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From Dump to Dynamo: EPA Launches Giant Solar Project in Bay Area

Thu, 05/21/2015 - 3:19am

On May 13, 2015, at Hayward, California, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) celebrated the launching of the first project by the Regional Renewable Energy Procurement Program (R-REP), described as “an unprecedented collaboration of government agencies.”

The head of the EPA, local officials and executives from the solar power industry met at the 24-acre West Winton former landfill, situated across the bay from San Francisco, where 19,000 solar panels will be installed. The project also represents the launch of the Federal Aggregated Solar Procurement Project (FASPP), the first federal partnership to purchase solar power across multiple federal agencies: the Forest Service, the Department of Energy and the General Services Administration. It was inspired by the R-REP program.

“This is about reducing carbon emissions, saving money and growing jobs. It’s a win all over the place,” said U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. She added, “Combining the purchasing power of local and federal governments is a common-sense approach to combating climate change, reducing taxpayer costs, and spurring innovation.”

Four Bay Area counties – Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara – pooled their resources for the R-REP project, which will save tax dollars through economies of scale. The West Winton solar system, which is expected to be completed next year by SunEdison, will generate 6.6 MW of energy, enough to provide power to over 1200 homes, and is one of the largest urban solar projects in California. It will be financed through cost-saving power-purchase agreements: the solar vendors will own the panels, while the counties will pay for the energy through the utility PG&E. Public sites that will receive power include community centers, libraries, fire stations, medical facilities, city halls and educational facilities.

It is estimated that the R-REP programs collectively will involve 186 solar sites, power 19 Bay Area public agencies, create 839 jobs, generate 31 MW of solar power and result in $108 million in savings. The collaborative procurement of renewable energy is anticipated to provide these benefits to public agencies:

  • Reduced transaction costs and administrative time;
  • Competitive contract terms compared to similar projects;
  • Standardized procurement documents, financing and process;
  • Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; and
  • Local economic activity and job growth.

Susan Muranishi, Alameda County Administrator, was quoted as saying, “This project is nothing short of transformational” for creating a model for government agencies to maximize their resources and to overcome environmental threats.

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Students Race for Solar (and Life) Knowledge in Riverside County

Wed, 05/20/2015 - 3:19am

This past weekend, students from 41 Southern California high schools participated in the 13th Annual Solar Cup race, held on Lake Skinner at Temecula, near Winchester in Riverside County.

Teams from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties, operating boats powered totally by solar energy, competed in the race, which is sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California.

Past Competitors in the Annual Solar Cup Race (Photo: Solar Cup website:

The event was the culmination of a seven-month educational program for the teams, which started in October 2014. Newcomer teams and veterans competed in separate divisions, and all participants were sponsored by a water district or other utility. The program’s goal is for participants to learn, according to the program’s website, “about conservation of natural resources, electrical and mechanical engineering, problem solving” and other skills. The competition originally began in 2002 with just eight high schools and about 100 students participating. For the 2015 event, about 1000 students enrolled.

The competing crafts are all 16-foot-long single-seat boats, constructed with kits made of marine-grade plywood supplied by MWD. During the events, only one “skipper” can be present in each boat, but a team is required to equip the boats with steering, solar panels, batteries and motors. The motors may produce up to 320 watts, and the maximum weight of the boats, including the skipper, cannot exceed 450 pounds. The competition was held over three days, and consisted of the qualifying event (Friday), the endurance race using solar panels (Saturday), and the sprint race, using battery power without the panels, followed by the awards ceremony (Sunday).

Solar Cup coordinator Julie Miller was quoted as saying, “Solar Cup supplements textbook curriculum with hands-on experience giving these bright students an opportunity to learn about California’s natural resources, while fostering an interest in science, math, environmental and engineering careers.” Fred Olmedo, an engineering teacher at McBride High School in Long Beach, said, “This is as close as it gets to real life, in my opinion. [The students] are really using their critical-thinking skills [and] problem-solving skills. I mean, it’s just like the whole nine yards…It’s what you would want in an engineer.” One challenge the McBride students faced involved the solar controller and battery, which were ordered from China… and arrived without instructions. The students figured out what to do, partly from the Internet, but mostly by their own ingenuity.


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The Little Utility That Could

Mon, 05/18/2015 - 6:29am

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

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

Warren McKenna of FEC

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo: 25X25blog

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

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

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Palo Alto Seeks to Lead in “Solar Ready” Housing in Bay Area

Fri, 05/15/2015 - 4:29am

Just before Earth Day, the Palo Alto City Council unanimously passed an ordinance mandating that all new single-family residences in the city be “solar ready.”

The new regulation is consistent with the objectives of Palo Alto city government in recent years, which has sought not merely to comply with but to go beyond already strict state energy requirements. The new regulations are part of what the city calls a new “energy reach code,” by which it will require buildings to exceed state energy requirements by 15 percent. The ordinance expands upon the city’s Green Building code of 2008, which at the time was the most stringent in the state. According to the city’s website, the goal of Green Building is “to design, build, and operate a new generation of efficient, environmentally responsible, and healthy buildings.”

The ordinance mandates that all new single-family residences dedicate 500 feet of roof surface to the potential installation of solar panels. Conduits must also be provided by builders to support the future wiring of a solar system. (Exceptions to the rule include, for example, cases in which trees block sunlight from a roof, making harnessing solar energy impossible without eliminating the trees.) The goal is to quadruple local solar power generation by 2023.

The Palo Alto local building code is more aggressive than state requirements, according to a report by the Development Services Department. According to a story in Palo Alto Online, the staff of Peter Pirnejad, the director of the department, estimates that, for a home measuring 2,400 square feet, the new requirements would add about $2,000 to the construction bill, but that this would be cost effective if the cost of installation is amortized over 30 years.

According to the Palo Alto Patch, the city has already cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by an estimated 37 percent from 1990 levels.


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San Diego Still #2 City for Solar in U.S., But Will It Remain a “Shining City”?

Thu, 05/14/2015 - 4:29am

As had been the case the previous year, San Diego attained the number two spot, after Los Angeles, in overall solar capacity in the second annual survey of major U.S. cities (65 in all), called Shining Cities, published earlier this Spring by the Sacramento-based Environment California Research & Policy Center.
The other three top five cities were Phoenix, Indianapolis and San Jose. In addition, according to an Environment California press release, San Diego exceeded Los Angeles in the growth of solar power capacity, as it installed 42 megawatts of solar power in 2014, as opposed to 34 MW for Los Angeles. The document also revealed that the city came in fourth in solar-per-capita, behind Honolulu, Indianapolis and San Jose. San Diego is also among the group of cities that Environment California calls its “Solar Stars”: that is, the 14 cities that can claim 50 or more watts of installed solar PV capacity per person.

Although it would seem only natural that a sunny city such as San Diego would be a solar leader, Dan Jacobson, a program manager at Environment California, was quoted as claiming that sunshine had little to do with it. “The reason San Diego is in such good shape for solar is that [the city has] done such a good job of making it financially attractive,” Jacobson said. For example, multifamily housing complexes can gain special solar incentives, and home loans are available for the installation of solar systems that can be repaid through property tax assessments. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said: “Solar energy is a key element to the City’s proposed Climate Action Plan, which calls for 100 percent renewable energy use in the City by 2035.”

However, the Environmental California release also notes that utilities throughout the country are “campaigning intensely” to slow solar adoption by increasing fees for solar households, seeing the phenomenon as a “direct threat to their business model.” An executive with San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), James Avery, claims that, though his utility does not oppose solar power, solar adoption makes the grid harder to run, and solar customers pay less towards maintaining it. However, this infographic by Vote Solar, based on a published report, suggests that for California energy users in general, benefits to the grid through net metering outweigh costs by over $92 million.


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Disadvantaged Households in Fresno to Get Solar… and Financial Relief

Wed, 05/13/2015 - 4:25am

A new statewide pilot program in California is giving free solar panels to households in disadvantaged areas, starting with communities in Fresno. Called the Low-Income Weatherization Program (LIWP), it is eventually intended to serve about 1800 households throughout the state.
Senate Bill 535, passed in 2012, directed state and local agencies to try to improve California’s most vulnerable communities through the investment of part of the proceeds from quarterly auctions of the state’s cap-and-trade program. A total of $75 million has so far been set aside for LIWP.

The LIWP solar panel program is administered by the California Department of Community Services and Development (CSD) and has three purposes:

  • to produce greater environmental sustainability in heavily polluted communities in order to combat climate change;
  • to provide cheaper energy bills for low-income residents of such communities;
  • to provide local job training in solar panel installation.

A community’s eligibility for the program is determined by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) through an analysis tool known as CalEnviroScreen 2.0, which, according to its website, determines “California communities that are disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution.” Fresno was chosen to inaugurate the program because of the high number, more than a dozen, of disadvantaged and polluted neighborhoods in the city, including the downtown, south and west areas.

To implement the program, CSD partnered with the Fresno Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), which in turn partnered with the corporation Sunrun to provide the solar systems. Brian Angus, the CEO of Fresno EOC, said: “We are helping to improve the lives of these low-income families, providing job training in solar installations and contributing to our state’s environmental goals.”

The program profiles two early recipients of the program, Fresno residents Salvador and Ricarda Mendoza. Ricarda, 61, works a low-wage job, and Salvador, 66, who is unemployed, is ill and requires very expensive medication. They applied for the program because it is projected to reduce the couple’s energy bills by 75 percent. Ricarda was quoted as saying: “I am glad, because now we will have more money for my husband’s medical expenses.”

In addition to Fresno County, Sacramento, Merced, Madera, Tulare and Los Angeles counties will be served by the program.


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Tesla’s Powerwall: Giant Leap or Small Step?

Wed, 05/06/2015 - 10:54am

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

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

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

Powerwall specs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Solar: A Good Technology in Bad Times

Wed, 04/29/2015 - 6:54am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empower Generation is accepting donations to cover the cost of providing solar lighting to emergency workers and others as recovery efforts move forward in Nepal.

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

Utilities: If You Can’t Beat Solar, Buy It

Thu, 04/16/2015 - 7:52am

“Community Solar” projects are popping up all over the United States, providing large amounts of centrally-located, clean, renewable solar generation to utility customers in the area. On the surface, this would appear to be a great step forward for solar. But, there’s a catch.

All solar generation that displaces old, dirty fossil fuel generation provides an environmental benefit and provides jobs in the community. But when it comes to economics, not all solar is created equal. Community solar “gardens” or larger community solar “farms” are a great way for homeowners and businesses to participate in the clean energy revolution without making the up-front investment in the equipment. They can also allow wider participation by providing solar energy to apartment dwellers, renters and other people for whom owning a solar photovoltaic (PV) system is just not practical. However, the ownership structure and regulatory guidelines under which these solar projects are built can make them not a truly “community solar” project, but rather a cover for large utility companies who wish to maintain their monopoly over the community electrical market.

One such project is currently coming under fire in Michigan. Consumers Energy Company is proposing a 10 MW community solar program that would be spread out among several facilities, each at 500 kW or more. Full-service customers would be able to subscribe to the pilot program and receive a bill credit in proportion to their contribution for energy, capacity and renewable energy credits produced at a facility. On the surface, this would appear to be a boon for the Michigan solar industry. However, a coalition of renewable energy advocates, including the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Ecology Center and the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association fear that Consumers’ proposal would “monopolize” the community solar market, as the utility seeks to prevent independent third parties from developing projects within its service territory.

Consumers Energy is Michigan’s second-largest electric and natural gas utility, providing service to more than half of the state’s residents in all 68 counties in the Lower Peninsula. Consumers Energy is the principal subsidiary of Jackson-based CMS Energy Corporation. Consumers proposed 10 MW community solar pilot program would be the first program of its kind from one of the two major investor-owned utilities in Michigan. However, the Consumers Energy proposal would not allow third-party development of community solar projects, only projects built and owned by Consumers. This would virtually eliminate any chance for private development of solar, or any opportunity for free choice on the part of the consumer.

Brad Klein, staff attorney with the Chicago-based ELPC, said shutting out third parties is a “major issue.”

“It’s sort of a larger theme as utilities are thinking about different ways to move into the solar market,” he said. “We think having different options for customers, different types of programs other developers can offer, would provide a lot of public benefit. It helps provide accountability about pricing — friendly competition is also good for customers.”

Why do utility companies object to allowing private ownership of solar generation in their service territories? After all, in many cases, utilities buy power from lots of third party generators. According to a recent story at the PVSolarReport: “Most utilities see a solar array on a customer rooftop the same as they see an energy efficient refrigerator. It means the customer buys less electricity. In some states, policies called “decoupling” tend to hold utilities harmless to these sales losses in order to encourage more investment in cost-effective energy efficiency. But with solar, utilities tend to ignore the benefits that this energy provides to the electricity system unless someone tells them to account for it.

In Minnesota, for example, the state legislature passed a “value of solar” program that requires the state’s largest utility, Xcel Energy, to calculate how much solar energy is worth to its grid. In 2014 and 2015, the utility has reported that the value of solar energy is higher than the cost to the utility in buying it from customers via net metering. Other studies have shown similar results, including one in Maine, in Missouri, and in many other states.”

Some utility-based “community solar” programs are truly community-owned projects, however. The tiny, member-owned Farmers Electric Cooperative, based in Frytown, Iowa has developed a 750-kilowatt solar farm on nine acres. It is be the single largest solar energy project in the state.

“This is part of our Cooperative Energy Plan to cut outside energy purchases by 25 percent,” said Warren McKenna, who manages the co-op, which serves 640 members. Farmers Electric Cooperative is located in the heart of Iowa’s Amish country, and the co-op has embraced solar on every scale, from the giant community solar farm, down to providing off-grid solar power to small telephone kiosks used by the areas Amish farmers.

photo: Matt Zimmerman

Of course, successfully replacing 25% of generation with locally produced solar is going to be easier on a small scale, like that illustrated by Farmers Electric, than for Michigan’s energy giant Consumers Energy, but the principle holds true on every scale. Embrace the new, clean technology that customers want, allow them a choice of products, and sell it to them at a reasonable cost.

Chinese Solar: The Sleeping Giant Is Waking To A New, Smoggy Sunrise

Thu, 04/09/2015 - 3:13pm

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

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

Last year, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, announced “Historic” CO2 reduction plans that would see the Chinese carbon emissions peak “around 2030” and then level out or begin to decline. President Xi also promised that by then, 20 percent of China’s energy will be renewable. Many question how effective this policy will be, as China’s emissions continue to skyrocket. Also, with the Chinese governments dictatorial authority over energy policy, why will it take so long?

For better or worse, Chinese energy policy has generally been coherent, well organized and nimbly executed. When the nation required more energy to power it’s meteoric rise as the world’s industrial powerhouse, it needed only to proclaim that new coal-fired power plants be built, unhindered by any of the types of environmental debates held in democratic governments. By the same token, those plants can be shut down and replaced by cleaner gas-fired plants and new solar generation just as quickly, without any pushback from advocates of the “free market.”

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

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

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

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

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

Can Elon Musk Push Solar Storage Over The Top?

Fri, 04/03/2015 - 7:58am

The tweet may have been a hint about the teaser Musk tweeted out the day before, announcing, “Major new Tesla product line—not a car—will be unveiled at our Hawthorne Design Studio on Thursday at 8 pm, April 30.”

The visionary entrepreneur is the CEO and of SpaceX, CEO of Tesla Motors, and chairman of the board at SolarCity, and now it looks like he may be eyeing solar energy storage as the “next big thing.” However, affordable storage has long been the holy grail of the solar industry, and has so far proven elusive. Can the man who put Paypal on the map generate enough buzz to help push solar storage out of the lab and into the marketplace at long last?

Elon Musk looks to the future.

Battery technology is certainly not a new subject of interest for the South African born wunderkind. His electric car company, Tesla Motors, has been making huge advances in battery technology in the last few years. Musk knows that, obviously, electric cars can only be considered “Green” if they use a non-polluting source of electrical generation to charge their batteries, and he also clearly understands that the same people who are buying electric cars are often the same people buying solar for their homes. According to a recent survey done by the Center for Sustainable Energy, 40 percent of America’s plug-in electric cars have been sold in California, and about half of electric vehicle owners currently have solar, or want to install it at their home or business. Electric vehicles, or “EVs” currently make up less than 1 percent of all U.S. car sales, but Musk plans to change that… and the solar industry along with it. Could a larger version of the Tesla batteries soon be powering our homes?

The traditional utility providers may not be quaking in their boots yet, but they certainly are keeping a close eye on what Elon Musk is up to. Musk has announced that he is putting his money where his mouth is, and will soon be breaking ground on a huge, 500-1000 acre, five billion dollar battery mega-plant. Texas, New Mexico and Arizona are competing ferociously to bring the project to their state, and the decision is set to be made in the very near future.

The Tesla Model S outside the factory. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

All is not entirely rosy on Musk’s solar horizon, however. SolarCity, the giant California leasing company that Musk has taken under his wing, is under attack in the press. A recent article in The Daily Caller featured the explosive title “Study: Is Elon Musk’s SolarCity The Next Enron?” The article points to a new report by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. The report claims that “Like Enron, SolarCity and the solar industry’s complex financing schemes could create a “bubble” that will eventually burst and leave taxpayers exposed…SolarCity is a major player in this sketchy financial game.”

SolarCity wasted no time in firing back, pointing out that “Taxpayer Protection Alliance represents the interests of monopoly utilities, and its goal is to kill one of the most free market developments in the history of United States electricity markets. SolarCity has thousands of conservative customers who believe in their right to produce their own power by putting solar panels on their roofs,” the spokesman said. “Taxpayer Protection Alliance is working to protect monopoly interests, not the public interest in more jobs and more consumer choice.”

Musk’s Tesla Battery efforts, along with his part in making SolarCity the highest profile solar provider in the nation make his companies an obvious target for the ire of the utility industry. However, consumers don’t seem to be falling for cynical claims by monopoly electrical providers that the solar industry is “attacking the free market.” In fact, no greater sign in consumers enthusiasm for solar can be found than yesterday’s news that SolarCity continues to surpass its own electricity generation records at astounding rates. According to Musk, SolarCity has exceeded the 5 Gwh per day benchmark just two weeks after reaching 4 Gwh per day of electricity generation. By comparison, In 2010 a SolarCity alone did not generate 1 Gwh per day of electricity.

It must be pointed out that Musk, Tesla and SolarCity are not the first to take on the solar storage issue, nor are they the only competitors in the current race for marketable solar storage. Also, batteries are not the only options being explored. There are several projects looking at converting solar electricity to thermal energy and storing it underground, as compressed gas or as hot water. There is even a project in which solar power is stored as molten aluminum. However, these large-scale projects feel more like the utility industries attempts to maintain hold on the central-station generating model than practical projects. It is clear that consumers would prefer to make their own power, store their own power, and interact with the utility grid, rather than being at the mercy of it.

All eyes will be on the Hawthorne Design Studio for Musk’s April 30th announcement. If it is, in fact, the release of a ground breaking residential battery, will it be a game-changer? We won’t know right away. But one thing is for sure… Twitter will be abuzz, as will Wall Street.

Solar Profile: Beth Spence, American Solar Direct

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 11:51am

Beth Spence, American Solar Direct’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing, prides herself on helping communities reduce carbon while improving the economy and creating jobs.

Please tell our readers a little about your background, and how you got into the solar industry.

Beth Spence: American Solar Direct

I’ve been in the energy business for most of my career. Earlier on I worked my way up through sales support, sales management, marketing and operations for Energy Savings Group (now Just Energy), one of North America’s largest retail energy providers. I left that company and the energy space for a couple of years, but was drawn back in when the former CEO of Just Energy and current CEO of American Solar Direct, Brennan Mulcahy, contacted me about helping to build a solar power company in California. It was a great opportunity for me to employ my energy and direct sales background to the clean energy space. I jumped on board without hesitation. We started with a very small team in Los Angeles, and have now grown our staff at American Solar Direct to a little over five hundred, while receiving recognition for our noteworthy growth along the way!

How many years have you been with American Solar Direct?

September will mark 6 years at American Solar Direct.

Tell us a little about American Solar Direct and your role there.

American Solar Direct provides a full-service solar power solution for homeowners across California. We inspire homeowners to go solar for the benefit of saving them money on their utility bills and helping them reduce their carbon footprint. As Vice President of Sales and Marketing, I work with the executive team to establish goals, plan sales and marketing strategy and then oversee our corporate team and 5 field sales offices to ensure everyone is equipped with the proper tools to meet these goals.

What do you find exciting about the projects that you are currently working on?

What I find exciting is seeing all of our collective hard work come together to support our overarching goal of providing the best residential solar solution homeowners. I work with an amazing team of capable and hard-working people and we strive to deliver the very best customer experience in residential solar. This industry is in a state of constant flux, so there’s never a dull moment!

I also find it exciting and rewarding that we get the opportunity to create meaningful work for people in their local communities through what we do. How amazing is it that when a homeowner chooses clean and affordable power, they’re also putting local residents to work in great jobs in sales, installation, customer care and administration? It’s an industry and an opportunity unlike any other in terms of what a contribution we can make to the economy, to the environment, and to families.

If you were to choose three words that you would like readers to associate with American Solar Direct and its products, what would they be, and why?

Reliable: we pride ourselves on doing the very best work in the residential solar business. Our systems perform and are backed by our guarantee.

Innovative: we stay ahead of the curve on the best equipment and financing options; we’re always looking for ways to bring more value to our customers and our employees. We also strive every day to be a little bit (or a lot!) better than we were the day before, and that means constantly innovating.

Enthusiastic: we always say that our people are our differentiator in the solar business; people can choose among many solar power providers, but we aim to be the one that builds a long-term, supportive relationship with the homeowners that choose us. We even have homeowners that have come to work for us after having a great experience with our people – that’s the enthusiastic reaction that we hope to inspire.

Where do you see American Solar Direct fitting into the solar industry now, and where would you like ASD to be in 5-10 years?

Now, American Solar Direct is a full-service major player amongst residential solar providers in California. Our explosive growth over the last few years has even been formally recognized by Inc. Magazine in 2014 (as 17th Fastest Growing Private Company according to their Inc. 5000 List) and we certainly plan to continue fueling this growth as solar continues its widespread popularity. In 5 to 10 years, I expect to that you will see American Solar Direct become increasingly visible on a national level.

Where do you see areas for growth in solar, and what are the roadblocks to achieving market growth?

Solar is a constantly evolving technology that literally knows no boundaries. Obviously, growth opportunities abound geographically where state legislatures and municipalities actively embrace it, and that progress has been increasingly rapid. We see continued development of these policies that support clean energy, bringing solar to more and more cities and states.

Political uncertainty is always a potential roadblock to solar progress; as we approach an election, there is always the possibility of a less favorable political climate for solar power. But we believe that consumer demand for clean energy will continue to create the conditions necessary to sustain continued industry growth, regardless of the outcome of elections!

If you care to, tell us a little about your passions outside of solar.

Never-ending self-improvement: reading, learning new hobbies, or continuing my education. Enjoying the California (solar producing!) sunshine outdoors. Great friends. Game of Thrones.

What Happens if the Federal Solar Tax Credit Expires?

Fri, 03/13/2015 - 9:40am

The solar industry is booming. But can it sustain its current growth in the absence of the 30% federal tax credit?

image: the

The U.S. Government’s Investment Tax Credit (ITC) allows for any U.S. tax payer who purchases a solar system (or other renewable energy system) to receive the tax credit equal to 30% of the system cost. A tax credit, unlike a deduction, can be used to pay taxes owed, so it functions much more like a rebate than a deduction, making it extremely attractive to those with a larger tax burden.

However, the ITC is set to expire in 2016, and the fate of the tax credit is of serious concern to nearly everyone in the solar industry. If congress fails to renew the ITC, it could have a chilling effect both on individuals who want to install residential solar systems, as well as the large companies who are installing the larger, utility scale solar projects.

One example of how the discontinuation of tax credits can chill fledgeling renewable energy industries is the 2012 sunsetting of the Wind Production Tax Credits. Since then, congress has battled over short-term extensions to the PTC, which has left wind project developers unable to plan for development beyond the current year.

“Wind has more than tripled since 2008, it can double from where it is today to 10 percent by 2020, then double again to 20 percent by 2030, and become the leading source of electricity in the U.S. by 2050,” said The American Wind Energy Association‘s Tom Kiernan. “However, to get there Congress must provide wind with the same policy certainty it provides to other energy sources by rapidly extending the Production Tax Credit for as long as possible.”

Could the U.S. solar market be looking at the same uncertainty as wind? According to Tony Clifford, CEO of Standard Solar, “If an extension happens it will be in late-2016, early-2017, but it won’t happen any sooner than that. This will still throw brakes on the industry for about six to nine months, which means layoffs will begin mid-2016. We have to start working the halls of congress now. Companies should join SEIA’s ITC coalition — get involved and start contacting your local political leaders. Show them the importance of solar.”

“Since 2006, 150,000 jobs have been created, 19.5 GW have been installed, and yearly installations have increased by a factor of 60,” said Rhone Resch, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) Executive Director. “Most of us in this room have jobs because of the solar ITC.” Resch laid out a frightening scenario at the recent keynote session at PV America 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. “The reality is that we will lose 100,000 jobs if we lose the ITC — and these are conservative numbers. Ninety percent of solar companies will go out of business.”

Not everyone in the solar industry agrees with Resch. Jigar Shah, the founder of the nation’s largest solar services provider, SunEdison, has often expressed his opinion that subsidies are actually holding the solar industry back. In an editorial for Cleantechnica, Shah writes: The reasoning behind my strong stance is that, based on the cost of solar that I am personally investing in, solar is now cost-effective without subsidies for ideal customers in 300 utilities in 30 US states. Those 300 utilities account for about 20% of all of the electricity sold in the United States (using Energy Information Administration Form 861 data). Based on my experience, my thesis is that phasing out these subsidies will lead to 1) greater system cost reductions, 2) lower cost of money, and 3) greater standardization in the industry – all leading to a greater acceleration of solar PV deployment in the United States.”

Shah is not the only person in the industry who believes that the expiration of the Investment Tax Credit will lead to more solar installations. In this 30-minute audio interview at Renewable Energy World, Chris Lord, who has extensive experience financing solar projects with CapIron Inc, explains that the impact of the possible ITC expiration will depend on the local market. In markets that have flexible programs, namely Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SREC) markets, it could actually increase the adoption of solar PV by increasing the value of SRECs and opening up an entire markets for both properties and investors that could not use the ITC before. However, only six states, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. have SREC markets. Lord admits that in markets with more rigid structures, like feed-in-tariffs, cash rebates, or tax credits, it might have a more long term negative impact. 

With installed costs plummeting recently at 13% annually, solar may survive the phasing out of the ITC. However, with utility lobbyists across the country looking for ways to discourage residential solar installations, it may once again be “the little guy” that suffers, while larger and larger, centralized, corporate owned solar generation facilities become more and more the model for solar development.

Solar Energy Storage In Five Years?

Wed, 03/04/2015 - 8:53am

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the solar industry is going to have to address the energy storage issue soon if the market is to continue growing. Can battery technology be ready for primetime within five years?

Current moves on the part of utilities to centralize solar with large “solar farms” notwithstanding, solar will be considered marginal until it becomes dispatchable. That is, it needs to be available “on demand,” day or night, rain or shine, 24/7.

Flow Batteries image: pv magazine

In a recent Scientific American article, Umair Irfan writes that, “Storing energy remains the missing link for many clean power technologies, but DOE researchers and startup companies are racing to fill the gap.” Irfan goes on to describe several promising next-gen storage technologies, such as “Aluminum-Air” batteries that store energy as molten aluminum. He also describes energy storage with super-critical fluids, as well as “flow batteries” which produce energy by pumping liquid electrolytes through a cell. These are particularly suited for grid-level electricity storage because they can be scaled up easily. It sounds like the technology getting close, but how close?

A recent report from Deutsche Bank (DB) recently predicted that energy storage will reach a competitive price point in as little as five years. Energy storage, which DB calls the “missing link of solar adoption” says that competitive batteries will become the “killer app” and the “holy grail” of solar penetration.

“Using conservative assumptions and no incentives, our model indicates that the incremental cost of storage will decrease from ~14c/kWh today to ~2c/kWh within the next five years,” the report says. “When overall system cost decreases are considered, we believe solar + batteries will be a clear financial choice in mature solar markets in the future.”

The report points out that “Commercial customers are often subject to demand based charges, which can account for as much as half of the electric bill in some months… We think companies with differentiated battery solutions coupled with intelligent software and predictive analytics that work with the grid to avoid these charges and smooth electric demand will pave the way for mass adoption.”

One such project that was recently announced is a recent announcement by Swiss energy storage start-up Alevo Group that they will be entering into partnership with Customized Energy Solutions (CES) to deploy 200 MW of its lithium-ion-based battery systems in an undisclosed wholesale energy market in the United States.

The distributed storage projects are aimed at providing frequency regulation services through CES, which works with eight independent systems operators in North America. The battery storage projects will help the unnamed grid operator integrate renewable energy resources, including solar, into the grid. The installations are planned for the second half of 2015, a spokesman for Alevo told PV Magazine recently.

Another promising energy storage project is being launched by ViZn Energy Systems in partnership with LFC Capital. Their program will offer commercial property owners solar PV systems combined with energy storage. The availability of as much as $5 million per project is expected to accelerate the deployment of ViZn’s Z20 Energy Storage System, a zinc/iron redox flow battery.

LFC Capital’s program uses a traditional operating lease with ownership options after six and seven years. LFC also encourages the use of a follow-on loan as a way to conserve cash and maintain low monthly payments throughout an extended investment period.According to ViZn, the ideal project size is a 50 kW to 1,000 kW solar PV installation, requiring 80 kWh to 500 kWh of energy storage.

Not only are these advances in battery storage great news for utility customers who are looking for more independence from dirty coal-fired electricity and government-sanctioned monopoly utility companies, but for those in the developing world, it could be their first opportunity to have access to plentiful and high quality electricity.

A report from the London-based Climate Group and the Goldman Sachs Center for Environmental Markets titled titled The Business Case for Off-Grid Energy in India, concludes that storage will be an important component of solar home systems in the country, sales of which are expected to grow at 60 percent a year between now and 2018.

The report identifies solar and storage as a tool for lifting 360 million Indians living off-grid– around 50 percent of India’s rural population– out of energy poverty.

The need for energy storage is obvious if the solar market is to continue to grow. What is less obvious are the amazing new opportunities that will become possible for both residential customers and businesses, urban and rural residents, when storage prices reach a point where they become competitive with grid power.

California Tech Giants Google and SunCity Partner on Residential Solar Fund

Tue, 03/03/2015 - 11:28am

Forward-looking California tech giants Google and SunCity are partnering again to create the largest residential solar financing program in US history.

Google has announce its largest foray to date by working with San Mateo, California based SolarCity to create a fund which could finance as much as $750 million in residential solar projects. The new fund will cover the upfront cost of solar panel installations for thousands of homeowners in 14 states and the District of Columbia, and make it possible for them to pay less for solar power than they pay for electricity generated by fossil fuels.

Google, whose base of operations is in Mountain View, California, has committed $300 million to the new fund. The new fund is the largest of its kind ever created for residential solar power, and the second such collaboration between the two companies

“We’re happy to support SolarCity’s mission to help families reduce their carbon footprint and energy costs,” said Sidd Mundra, Renewable Energy Principal at Google. “It’s good for the environment, good for families and also makes good business sense.”

The fund covers the cost of the installation, solar panels and other equipment. The homeowner pays SolarCity for the electricity the solar panels produce, or monthly rent for the panels in the case of a lease. In most cases it’s very similar to the arrangement homeowners have with their local utility, which finances the construction of a centralized power plant and delivery grid and then sells its residential customers.

Solar Naysayers Put Politics Before Facts

Thu, 02/26/2015 - 5:57pm

Despite the rapid growth in the solar industry worldwide and the mounting evidence that solar technology benefits both the economy and the environment, some anti-solar activists just don’t know when to quit.

A recent guest column at by David Williams illustrates just how poorly conceived some of the solar-haters arguments can be. Mr. Williams, who is credited as the President of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, opens his piece by touting the Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program, the Hoover Dam, the interstate highway system as “…evidence that anything is possible with the right application of American ingenuity and persistence.” He goes on to state that “…The Manhattan project produced the bomb; the Apollo program put men on the moon; the Hoover Dam tamed the Colorado and let a desert bloom; the interstate highway system unleashed America’s mobility. What is there to show for the decades of effort, and trillions of dollars spent, trying to make “renewables” a major part of the nation’s energy portfolio?”

Mr. Williams apparently feels that massive amounts of taxpayer dollars spent to develop the atomic bomb was a better use of taxpayer dollars than encouraging an individual’s right to generate their own electricity. That is, the bomb which killed 150,000 civilians in Hiroshima and 75,000 in Nagasaki. The bomb that triggered the most costly arms race in human history. It’s interesting too, that Mr. Williams fails to mention the nuclear energy industry, which was built almost entirely with taxpayer dollars and continues to siphon money from the federal government every year since 1959. In fact, all of those projects which Mr. Williams mentions were government funded, and all of them to questionable ends. Where are his examples of free-market successes?

The fact is that Mr. Williams, who is supposedly an anti-tax advocate, openly pillories policies designed to reduce taxes on individuals who choose to invest their own money in solar technology. Technology that reduces their reliance on outside energy sources. It could seem to many readers to be the height of hypocrisy. One might come to the conclusion that an article like this one is more motivated by politics than by a real understanding of the energy sector economics. Despite one’s feelings about President Obama, the Stimulus or Global Warming, it is hard to deny the market success that solar has achieved, even in states and nations without strong incentive programs.

The Washington Times also recently ran a blistering anti-solar editorial. The piece stated that “Everybody likes the sun. The rays feel good and they’re free for everyone. Nobody likes the sun more than the promoters of solar electricity. These so-called “green energy companies,” however, are anything but free, and have collected, on average, $39 billion a year in federal subsidies in the six years and counting of the Obama administration. They haven’t produced enough electricity to match the glow of a lightning bug’s bottom.” Interestingly, the Times cites many of the exact same statistics as Mr. Williams. Statistics that are somewhat dubious from the outset. also, like Mr. Williams, the Times fails to call for an end to the piles of money that other energy sectors have historically received from the Federal government. Are taxpayer funded subsidies for mature industries like coal and gas somehow excempt from the wrath of so-called “anti-tax” advocates?

In another case of politics trumping facts in anti-solar statements, A Tuscon Sentinel article recently reported that State Representative Paul Gosar filed an anti-solar letter with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In the letter, Gosar accused third party solar leasing companies of “deceptive marketing strategies.” The Sentinel also exposed the fact that the letter signed by Representative Gosar was drafted for him by an employee of Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest electric utility provider. The letter was filed by Rep. Gosar verbatim, without one word changed from the letter given to him by the utility company employee.

Arizona Representative Paul Gosar photo:youtube

Arizona Public Service also happens to be waging a campaign to end third party solar leasing in the state, and not surprisingly, is one of Mr. Gosar’s largest campaign contributors. Along with Republican Gosar, Democratic Reps. Ron Barber, Ann Kirkpatrick and Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Reps. Trent Franks, Matt Salmon all sent a similar letters to the energy regulators.

The Sentinel also reports that “Over the past three election cycles, the political action committee and employees of Pinnacle West Capital Corporation (The parent company of Arizona Public Services) have given a combined $99,675 to Arizona Republicans Franks, Gosar and Salmon, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Pinnacle West has been the single largest campaign contributor for Gosar during his entire political career and has been the second largest campaign contributor for Salmon over the past three election cycles.”

It would appear that despite the falling installed cost of solar (with or without tax-breaks) and the increased market demand, some critics simply can’t accept the fact that solar is providing affordable energy and increased independence to consumers without the blessings of large energy companies. The reality of individual consumers or independent third-party solar providers owning a portion of the production is anathema to many of the large, government sanctioned monopoly utility providers, and they are using their political clout and media machines to create the appearance that they are trying to protect the ratepayers and taxpayers, when in fact it looks more like they are using government to protect their corporate profits.

SunRun opens New Design Center in Irvine

Tue, 02/24/2015 - 6:37pm

San Francisco-based Sunrun, the nation’s largest solar company dedicated to residential systems, is expanding its presence in Orange County, California with the recent opening of a new solar design engineering center in Irvine.

According to the Orange County Register, about 50 full-time employees work at the office. Ethan Miller, Sunrun’s senior vice president of operations says that this year, Sunrun plans to hire an additional 50 workers. “We’re interested in expansion and Irvine has a great access to talent,” he said. “We’re doing design and very technical work, and we felt there’s great synergy with other companies and skills sets in the area.”

Sunrun currently serves customers in 11 states– Arizona, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania. The design team in the Irvine office will serve customers in all of Sunrun’s service area, not just California.

“All that design work is coming through this hub and being pushed back out,” Miller said. “Every system is a custom design for that house,” which takes into account the home’s orientation and other factors.

The Wall Street Journal recently included SunRun in its list ODF “Ten Billion Dollar Ideas You’ve Never Heard Of.” The Journal Reports: “In 2006, the year before Sunrun Inc.’s founders launched their business, solar energy powered just 30,000 American homes, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. By the end of 2013, there were about 400,000 homes in the country powered by solar, and Sunrun —and its business model— are a big reason why.

In the past, few homeowners were willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a rooftop solar installation that would pay off in smaller utility bills at some distant date in the future. Sunrun was the first company to cover the cost of the solar system installed on a residential roof, own the system, and handle maintenance. Homeowners pay the company monthly for the electricity the system produces, leading to lower utility bills.

Soon after Sunrun began financing panels, arch-rival SolarCity Corp. came out with a similar offering and then, in 2012, went public. The two companies, along with competitors such as Vivint Solar Inc. and SunPower Corp. , are trying to capture a market that appears to have room to grow–less than 1% of American homes have solar.”

There is no doubt that the solar industry has had amazing growth in the last few years, and the expansion of Sunrun is just one indication that even recent entries into the solar marketplace are feeling confident about strong future growth.

Enviros and Tea Party Agree: Solar is Good for Florida

Mon, 02/23/2015 - 6:24am

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

California, Texas and Florida have a lot in common. They are the nations three most populated states. All three enjoy warm, sunny climates. All three have perfect conditions for producing massive amounts of solar power. However, Florida lags far behind the other two mega-states in solar electricity production. Why?
“Florida is the best solar market in the eastern United States, and it’s clearly underperforming,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which is part of a coalition of groups called Floridians for Solar Choice.

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

One of the remarkable things about Floridians for Solar Choice is the diversity of its membership. According to In a recent poll, 74% of Florida voters said they would support a proposal to change Florida’s current law and allow Floridians to contract directly with solar companies to power their homes or businesses with solar energy, and the makeup of Floridians for Solar Choice reflects that broad base of support. The impressive list of supporters of Floridians for Solar Choice includes such diverse groups as the Christian Coalition of America, Conservatives for Energy Freedom, Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy, Florida Retail Federation, Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, Libertarian Party of Florida, Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, Republican Liberty Caucus of Tampa Bay, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, WTEC, Clean Water Action, Environment Florida, Evangelical Environmental Network, Greenpeace USA, IDEAS for Us, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Florida, ReThink Energy Florida, Sierra Club Florida and The Tea Party Network.
According to a recent article on The Wall Street Journal “…Utilities have long argued that customers should go through them for solar energy because they should help pay for the cost of maintaining the grid, which they still rely on for at least part of the day.”

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

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

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

Solar growth in states that allow third party power purchase agreement, particularly in the form of solar leases, illustrates clearly that the inability of Floridians to purchase solar power electricity directly from someone other than a monopoly electric utility is one of the major reasons that Florida’s Solar industry has not taken off. In California, for instance, solar installations skyrocketed with the implementation of solar lease agreements. According to a 2013 report from the Climate Policy Initiative:

“Recently, steep solar panel cost reductions as well as strong federal and state policy supports have helped to catalyze substantial growth in rooftop solar PV deployment in California. Interestingly, this growth has happened in the face of declining financial incentives for solar installations at the state level through the California Solar Initiative. This growth has also been accompanied by a shift in market demand: Most homeowners in California are no longer purchasing the panels on their rooftops, they are leasing them. Over 75% of California’s new residential solar systems in 2012 were leased as compared to less than 10% in 2007.”

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

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

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

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

Solar Profile: Wendi Zubillaga, PetersenDean

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 7:54am

Wendi Zubillaga is the Chief Sales Officer at PetersenDean Roofing and Solar and a 29-year veteran of the residential real estate industry. As Chief Sales Officer at the nation’s largest privately-held roofing and solar company, she oversees all facets of the company’s growth, marketing and sales.

Wendi Zubillaga,President of the Builder Group at PetersenDean

She also helped create the Builder Advantage program, a rewards program that provides incentives to builders. Zubillaga has a proven track record of success that spans a wide variety of clients, allowing her to work with all styles, technologies, budgets and approaches. Her expansive network and industry background includes a focus on residential roofing and sustainability and she works with many of the nation’s top builders.

Please tell our readers a little about your background, and how you got into the solar industry.

I have been in the home building industry for the past 26 years.  My brother and I opened a fencing company fresh out of school.  After several years with my brother, I met Jim Petersen (Founder and CEO of PetersenDean) at an industry trade show and I decided to join his roofing company as the salesperson.  At that time, PetersenDean was a small roofing company located in Northern CA.  After many years of growth and success, it was a natural progression to move into the “solar world” as solar is a roofing product.

How many years have you been with PetersenDean?

This is my 21st year with this incredible company.

Tell us a little about PetersenDean and your role there.

Petersen Dean was started in 1984 by Jim Petersen and Joe Dean, two young roofers that decided to work for themselves after learning the trade.  The home building industry was attractive to Jim and when I was brought on in 1994, he made it clear that we would be in for a “wild ride.” We began to open offices all over California and then moved into other states.  We now operate in five states, CA, AZ, NV , TX and FL.  I have held many positions over the years, mostly in a sales capacity, sales rep to Chief Sales Officer and very recently was named President of the Builder Group.  This is quite an accomplishment that I am extremely proud of as there are very few women in this role in the entire construction industry.

What do you find exciting about the projects that you are currently working on?

I am excited about the growth in solar uptake on the builder side of the business and have recently partnered with some of the nation’s largest builders, DR Horton, KB Home, Standard Pacific, Richmond American and Taylor Morrison just to name a few.  

Homebuilding is a very cyclical industry and we have reacted to the market shifts by expanding our consumer solar business.  I am very proud of our consumer teams  growth in revenues over the past few years. 

If you were to choose three words that you would like readers to associate with PetersenDean and its products, what would they be, and why?

Quality – With more than 30 years in the business we have a proven track record that proves that we stand behind our warranty.
Innovative – Petersen Dean and our incredible family of employees prides itself on improving its procedures and practices to make sure we produce a product that provides a great value to our customer.
AmericanMade- Petersen Dean partners with US companies whenever possible.  We have an exclusive relationship with Solar World, the only American made panel on the market.  We are committed to providing our customers with the best products available. 

Where do you see PetersenDean fitting into the solar industry now, and where would you like PetersenDean to be in 5-10 years?

Petersen Dean has proven to be a force to be reckoned with.  We compete against some well funded, highly marketed companies in the solar industry, yet our “small” privately held organization continues to make great strides in proving that a well managed, PROFITABLE roofing/solar company with a proven track record is the right choice. In the next 5-10 years, Petersen Dean will be installing roofing and solar on more homes in its current markets, as well as expanding our operation in several new states.

Where do you see areas for growth in solar, and what are the roadblocks to achieving market growth?

Currently solar is mostly installed in a handful of states.  The solar market has opportunities for exponential growth. 

Some roadblocks the industry faces are the lack of support from governmental entities and local utilities.  Currently, there is a rebate in certain utilities and a 30% federal tax credit.  If/When these are no longer available, the solar industry will suffer. 

If you care to, tell us a little about your passions outside of solar.

I am very fortunate to have found a career that allows me to travel and meet new people every day.  I am a mother of three ACTIVE teenagers and there is never a dull moment in our lives. 

Obama and California Partner to Make Solar available to Apartments

Wed, 02/18/2015 - 7:44am

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Julian Castro and California Governor Brown announced recently a program to expand financing for solar energy on apartment buildings. This is a step toward the President’s goal of installing 100 megawatts of across across federally subsidized multifamily housing by 2020.

Sec. Castro and Gov. Brown photo:ABC news

There are over 3 million apartment units in California. According to the new program, solar makes economic sense for multifamily buildings and brings an economic boost to struggling communities. For these reasons, HUD is partnering with California state government to roll out the Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) Financing program for Multifamily Housing. PACE is a mechanism for financing energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements. PACE programs will provide a source of capital to accelerate efficiency retrofits in multifamily housing, making the existing multifamily stock more affordable to renters with low incomes and saving money for consumers and taxpayers.

Governor Brown is establishing a California Multifamily PACE Pilot in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation. The Pilot will enable PACE financing for certain multifamily properties, including specific properties within HUD, the California Department of Housing and Community Development, and the California Housing Finance Agency’s portfolios, opening up financing to an entire segment of commercial PACE projects. Meanwhile, Secretary Castro is issuing guidance clarifying the circumstances under which HUD can approve PACE financing on HUD-assisted and-insured housing in California.

Driving On-Bill Repayment in Affordable Multifamily Properties in California: HUD is committing to support the State of California in creating an innovative California Master-Metered Multifamily Finance Pilot Project. The Pilot will enhance affordable multifamily properties’, which have a substantial majority of a property’s energy consumption billed through a common meter, access to upfront capital for financing energy efficiency improvements, on affordable terms and time frames, and which are repaid through the master meter utility bill. The $3 million program of technical assistance and credit support may include a loan loss reserve and/or a debt-service reserve fund. ‎The pilot is intended to inform project performance and repayment experience while managing finance risk perception.