was delayed a damaging amount due to acting too quickly and going down arguably the wrong path. So, while inaction is wasting time, going down the wrong pathway (pouring time and resources into the non-ideal solutions) can be just as damaging towards the ultimate goal.

That conversation about which policies are the most critical is the basis of Solar Tribune’s Climate Policy Primer. In this ongoing project, we’re connecting with stakeholders across industries, regions, and positions to ask them about which climate change policies are the most singularly important in their opinion. These conversations we’re continuing to have are informing and growing this living document (and if you’d like to share your two cents, please don’t hesitate to reach out!), so I’d encourage you to refer to that page to see about some of the identified priorities in climate policy, the very issue that’s being debated on the federal and electoral stages today.

While this is a process that is of course still ongoing, a number of interesting trends have been popping up. One intriguing occurrence I noticed quickly was how many people, when narrowed down to a single policy to discuss, advocate for those that were not in the list of usual suspects like carbon pricing, tax credits, or mandatory renewable energy goals. Rather, these advocates were passionate about first and foremost identifying and bringing up climate change policy measures that are less likely to be discussed in the soundbites from the campaign trail. This trend could identify an opportunity for the innovative and forward-looking candidates to blaze a new trail and connect with climate-concerned voters in new ways, but more importantly, these experts in their fields simply saw the measures as being too critical to land anywhere other than the top of the priority list.

A few examples of these less commonly discussed climate policy options include the following…

Land Use Policies

Solar Tribune connected with Protect Our Winters about the climate policy question. This organization was founded by a professional snowboarder who inherently treasured the natural landscapes on Earth and saw the dangers that climate change had begun posing to all outdoor spaces. The concern for areas to hike, to snowboard, and to enjoy nature are naturally paired with all of the questions of climate change. From the mission statement of Protect Our Winters, the organization notes:

“Right now, we have the luxury of worrying about how climate change might impact the outdoor industry. Right now, we get to help dictate the outcome rather than react to a foregone conclusion. If we sit on our hands for the next two decades, we won’t be worried about powder days, tourism or having fun. We’ll be worried about the stability of our environment, our jobs, and our economy.”

Inherent to this inclination to protect nature comes the unique perspective on what climate change approaches are most important.  When I talked to Lindsay Bourgoine, Director of Policy & Advocacy of Protect Our Winters, she shared the following sentiment:

“Public lands not only enhance carbon sequestration, but their protection often removes them as a fossil fuel development opportunity. As an example, on the Arctic Refuge, not only do we oppose the drilling of this land because of the human rights issues and conservation issues, but also because the indirect emissions that would come from such drilling would be equivalent to about a million new cars on the road. Protecting public lands is protecting the climate.”

While many of the most commonly shared ideas on fighting climate change focus on the need to minimize the man-made CO2 emissions emitted into the atmosphere, the focus on land use policies instead prioritize maximizing Earth’s natural tendencies to be able to regulate and capture carbon. But when we increase greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously reducing the environment’s capacity to regulate those same emissions, that’s when the climate death spiral comes into play.

LEAF Asia

Focusing on a Just Transition

Another area of focus outside the top-discussed federal roles in climate policy came from Solar Tribune’s discussion with Eban Goodstein, Director of Graduate Programs in Sustainability at Bard College. When talking to Eban, he noted that federal energy policies had already largely done their role in the traditional routes of tax subsidies, R&D dollars, and the like. Given that renewables like solar and wind were already cost-competitive, or already more affordable to build than new fossil generation, two routes for climate policy were necessary. For the role of continuing to bolster renewable energy generation, Goodstein saw that as the responsibility of state and local governments. Each more localized government would be able to assess the hurdles that still remained in their region and which policies were the best fit for their situation, rather than look at a one-size-fits-all policy for the entire country. These state and local initiatives are the basis of Bard’s upcoming Solve Climate By 2030 initiative over the coming year.

While deferring to state and local governments for solutions is not entirely outside of the usual suspects of climate solutions, what is more unique in Goodstein’s perspective is where the federal role is given the above. While the more regional governments should be charged with increasing renewable deployment, Goodstein sees the federal government’s role to be one that oversees this energy transition and ensure it’s completed in a fair and just manner. As Goodstein and his co-author, L. Hunter Lovins, noted in a paper:

“Green New Deal type policies that focus on employment and on fair and reliable access to power and transportation will be central to ensuring that the social benefits of a rapid transition to clean energy are widely spread and that the transition is not cut short due to policy opposition.”

The idea behind this push is that the nation has already reached a part where the clean energy transition will be taking place in one way or another, but if that plays out naturally there are risks that certain populations will benefit more from the change than others. Whether that’s certain disadvantaged communities not receiving the economic benefits of renewable energy, regional disparity in how the jobs market changes (e.g., coal country getting hit harder than others in economic consequences), or another way, the federal government has a role to play in ensuring that the energy transition is equitable, accessible to all populations, and doesn’t play favorites with different populations.

Photo source: Shepherd Express

Allowing Geothermal, Hydro, and Biomass Parity to Achieve with Other Renewables

When the clean energy transition is discussed in popular media, most people recognize that conversation to strictly deal with wind power and solar energy. However, a host of other renewable energy generation sources are critical to the U.S. energy mix today and in the future, including geothermal, hydropower, and biomass. When discussing the climate policy primer with The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI), the non-profit organization highlighted to Solar Tribune the need for federal policies to include these secondary forms of renewable energy as well:

“Wind and solar will need to be complemented by geothermal energy, hydropower, and biomass energy. This can be incentivized by modifying the current tax credit structure that currently favors solar and wind power. Despite unequal access to tax incentives, geothermal, hydropower, and biomass are valuable because they provide baseload power and are located in geographically diverse areas.”

Renewable energy and climate change policies must not blindly support just one or two technology types, and despite solar and wind being the most commonly considered renewable energy sources, they are not alone the solution. In fact, until 2018 hydropower was the most common source of renewable energy generation in the United States, only recently being overtaken by wind. Because of the flexibility these non-wind and non-solar renewables provide based on local geography, resources, and economics, EESI is smartly beating the drum of these alternatives. While of course that does not mean they don’t see wind and solar as key parts of the solution, but any climate change policy that includes tax credits or other economic incentives must also account for the value provided by the renewable energy sources less often placed on the podium.

Photo source: Better World Solutions

Conclusion

The takeaway here is that voters and citizens who care about the government following the right policy pathways when it comes to climate change need not be so narrowly focused. While many groups may have coalesced around a handful of key ideas, a successful fight against climate change will tap into the full toolbox of solutions. So, the above (and other) options outside the usual suspects remain critical to investigate and about which to ask questions. As Solar Tribune continues connecting with advocates and thought leaders about the Climate Policy Primer, don’t be surprised if more new areas of focus arise that might seem out of left field. But just because they’re not the standard, sound-bite proven answers to the climate change questions does not mean they are not appropriate and effective real-life solutions.

 

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Orlando, 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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Does the U.S. Still Need the Solar Investment Tax Credit? https://solartribune.com/does-the-u-s-still-need-the-solar-tax-credit/ Tue, 27 Aug 2019 14:44:10 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=14823 Over the last 10 years, the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which offers a federal income tax credit worth 30% of a homeowner’s solar installation costs, has opened up solar to millions of homeowners by dropping that huge financial hurdle. But the ITC is set to begin phasing out at the end of 2019 and […]

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Over the last 10 years, the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), which offers a federal income tax credit worth 30% of a homeowner’s solar installation costs, has opened up solar to millions of homeowners by dropping that huge financial hurdle.

But the ITC is set to begin phasing out at the end of 2019 and a group in Congress has introduced legislation to extend it for an additional five years. Obviously the solar industry would benefit from an extension, but has the tax credit succeeded in its mission already? And does an industry that’s so healthy still need this crutch today?

Lawmakers hope to extend solar ITC for five more years

On July 25, Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto introduced legislation to extend the clean energy tax credits originally set to begin phasing out at the end of this year. The bill, named the Renewable Energy Extension Act, would extend the full 30% tax credit for solar installations an additional five years.

At the time, Masto said:

“Protecting the environment is good for our health and our economy. These tax incentives help us achieve these goals by increasing commercial and residential solar use, reducing carbon emissions, and creating good-paying jobs.”

This isn’t the first time Congress has considered extending this credit. The ITC actually has a long history of extensions. Back in 2005, the original 30% credit won bi-partisan support during the Bush administration, but was originally set to drop to 10% just two years later in 2007. Congress extended the credit until 2008, at which point Congress again passed an extension as part of Obama’s 2009 stimulus package, this time all the way out to 2016.

On the final day of 2015, Congress again agreed to extend the credit until 2019, with a gradual phase out over several years. Without an extension, the credit will drop to 26% until the end of 2020, then 22% in 2021, before dropping to 0% for homeowners and 10% for commercial projects permanently.

Solar tax credit designed to combat climate change

On pondering whether we should allow the ITC to expire, we should first find out exactly what the tax credit was designed to do. Was it to jump start a new tech industry? Help homeowners save some cash? When the ITC was extended in 2015, the 2016 US federal budget explicitly set out the purpose of the ITC and other clean energy programs:

“Cutting carbon pollution is essential to reducing the threat of climate change and represents one of the greatest economic opportunities of the 21st Century…To support the development of pollution-cutting technologies, the Budget invests approximately $7.4 billion in clean energy technology programs… that stimulate the evolution and use of clean energy sources such as solar, wind, and low-carbon fossil fuels, as well as energy-efficient technologies, products, and process improvements.”

The ITC then is designed to help cut carbon pollution and, by extension, fight climate change. As the only piece of federal legislation designed to stimulate a clean energy economy, the congresspeople supporting the extension say that the credit is necessary to continue moving the country towards a cleaner economy. The group’s letter states:

“The decrease of both credits should be delayed by at least as much time as it will take to implement a technology-neutral incentive or other federal legislation to reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation.”

With the absence of any wide-reaching federal climate policy, local governments are already moving forward on emissions-reduction tactics. A handful of cities and states like California, New York, and Washington have pledged to go 100% renewable or clean energy.

However, energy industry analysts often see both of these measures – clean energy goals and renewable tax credits – as stop-gap measures for real climate change legislation, like a national carbon tax, that would deal with emissions from all relevant sectors: electricity, industry, and transportation. As you can see in the graph below, while the electricity industry has been lowering emissions since the mid-2000s thanks to an increase in natural gas and renewables, transportation emissions is still increasing and per-capita emissions remain far above other developed countries like Germany, the UK, and Canada.

Image Source: Data from EPA, Graph from Solar Tribune

Considering the initial goal and the fact that the federal government seems far from adopting a true climate policy, extending the ITC another five years seems reasonable. It’s a square nail filling the round hole of carbon emissions, but it’s the only nail the federal government will likely pick up in the next four years.

Can the solar industry stand on its own two feet?

Few in the solar industry see an extension as a real possibility. Installers like Sunrun and Sunpower are hoping for an extension, but still prepping for the ITC to phase out this year.

While the industry is certainly in favor of an extension, the outcry doesn’t seem quite as loud as 2015. Over the last decade, the ITC has been a strong catalyst of growth for the U.S. solar market. Industry trade group SEIA claims that the solar industry has enjoyed a 50% annual growth rate since 2008 and that the tax credit is responsible for $140 billion in economic investment and creating ‘hundreds of thousands’ of jobs.

Solar installation costs have dropped about 60% since 2010 – from $7.30/watt to just $3/watt today. Installation costs have fallen to the point where even without the tax credit, homeowners in many states will still find roof-top solar a sound financial investment.

In the chart below, we compare $-per-kilowatt-hour costs of the average utility, roof-top solar with the 30% ITC, and roof-top solar without the 30% ITC (using solar energy production estimates from Denver, CO). Note that while an ITC-free installation doesn’t pencil out as well financially, from Year 1 it’s still lower than utility costs, which increase an average of 2.6% annually nationwide.

Image Source: Data from EPA, Graph from Solar Tribune

In the utility and commercial solar industry, installers are already planning to ‘safe harbor’ projects, a program in which the IRS grants extensions up to four years for projects that were begun in 2019. So if the tax credit isn’t extended, we can expect a surge of installations as 2019 progresses, as the industry rushes to begin projects before the credit starts to phase out.

As a policy to spur a clean energy industry towards growth and maturity, the ITC has certainly done its job. Over the last decade, the industry has seen truly jaw-dropping growth. Case in point: According to the EIA, solar generation jumped from a measly 157 gigawatt-hours in 2009 to 96,147 GWh in 2018. However, as a policy to combat climate change, the Solar ITC still has quite a bit it could get done.

Image Source: Public Domain via Pixabay

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Top Priority Policy Planks for a Green New Deal https://solartribune.com/top-priority-policy-planks-for-a-green-new-deal/ Wed, 07 Aug 2019 14:00:02 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=14797 The Environmental and Energy Study Institute is a non-profit organization located in Washington DC whose mission is “to accelerate the transition to a new, low-emissions economy based on energy efficiency and renewable energy.” The organization works towards these goals through their briefings on Capitol Hill (as well as webcasts, papers, and more) to educate policymakers […]

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The Environmental and Energy Study Institute is a non-profit organization located in Washington DC whose mission is “to accelerate the transition to a new, low-emissions economy based on energy efficiency and renewable energy.” The organization works towards these goals through their briefings on Capitol Hill (as well as webcasts, papers, and more) to educate policymakers and other stakeholders on important energy and environment issues, coalition-building among diverse stakeholders, direct policy development assistance, and technical assistance.

Solar Tribune approached EESI to ask us what the most important and critical policy planks for the Green New Deal– or any other comprehensive climate change and clean energy legislative package– would be. Here is our response to that prompt:

 

Energy Efficiency: Energy efficiency is a central tool for decarbonizing the economy and the cheapest, fastest, and simplest way to address our energy and environmental goals. When something is energy efficient– whether it is a light bulb or a building– it is able to perform the same function with less energy. For example, a light-emitting diode (LED) light bulb requires less energy (fewer watts) than an incandescent light bulb to produce the same amount of light.

Increases in energy efficiency can significantly reduce the amount of energy necessary for transportation and to heat and cool homes and commercial buildings. This decrease in demand makes it easier to meet energy needs with renewable energy sources. Energy efficiency has significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector and has the potential to transform other sectors as well, including buildings, manufacturing, and transportation.

The building sector alone represents a huge opportunity for energy savings. Residential and commercial buildings account for about 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and currently 75 percent of this energy is from fossil fuel sources. Proven strategies, materials, and technologies are available to significantly improve building energy efficiency, which in turn reduces operational costs, makes housing more affordable, reduces pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and creates jobs.

Photo Source: Wikimedia

Programs such as the Rural Energy Savings Program (RESP), a funding opportunity through the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Rural Utility Service, provides zero-interest loans for rural electric co-ops and other rural utilities. Utilities can re-loan the funds to members to upgrade their homes and businesses with energy efficiency and renewable energy. Initially authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill (and reauthorized in 2018 through 2022), RESP leverages USDA funds through a credit subsidy, which must be appropriated by Congress annually. Eligible RESP measures include: on- and off-grid renewable energy systems, energy efficiency retrofits, permanently-installed battery storage devices, electric vehicle charging stations, and replacement of inefficient manufactured homes. This program is particularly critical for low-income households, who spend a higher than average proportion of their income on utility bills. Appropriating additional funds to these programs would provide broader access for energy efficiency and clean energy projects across the country. EESI’s recent briefing on RESP and rural electric cooperatives provides more information about this program.

The urgent need for new and modernized infrastructure, including energy and water systems, public buildings, and transportation projects that receive federal funding, is an opportunity to ensure sustainability and climate resilience from the beginning. Each stage in the process– from planning and siting, to design, materials selection, construction, and operation– is an opportunity to maximize energy efficiency. Efficiency as well as low-carbon fuels may also reduce the long-term burden on infrastructure utility expenses. Indeed, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has included a Climate Title in its new transportation bill for the first time.

 

Renewable Energy Parity: To transition the United States to renewable energy, wind and solar will need to be complemented by geothermal energy, hydropower, and biomass energy. This can be incentivized by modifying the current tax credit structure that currently favors solar (Business Energy Investment Tax Credit (ITC)) and wind power (Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit). Despite unequal access to tax incentives, geothermal, hydropower, and biomass are valuable energy sources because they provide baseload power and are located in geographically diverse areas, allowing a greater number of communities to take advantage of their natural assets. Ensuring tax parity for these energy sources would increase private investment to develop and deploy these technologies, providing more renewable options to meet the country’s overall energy demand. Fossil fuel subsidies should also be eliminated to make renewable energy technologies more competitive and the remove perverse incentives.

The EPA has untapped avenues to support the development of commercial biogas through the Renewable Fuels Standard. Biogas technology converts organic wastes (i.e., agricultural residues, manure, food wastes, and sewage) into energy through a process of anaerobic digestion. According to the American Biogas Council, there are currently about 2,200 operational biogas systems in the United States, with a potential for more than 14,000.

Photo Source: Pixabay

There is also significant potential to develop offshore wind energy, which is abundant and provides a higher capacity factor than terrestrial wind. However, additional policies are necessary to support growth in this industry. In particular, more work is necessary to build transmission from the turbines to end users.

When crafting policy on energy efficiency and renewable energy parity, equity, inclusion, and stakeholder centered processes should be paramount in keeping with the promises of the Green New Deal.

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Mosaic’s PowerSwitch 6 Residential Home Solar Loans: An Interview with GM of Solar, Erin Talbot https://solartribune.com/mosaics-powerswitch-6-residential-home-solar-loans-an-interview-with-gm-of-solar-erin-talbot/ Tue, 30 Jul 2019 12:40:08 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=14780 Installing solar panels on a household’s rooftop is an exciting moment for any family, but it’s also one that can come with some fear and hesitation due to the high costs. Mosaic is trying to change that and allow all homes to reap  the benefits of installed solar systems. Mosaic is a company that provides […]

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Installing solar panels on a household’s rooftop is an exciting moment for any family, but it’s also one that can come with some fear and hesitation due to the high costs. Mosaic is trying to change that and allow all homes to reap  the benefits of installed solar systems.

Mosaic is a company that provides financing for large home improvements, finding plans that help both contractor and homeowner recognize what they can truly afford. Too often, families will look at the high total costs for a solar rooftop upgrade and assume such a measure is out of reach for them. Even worse, other families simply think solar installations will be too costly and don’t even look into the numbers. Unfortunately, these kinds of financial restrictions tend to be most common on lower income households that could benefit the most from rooftop solar that could offset their power bills.

Looking to bridge the gap and show what’s possible, Mosaic has long offered financing for home upgrades, and recently they’ve launched their next generation of residential home solar loans known as PowerSwitch 6. After having already assisted almost 100,000 homes afford solar in just six years, this move represents an evolution that incorporates solar plus storage, efficiency measures, and prepares homeowners for the stepdown of solar tax credits.

Any program that enables the common family to embrace the energy and monetary benefits of personal solar is a winning venture. I had the opportunity to find out more from Erin Talbot, the GM of Solar at Mosaic, to learn more about this program and the company’s endeavor of making solar more accessible.

Mosaic

Matt Chester: Thanks so much for taking the time to share your story with Solar Tribune. To start, can you tell me a bit about your background and how you got involved in the solar field?

Erin Talbot: My background is in fintech and consumer lending, having previously held a variety of senior roles at E*TRADE as well as LightStream. So, while I’m new to the solar industry, my experience was a perfect fit for managing Mosaic’s next-generation solar financing platform, and I was excited to put my skills to work for a company with such an inspiring mission.

MC: Regarding Mosaic, why did you find it necessary to come up with a new structure for residential home solar loans, the PowerSwitch 6? Why are solar installations hard for households to pay for and how were existing loan structures falling short of meeting those needs?

ET: We think of PowerSwitch 6 not as ‘necessary’ to fix anything, but as the next step in the long-term evolution of solar financing, with benefits for both contractors and homeowners. One of the biggest innovations on the homeowner side is the ability to use combined total household income to qualify for a solar loan, which is unique in the solar industry. Households with multiple income sources should be able to count all of them towards their home solar loan application, and we think this will expand access to solar and all the cost savings that come with it.

MC: Within that program, you’ve also unveiled a new type of loan program, the PowerSwitch PLUS, which enables homeowners to package solar loans with re-roofing or other energy efficiency upgrades in the home. How does this package work and what are the benefits to the consumer?

ET: PowerSwitch PLUS is a flexible, one-stop solution for homeowners that want a single loan to finance everything they need for a home energy upgrade. Re-roofing is an obvious need–  no one’s going to put solar on a roof that they’ll need to replace in two years– but energy efficiency improvements are also important to get the maximum value out of your solar panels. In addition to the simplicity of using one loan to cover a range of home energy upgrades, PowerSwitch PLUS offers terms of 10, 15, and 20 years, which are hard to find with traditional home improvement loans that homeowners might otherwise use.

Photo Source: JoinMosaic.com

Results

MC: What have the results of these loan programs looked like? How many homes have used your loan programs and for how many of those homes would solar installations have been out of reach if they had to deal with the other options on the market?

ET: We’ve helped nearly 100,000 households go solar with our loan financing platform over the past six years, and we believe the innovations in PowerSwitch 6 will continue expanding on this growth by making solar and other energy efficient home improvements more affordable and accessible.

MC: With regard to PowerSwitch PLUS, do you have any data on what types of energy upgrades and total savings — both energy and costs– average customers are able to achieve?

ET: No data yet, since PLUS has just launched and we can’t share data from our pilot program. But for perspective, the average homeowner going solar with a Mosaic loan saves over $30,000 over the life of their solar installation. We anticipate even greater savings when bundled with energy efficiency improvements, which can pay back even more quickly than solar.

Photo Source: SolarReviews

Looking Forward

MC: One key feature is that the PowerSwitch PLUS loan does not assume tax credits will be used to pay down the principal– can you talk about why that is and how that might benefit both the customer and the wider industry?

ET: The benefits are two-fold. For customers, it simplifies the process of combining solar with other home energy upgrades, and it allows them to use the tax credit for whatever they want instead of paying down their loan principal. For the wider industry, it helps our contractor partners get ahead of the coming stepdown for the federal tax credit that begins next year. By giving our contractors more options, including an option that isn’t structured around the tax credit, they are better positioned for long-term success.

MC: What’s Mosaic’s strategy for finding customers in the market for solar financing and engaging them with your offerings? What’s that sales cycle look like? 

ET: Mosaic is a B2B2C company. While we ultimately provide loans to homeowners, our primary customers are actually solar contractors. So, in addition to making PowerSwitch 6 loans more appealing to homeowners for all the reasons we’ve discussed, we’ve also made them more appealing to contractors in specific ways.

For example, daily funding will cut the time for a contractor to receive funding to one to two business days, and earlier disbursements and simpler milestones will also improve contractor cashflow. Ultimately, our strategy for engaging our partners is to give them the best possible tools to build their business.

MC: The various products you offer are clearly a sign of the rapidly evolving solar industry and responding to those changes. DO you have any predictions for how the industry will continue to evolve and what that might mean for the solar financing market? 

ET: We think that homeowners will continue to ask for more than just solar when it comes to home energy upgrades, whether that’s new technologies like batteries and smart home devices or established efficiency solutions like insulation and windows. Thus, we expect to see lines continue to blur between solar, storage, and other home energy efficiency loans, and we also expect customers to demand more ease of use, flexibility, and accessibility from financing products.

To keep up with these changes, solar financing providers need a commitment to innovation as well as strong backing from financial markets, and Mosaic has proven itself to be an industry leader on both accounts.

Photo Source: Prosperous America

 

For more information on Mosaic, visit their website for regular updates.

About the author: Matt Chester is an energy analyst in Orlando, 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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Bloomberg Pledges $500 Million to Close All Coal Plants https://solartribune.com/bloomberg-pledges-500-million-to-close-all-coal-plants/ Tue, 25 Jun 2019 19:58:45 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=14695 Acclaimed billionaire and former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has promised to donate $500 million towards efforts to close all coal-fired power plants. Beyond the large sum, Bloomberg’s announcement has raised eyebrows thanks to his decision to simply ignore Washington and focus instead on state and local politicians and lobbying. Bloomberg’s pledge Michael Bloomberg, the […]

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Acclaimed billionaire and former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has promised to donate $500 million towards efforts to close all coal-fired power plants. Beyond the large sum, Bloomberg’s announcement has raised eyebrows thanks to his decision to simply ignore Washington and focus instead on state and local politicians and lobbying.

Bloomberg’s pledge

Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former politician, announced in early June a pledge of $500 million towards a new campaign, Beyond Carbon, designed to help close all coal-fired power plants in the U.S. by 2030, as well as stunt the growth of natural gas, thus helping the U.S. move towards a fully renewable energy sector.

The campaign focuses exclusively on local and state politics, bypassing the federal government completely, which Bloomberg says can’t seem to find the gas pedal around climate-progressive policies, thanks to the country’s current president.

When he announced the donation, Bloomberg himself said:

“We’re in a race against time with climate change, and yet there is virtually no hope of bold federal action on this issue for at least another two years. Mother Nature is not waiting on our political calendar, and neither can we.”

The funding will support environmental groups’ lobbying efforts in state legislatures, city councils, and utility commissions as well as efforts to elect lawmakers who look favorably on clean energy.

No matter the individual or amount, Bloomberg’s goal is a tall order. As of 2017, there are still 359 coal plants operating in the U.S. and coal still accounts for about 30% of all electricity generation in the country. In some states, that number falls closer to 100%. Closing every coal plant in the U.S. in just over 10 years is a huge endeavor.

Image Source: Data from EIA, Graph from Solar Tribune

With a sea change this large, $500 million is just a drop in a very large bucket. However, by donating to pro-clean energy lobbying and campaigning, Bloomberg is funding the individuals and organizations that he hopes will move the U.S. forward on climate change policy. In essence, he’s buying the fishing pole and hoping others will catch the fish.

States moving forward on clean energy goals

If Bloomberg wants to pass serious changes to climate policy, his focus on state and local politics is certainly in the right place. The fact that a billionaire former-politician feels he must circumnavigate Washington, DC to instigate climate changes shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Since the 2016 election, President Trump has recalled, weakened, or stalled many of President Obama’s environmental policies, including the Clean Power Plan, membership in the Paris Climate Agreement, vehicle emissions standards, and dozens of other emissions and climate-related policies. And with a Congress that is increasingly unwilling to work with the other side, the idea of any climate-positive legislation passing any time soon seems almost unthinkable.

In the absence of any nationwide climate regulations, individual states and cities have taken it upon themselves to help reduce carbon emissions, almost exclusively through clean energy goals.

Seven states and territories – Hawaii, California, Puerto Rico, Washington DC, Washington, Nevada, and New Mexico – have already passed 100% clean or renewable energy goals. The Sierra Club also lists over 90 cities and 10 counties that have pledged 100% goals, with six cities already reaching 100% clean energy.

Image Source: Graph from Solar Tribune

Hawaii, which suffers from some of the highest electricity rates in the U.S., was the first state to pledge 100% renewable energy back in 2015. At the time, the island state was already sourcing 33% of its electricity from renewable sources, so it is already well on its way to meeting this goal by 2045, the mandated year.

In 2018, California – the world’s fifth largest economy – pledged 60% renewable by 2030 and 100% clean energy by 2050. Mandating clean energy, as opposed to renewable energy exclusively, allows some flexibility for utilities to choose from a wider range of energy sources, most importantly nuclear.

Why are climate and clean energy policies so hard to pass?

Regardless of the politicization of climate change, the truth is that coal and natural gas still remain an intrinsic part of the utility industry and – even more importantly – a source of employment for the thousands of Americans who work in coal mines and coal-fired power plants, often in small towns with limited other economic opportunities.

While electricity generation from coal has fallen over 30% since 2009, it still makes up 27% of the nation’s electricity generation. As noted in the following graph, in coal-rich areas like Montana and West Virginia that number pushes close to 100%. And as the U.S. weens itself off of fossil fuels, employment in the coal industry is also falling fast. Since 2009 employment in the coal industry has dropped 40%, from 86,000 to just 50,000 today.

Image Source: Data from EIA and Bureau of Labor Statistics, Graph from Solar Tribune

While states like California and Hawaii have embraced clean energy whole-heartedly, that’s certainly not the sentiment everywhere, especially in states with large coal deposits like Wyoming, Montana, West Virginia, and Kentucky.

The importance of coal to both these states’ economies as well as the local population can’t be ignored. To those in the coal industry, replacing coal with renewables is a potential threat to their livelihood, and some states have worked to protect the coal industry from change.

In early 2019, Wyoming passed S.F. 159, a new law that requires any utility looking to shut down a coal-fired power plant to make a ‘good faith effort’ to find a buyer before closing. Once (and if) sold, the new owners aren’t allowed to close the plant early. While some heralded the law as a positive step to protect local industry, others saw it as well-intentioned, but misguided.

Any large-scale move towards renewable energy should take the welfare of these workers into account. When New Mexico passed its 100% clean energy goal in March 2019, it won accolades from the energy industry for its thoughtful, comprehensive plan for the welfare and training of plant and mine workers affected by the clean energy transition. In total, the plan set aside more than $70 million for plant decommissioning, severance, worker training, apprenticeships, and programs to help communities build new economic options.

Closing coal plants shouldn’t be taken lightly; it affects both individual households and the local economy. However, with thoughtful legislation this painful process can actually turn into a positive change, as market forces push coal out.

As the federal government continues to squabble, state and local governments are taking up the challenge. If the U.S. is to make large-scale, nationwide change, we might have to wait two more years like Bloomberg says, but it might take even longer.

Image Source: CC 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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Renewables Exceed Coal for the First Time Ever https://solartribune.com/renewables-exceed-coal-for-the-first-time-ever/ Mon, 20 May 2019 15:09:12 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=14606 The U.S. renewable energy sector reached a significant milestone in April when government projections showed renewable energy sources beating coal generation nationwide for the first time in history, a trend that continued into May. While the flip is partially brought on by the seasonality of hydro and coal generation, it shows that we’re in the […]

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The U.S. renewable energy sector reached a significant milestone in April when government projections showed renewable energy sources beating coal generation nationwide for the first time in history, a trend that continued into May.

While the flip is partially brought on by the seasonality of hydro and coal generation, it shows that we’re in the beginning stages of a major change in the electricity industry, as the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects utilities to continue replacing coal plants with solar and natural gas plants for the next couple decades.

Renewable energy beat coal in April and May

Image Source: Graph from Solar Tribune, Data from EIA

According to estimates from the EIA, nationwide electricity generation from renewable sources –driven mainly by solar, wind, and hydropower – is set to exceed coal generation twice this year, first in April then in May, as noted in the above graph.

In April, the EIA estimates the U.S. generated 2,390 MWh per day of renewable energy and only 1,884 MWh of electricity from coal – about 22% less than renewables. The gap narrows in May, with renewable energy just barely squeaking by with 2,278 MWh – a scant 8 MWh more than May’s coal generation.

You’ll also notice in the graph that renewable generation is expected to top coal again from March to May next year, peaking in April when renewables should outperform coal by 40%.

Just two decades ago, when coal was the top dog among electricity generation, these numbers were probably unthinkable to utilities or the coal industry. In the entire month of May 2001, for example, the US generated 29,000 GWh of electricity from renewable sources, equal to just 19% of coal’s total energy production.

This month’s momentous change is largely brought on by three main causes: 1) the utility industry continuing a long-term move away from coal-fired generation, in favor of cheaper natural gas, solar, and wind, 2) a steady increase in solar and wind generation, and, as IEEFA pointed out in a recent article on the topic, 3) seasonal changes in electricity generation, since hydropower bumps up from March to May each year during spring runoff and coal generation decreases as utilities prepare the plants for the summer season.

While the flip was certainly brief, it’s certainly a sign of the times, as coal becomes increasingly unprofitable and more utilities continue to turn to solar and energy storage. Financial services firm, Lazard, publishes annual estimates of the lifecycle costs of both renewable and conventional fuel sources. In their 2018 study, the firm found that on-shore wind and solar energy are the cheapest forms of electricity, at $29/MWh and $36/MWh respectively, with natural gas close behind at $41/MWh. Coal, on the other hand, comes in at $60/MWh, with nuclear, residential solar, and gas peaking plants coming in the highest.

Renewables set to permanently top coal by 2031

Image Source: Graph from Solar Tribune, Data from EIA

While the inversions above were brief, lasting only a couple months, the EIA expects renewable generation to permanently overtake coal by 2031, as noted in the long-term forecast above. Renewable energy should grow from just 666 million MWh in 2018, to 980 million MWh by 2031, before continuing on to 1,400 MWh/year by 2050. These increases are brought on mainly by steady growth in solar energy specifically, driven by tax credits in the near term and continued falling prices in the long term.

Back here in 2019, we’re quite literally watching the bottom fall out of the coal industry, as coal use has been in rapid decline since the mid-2000s. As utilities continue retiring aging or surplus plants, experts expect coal use to continue its sharp decline until the early 2020s, at which point it will begin to decrease more gradually.

While renewables have certainly played a hand in coal’s ongoing destruction, the true power here is natural gas, as coal simply can’t beat natural gas generation’s persistently low price and cleaner emissions. Natural gas permanently overtook coal as the dominant fuel source in 2018 and the EIA expects natural gas to continue reigning for the foreseeable future, growing in parallel to renewables and at a very similar rate.

Renewable Generation Varies by State

At this time, renewable energy generation varies state to state, with solar and wind concentrated in areas with high electricity rates, suitable locations (either strong wind or sun), and policies that encourage renewable adoption.

Image Source: Graph from Solar Tribune, Data from EIA

The chart below compares each state’s electricity production from coal and renewables in February 2019. You’ll see that renewables actually outperformed coal in 16 states across the US, from California and Oregon in the west, to New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in the east. Even a couple states in the south and mid-west, namely Oklahoma and Mississippi, produced more electricity from renewables than coal.

February is typically a time when coal plants aren’t in peak season, as utilities wane down production and prepare for the summer peak. As such, summer generation figures will likely be very different in some states. This comparison also leaves out natural gas generation, which is the single biggest replacement for coal-fired electricity. However, the chart does show that renewable energy, even without hydroelectricity, is already a large part of our existing electricity industry.

As solar installation costs continue to fall, the EIA expects solar alone to make up 15% of all electricity production by 2050, with the fastest growth in the eastern half of the US, as utilities construct large-scale solar installations.

Solar and renewable energy advocates will rejoice at this recent history-making energy news, while coal proponents will likely wave it off as a blip on the radar. However, with utilities continuing to rapidly retire coal plants in favor of cheaper solar and natural gas, we’re well into the beginning stages of a sea change in the energy industry.

Cover photo source: Flickr

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Solar Power Keeps Pounding with Panels Installed on Bank of America Stadium https://solartribune.com/solar-power-keeps-pounding-with-panels-installed-on-bank-of-america-stadium/ Fri, 12 Apr 2019 14:48:45 +0000 https://solartribune.com/?p=14575 North Carolina is among the U.S. leaders in solar power installations, and the NFL’s Carolina Panthers are now joining as solar leaders in the sports industry with POWERHOME Solar installing panels on the Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium to reduce energy costs and the stadium’s carbon footprint. When the National Football League joined the Green […]

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North Carolina is among the U.S. leaders in solar power installations, and the NFL’s Carolina Panthers are now joining as solar leaders in the sports industry with POWERHOME Solar installing panels on the Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium to reduce energy costs and the stadium’s carbon footprint.

When the National Football League joined the Green Sports Alliance in 2018, it did so with the intent to support and grow sustainability initiatives across the whole league. The Carolina Panthers jumped at the opportunity right away, and with POWERHOME Solar, one of the nation’s fastest growing solar companies, located in their backyard, solar energy was the obvious place to start.

Photo source: POWERHOME Solar

In March 2019, POWERHOME Solar began the process of installing solar panels on Bank of America Stadium to feed into the venue’s renewable energy goals and join the ranks of other ‘green’ stadiums across the league.

I had the pleasure of chatting with POWERHOME Solar about this exciting partnership and their role in bringing the Panthers into the clean energy mix.

POWERHOME Solar Background

Matt Chester: Can you give a little background on POWERHOME Solar as a company? When was it formed, how big has it grown, and what’s the guiding mission?

POWERHOME Solar: Jayson Waller is a serial entrepreneur and has successfully created multiple businesses, including ISI Alarms NC Inc. and Power Home Technologies (PHT). ISI earned $12 million in sales annually in less than eight years while PHT achieved $30 million sales annually in just three years.

Jayson launched his latest venture, POWERHOME Solar, in 2015. He is the founder and CEO. The company eclipsed $100 million in sales in 2018 and has grown to service customers in seven states with nearly 700 employees. POWERHOME is currently ranked as the number 12 residential solar contractor in the nation according to Solar Power World.

The company’s goal is to help customers achieve energy independence by selling renewable energy at prices below utility rates.

Bank of America Partnership

MC: Will there be any kind of educational resources for fans attending the games to learn about solar panels, their benefits, and how to get started on installations at their home?

PS: POWERHOME Solar has activation teams in place outside of the stadium at each home game to help educate fans about solar energy benefits and generate sales leads. Additionally, POWERHOME signage can be found within the stadium.

MC: How did the partnership with Bank of America Stadium come together?

PS: Jayson also oversees POWERHOME Solar’s partnerships with professional sports teams, including the Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, and Pittsburgh Steelers, as well as with Duke University. The partnerships help each entity reduce dependence on grid energy and decrease their carbon footprints.

These strategic partnerships also help raise consumer awareness about the features and benefits of solar energy, creating a ripple effect for potential customers throughout North Carolina. POWERHOME is based in the Charlotte, North Carolina area and is a short drive to Bank of America Stadium. It made sense to see if we could work with the team closest to our backyard.

As a part of the deal, we also shot a commercial where the team’s Pro Bowl Center, Ryan Kalil (who retired at the end of the 2018 season), served as director. You can see the 90-second cut of the commercial on YouTube, and we also published a behind-the-scenes article about the shoot.

Photo source: POWERHOME Solar

Panel Specifics

MC: Can you tell me more about the panels installed? And how long did installation take?

PS: Our contracts with stadiums don’t allow for the disclosure of detailed information, but POWERHOME installs monocrystalline silicon solar panels from Silfab, based in Bellingham, Washington. The panels used have a power production warranty of 30 years, meaning that the panel provider will guarantee the panels will function at 80% of the original capacity at the end of 30 years. A POWERHOME Solar panel will generate about 36 kilowatthours per month.

The Bank of America installation took four days to complete.

MC: What are some unique aspects of Bank of America Stadium that had to be taken into account when designing this solar system?

PS: We placed the solar panels on the top of entrance archways, which is a different challenge from typical commercial buildings that have flat roofs. But our team was up for the challenge of installing panels on this curved surface, and they look great!

Photo source: POWERHOME Solar

Solar Trends

MC: Bank of America is the third NFL facility to use POWERHOME– can you tell me about the other two? What makes sports facilities primed to harness the benefits of solar power?

PS: We also installed solar panels for the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium and for the Detroit Lions on the parking garage at Ford Field, as well as the team training facility in Allen Park, Michigan.

Sports franchises in general have high energy costs for their stadiums, and it only makes sense for those franchises to try and offset some of their power bills with clean, renewable energy. On top of that, these franchises can own a portion of their power for the long haul. These teams’ responsiveness to hearing and heeding the benefits of clean energy are a benefit to all.

MC: North Carolina has become a national leader when it comes to solar generation– what about the state has made it embrace solar so thoroughly? How do Bank of America Stadium and the Carolina Panthers fit into that?

PS: North Carolina is a great state for solar because of the abundant sunshine available in the southeastern U.S. and state-based legislation that has embraced solar. And with costs to install solar having gone down more than 70% since 2010, homeowners and business owners have increasingly become aware of the benefits of going solar at their homes and places of business. When the financials behind going solar become as apparent as the value that using clean energy brings, it becomes a no-brainer for customers on multiple levels.

 

For more information on POWERHOME Solar, visit their website.

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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What Will 100% Renewable Energy Look Like? https://solartribune.com/what-will-100-renewable-energy-look-like/ Tue, 19 Feb 2019 04:25:36 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=14499 As Hawaii, California, and even some in the federal government move forward on legislation to move towards 100% renewable energy, utilities are finding paths to meet these goals, mainly focusing on solar panels, wind, and batteries for energy storage. But what exactly does 100% renewable look like, and how long will it take? When Representative […]

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As Hawaii, California, and even some in the federal government move forward on legislation to move towards 100% renewable energy, utilities are finding paths to meet these goals, mainly focusing on solar panels, wind, and batteries for energy storage. But what exactly does 100% renewable look like, and how long will it take?

When Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey introduced the Green New Deal, it was met with some heavy eye-rolling by certain individuals. Many saw it more as political stunt than a true path to dealing with the underlying causes of climate change. For many, the most attention-grabbing section was certainly its goal of shifting to a 100% carbon free economy after a mere decade.

While the plan is grandiose and gives a very short timetable, the general goal isn’t far-fetched. Numerous states, cities, and even utilities have committed to 100% renewable goals in the last few years, and they’re becoming more and more common.

In 2017, Hawaii became the first state to ratify a goal of 100% renewable electricity, by 2045. In December 2018, Xcel Energy – which provides electricity in 8 states in the mountain west – became the first major utility to commit to 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050. In late 2018, California also signed into law a goal of 100% clean energy –not renewable energy – by 2045. (We’ll get into the differences between clean and renewable energy in the next section.)

What does 100% renewable look like, and is it really a viable option on a large scale?

What’s Your Goal? Renewable Energy vs Clean Energy vs Carbon Free Economy

Image Source: CC license via Wikimedia

The Green New Deal wants a carbon-free economy. Hawaii’s pledged 100% renewables. California’s pledged 100% clean energy. They might sound like synonyms, but there’s major differences among them.

First, a 100% renewable energy goal is just that. All electricity is sourced via renewable methods, typically solar, wind, and possibly water like tidal and wave energy or small hydro plants.

A 100% clean energy goal, on the other hand, broadens the scope of allowable technology. Any electricity generation that produces zero carbon is on the table, including solar and wind, but also nuclear power and fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage (CSS), a system in which utilities essentially capture all the carbon emissions and bury them underground so they don’t enter the atmosphere. Because the technologies allowed are more flexible, clean energy goals should be easier to meet than 100% renewable goals.

Lastly, the Green New Deal posits a 100% carbon free economy. Along with carbon-free electricity, like in the goals above, the Green New Deal also seeks to decarbonize the transportation and industrial sectors as well. Unlike the previous goals that only involve the electric sector, this far-reaching goal would require fundamental changes for every sector and every market – a much larger project.

How Does 100% Renewable Work?

Image Source: Graph from Solar Tribune

When we think about going 100% renewable, most of us probably picture fields of solar panels and wind turbines on sunny, windy days. That’s certainly part of the future, but by no means the whole picture. In reality, moving to 100% renewable requires a balance of three key actions: energy use reduction, renewable energy, and energy storage.

Reducing energy use

The first step to going 100% renewable is simply cutting out waste. There are many ways to decrease energy use. The Green New Deal includes legislation to create more stringent energy efficiency standards for buildings. The state of Hawaii already requires homes to include solar hot water heaters to pre-heat water using the sun’s abundant heat. By dropping energy needs as low as possible, you’re able to build less infrastructure, and there’s less wear-and-tear, leading to lower long-term costs.

Adding renewable energy sources

Renewable energy technology is, of course, key to building a 100% renewable electricity industry. Utilities can use utility-scale and rooftop photovoltaic solar, concentrated solar power (CSP), on- and offshore wind turbines, tidal/wave energy, and geothermal to meet energy needs.

Different renewable sources produce power at different times, a challenge known as intermittency. Solar panels, of course, produce electricity during the day. Land-based wind turbines typically produce more electricity during daylight hours. Off-shore wind produces more at night. Diversifying the technology portfolio and balancing their electricity generation is key.

Adding energy storage

Energy storage is seen as the solution to renewable energy’s intermittency problem. Lithium-ion batteries are hot commodities right now and utilities use massive banks for large-scale storage projects, but they aren’t the only options available. There’s a handful of other cheaper battery technologies as well, and utilities have a few more unusual energy storage methods at their disposal as well, like compressed air in caves that’s heated to pressure (yes, this really exists!) and pumped hydro using two reservoirs and gravity-fed turbines.

Tesla’s lithium-ion batteries, known as Powerpacks for utility-scale projects, are the most well-known energy storage on the market, and the company has installed over 1 gigawatt-hour of energy storage as of fall 2018, with another GWh in the works in the next 12 months.

In 2019, Tesla was working with California utility PG&E for a Powerpack up to 1.1 GWh, over 8x larger than their current largest project, a 129 MWh system in Australia. With PG&E’s January 2019 bankruptcy though, this project is almost certainly on hold.

A Look into the Future

In 2017, a research group from Stanford published an article in the forward-thinking journal Joule which laid out potential pathways to 100% clean economies by 2050 in 139 countries. Their study focused on the technical feasibility of such a move, creating a two-step process: 1) Electrify all industries (for example, moving all vehicles to batteries and fuel cells) and 2) Transfer all electricity production from fossil fuels to a unique mix of wind, water, and solar tailored to each country.

Looking at the world’s overall electricity demand over the next few decades, the authors propose that we could meet 2050’s estimated 20.6 terawatts of electricity demand via energy reduction and electrification’s greater efficiency than combustion (for example, electric vehicles are more energy efficient than gas-powered vehicles), onshore and offshore wind, utility-scale PV solar and CSP, residential and commercial solar, and wave/tidal energy.

Hawaii’s Plan for 100% Renewable

100% renewable energy

Image Source: CC license via Wikimedia

In 2017, Hawaii passed legislation to source all electricity from renewable sources by 2045. If we want to see what going 100% renewable looks like in the real world, we can turn to them as an example.

Thanks to their remoteness and the high cost of importing fossil fuels, Hawaii suffers from the highest electricity prices in the country, which as of November 2018 is $0.34 per kWh – 2.6x higher than the national average of $0.13 per kWh.

The state leaves Hawaii’s utilities to decide the best way to achieve this goal, though the Hawaii PUC (Public Utilities Commission) has the final say on utilities’ plans and also gives guidance on what utilities should be moving towards. Like we discussed above, the commission recommends (p.6) that utilities plan for new renewable generation, energy reduction via demand response, and energy storage:

“The PSIPs [utility action plans] are to include actionable strategies and implementation plans to expeditiously retire older, less-efficient fossil generation… increase generation flexibility, and adopt new technologies such as demand response and energy storage”

In their plan approved by the PUC in July 2017, HECO – one of three privately-owned utilities on the islands (all of which are owned by Hawaiian Electric Industries) – laid out their pathway to meet the 100% renewable goal, which included 400 MW of new renewable energy resources by 2021, continued growth of residential solar (17% of HECO’s customers have installed solar, compared to just 1% for the national average), and adding energy storage to the generation mix.

Since the plan was approved, they’ve been moving forward on these goals. In mid-2018, they sought PUC approval for two Li-ion battery storage systems totaling 120 MW and entered contract negotiations for seven solar+storage installations across three islands totaling 260 MW.

How Does 100% Renewable Affect You?

You might wonder how all this affects you. Most of us just want reliable, freely-available electricity. If it’s renewably sourced, that’s certainly a plus, but not a necessity.

That mindset though is quickly retreating, as the clean energy movement and the signs of global warming continue to stir people to, if not action, then at least acceptance. According to a 2018 poll, 74% of Americans believe worldwide temperatures are rising.

On the household level, increased utility rates for customers are always a concern, as utilities seek to update existing generation plants and build new plants, and create and implement new programs. In 2017, when utility HECO sought approval from Hawaii’s PUC for its proposed plan to 100% renewability, the PUC was worried it could increase electricity rates due to near-term capital investments and financial commitments.

The real change though, especially moving to a 100% carbon free economy, is that each business and homeowner will have to engage more deeply with their energy use. Demand response, rooftop solar, and EVs all require greater involvement from customers. Transferring to 100% clean energy isn’t a one-and-done process. It won’t be immediate, and it’ll likely take much longer than a decade. It’s a slow progression of change, brought on one project at a time.

And while electricity in the future might need a more hands-on, mindful approach than we’re used to, what we’ll get out of it – namely a cleaner, more efficient electric grid and economy – is something we’ll all benefit from down the line.

Image Source: CC license via Wikimedia

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What is the Green New Deal and What Could it Mean for Solar Energy? https://solartribune.com/what-is-the-green-new-deal-and-what-could-it-mean-for-solar-energy/ Mon, 28 Jan 2019 01:09:37 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=14465 In a speech at the 1932 Democratic Convention, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a “new deal for the American people,” and once elected he kept his word. The New Deal put millions of people back to work and provided essential social services to the most deprived and vulnerable. It also permanently altered public perceptions about the […]

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In a speech at the 1932 Democratic Convention, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised a “new deal for the American people,” and once elected he kept his word. The New Deal put millions of people back to work and provided essential social services to the most deprived and vulnerable. It also permanently altered public perceptions about the proper role of government in the life of the American people.

The backlash against the New Deal among conservatives and corporate interests has been continuous. Nevertheless, the sterling reputation of the New Deal remains largely intact. Aware of this fact, environmentalist groups and progressive insurgents in Congress have now adapted the term to promote a fundamental restructuring of the U.S. economy.

The ‘Green New Deal’ is the talk of the town in Washington, D.C.. If it ever leads to actual legislation, it could dramatically transform the prospects for solar energy. The future of solar could be meteoric if the backers of the Green New Deal are successful in their campaign for change.

The Green New Deal Explained

Architects of the Green New Deal propose substantial public investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean transportation, green jobs and a modernized infrastructure. They are calling for a 100-percent conversion to renewable energy sometime within the next 10-30 years.

As justification for such an ambitious plan, they point to an alarming report issued in October 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Scientists with the organization give humanity only about a decade to cut carbon emissions by 45 percent to stave off a climate catastrophe.

In the spirit of the original New Deal, they also assert that a Green New Deal is necessary to revive the sluggish and stagnant U.S. economy. They claim investments in renewable energy and decarbonization will eventually create tens of millions of good paying jobs, many more than will be lost when fossil fuels become extinct.

With support from advocacy groups like the Sunrise Movement, progressive Congressional Democrats are openly championing the Green New Deal. Newly-elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is taking a leading role in these efforts. As she explains:

“Our goal is to treat Climate Change like the serious, existential threat it is by drafting an ambitious solution on the scale necessary – aka a Green New Deal – to get it done.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s popularity has helped vault the Green New Deal into the spotlight. But the idea has been circulating in political circles for the past several years. It has been supported by many prominent political leaders, including former President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders.

At the grassroots level, a 2018 public opinion poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications found overwhelming support for a Green New Deal. Overall, 81 percent of respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” approved of the idea. This included 92 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of Independents and 64 percent of Republicans. However, in the same survey 96 percent admitted they’d heard little or no discussion about the Green New Deal before being asked about it. This suggests they were responding to the catchiness of the phrase rather than its specific policy goals.

Source: Yale Program on Climate Communication

Solar Energy in a Deep Green Economy

The poll numbers for the Green New Deal are good, but the numbers for renewable energy are even better.

A utility-industry trade group recently commissioned a poll to gauge consumer attitudes about renewables. Much to their chagrin, they found that 70 percent of the American public want 100-percent renewable energy as quickly as possible. Seventy-four percent want solar cast in the leading role in that transition—a role it is more than prepared to handle.

Solar panels currently account for about two percent of the country’s annual energy generation. But this number could be expanded dramatically, without any technological innovations or changes in building construction practices.

At the present time, the United States has approximately eight billion square meters of roof space that could support solar panel installations. If each square meter were covered with panels, the total electricity generated could replace about 40 percent of the power currently purchased from utilities.

But this likely understates the potential of rooftop solar. Changes in new home construction practices could increase available roof space significantly. In addition, many existing roofs could be remodeled for solar compatibility. Increases in solar cell efficiency could boost production even further, and such increases could be expected with a significant influx of Green New Deal R&D funding.

Utility projects currently account for about 60 percent of annual increases in U.S. solar capacity. The growth potential of such installations does not depend on available roof space, so the prospects for their expansion in a New Deal scenario would be immense. Costs for industrial-scale battery systems like the Tesla Powerpack are dropping steadily, making solar grid projects that require substantial energy storage more affordable.

And then there’s community solar and microgrids. These projects are potential entry points for renters and homeowners without adequate roof space for independent solar panels.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy

Community solar projects and microgrids only account for about five percent of installations at present. Consequently, their potential for growth is likely higher than the rooftop residential option. Solar initiatives that share costs and access would be all the rage during a period of rapid solar panel deployment, suitable as they are for investors with limited resources.

A large-scale conversion to renewables would likely create millions of new jobs. It would mean a massive reversal of fortune for the U.S. solar energy industry, which has lost about 80 percent of its solar panel market share to Asian competitors. The Green New Deal would be a boon to domestic solar manufacturers, whose pool of potential customers would spread from coast-to-coast.

But Can It Be Done?

The Green New Deal proposes a 100-percent conversion to renewable energy, which raises an obvious question: is such a conversion actually feasible?

The answer to this question is ‘yes,’ according to a team of European energy researchers.  In a study discussed in the September 2018 edition of Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, they found no technological barriers preventing a conversion to 100-percent renewable energy.  They concluded that solar, wind and hydroelectric energies could provide the bulk of the power needed to make such a change possible.

According to a study co-author Brian Vad Mathiesen, from Aalborg University in Denmark:

“There are some persistent myths that 100 percent renewable systems are not possible. Our contribution deals with these myths one-by-one, using all the latest research.

But technological and political feasibility are divergent concepts. From a political standpoint, the future of the Green New Deal remains very much in doubt.

Legislators will face enormous practical, ideological and institutional obstacles as they attempt to make the Green New Deal a reality. Advocates may need more time to educate the public about the upside of the Green New Deal, before a critical mass of support can be reached. They may need significant electoral success over multiple election cycles, winning seats while openly advocating for Green New Deal policies at the local, state and federal levels. Ultimately, they will need to garner the support of economists, academics, entrepreneurs, well-heeled investors, think-tank analysts and other thought leaders. This support may come, once specific policy recommendations are made and the value of Green New Deal investments become clear.

Even beyond the dynamics of the usual left-right paradigm, which repeatedly stifles bold initiatives of all sorts, our political system often seems designed to protect the established order, regardless of the wisdom or necessity of change. The prospect of a global climate catastrophe, combined with the chronic under-performance of the U.S. economy, may be enough to disrupt politics as usual, especially if public support for a Green New Deal stays strong as further details about it emerge.

A Society on the Clock

If the Green New Deal moves from semi-utopian dream to earth-shaking reality, solar energy technology will be front-and-center during its implementation. If the lumbering and destructive fossil fuel beast is finally to be slain, it may be solar energy that strikes the fatal blow.

Those are big ‘ifs,’ and perhaps unimaginable to many in our current political reality. But if the scientists at the IPCC are right, the survival of society as we know it may be at stake.

Cover image: Common Dreams

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LO3 Energy and eMotorWerks Combine EVs with Renewable Microgrids https://solartribune.com/lo3-energy-and-emotorwerks-combine-evs-with-renewable-microgrids/ Mon, 21 Jan 2019 02:51:39 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=14455 LO3 Energy and eMotorWerks are joining forces on a new project that would allow electric vehicles (EVs) to connect to energy microgrids and utilities to use EVs as a collective energy resource during times of peak energy demand. This partnership comes at a time when utilities are increasingly wondering how they can use EVs as […]

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LO3 Energy and eMotorWerks are joining forces on a new project that would allow electric vehicles (EVs) to connect to energy microgrids and utilities to use EVs as a collective energy resource during times of peak energy demand. This partnership comes at a time when utilities are increasingly wondering how they can use EVs as a new resource to meet energy needs.

Both LO3 Energy and eMotorWerks are already working with utilities and consumers in their respective fields. LO3 Energy is a Brooklyn-based startup that uses smart meters and blockchains to create energy microgrids in which homeowners and businesses can buy and sell locally-produced clean energy directly from neighbors.

LO3 uses smart meters to measure the energy production and blockchains, an online decentralized ledger originally designed for Bitcoin that uses private computers to verify transactions, to facilitate the transactions. Finally, all actual electricity is transmitted through the existing utility infrastructure.

LO3 Energy says their transaction platform, which it calls Exergy, can be used for peer-to-peer transactions, purchasing unused EV storage, and as a tool for system operators to help match electricity use and demand.

eMotorWerks is an EV charging infrastructure company that manufactures both charging equipment for EV owners as well as Juicenet, a virtual platform that allows EV owners to remotely monitor and schedule their charging at lowest-price times (at night, for example) and utilities to manage EV charging demand, if the EV owner is enrolled in a utility program.

By combining forces, the program allows EV owners to trade stored energy with a local microgrid. The companies see the project as one piece of a larger portfolio for utilities that allows customers to choose when and what type of energy they want to consume. By tapping into EV energy storage during peak demand or shifting EV charging to non-peak times, it also allows utilities to leverage participating EVs as resources to better meet energy needs.

As Lawrence Orsini, CEO of LO3 Energy, put it:

“EV charging adds another option to efficiently match local energy supply and demand, and such project’s results could open the door to more transactions among other microgrid participants and EV drivers.”

EVs Are Already an Energy Resource

As mentioned, utilities are already trying to figure out how to most intelligently incorporate EV charging into their list of resources.

While EVs now are a small drop in the large automotive bucket, experts expect that to change quickly. In their 2018 Electric Vehicle Outlook, Bloomberg estimates that as prices continue to drop, EVs will jump from just 1.1 million in 2017 to 30 million in 2030, and 60 million by 2040 – equivalent to 55% of all new car sales and 33% of all existing vehicles.

Photo source: Graph from Solar Tribune, Data from Bloomberg

With utilities providing the fuel for all these vehicles, they’re planning for this future now. Across the U.S., utilities are testing different incentive programs and rate structures that offer EV drivers lower rates for charging at off-peak times. These rates ensure that EVs are as cost-effective as possible for customers, but also folded into utilities’ energy mix intelligently.

In August 2018, for example, two large Michigan utilities, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, proposed a joint $20.5 million investment in EV infrastructure and a pilot program that offers incentives for EV owners who charge at night during off-peak hours, between 11PM and 6AM. It’s not just a one-way street though. Utilities are also seeing EVs as a demand response resource, wherein they can remotely or automatically turn off or delay charging during times of peak demand. Consumers Energy predicts a give-and-take relationship between EVs and utilities. As spokesperson Katelyn Carey noted:

“In addition to a lower daily rate, electric and autonomous vehicles can be equipped to choose to be interrupted during charging and save even more on the days when energy use is expected to be extremely high thereby allowing customers to receive a bill credit.”

eMotorWerks is already in the market of EVs as a demand response resource. In September 2018, it actually collected a group of 10,000 connected EVs, representing 30 megawatts of capacity, and is now participating in California’s day-ahead energy markets. In other words, eMotorWerks has created a ‘virtual’ power plant, but instead of selling electricity to utilities, eMotorWerks is actually paid when they shed demand, by remotely delaying charging for a certain number of participating EVs.

It’s all part of California’s proxy demand resource market, wherein companies are compensated for decreasing electricity demand. EV drivers are compensated based on their own flexibility and can opt out of any demand response event if they choose.

In September, Xcel Energy also chose eMotorWerks for their own EV demand response program. eMotorWerks will provide their JuiceBox Pro 40 chargers to 100 participating EV drivers as part of a two-year pilot program in Minnesota.

Xcel will own the chargers and monitor and control them with eMotorWerk’s Juicenet platform. The chargers will automatically respond to grid conditions, shedding demand during peak times.

LO3 Energy Already Working on Solar Microgrid in Brooklyn

While eMotorWerks is working with utilities to incorporate EVs as grid resources, LO3 Energy is working on peer-to-peer microgrids, wherein a homeowner can buy local, renewable energy from a neighbor next door.

LO3’s pilot project, Brooklyn Microgrid, began in 2017 and revolves around their Exergy platform and an online marketplace to allow residential consumers, businesses, energy companies, and community solar to both produce and consume locally-sourced, clean energy. LO3 Energy plans to launch a ‘simulated’ program in early 2019, before launching the real-world version.

While we use the term microgrid, in reality LO3 Energy’s marketplace is a ‘virtual’ microgrid. All electricity is still transmitted via the local utility’s existing grid and participants must still pay the utility for upkeep of the grid.

While both companies have created and are using vastly different platforms, with one focused on EV chargers and the other on microgrids transactions, they’re actually working towards similar goals. Both see a near-future in which electricity generation and storage is distributed across households and businesses, and an energy industry where we can intelligently use EVs and renewable energy to meet our energy needs.

Image Source: CC license via Flickr

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Was 2018 the Year of the Home Battery? https://solartribune.com/was-2018-the-year-of-the-home-battery/ Mon, 14 Jan 2019 03:33:40 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=14399 2018 turned out to be a pretty good year for batteries. Prices continued to fall and a handful of states like New York, Colorado and Florida created new policies to drive adoption from storage mandates to new net metering and interconnection policies, as well as new incentives specifically for energy storage. With more homeowners installing […]

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2018 turned out to be a pretty good year for batteries. Prices continued to fall and a handful of states like New York, Colorado and Florida created new policies to drive adoption from storage mandates to new net metering and interconnection policies, as well as new incentives specifically for energy storage.

With more homeowners installing solar in 2018 than ever before – a single quarter of 2018 beat out the entire previous year – are we seeing the turning point for energy storage?

Battery Deployment Enjoys 3x YOY Growth in Q3 2018

Storage installations in Q3 of 2018 continued to grow and for the second quarter, YOY growth tripled, despite dropping 15% under the previous quarter.

According to Wood Mackenzie’s 2018 Q4 Energy Storage Monitor, the U.S. installed 136 MWh of energy storage in Q3 2018, with California leading the way, followed by Hawaii. This is down from Q2’s 160 MWh, but as you can see in the chart below, still miles ahead of 2017 Q3.

Energy Storage Deployment in the US (2013 – Q3 2018)

Source: Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables/ESA U.S. energy storage monitor

Of that 136 MWh, behind-the-meter installations (BTM, which is customer-sited residential and commercial installations) accounted for 60%, or 82 MWh. That’s equal to over half of 2017’s entire BTM storage deployment – all within a single quarter.

Of those BTM installs, residential installations accounted for over 50% (or about 47 MWh) of that. For a bit of perspective, Tesla Powerwalls can store 13.5 kWh (or 0.0135 MWh) of electricity, so 47 MWh is equivalent to about 3,481 of them.

GTM, which formerly published the reports above, foresaw this huge uptick in 2017, with GTM Research director Ravi Manghani  saying, “We’re going to have to strike the word ‘nascent’ from our vocabularies when describing the U.S. energy storage market.”

Once all the numbers are in, GTM actually expects 2018 to see over 1,000 MWh of storage deployment – obviously a record-setting number – with residential installations to hit that number by 2023.

California and Hawaii Continue to Lead in Installations

California and Hawaii continue to lead the way in terms of cumulative storage capacity from residential systems. California leads the pack by far, outpacing Hawaii and the next four states combined. In fact, beyond California and Hawaii, most utilities reported a pittance of residential energy storage.

In 2017 (the last year for which information is available), the EIA reported that the next four states with the most residential storage see between just 0.19 and 0.39 MWh. To put that into more concrete terms, that’s equivalent to 14 and 28 Tesla Powerwalls.

Source: Data from US Energy Information Administration, graphic by Solar Tribune

With their high electricity costs and focus on renewables, it’s no surprise that California and Hawaii take first and second place. Since 2016, though, storage companies have pushed into new territories across the US, as utility prices rise, battery prices fall, and more states and utilities pass regulations and/or incentives to encourage storage adoption.

Falling Prices, New Incentives, and Changing Regulations Key to Growth

With lithium-ion accounting for over 90% of all energy storage in the U.S., the technology’s falling cost is a key component in the storage industry’s growth. In 2020, lithium-ion battery packs cost $1,000 per kWh, according to the National Renewable Energy Lab. In 2017, that number had dropped to just $209 per kWh, a 79% price drop. They further estimate that prices will continue to drop, reaching $70 per kWh by 2030.

Beyond falling costs, new state-level incentives and regulations designed to encourage residential and commercial energy storage have accelerated the storage market.

As of 2018, twenty-nine states have adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards (or RPSs) mandating utilities source a certain percentage of electricity sold from renewable sources. On top of that, five states have passed mandates specifically for energy storage:

  • California: Adopted the first storage mandate in 2014, which legislators have since updated to 1.8 GW (1.3 GW by 2025).
  • Oregon: In 2015, the state passed mandates that their two largest utilities, PGE and PacifiCorp must each set up 5 MWh of energy storage by 2020.
  • New York: In 2018, Governor Cuomo signed into law storage mandates of 1.5 GW by 2025.
  • New Jersey: 2 GW by 2030
  • Massachusetts: 200 MWh by 2020

Beyond mandates, several states have also passed regulations to ease the installation process or increase energy storage’s value proposition:

  • California: Enacted A.B. 546 in 2017 to streamline storage permitting
  • Florida: Utility JEA approved an incentive for energy storage and new net metering regulations
  • Vermont: Through their Bring Your Own Device program, utility Green Mountain Power began a program offering bill credits to residential customers who allow GMP to pull electricity from the homeowner’s energy storage systems during times of peak usage.
  • Arizona: Salt River Project launched the Consumer Storage Incentive Program, offering rebates of $150 per kWh for residential Li-ion battery systems
  • Colorado: Passed S.B. 18-009 to streamline and reduce barriers to storage interconnection
  • New York: NYSERDA, CUNY, and DNV-GL published interconnection guidelines for outdoor Li-ion storage in NYC
  • Virginia: In 2017, the state amended the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority to include energy storage. In early 2018, Virginia passed S.B. 966 requiring utilities establish energy storage pilot programs to run until 2023.

While we haven’t yet seen the positive effects, all of these policies and incentives set up a solid foundation for the growth of energy storage in the next few years.

Battery Installations Grow Despite Drop in Residential Solar

As we’ve seen, more and more homeowners are deciding to install storage with their solar installations, despite a drop in the total number of households going solar.

And despite Tesla pulling back on growth to refocus on profitability, both they and Sunrun are reporting record quantities of energy storage. Tesla has installed over 1,000 MWh of storage cumulatively, with Sunrun reporting in Q1 2018 that 20% of all their California customers chose to install storage with their solar installation.

While just 1% of all residential solar installations included storage in 2017, Wood Mackenzie expects that by 2024, 24% of distributed solar will include storage.

Some might call 2018 the year of energy storage, but even with this growth, deployment is still localized to just a few key areas that see high utility prices and storage-friendly policies. To continue this growth trajectory, other states will need the example set by the states listed above. Just a decade ago, the solar industry was at the same place, teetering on the verge of an explosion. With the storage landscape changing so deeply in 2018, hopefully we’ll see the positive effects in the next few years.

Image Source: Tesla Press Kit

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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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Midterm Elections Reveal Mixed Results for Clean Energy https://solartribune.com/mixed-results-for-clean-energy-at-the-2018-midterms/ Mon, 26 Nov 2018 02:40:35 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=14269 On November ballots, voters across 3 states said no to 3 different bills designed to encourage the growth of clean and renewable energy. The success or failure of these high-stakes propositions led organizations on both sides to spend tens of millions of dollars on campaigns. Arizona Voters Say No to 50% RPS Goal At the […]

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On November ballots, voters across 3 states said no to 3 different bills designed to encourage the growth of clean and renewable energy. The success or failure of these high-stakes propositions led organizations on both sides to spend tens of millions of dollars on campaigns.

Arizona Voters Say No to 50% RPS Goal

At the November polls, Arizona voters overwhelming voted down Proposition 127, which would’ve created a constitutional amendment to increase the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) goals, requiring utilities to purchase or generate 50% of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030. As of 2018, Arizona already has an RPS goal of 15% renewable by 2025, fairly typical for western states, so Prop 127 would’ve pushed the utilities into overdrive while attempting to meet those 2030 goals.

The proposition was supported by the local Sierra Club and a handful of other organizations, and was initiated and mainly funded by the non-profit NextGen Climate Action, founded by California billionaire Tom Steyer and which provided over $22 million to the Arizona cause.

Considering the tenuous relationship Arizona utilities have had with solar energy in the past, it’s no surprise that both sides spent millions on the initiative. In fact, Prop 127 was the most expensive ballot measure in Arizona history, with Pinnacle West Capital – the company that owns APS, the largest utility in the state – spending almost $30 million in opposition to the bill.

Opponents argued the proposition, forced on Arizona by out-of-state political interests, could lead to higher customer bills. Proponents, however, argued the higher goals would lead to a cleaner environment and stronger local economy as solar costs continue to lower and the industry grows.

In a November press release after the bill was defeated, APS called the measure ‘ill-conceived’, with Chairman and CEO Don Brandt noting:

The campaign is over, but we want to continue the conversation with Arizonans about clean energy and identify specific opportunities for APS to build energy infrastructure that will position Arizona for the future.

APS has come out in favor of a different clean energy goal, proposed by the Arizona Corporation Commission. This plan creates a target of 80% clean energy, including nuclear power, by 2050. One of APS’ issues with Proposition 127 was that it didn’t allow nuclear energy to meet the RPS goals and APS feared they would’ve had to shut down their Palo Verde nuclear generator, which accounts for about 25% of the utility’s total generation. The utility claimed the defeated proposition was too constraining and simply not designed for Arizona’s specific needs.

Nevada Says Yes to RPS Goals, No to Deregulation

In Nevada, Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action also funded the inclusion of a similar measure on the ballot, Question 6. Under this proposal, Nevada will increase their RPS mandate from the current 25% by 2025 to 50% by 2030, the same as proposed in Arizona.

Unlike in Arizona, Nevada voters actually passed this measure, with 59% of voters approving. Proposed constitutional amendments, however, need to be approved in two separate elections before becoming law, so Question 6 will need to be approved in the 2020 election again. Exactly how that will go is anyone’s guess, but it’s a necessary – and promising – first step.

Nevadans also voted on another energy-related bill, Question 3, though this one was stopped in its tracks, with 67% of voters in opposition. Question 3 asked voters whether they were in favor of breaking apart Nevada utilities’ monopoly on electricity generation in the state and replacing it with a competitive electricity market, known as a deregulated electricity market and similar to Texas, Illinois, Ohio, and 16 other states. The map below, from the 2016 NREL report linked to previously, highlights the states that allow most energy consumers to choose their electricity provider.

Image via NREL, 2016

Nevada utilities currently hold a monopoly on both the generation of electricity as well as the distribution of that electricity to homes and businesses. If voters had approved Question 3, the state would’ve ended utilities’ monopoly on electricity generation, thereby allowing homeowners and businesses to choose their electricity provider. Utilities however would’ve held on to their monopoly on distribution, retaining ownership of the infrastructure as well as the responsibility to move that electricity to consumers.

While not specifically concerning clean energy, proponents argued that deregulating the electricity market gives consumers greater options in regards to their energy, giving them the ability to purchase clean energy if they so choose.

Voters’ apparent flip-flop isn’t too surprising. While voters initially approved the bill in 2016, Nevada’s unique laws require a 2nd vote to amend the state constitution. Approving a constitutional amendment the first time is a low-risk situation. The second go-around though, the stakes are higher and NV Energy, the state’s biggest electric utility, spent $62 million campaigning against the bill. The bills biggest supporters, Data center Switch and Las Vegas Sands, on the other hand, jointly provided a substantial, but underwhelming, $32 million.

Carbon Fee Voted Down in Washington

Image via Pexels

Moving to the Pacific Northwest, voters in Washington once again voted down a clean energy bill on the November ballot. Initiative 1631 would’ve placed a fee on carbon emissions from both large-scale carbon emitters as well as on fossil fuels and electricity generated or brought into the state.

Proponents of the measure included Bill Gates and Washington governor Jay Inslee, who voiced his support during the scourge of wildfires wreaking havoc on the state’s air quality in the summer of 2018:

Today, this smoke be opaque. But when it comes to children’s health, it has made something very clear, and that is the state of Washington needs to pass this clean air initiative, so these children can breathe clean air. They deserve that. The significance of this is profound.

That support wasn’t enough though, and 57% of voters voted against the initiative.

The fee would’ve started at $15 per metric ton in 2020, increasing by $2/ton each year until greenhouse gas reduction goals were met in 2035. A handful of states have already proposed carbon taxes, including Maryland, New York, Vermont, and Maine, but so far none have yet been approved.

This is actually the 2nd carbon tax Washington voters have voted down, defeating a similar initiative in 2016. Having voted down a carbon tax on both of the last two ballots, Washington voters clearly aren’t ready for a carbon tax yet, though with the opposition – led by the Western States Petroleum Association – spending $31 million on the cause, about twice as much as supporters’ $15 million, it’s no surprise the measure didn’t pass.

Things look a bit rosier on the federal level though, as Democrats now control the House and a handful, like Sean Casten in Illinois, specifically campaigned on a clean energy and emissions reduction platform. And even though our carbon emissions have actually continued to decrease despite President Trump attempting to roll back environmental policies, support for these policies on the federal level is still necessary to push clean energy forward in the United States. With this new majority in the House, hopefully we’ll see new environmental and clean energy legislation in the near future.

Image Credits: CC license via Pexels: 1, 2

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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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The Duck Curve: Utilities’ Growing Challenge to Solar Adoption https://solartribune.com/the-duck-curve-utilities-growing-challenge-to-solar-adoption/ Mon, 15 Oct 2018 21:07:12 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=14175 Since 2008, the U.S. has seen a veritable explosion of not just residential solar, but commercial and utility-scale installations as well, enjoying a ridiculously high annual growth rate of 54% over the last 10 years. As of September 2018, there is now 58.3 GW of solar installed in the U.S., with the vast majority –23GW […]

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Since 2008, the U.S. has seen a veritable explosion of not just residential solar, but commercial and utility-scale installations as well, enjoying a ridiculously high annual growth rate of 54% over the last 10 years.


As of September 2018, there is now 58.3 GW of solar installed in the U.S., with the vast majority –23GW – installed in California alone. Government initiatives like the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) as well as state-led Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS), and the ensuing utility incentives, opened the doors for this huge influx, spurred on by ever-decreasing technology and installation costs.

Thanks to this jaw-dropping increase in installations, solar and other renewables have accounted for 28% of all California electricity in 2018, as of this writing. And in fact, from March to August of this year, at max production, solar alone briefly made up over 40% of total production – a feat few would’ve believed possible just 10 years ago.

What Is the Duck Curve?

The Duck Curve is a cutesy name for a logistical problem suffered by utilities, brought on by the ever-growing number of solar installations. Take a look at the graph below, and you’ll notice a similarity to an eponymous waterfowl. Each line represents the average net load (the sum of all electricity currently consumed) in California over a 24-hour period.

Why do the lines continually become lower and lower, year after year? That’s new solar installations coming online. And as solar generation increases every year, utilities’ electrical load actually decreases, since homeowners and businesses are relying on their own solar installation – not the utility. You’ll see that load is lowest around 1 to 2 PM, when the sun is highest in the sky and solar installations are pumping out max electricity.

Courtesy CAISO 2013

As the sun begins to set, solar production begins to wane. At the same time, everyone is arriving home from work, doing laundry, turning on lights and water heaters, and watching TV. Electricity usage skyrockets, with peak usage right around 6 PM. These two events – solar production ceasing for the day and everyone getting home – causes the steep ramp captured in the image above.

In the course of those three hours, utilities must quickly ramp up production to meet that ‘peak demand’. And therein lies the issue.

Utilities Can’t Ramp Up Production Quickly Enough

Thanks to the continuing popularity of residential and commercial solar, the Duck Curve has grown at a rate far faster than originally estimated, with California ISO (CAISO) reporting that electrical load fell to just 11,663 MW on May 15, 2016, a number they weren’t expecting to see until four years later in 2020. A few months before that, they reported a 3-hour ramp of 10,892 MW.

To help put that number in perspective, consider that the average-sized residential installation is 5.7kW according to NREL, so 10,892 MW is equivalent to 1.9 million average residential solar installations.

This situation creates major headaches for utilities, as they have to ramp up huge quantities of electricity production in a very short period of time. That might sound like simply a mild annoyance, but it’s anything but, thanks to the scale of the issue and the importance of electricity in our day-to-day lives. In fact, many in the industry have noted the Duck Curve as solar’s greatest challenge.

Utilities’ conventional generation mix simply can’t handle these new challenges. Power plants, beyond peaker plants designed to meet short bursts of high demand and which are very expensive to run, simply weren’t designed to cycle on and off throughout the day. Doing so increases maintenance and wears out equipment faster, eating into the bottom line.

Storage and Flexibility Possible Solutions to the Duck Curve

Utilities and industry organizations like CAISO and the Regulatory Assistance Project have proffered various solutions to the issue over the years and utilities across the western states have implemented many of them.

The easiest solution? How about simply turning solar off? For a 2014 report, NREL found that utilities across the U.S. routinely curtail small amounts of wind and solar to prevent oversupply and/or transmission issues, with HECO in solar-heavy Hawaii specifically curtailing solar production to prevent oversupply during low load periods, i.e. during the belly of the duck.

While curtailment certainly solves the problem, it’s less than ideal, as it removes clean energy from the generation mix and disrupts the financial viability of the installation.

Utilicast, an energy consultancy, warns in their white paper A Market Solution to the Duck Curve that

“It should be noted that the problem is not how to flatten the curve, but rather how to deal with it. The “duck curve” will never go away. In fact the belly of the curve will grow larger as renewables become a greater and greater part of the resource mix.”

A better solution is one that works with, instead of against, the renewable assets. With energy storage continually dropping in price, batteries are becoming a viable solution to the issue. In summer 2018, Arizona Public Service issued an RFP  for construction of 106 MW of battery storage to add to its solar power plant, with the plan of adding 500 MW of energy storage in the next 15 years. The batteries will store solar electricity to be used later during peak time.

Likely one of the most promising solutions to the Duck Curve is incorporating what are known as ‘flexible power plants’ into utilities’ generation mix. Unlike conventional power plants, these plants are able to repeatedly cycle on and off throughout the day, and ramp up more quickly than conventional plants.

While welcomed in solar-heavy Germany, the U.S. is a different playing field. Many US-based power plants are owned by private third-parties instead of utilities, so questions still remain on the long-term economic feasibility of this tactic, as owners would see no real economic benefit from decreasing production, unless new government-backed legislation or incentives are adopted.

Why Is It Important?

You might be wondering why all this even matters to an Average Joe. Maybe you’re thinking that it’s the utilities’ problem, not yours. However, if you value moving towards a world filled with clean energy, it’s not just utilities’ problem. It’s a challenge for all of us.

In the 10 years since NREL first noted the issue, the Duck Curve, in their own words, has

“become an emblem of the challenges faced by power system operators when integrating variable renewables on the grid.”

The fact that the Duck Curve is even a problem is a good sign. It means we’re doing something right. These are simply growing pains to a greener economy – but hopefully we’ll figure it out soon.

Image Credits: CC license via Flickr and Courtesy CAISO

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SolFilm Technology from Sol Voltaics: An Interview with CEO Erik Smith About this Disruptive Solar Panel Technology https://solartribune.com/solfilm-technology-from-sol-voltaics-an-interview-with-ceo-erik-smith-about-this-disruptive-solar-panel-technology/ Mon, 24 Sep 2018 20:06:56 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=14053 Sol Voltaics is looking to apply their breakthrough nanotechnology to improve the efficiency of solar panels across the world. Boasting a 50% efficiency improvement when the lightweight nanowire SolFilm is applied to panels, this Sweden-based company is positioned to revolutionize the potential of solar installations everywhere. This interview with the company’s CEO taps into his thinking […]

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Sol Voltaics is looking to apply their breakthrough nanotechnology to improve the efficiency of solar panels across the world. Boasting a 50% efficiency improvement when the lightweight nanowire SolFilm is applied to panels, this Sweden-based company is positioned to revolutionize the potential of solar installations everywhere.

This interview with the company’s CEO taps into his thinking on the solar market and how their approach to thin film technology will fulfill promises long made by researchers.

Despite widespread desire to buck to promote solar power globally, many constraints still surround solar power, whether they be political, economic, or institutional. A non-controversial way to make progress outside of these roadblocks is to advance the technology. While such technological progress often takes immense investment and resources, which are not easy to come by, when breakthroughs in renewable technologies do emerge from this R&D they can be embraced across the world without much debate.

Sol Voltaics is showing that universal truth, particularly with their nanotechnology called SolFilm. This company is driven to take their innovations to advance the efficiency of solar panels across the world. By adding their lightweight nanowire SolFilm technology, Sol Voltaics boasts that this cost-effective and easy-to-install material can improve panel efficiency by a mind-blowing 50% (safe to say that would represent the largest even single jump in the efficiency of mainstream solar power).

SolFilm. solar panel

Photo source: Solvoltaics.com

What exactly is SolFilm? According to the company, it is a “lightweight photonic film consisting of high-efficiency, gallium arsenide PV nanowires [that] converts high energy sunlight directly into power and is transparent for infra-red light. The infra-red light can be converted into power…enabling a far greater power conversion efficiency than found in current leading-edge conventional modules.” That’s quite a mouthful, and the more technical among us can read more from their recently published scientific paper, but essentially enables existing solar panels to produce significantly more energy. Best of all, Sol Voltaics will ensure solar panel manufacturers could integrate their product without much cost or effort– SolFilm can be used alone as a replacement for thin film/silicon cells in the manufacture of solar panels, or even better, they can be stacked on top of the conventional PV module (during the latter stages of manufacturing) to create an even more high-efficiency product.

I recently had an opportunity to ask a few questions to Erik Smith, CEO of Sol Voltaics, about this technology that will inevitably be a true disruptor of the solar power industry.

Sol Voltaics

Matt Chester: Erik, I wanted to first thank you for making yourself available to answer my questions about Sol Voltaics, the exciting SolFilm development, and the solar market in general. I’ve read a decent amount about SolFilm on your website, in Forbes, and other publications, and the future appears bright. But before getting into the future, I wanted to get a sense of the past. Can you provide a quick overview about how Sol Voltaics got here?

Erik Smith: Sol Voltaics was founded in 2011. Our roots are firmly embedded in Lund, Sweden, and Lund University. The University’s NanoLund organization is one of the international pioneers of nanoscience and nanotechnology.

World-renowned nanotechnologist Lars Samuelson is a scientific founder of the company and the vice director of NanoLund. Sol Voltaics’ intellectual property is based on a combination of Professor Samuelson’s 25 years of Silicon (Si) and III-V nanowire research and Sol Voltaics-generated IP. I have spent over 20 years in technology development and leadership in solar, semiconductor equipment, and materials and global contract manufacturing. Our wider team is a nexus of science and industry. It is important that the managers understand not only their scientific fields, but also the requirements of being in a company with the ultimate objective of providing a product. The company consists of 55 people representing 15 different nationalities.

The impetus for the founding of Sol Voltaics was the invention of Aerotaxy by Dr. Samuelson. Aerotaxy is a continuous flow manufacturing process that enables Sol Voltaics to produce gallium arsenide (GaAs) solar cell nanowires at a very low cost. The ability to bring GaAs, the best solar material in the world, to market at a low cost was the idea that attracted the investors. Since being founded, Sol Voltaics has raised $64 million of total investment, with 20% coming from non-dilutive sources.

Chester: Continuing with that thread, how does SolFilm factor into the whole story of Sol Voltaics? Was the SolFilm technology the reason behind Sol Voltaics being formed, or is it one in a line of multiple products? Are there other innovations into which you’re looking to branch out? 

Smith: Sol Voltaics was formed to realize the vast solar energy potential of GaAs through nanotechnology. GaAs has tremendous solar energy-generating properties and holds the single-junction conversion efficiency record. It is also an extremely robust and reliable material. It has been used for many years in concentrated solar PV systems and in space applications. However, until now, the high cost of GaAs has prevented it from being manufactured into a scalable, economically acceptable product for the mass solar power market. Through our patented Aerotaxy process and the nanophotonic effects of the nanowires, we are able to produce a highly-efficient, low-cost GaAs PV cell called SolFilm.

SolFilm will be the first commercial product produced by Sol Voltaics. But given the ability of Aerotaxy to produce numerous kinds of sophisticated nanowires and our ability to align and organize these nanowires, we see vast potential to apply these two core technologies to other applications.

Chester: What are the biggest hurdles facing Sol Voltaics today? Do they come from the technology side, the economics or market side, any sort of political obstacles, or something else?

Smith: As with many start-ups, obtaining funding is always an obstacle to bring product to market. However, we’re in a good position because we have demonstrated all the key technological aspects of SolFilm. The next round of funding will be used for process optimization to produce prototype samples. This is the final stage before we can commercially manufacture SolFilm.

The SolFilm Technology

Chester: I found that your marketing materials give a great ‘elevator pitch’ summary of the SolFilm technology. Generally, do you find people get on board and understand what you’re trying to do quickly, or do you find that people get a bit lost in the weeds of understanding the tech?

Smith: For those within the solar market, particularly cell and module manufacturers, they understand our value proposition and the benefits of SolFilm very quickly. The solar industry has an urgent need to innovate and bring to market technologies that can enable greater module efficiencies. The industry has seen only incremental increases in efficiencies over the past 10 years. SolFilm’s great success has been the ability to reduce costs to the point where, in many regions, it is competitive with traditional energy sources. To ensure the world complies with COP21 targets, innovation is paramount at acceptable costs. SolFilm represents a technology that will help meet those targets and catapult mainstream solar module efficiencies towards 30%.

Chester: A few companies have come in recent years promising thin film technology that could provide a breakthrough in the solar space, but little progress has been made and investors were resistant to bet on the technology. What makes SolFilm different? How will the story play out this time?

Smith: One key difference for Sol Voltaics is our patented Aerotaxy process. Aerotaxy provides a low-cost path to bringing the well-accepted, sought-after GaAs material to the marketplace. Aerotaxy generates GaAs PV nanowires within seconds, at yields comparable with semiconductor industry standards, and can produce them on a continuous basis. A second key to our low cost is the nanophotonic properties of nanowires. Acting like waveguides, one only needs to cover the module with 20% nanowires. This is the optimum light gathering density. These two critical aspects of SolFilm enable us to bring efficiencies in the upper 20% range at a comparable cost per Watt peak (Wp) to standard low-cost silicon modules.

SolFilm, nanowire

Photo source: Solvoltaics.com

Finally, it is important to note that many of the locations where solar is and will continue to be deployed are in high temperature regions. The temperature coefficient of GaAs as a material is significantly better than silicon. In a region like the Middle East, this can translate to 15-20% more power output with the same efficiency module because GaAs degrades significantly less than silicon in high heat.

Another important point of difference is our association and continued collaboration with the University of Lund and NanoLund. The depth of nanowire understanding at NanoLund in conjunction with its ability to supply a flow of excellent scientists to Sol Voltaics makes it a very valuable partner.

Chester: A main application for SolFilms is to integrate directly into existing PV module lines. Have you had any pushback from the PV cell manufacturers about your product and its integration strategy?

Smith: We have numerous letters of intent from the PV industry to integrate our SolFilm into modules. The integration is an extremely simple process that requires virtually no alternation of the manufacturing process. To execute these LOIs, our job is to produce full-size samples.

Chester: Because the technology applies right to the cell, it seems like SolFilm is equally applicable to utility-scale solar, residential rooftop solar, and any other solar installation. This is obviously valuable for your market to be so wide, but are there any specific applications where SolFilm is especially suitable and the gains are even more impressive?

Smith: We see vast potential for SolFilm in utility-, commercial-, and residential-scale solar. We believe residential and commercial solar are particularly well-suited for SolFilm because of the significantly increased power the cells can generate per square meter of rooftop, thus reducing the overall cost per watt of the system. Its excellent all-black aesthetic and heat resiliency are also key benefits.

SolFilm, solar panel

Photo source: Solvoltaics.com

Market Appetite for SolFilm

Chester: The technology seems like a game changer, but better tech can’t do much unless it’s successfully implemented in the market. With that in mind, what’s the current market of SolFilm? Is the technology still in the development phase or are there any modules in commercial operation today?

Smith: Our technology is still in the optimization phase, so there are no commercial projects featuring SolFilm. We have LOIs and NDAs with all the major solar module manufacturers, all of whom are interested in adopting SolFilm. We are working toward shipping samples to our partners by the end of 2019.

Chester: The solar industry is notorious for being slow to change and adopt new technology. What sort of feedback have you gotten from the solar community– skepticism and doubt or excitement at the potential to disrupt the market?

Smith: Given the urgent need for innovation at the cell and module level, the vast majority of module manufacturers are interested in and excited about the prospect of SolFilm.

The solar industry has been aware of the properties and potential of GaAs in PV for many years since it has been successfully deployed on concentrator PV projects and in outer space. We are on the path to becoming the first company manufacturing mainstream GaAs solar technology at low cost, which has generated significant anticipation of SolFilm in the industry.

The boost that a GaAs material in tandem conjunction with Si/CIGS is also well known. The record is 33% efficiency in this combination. It is our job to demonstrate the product. We have shown that the process of SolFilm works, and we have demonstrated with a world-record nanowire cell that nanowires can make good solar cells. We now need the funds to optimize and scale the form factor. It’s more a matter of when it will happen than if it will happen.

Chester: I’ve seen you talk about how strong the solar market, both commercial and residential, is and how that shows the high, high ceiling of Sol Voltaics’ market potential. Are you seeing a future where SolFilm is in most of the world’s solar panels? What sort of rollout strategy would get you to that point?

Smith: There are a number of rollout strategies we can take. The good news is that the terrestrial solar panel market is already $40 billion a year. So, there is plenty of room for growth.

 

For more information on Sol Voltaics’ 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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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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Solar Challenge 2018: Pushing the EV envelope https://solartribune.com/solar-challenge-2018-pushing-the-ev-envelope/ Mon, 23 Jul 2018 21:18:00 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=13931 Since 1990, young engineers and aspiring auto designers from universities across the world have been gathering every other summer to compete in one of the world’s premier solar vehicle races. This year, the field was brighter than ever. The American Solar Challenge alternates years with the World Solar Challenge (held in Australia) and takes place […]

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Since 1990, young engineers and aspiring auto designers from universities across the world have been gathering every other summer to compete in one of the world’s premier solar vehicle races. This year, the field was brighter than ever.

The American Solar Challenge alternates years with the World Solar Challenge (held in Australia) and takes place in a different part of North America every two years. This year’s race began in Omaha, Nebraska on July 14th, and reached the finish line in Bend, Oregon on July 22nd, with a course that roughly followed the path of the early pioneers on the Oregon Trail. The race is held on public highways, in a multi-day rally format. The winner is determined by which team can complete the entire course with the shortest total elapsed time.


This year’s race proved to be a David and Goliath story, and after completing all five legs of the race, an Australian team from Western Sydney University unseated the solar racing giant University of Michigan. With a development and support team half the size of many of the seasoned competitors, WSU’s car, Unlimited 2.0, defeated Michigan by 16 minutes– a squeaker by solar car racing standards. Project lead Saami Bashar called the final days of the event “very stressful, very competitive and very close.”

“Michigan is a high-caliber team, they are such fierce competitors, they had a lot to prove by racing against us, and they haven’t lost a competition since 2001,” Mr. Bashar told Australian Associated Press from the US on Monday.

Unlimited 2.0 utilizes a Monocoque Carbon Fiber chassis, carbon fiber wheels, a 960W Silicon solar array and 5kWh Lithium Ion batteries.

The results are in

Teams competed in three classes; single occupant vehicles (SOV), multi-occupant vehicles (MOV) and demonstration (DEMO.) 2018 was the first year to include the MOVs, with an Italian team from University of Bologna defeating another American solar racing giant, University of Minnesota. The final standings for the 2018 races are as follows:

SOV


MOV

DEMO

Solar Cars? Really?

Before you head out in search of a dealership to buy yourself a solar car, we need to point out that 100% solar-powered cars are not only not ready for commercialization, but they may never be. The solar race cars designed and built by the student teams are spartan affairs, something akin to a cross between a recumbent bike and a bobsled, with a canopy composed of no more than 6 square meters of photovoltaic cells. No trunk, no air conditioning, not even a cup holder.

“It’s about 95 degrees and humid,” Kathy Van Wormer, co-captain of the Oregon State University Solar Vehicle Team told Wired in 2008. “In the car, it’s about 110. However, what’s got us worried is the wind. The car is shaped like an airplane wing.”

Not only are the cars hot, cramped and slightly dangerous, but they also aren’t very fast. The average speed of the fastest cars this year was somewhere around 45 MPH.

Okay, so the 100% solar-powered car is still far in the future, but what about current EVs, could they benefit from onboard PV panels integrated into the roof, hood and trunk? Another Wired article points out that even Tesla’s electric semi truck, with all of its surface area covered in solar panels, would require 80 hrs to charge the batteries. Obviously, there are A LOT of solar panel performance gains to be made before passenger vehicles will be able to be self-charging.

photo:Tesla

For now, 100% solar-powered vehicles are a long way off, but let’s take a look at the gains made over the nearly 30 years of solar racing.

A history of technical breakthroughs

SunRayce 1993 Photo: Purdue Solar Racing

Like any form of auto racing, solar racing has seen significant advancements that are reflected, most clearly, in increases in both average and top speed, and decreasesin elapsed times. The University of Michigan won the first race in 1990 (then called the GM Sunrayce) covering just over 1800 miles in about 73 hours. That’s an average speed of under 25 MPH! Speeds have improved steadily, with top speeds now well over 65 MPH and average speeds pushing toward 50. Starting in 2008, new safety rules and restrictions on active panel surface area were instituted to keep student racers safe.

These gains are due primarily to the advances in solar panel efficiency, along with increased focus on more conventional automotive design areas like .aerodynamic efficiency and suspension packaging.

The future of design

The greatest thing about the Solar Challenge is the grassroots nature of the event. The teams are student-run, and the relative success of the teams depend on the establishment of a cross-disciplinary team of imaginative young people. Solar Tribune congratulates all of the teams who competed this year, and we hope to see more great things from these young innovators in the future!

 

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Bright Future Ahead for Solar-Powered Drones https://solartribune.com/solar-powered-drones/ Wed, 27 Jun 2018 15:13:03 +0000 http://solartribune.wpengine.com/?p=11815 Despite Facebook’s recent grounding of it’s solar drone program, the long-term future looks bright for solar powered drones. The simultaneous proliferation of solar panels and drones in modern society provides a sneak peak of what the future holds for these constantly innovating technologies. Two Fitting Partners If you want to win some easy money, bet […]

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Despite Facebook’s recent grounding of it’s solar drone program, the long-term future looks bright for solar powered drones.

The simultaneous proliferation of solar panels and drones in modern society provides a sneak peak of what the future holds for these constantly innovating technologies.

Two Fitting Partners

If you want to win some easy money, bet on there being a whole lot more solar panels on the ground and drones in the skies in the near future.

The FAA predicts small, hobbyist drone purchases to more than double from 1.9 million in 2016 to 4.3 million by 2020. The agency also predicts that drone sales for commercial purposes will increase just as dramatically from 600,000 in 2016 to 2.7 million in 2020.

The projected growth in U.S. and global solar capacity is equally robust. The U.S. solar market alone is expected to triple in capacity from 42 GW in 2016 to 128 GW in 2020. Global solar energy capacity will increase at a similarly steep clip, as China drives global demand and ramps up their own solar panel production capabilities.

The anticipated ubiquity of these two technologies is fueling promising new business opportunities tied to solar-powered drones for hobbyists, businesses, and the government.

Source: Alibaba.com

Traditional drones rely on a battery that carries a finite charge, often measured in mere hours. This reality partially negates the endurance advantage that drones have over aircraft that require a human pilot. Solar power is a golden ticket for expanding the possible applications of drones, because it solves the central limitation confronting conventional drones – longevity.

Perfecting the Technology

Heavy and bulky solar panels are unfeasible for drone applications, but a next generation-type of flexible, thin, and lightweight solar cell has solved that problem.

Since its founding in 2008, Alta Devices has gone on to be recognized as the industry leader in developing drone-compatible solar energy solutions. The company specializes in multi-junction solar cells, which incorporates multiple semiconductor materials that allow for the absorption of a broader range of wavelengths. The result is greater sunlight to electrical energy conversion rates that allow Alta Devices to pack a lot of power into their thin solar cells, while not compromising their aerodynamic-friendly physical properties.

Source: Fortune.com

Alta Devices’ bread-and-butter product is a Gallium Arsenide (GaAs) solar cell. GaAs is a chemical compound of gallium and arsenic that is increasingly being used for solar cell manufacturing purposes (over traditional silicon) due to its high efficiency. GaAs is resistant to moisture and UV radiation, making it a highly durable medium for solar cell applications.

GaAs solar cells first came onto the scene in the 1970s at the height of the space race. Noted USSR physicist Zhores Alferov is credited with developing the first highly effective GaAs heterostructure solar cells in 1970. It’s lightweight, thin, and durable properties have traditionally made it a preferred product for PV arrays on satellites and space vehicles.

The technology has come a long way since the 1970s, though, thanks to technological advances made by Alta Devices. Alta Devices boasts the world’s most efficient GaAs-based solar cells that are used for commercial purposes.

In 2016, Alta’s dual-junction solar cell achieved a solar efficiency score of 31.6% from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), meaning that the solar cell converted direct sunlight into electricity at 31.6% efficiency. Alta claims energy efficiency records for both the dual-junction solar cell (31.6%) and the single-junction solar cell (28.8%). In a crowded field of competitors operating in the multijunction solar cell space, Alta Devices is the clear industry leader.

Alta’s high efficiency, low-weight solar cells have fundamentally changed the economics of drone technology for both small UAVs and HALE (high altitude long endurance) UAVs.

Source: Unmannedsystemstechnology.com

Tech Giants Embracing Solar-Powered Drones

Among the promising future applications for reliable solar-powered drones is to use them to beam broadband Internet to rural and underserved areas of the world.

Global tech giants, Google and Facebook, have in the past few years invested heavily in R&D related to possibly transmitting broadband internet from the sky through unmanned aerial devices. The results of their efforts have been somewhat mixed. Very recently, Facebook grounded it’s fleet of solar powered drones.

Google acquired drone startup Titan Aerospace in April 2014. Shortly after the acquisition, Google began Project Skybender, which was an effort to study the feasibility of using drones to deliver low-cost internet access to remote regions of the world.

Source: The Verge

Google’s solar-powered drone suffered a crash in New Mexico in 2015, with the NTSB citing wing damage as the cause. In 2016, Google abandoned its plans to pursue Project Skybender, due in part to the more promising prospects of Project Loon, which uses a balloon-like device to pursue the same goal of aerial internet connectivity. Google’s Project Loon also uses solar cells and a battery storage device as the only sole source powering its balloons.

Source: Engineering.com

While Google abandoned its solar-powered drone project, fellow tech juggernaut Facebook appears much more bullish on the potential of its own solar-powered drone program. Facebook acquired small UK-based aviation company Ascenta in March 2014. The company then launched Project Aquila, which seeks to use a solar-powered drone to deliver internet service to remote regions of the world.

Through its internet.org initiative, Facebook has been clear about its mission to build drones, satellites, and lasers that deliver internet to all the billions of people in the world who lack reliable Internet access.

To date, Aquila has completed two successful test flights, in addition to one unsuccessful flight due to a turbulence-induced broken wing. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have given all indication that they are committed to their solar-powered drone program. Zuckerberg views solar-powered drones that enable billions of dislocated people on the planet to connect to the Internet to be a potential watershed moment for humankind. As Zuckerberg put it after Aquila’s first successful flight last year:

“The internet really does bring so many opportunities to people. There are all these studies that show that for every 10 people that get on the internet, about one person gets lifted out of poverty, and almost one new job gets created. If you’re talking about 4 billion people who are not on the internet, spreading internet connectivity is clearly one of the biggest things we can do to improve the quality of life for so many people around the world… I think the future is going to be thousands of solar-powered planes on the outskirts of places where people live. That’s going to make connectivity both much more available and cheaper.”

Following Aquila’s successful second flight this summer, Zuckerberg optimistically posted on Facebook:

“When Aquila is ready, it will be a fleet of solar-powered planes that will beam internet connectivity across the world. Today, more than half the world’s population — 4 billion people — still can’t access the internet. One day, Aquila will help change that.”

A New Global Arms Race

A couple generations ago, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union were engaged in a race to explore outer space. Fast forward several decades later, and solar-powered drones are fueling a similar kind of arms race.

In June, China’s largest unmanned solar-powered UAV, the Caihong-T4, set a domestic record by reaching an altitude of over 12 miles during a secretive test flight. The Caihong-T4 is equipped with eight propellers that are powered entirely by solar energy. It’s wingspan of about 130 feet makes it wider than a Boeing 737 jetliner, however, the Caihong-T4 weighs between 880 to 1,100 pounds, or about 1% of the total empty weight of a Boeing 737.

Details by the Chinese government have been vague, but all indications are that the Caihong-T4 will be used as a “quasi-satellite” with applications ranging from transmitting telecommunications services domestically to being used for military-related information gathering.

China’s Caihong-T4 unmanned UAV is second only in size and capabilities to the United States’ NASA Helios Prototype, which boasts a 247-ft wingspan and can fly over 18 miles up in the air. Other countries like the United Kingdom have shown interest in solar-powered drones, with the UK going as far as to purchase two Zephyr S solar-powered drones from Airbus last year.

Source: DailyMail.com

Solar-powered drones like the Caihong-T4, NASA Helios Prototype, and Zephyr S that can stay airborne for months or potentially years have significant geo-political implications. Solar-powered drones are ideally suited for carrying out extensive surveillance and military reconnaissance operations. These sub-orbital drones are capable of collecting similarly high-quality imagery as traditional satellites, at a fraction of the cost.

Recent solicitations for “ultra-long endurance” UAVs by the U.S. Department of Defense further underscore the United States’ interest in harnessing the potential of solar-powered drones for military applications.

The Next Big Thing?

While it’s easy to fall victim to “shiny object syndrome,” it’s hard not to get excited about the bright prospects that lay ahead for solar-powered drones.

It is exciting to be alive in an era where renewable energy solutions ranging from solar-powered drones to electric autonomous vehicles seem poised to solve major problems facing our world.

As solar and drone technologies continue to advance and converge, the future applications of solar-powered drones comes better into focus. Facebook and Google’s efforts to use solar-powered aerial devices to connect billions to the Internet could revolutionize the global economy and the human experience. Multi-billion-dollar traditional satellites could be replaced by substantially cheaper solar-powered drones operating in near space. Military reconnaissance, weather and wildlife data collection, and drone-based delivery for disaster relief and commercial retailers are just a sampling of the other activities that could be made markedly more efficient and economical due to solar-powered drones.

Solar-powered drones are just another example of the tremendous potential of leveraging solar energy to solve some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

 

Featured Image Source: Nasa.gov

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