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Updated: 53 min 4 sec ago

Bay Area School District Integrates Solar Power With STEM Education

Sun, 05/01/2016 - 3:49pm

On April 28, Berryessa Union School District (BUSD), which operates ten elementary (grades K-5) schools and three middle (grades 6-8) schools in Berryessa in San Jose, held a groundbreaking ceremony at its Piedmont Middle School. The event was to commemorate the inauguration of a district-wide initiative to install solar energy and integrate it with the school’s STEM education program.

The goal of the initiative, paid for through “Measure L” bond funding, is to install a total of 2.4MW of solar energy at all district sites. OpTerra Energy Services, an engineering consultant and design firm and a subsidiary of ENGIE, an energy efficiency services provider, plans to install the systems, which consist of solar shade canopies and ground-mounted units, at all 13 schools and at the district office. These installations will take on from 80 to 90 percent of planned electric load by site, and is expected to result in a 15 percent reduction in overall energy use. It is also intended as a means of environmental stewardship through GHG emission reduction.

Measure L is a bond issue, approved by voters in November 2014, targeting repairs and improvements to district sites. In March 2015, the BUSD leadership had set project goals regarding energy saving, renewable power, energy education and financial impact. It chose OpTerra Energy Services as its partner on the project. A district-wide assessment and analysis was conducted by BUSD and OpTerra of all sites and district property to identify the best opportunities for solar energy generation.

Meanwhile, the OpTerra education team is partnering with principals and teachers across the district. The result of this collaboration will be to use the solar production data as a means of direct STEM learning for students. Educational offerings will be customized to support different grade levels across the district. The entire program is on schedule, though the process took only about a year. (OpTerra’s presentation can be found here.)

Said District Superintendent Will Ector, “Our goal for our new solar program is to set the bar for sustainability at districts across the region. We are proud that as a result of this program, Berryessa’s ability to conserve energy will be complemented by a natural fit education tie-in. The benefits of our solar program are both immediate and long-term, empowering our students, staff, and community to support Earth Day, every day.”

In order to avoid any disruption to classes, solar canopy construction will not begin at school sites until summer.


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What Does the SunEdison Bankruptcy Mean For Solar?

Thu, 04/28/2016 - 5:59pm

Fossils want to paint SunEdison’s crash as a failure of the solar industry. They are SO wrong…

Driving to work this morning, I was listening to American Public Media’s “ Marketplace Morning Report.” David Brancaccio, the host, was discussing SunEdison’s announcement of bankruptcy filing last week. Brancaccio’s guest, Eric Gordon University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business did a pretty good job of explaining how SunEdison’s “nearly maniacal” growth brought them down, and rapid expansion without adequate capital made their demise inevitable. Brancaccio, however, wasn’t really willing to let Gordon off without trying to draw some conclusions about the state of the solar industry from SunEdison’s greedy, boneheaded nose-dive. “Does it indict the rest of the solar industry?”

APR’s David Brancaccio

Gordon wasn’t willing to go there… he replied that “…Solar power is actually a good industry…There are solar companies that are doing well… solar is attractive even if oil and natural gas prices stay low.” Brancaccio replied, “Well, that’s the key, right? It’s a great business to be in when competing energy source is expensive…that ISN’T the world we live in right now.”

I almost punched David Brancaccio right in the radio dial.

No, you &%*$%!! That IS NOT the key! That is the exact opposite of what Professor Gordon just said!!!” I yelled at the radio.

Brancaccio isn’t the only person in the media out there who is try to frame this as an “indictment of the solar industry.” But, this piece was exceptional in it’s underhanded and indirect approach. Brancaccio opens with a loaded question that puts this idea in the listener’s ear. When Gordon doesn’t take the bait, Brancaccio closes the exchange by giving a summary of the Professor’s statement that is the exact OPPOSITE of what he actually said.

Why am I not surprised? Because the “Marketplace Morning Report” on “Public Radio” opens with the the announcement that the program is sponsored by Koch Industries. Yes, THAT Koch industries.

Perhaps Brancaccio doesn’t know that oil does not compete with solar? No, he knows. In 2014, when oil prices began to tank, many economic experts called for a decoupling of solar from other fossil energy stocks. Here at Solar Tribune, we reported that “…petroleum supplies only 1% of US electrical generation. Petroleum prices could drop precipitously, and make virtually no dent in the price of electricity. On the other hand, solar does compete directly with natural gas, which is the nation’s #2 source of electricity, providing 27% of US electrical generation. Back in March, CNBC reported that price links between solar and crude prices had “begun to break down completely.” However, current conditions indicate that the uncoupling from petroleum is not yet complete.”

Bloomberg, another regular critic of solar, also made a half-hearted attempt to draw false analogies between the SunEdison debacle, fossils and the rest of the renewable industry. Bloomberg’s Liam Denning writes: “SunEdison’s bankruptcy should give everyone in the renewables business at least a moment of pause, though. As in the mining business — and, for that matter, the oil business and pipelines business — SunEdison’s mission creep, governance failure, and sheer recklessness exemplify what can happen when cheap capital hooks up with a can’t-lose story. Like the old energy businesses it seeks to replace, the renewables industry has to sharpen its pencils and convince the market all over again.” On the surface, this seems to be a reasonable conclusion, but earlier in the piece he makes the argument that: like all such models, it lives and dies by its assumptions. And one in particular looks very suspect: That customers will, at the end of their 20-year contract, sign up for another decade at 90 percent of the cost of their previous contract….To which the obvious response is: Show me a piece of technology worth 90 percent of its original value 20 years later. That’s especially so when you consider the whole notion of solar power displacing traditional energy rests squarely on the idea that the technology keeps getting better and cheaper.”

Yes Liam, the generation technology WILL continue to get cheaper. BUT NOT THE ENERGY IT PRODUCES. In 20 years, sadly, we will still be getting the majority of our electricity from traditional sources, and that power is going to continue to get more and more expensive.

Fortune’s headline reportsHow SunEdison’s Bankruptcy is Hurting India’s Solar Market”, while the Business Standard’s headline reads “Why SunEdison’s exit won’t hurt India’s solar sector:Its exit is unlikely to impact the market too much as there are other American and Chinese players waiting to step into the gap.” Wait, What?

Meanwhile, other media outlets, even those that have reveled in their attempts to paint solar as an industry that will never flourish without government subsidies, have not even bothered to draw inferences about the solar industry based on SunEdison’s face-plant.  Forbes, whose writers can be pretty savage in their criticism of solar, ran a very good, factual piece on the machinations that lead to the collapse. Their conclusion is that “It was financial maneuvering that turned SunEdison into a hedge fund darling, but that also led to its failure.”

Luckily, most news sources are more like Forbes on this story.  The simple fact is, it was SunEdison’s foray into the financial sector that sunk it. That says a whole lot about our toxic banking system, but almost nothing about the solar industry. It’s sad though, when liberal stalwarts at Public Radio are behind Forbes and the Wall Street Journal in their analysis of the renewable energy industry.



The post What Does the SunEdison Bankruptcy Mean For Solar? appeared first on Solar Tribune.

Solar Impulse Soars as Energy Bill Crawls

Thu, 04/21/2016 - 1:07pm

After experiencing setbacks last year, both the Solar Impulse and the Murkowski/Cantwell Energy Bill are on the move again. One is a little more exciting than the other, though.

After setbacks last year, pilots André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard are resuming their historic around the globe flight in Solar Impulse 2, the world’s most advanced solar powered plane. This morning, after a few minor weather delays, Piccard departed from Hawaii en route to San Francisco. Solar Impulse 2 will cross North America before flying back to Abu Dhabi, where the journey began in March of 2015. Ironically, while the visionary swiss adventurers soar above the United States using only the power of the sun, the United States congress will continue to flounder forward in search of a new energy bill that can pass through the heavily partisan political quagmire.

After months of delays, the United States Senate finally passed their version of an energy bill, which includes only very modest initiatives for renewable energy. Because it is not exactly the same as the bill passed by the house, the two versions of the bill will need to be reconciled before a final version can go to the President for his signature, and their has been talk of a presidential veto if certain conditions are not met. It seems that even a bill designed specifically be be non-controversial can cause conflict in the current political atmosphere in Washington.

Hopefully, the trans-continental flight of Solar Impulse 2 can help raise awareness of some of the important issues that are happening on the U.S. energy scene. Borschberg and Piccard have both been vocal climate change activists, promoting high tech solutions to the world’s biggest environmental problem. Bertrand Piccard has suggested 7 Principles for Solving Climate Change with Clean Technologies that include the following:

  1. Highlight the solutions instead of the problems.
  2. Stop threatening human mobility, comfort and economic development in order to protect nature.
  3. Speak of profitable investments instead of expensive costs.
  4. Offer both rich and poor countries a share in the returns on investment.
  5. Refrain from setting goals without demonstrating how to reach them.
  6. Combine regulations with private initiative.
  7. Act in the interest of today’s generation and not only for future generations.

Piccard has a strong statement to make, and one that Congress should pay attention to…”Very few people will change their current behavior in favor of those living in the future. Let’s demonstrate that the changes we need can already deliver a favorable result on today’s economic, industrial and political development.”

Piccard’s “Let’s do it now, and do it right” approach is one being echoed by a handful of other energy visionaries like Elon Musk of Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity fame. One of the keys to visions like those of Piccard, Borschberg and Musk is the rapid development in energy storage technologies, particularly in battery storage. In fact, Piccard and Borschberg have chosen to literally bet their lives on the combination of high efficiency solar and compact, robust batteries. How about the Congress?  Is there anything in the new energy bill for battery storage? In fact there is, in the Senate version of the bill. It proposes to put $50 million a year into research on industrial-scale batteries that would assist large utility providers to better utilize renewables. But for small, residential scale batteries?  Maybe a tax break for early adopters of residential scale batteries?  Nope.

What the Senate is offering up is a mish-mash of corporate handouts to large energy companies, and not much for solar advocates to get excited about. Some of the highlights are:

  • Controversial language promoting wood-burning electrical generation as “carbon neutral” (meaning it adds no greenhouse gases to the atmosphere over the long term). Environmental groups and some scientists have criticized the idea as inaccurate and threatening U.S. forests, whereas other scientists have said federal rules need to be clarified to promote some kinds of forest biomass energy.
  • Faster decisions for energy projects. The bill promises to accelerate federal decisions about permits for liquid natural gas (LNG) export terminals, hydropower dam licensing, and electrical transmission line projects. For example, DOE would have to rule on LNG terminals within 45 days of approval from other agencies. Today, there is no deadline.
  • Electrical grid upgrades. The bill pushes for additional work on cybersecurity for the nation’s electrical grid and improvements in dealing with the spread of small, distributed electricity generators such as rooftop solar panels. It includes $500 million for a 10-year research program to develop large-scale energy storage, a key for renewable energy such as wind and solar that fluctuates throughout the day.
  • Conservation funding. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, created with a portion of oil and gas royalties from federal lands, would become permanent. The program is credited with protecting more than 2 million hectares of land since its creation in 1965. It expired in 2015, only to be kept alive temporarily as part of the budget agreement reached at the end of the year.

(from Science Magazine)

This is not to say that Congress has done nothing for solar. In fact, the extension of the Investment Tax Credit was a major win, and nothing to sneeze at. But the fact that the Edison Institute is in favor of the new Energy Bill,  and it’s emphasis on streamlining regulations for utility providers would lead one to believe that it is payback time after the passage of the ITC, and that big money for large scale storage is a strong indicator that Edison and company are out to shut out the small producer.

Thankfully, while politicians slog through another election cycle, visionaries like Borschberg and Piccard give us something to cheer for.


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Australia: The New Solar Frontier

Fri, 04/01/2016 - 5:58pm

Australia is uniquely positioned to play a leading role in the next decade of distributed generation and battery technology.

“It might also surprise you to know that nearly 15% of Australian households have solar panels on their roofs. That’s the highest number of solar panels on people’s roofs per capita anywhere in the world. – Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, speaking on Q&A on March 22, 2106.”

U.S. utility companies should pay close attention to the exploding energy storage market “down under.” While much of the world has been succumbing to the large scale “central station” solar model,  Australia has quietly become the world’s leader in indie solar. When fact-checking Minister Frydenberg’s impressive claim that 15% of Australian households are taking part in the rooftop and residential revolution, it turns out that the current numbers are even more impressive– closer to 16.5%!

Because of generous incentives and strong feed-in tariffs, indie solar has indeed boomed down under. Unfortunately for that huge number of early adopters, regional feed-in tariffs are being slashed across the country, leading to a gold rush of activity in the battery storage space. Tesla has rolled out its Powerwall in Australia first, with a number of strong competitors hot on Tesla’s heels.

The latest player onto the field is Brisbane-based Redflow.  The company has developed the ZCell battery, designed to store 10kWh of electricity — enough to keep most homes running for several days.  Unlike Tesla and others, the new battery does not use lithium. According to Redflow, the ZCell is more recyclable than its competitors.

“The active parts are plastic, aluminium and steel, the fluid electrolyte can be removed and cleaned and put in the next battery so the whole thing is very recyclable,” executive chairman Simon Hackett told Australian Broadcasting. This is going to be a big deal as massive lithium-based battery systems gain popularity. It is easy to be sceptical of Redflow’s claims, but they certainly are looking one step beyond the competition, which is going to be essential in the Lithium-starved market.

Other competitors in the Australian battery boom include Sonnen, LG and Enphase. Even the Australian utility companies are starting to see the writing on the wall. Sydney-based electricity provider AGL Energy, for example, has adopted an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach and is offering its own residential storage kits after investing $20m in Sunverge last month.

Meanwhile back here at home, with American utilities continuing their anti-indie push against net metering, battery storage deployment is picking up in the U.S. as well. As of the third quarter of 2015, 108 MW (94 MWh) of energy storage was deployed in 2015, compared with 38 MW (65 MWh) installed during the same period in 2014, according to a new report from GTM Research. Only time will tell if– or more precisely when– we will see U.S. utilities try to break into the storage market.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, the gold rush is on. A country once criticized for its lack of solar implementation is now the new frontier for the solar industry.  South Australia and Queensland, where retail rates are particularly high and feed-in tariff cuts are hurting indie solar owners, are leading the world in uptake of solar battery storage. According to a recent GTM report entitled     “The Australian Energy Storage Market: Downstream Drivers and Opportunities,” analyst Brett Simon predicts that:

“Australia’s energy storage market is poised for massive growth. As battery prices continue their rapid decline, storage will become more attractive to end customers, especially in the residential sector. This presents an opportunity for a large addressable market for storage system vendors and developers. GTM Research anticipates Australia’s energy storage market will reach 244 megawatts of annual installed capacity by 2020.”

It would appear that where Australia leads, the world will follow, at least when looking at the solar battery storage market in the next several years. Look for new marketing schemes to come online just as fast as new battery technologies as Australian Utility providers scramble to make sense of the disruptive new model for electricity production. AND… look for U.S. utilities to keep a close, VERY close eye on what is happening down under.







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The “Worst States” for Solar: How Bad Are They?

Thu, 03/24/2016 - 2:25pm

States without standardized interconnection and net metering take a beating in the media. Is it justified?

Recently, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) released its latest “Freeing the Grid” report. This scorecard assigns a grade to each state, based on their net metering and interconnection policies. Unsurprisingly, some of the worst ranked states are those where fossil fuels play a large role in the economy. States like Alaska, Alabama,Louisiana,Texas and Wyoming all fare poorly in both categories, while others Nevada, Arizona and Georgia flunk one test but do relatively well in the other. With the fossil fuel lobby working in nearly every state to roll back net metering rules, what can we learn from looking at these grades? How much do these policies hinder solar development?

Nevada, the state that produces the most solar power per capita in the United States (according to a recent Solar Energy Industry of America (SEIA) report), receives an F for net metering rules, and a C for interconnection policies. Texas makes SEIA’s top ten solar states, and yet according to IREC, Texas receives an F for net metering and a D for interconnection policies. Arizona, ranked number two by SEIA gets an F from IREC for interconnection, but receives an A for net metering.

What we see here is that solar production can, in fact, flourish in states with a mixed bag of interconnection and net metering policies. In the Southern tier of states, great solar resources, coupled with low panel prices make large-scale solar projects cash flow regardless of these two key policies. Net metering, in particular is of little or no concern to large solar developers. Where the difference lies is with indie solar, like rooftop and small solar garden projects. SEIA’s numbers do not reflect the number of individuals who are able to own their own solar, just sheer volume, and that volume comes from large, utility scale installations.

More and more solar installation companies are feeling the push to “go big or go home.” This is especially apparent in those states given poor grades by the IREC report. With the renewal of the federal investment tax credit (ITC), we will continue to see a greater move to large scale projects, regardless of the interconnection policies in any particular state.
If we are getting more solar installed and employing more people in states with less “desireable” interconnection policies, what’s the problem, right? The problem is this… not every state has the same requirements, the same transmission and distribution resources, or the same amount of sun. IREC may be barking up the wrong tree when it gives failing grades to strong solar producing states, but so is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)  when they try to do away with net metering policies in states where indie solar makes more sense. Until such a time when the nation has a uniform, deregulated marketplace for electricity, free from both government incentives and rate-regulated monopolies, it is up to solar advocates in their individual states to fight to keep the marketplace open for indie producers.


The post The “Worst States” for Solar: How Bad Are They? appeared first on Solar Tribune.

Good Solar Gone Bad?

Sat, 03/19/2016 - 10:19am

Long the darling of environmentalists, solar is now powering less eco-friendly businesses as well.

Generating energy with solar panels can a very good thing. Solar increases our energy independence and decreases our carbon footprint. Solar can create new jobs and business opportunities while improving the resiliency of our electric grid.  Still, like any technology, solar is neutral. Solar can be used in ways that some people may disagree with.  As the price continues to fall for installing solar, the environmentalists who have long supported government incentives for solar are seeing some of the unexpected consequences of their strategy.

Across the US,large solar arrays are popping up on the roofs of confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. These industrial scale livestock operations raise cattle, hogs and poultry… not in the pastoral setting of a Grant Wood painting, but in large buildings that have more in common with a factory than a farm. “Factory Farming” is controversial not only for the living conditions of the animals (which many see as unhealthy and inhumane) but also for the tremendous impact that their waste management operations have on the health of local waterways.

Suffice it to say, operators of CAFOs do not share much common ground with the environmental community. Politically, they are historically mortal enemies. Rural electric cooperatives, who often serve large livestock operations, have also not had warm and fuzzy relationships with solar supporters. So what is turning factory farmers and the rural electric co-ops who supply their electricity into solar lovers? Simple: MONEY.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers 25 percent Rural Energy for America (REAP) grants up to $500,000 for renewable energy systems for ag producers and small businesses. These grants have become a regular funding stream for CAFO solar projects, and often large solar installation companies will offer grant-writing as part of their services to farmers. They establish close working relationships with their local USDA rural development offices, and these grants become increasingly easy for experienced players to obtain. The combination of federal tax credits and USDA dollars, along with state, local or utility incentives, can bring the payback period down to less than one year, in many cases, because of the CAFO’s huge energy demand. They rely on huge cooling and ventilation systems to keep the animals alive during the summer months, and solar matches their peak demand perfectly. Rural Electric Co-ops like the arrangement, because, despite the savings from solar, the confinements are large new customers in what is otherwise a shrinking market base.

Setting aside the issue of humane treatment of livestock, what is the downside of large livestock operations using solar? It’s better than having them use coal-fired electricity, isn’t it? There is an argument to be made there. CAFOs will be built with or without cheap solar power. On the other hand, tax dollars are increasing the profit margin of CAFO owners, while they are not being held responsible for the environmental impacts of their waste disposal. That cost too, in many cases, falls to the taxpayer.

According to a report from the Center on Disease Control: “The most pressing public health issue associated with CAFOs stems from the amount of manure they produce. CAFO manure contains a variety of potential contaminants. It can contain plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, pathogens such as E. coli, growth hormones, antibiotics… animal blood or copper sulfate used in footbaths for cows…Large farms can produce more waste than some U.S. cities—a feeding operation with 800,000 pigs could produce over 1.6 million tons of waste a year. That amount is one and a half times more than the annual sanitary waste produced by the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Annually, it is estimated that livestock animals in the U.S. produce each year somewhere between 3 and 20 times more manure than people in the U.S. produce, or as much as 1.2–1.37 billion tons of waste. Though sewage treatment plants are required for human waste, no such treatment facility exists for livestock waste.”

In earlier periods when livestock were raised on pastures, the manure was gradually and evenly distributed across the landscape, creating fertile fields in which crops could be raised. Now, huge amounts of manure are stored in piles or lagoons, then sprayed across the bare ground, where rain can carry the contaminants directly into wetlands, creeks, rivers, lakes, municipal water supplies and eventually, the ocean.

Again, from the CDC report: “Contamination in surface water can cause nitrates and other nutrients to build up. Ammonia is often found in surface waters surrounding CAFOs. Ammonia causes oxygen depletion from water, which itself can kill aquatic life… Nutrient over-enrichment causes algal blooms, or a rapid increase of algae growth in an aquatic environment Algal blooms can cause a spiral of environmental problems to an aquatic system. Large groups of algae can block sunlight from underwater plant life, which are environmental health habitats for much aquatic life….Some algal blooms can contain toxic algae and other microorganisms, including Pfiesteria , which has caused large fish kills in North Carolina, Maryland, and the Chesapeake Bay area….Water tests have also uncovered hormones in surface waters around CAFOs. Studies show that these hormones alter the reproductive habits of aquatic species living in these waters, including a significant decrease in the fertility of female fish. CAFO runoff can also lead to the presence of fecal bacteria or pathogens in surface water. One study showed that protozoa such as Cryptosporidium parvum and Giardia were found in over 80% of surface water sites tested… in water from manure land application is also responsible for many beach closures and shellfish restrictions.”

Time for full disclosure, here. During the early 2000’s, I was a consultant for the Union of Concerned Scientists, doing farmer outreach to promote the use of renewable energy. More recently,I worked as a farm energy specialist for the National Center for Appropriate Technology. There was not, at that time, a lot of discussion about the potential environmental blowback of promoting renewables to farmers through the USDA program. Honestly, we just didn’t think we would be this successful at promoting solar. Like the ethanol mandate and the production tax credit for large-scale wind that came before REAP, massive government intervention continues to add to the economic instability and environmental unsustainability of the agricultural sector. It is long past time for a major overhaul of farm subsidies.  In the meantime, we can still enjoy a cheap, corn-fed, solar-powered pork chop…while we try not to think about where it came from.

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Solar Microgrids: The Next Big Thing

Thu, 03/10/2016 - 6:59pm

First, we realized that we needed to support local businesses, Then local food. Now, the time for local energy has arrived.  Meet the Brooklyn Microgrid.

As a former Brooklynite and long-time solar advocate, my first reaction was sheer joy. My second reaction was realizing that, by moving away from Brooklyn, I may be missing the single most revolutionary act of the decade. The time has come for disruption to happen in the utility industry, and it looks like the first shots of this revolution may be fired not far from the site of the Battle of Brooklyn. Unfortunately, General George Washington’s troops lost the battle of Brooklyn.  Let’s hope these new revolutionaries have more luck taking on the empire than their predecessors.

What these solar revolutionaries have going for them is this: not only do they eliminate some of the issues that utility companies have with ongoing net metering policies, but they add “firming” to the local grid by providing peak shaving at times of heavy loads and creating a neighborhood back-up system to avoid the types of power outage problems experienced by Brooklynites during Hurricane Sandy. The Brooklyn microgrid website quote New York Governor Andrew Cuomo: ““Communities are taking an important first step toward securing their energy future. By ensuring a continuous energy supply, medical facilities and communities can more reliably provide critical services and be better protected in the event that disaster strikes. I encourage communities across the state to participate in the NY Prize program to make their energy systems stronger and more resilient.” This is not a situation where solar producers solely use the grid as storage. They are undeniably supplementing the grid, to the advantage of all parties involved.

How can this seemingly anarchistic utility upstart do business? The key to this model appears to be hanging on a blockchain framework. For those unfamiliar with blockchain technology, this is the open source system that makes Bitcoin a reality. According to our friends at Wikipedia: “A block chain or blockchain is a permissionless distributed database based on the bitcoin protocol that maintains a continuously growing list of data records hardened against tampering and revision, even by its operators.[1] The initial and most widely known application of blockchain technology is the public ledger of transactions for bitcoin,[2] which has been the inspiration for similar implementations often known as altchains.[3” In the case of the Brooklyn Microgrid project, the blockchain of choice is Ethereum. According to “Ethereum is a decentralized platform that runs smart contracts: applications that run exactly as programmed without any possibility of downtime, censorship, fraud or third party interference.

These apps run on a custom built blockchain, an enormously powerful shared global infrastructure that can move value around and represent the ownership of property. This enables developers to create markets, store registries of debts or promises, move funds in accordance with instructions given long in the past (like a will or a futures contract) and many other things that have not been invented yet, all without a middleman or counterparty risk.”

If the whole blockchain concept is still losing you, just remember this: it is decentralized. It is not a matter of using a broker to  negotiate the power purchase contract between neighbors, nor is it a boilerplate for hammering out hard and fast deals. It is a completely voluntary agreement entered into by all parties involved, under a so-called “trustless” system. The blockchain may or may not prove to be a successful platform for the contractual agreements of all parties involved, but it certainly is an ambitious idea.

The point really is, succeed or fail, this is a truly forward-thinking and ambitious idea, and one that is long overdue in the solar/utility space. At a time when indie (rooftop) solar is under attack by the forces of the Koch Brothers and their legislative team at ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), the time has truly come for neighborhood solar microgrids to become a reality. It speaks volumes that partners in the Brooklyn Microgrid Project include ConEd ( the local utility) The City of Brooklyn, SolarCity, Siemens and other heavy hitters.

There has been a good deal of coverage touting the project as “The First Solar City, Fully Independent From the Grid.” Let’s just say that there is a certain amount of hype happening around the project.  In reality, the goal of the Brooklyn Microgrid is to establish a solar network in just two neighborhoods of New York’s largest borough, the Park Slope and Gowanus areas. And for now, that’s enough.

Ironically, microgrids in the U.S. are not leading the global movement to microgrids. Not even close. In fact, according to Duke Energy former CEO Jim Rogers.  “What Africa can perhaps teach us,” explains Rogers, “is an acceleration of the microgrid… The US will learn from Africa how to go “Back to the Future.”  We will be going “Back to the Future” because when the grid was beginning in the early 1900s what we really had was a lot of little microgrids… and we connected them all together to create the grid we have today.”  Similar to the way that African villages are acquiring and implementing off-grid systems, our businesses, neighborhoods, and homes can become a microgrid as well.

The post Solar Microgrids: The Next Big Thing appeared first on Solar Tribune.

Nevada: Battle Royale Over Indie Solar’s Future

Thu, 03/03/2016 - 1:12pm

Buffett and Musk disagree on who will own solar– users or utilities.

In April, Solar Tribune reported on Elon Musk’s attempt to push solar energy storage into the mainstream and break the chokehold that utilities currently have on solar producers. In July, we reported that Warren Buffett’s NV Energy was paying eleven lobbyists to fight the expansion of net metering in the state of Nevada. It looks like– for now, anyway– Buffett has the upper hand, chasing Musk and other solar entrepreneurs out of the state through sheer political horsepower.

Elon Musk, the man who brought us Paypal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX, also happens to be the co-founder of SolarCity, the nation’s largest solar energy provider. SolarCity set up shop in the state of Nevada two years ago, looking to bring their successful business model to a state with amazing solar resources. SolarCity was greeted with open arms by the state government, and went about its business, hiring hundreds of employees to service the new market.


Meanwhile, Buffett also entered the Nevada energy business. He bought the state’s largest utility, NV Energy, with an eye toward capturing the Nevada solar market in much the same way he cornered the wind energy market in Iowa a decade before. Buffett has an amazing talent for playing the new energy business to his advantage, relying on an army of highly-paid and well-positioned lobbyists to suppress independent renewable producers through legislative and regulatory machinations. He waits for indie producers to fight their way to the establishment of the combination of lower installed price and tax credits that will make their industry viable. Then, Buffett pivots and strikes, going all-in, buying up and rapidly deploying generation assets then crushing any remaining competition through sheer volume.

NV Energy’s ever-growing political influence is paying off for Buffett, who is looking to not only stop further indie solar installations, but to choke out the state’s existing small solar producers. NV Energy has had some big wins with the state regulators, which will all but kill the rooftop solar business in the state, as well as retroactively punishing people who have already installed systems. Musk’s SolarCity cut bait and ran, laying off 550 employees. Other big solar companies like SunRun were not far behind. In a matter of months, Buffett has monopolized the Nevada solar market.

“This is a very difficult decision but Governor (Brian) Sandoval and his PUC leave us no choice,” said SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive. “The people of Nevada have consistently chosen solar, but yesterday their state government decided to end customer choice, damage the state’s economy, and jeopardize thousands of jobs….The PUC has protected NV Energy’s monopoly, and everyone else will lose,” he said. “We have no alternative but to cease Nevada sales and installations, but we will fight this flawed decision on behalf of our Nevada customers and employees.”


Despite outrage among Nevada residents, Buffett recently defended his action in an interview with CNBC, responding to viewer questions about this clash (a clash that Bloomberg Business intensified with a cover story): two viewers asked why Buffett’s companies are preventing and deterring net metering in Nevada. Buffett responded:

“We don’t have a problem with net meters, and we’re leading in renewables in the country among regulated utilities..we do not want our million-plus customers that do not have solar to be buying solar at 10 and a half cents when we can turn it out for them at 4 and a half cents or buy it at 4 and a half cents. So, we do not want the non-solar customers, of whom there are over a million, to be subsidizing the 17,000 solar customers. Now, solar customers are subsidized through the Federal Government — as we are, with our wind and solar operations ourselves. …

“In Nevada, [Musk’s company, SolarCity] had an arrangement for a very limited number of people — and the public utility commission decides this — they had an arrangement where the utility had to pay way above market for solar produced by these 17,000 homes…”

Fossil fuel industry insiders are rejoicing. declared, “Warren Buffett beat Elon Musk in Nevada.” In opposition, website, ran the verbose and inflammatory headline: “The bastard Warren Buffet is beginning to show his true nature as he kills home solar in Nevada to protect his monopoly on electricity in the area.” Obviously, there are a lot of strong feelings on both sides of this debate.

Has Musk thrown in the towel? No, not really. Where Buffett defends the old energy model, deftly manipulating the government regulated monopoly system to his advantage, Musk plays the long game. He does not appear to be interested in engaging in a political battle over net metering in Nevada. It’s not that Musk is opposed to using lobbyists… he has an army of them working for SpaceX in the highly regulated aerospace industry. However, Musk is looking past net metering, to a future when affordable on-site energy storage will make net metering obsolete. Tesla is deploying the first of their Powerwall storage units starting in Australia, expanding to the E.U. and Musk’s home country of South Africa. For now though, battery storage is only in the realm of early adopters in the US. Storage can’t compare to the low, low price of coal-fired  electricity in this country. That won’t be the case forever, and Musk knows that… and so does Warren Buffett.

The big question is, can Musk keep all of the balls in the air long enough for his techno-libertarian dream  of a post-utility industry energy economy to come to fruition? One thing is for sure, Warren Buffett will be watching, preparing a political attack on battery storage, which he will fight against right up until the point that he gets into the battery business himself. Then, the battle of the billionaires might actually play out. On the other hand, by that time, Musk may have sold his battery business to move into the new frontier of orbital solar generation….



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Mandatory Solar Roofs May Be Coming to San Francisco

Sun, 02/28/2016 - 4:20pm

On February 23rd, Scott Wiener, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, proposed new solar power legislation that, if passed, would be historic. The legislation would make San Francisco the first major city in America to require that solar panels be installed on new commercial and residential buildings. Existing state law (Title 24 Energy Standards) requires that 15 percent of the roof area of newly-constructed buildings be “solar ready.” (This requirement applies only to buildings of 10 stories or less.) The term “solar ready” signifies that 15 percent of a roof’s area must be free of shade or other obstructions so that solar panels may be installed there at some time in the future.

The proposed legislation, however, goes further, specifying that the 15 percent solar-ready area must actually have a renewable energy source installed. That source can take the form of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels or a solar water system. San Francisco’s Department of the Environment supports the proposed law.

Said Supervisor Wiener, “To fight climate change and achieve a clean energy future, we need to take decisive steps to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. In a dense, urban environment, we need to be smart and efficient about how we maximize the use of our space to achieve goals like promoting renewable energy and improving our environment.”

There may be a possible exemption to the solar energy requirement, according to another piece of legislation that Wiener intends to propose shortly. If a new building includes a so-called “living roof,” that building is not required to have a solar roof. Living roofs, also known as green roofs, are those which are partly or completely covered in vegetation. Such structures serve to improve biodiversity, provide insulation, reduce stormwater and sequester carbon.

Both former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome and current mayor Ed Lee support a policy in which San Francisco meets 100 percent of its energy needs through renewable sources.

“The Better Roofs ordinance continues to push the City as a national leader on solar policy,” said Josh Arce, former President of the San Francisco Commission on the Environment, and community liaison for Laborers Local 261, which trains solar jobseekers. “This legislation will expand our efforts to cover San Francisco rooftops with solar panels and tackle climate change, while also creating good jobs for our community.”


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The Aesthetics of Solar: Why Looks Matter

Wed, 02/24/2016 - 3:47pm

Historically, rooftop solar arrays have drawn cheers or jeers from neighbors. Now, solar farms are coming under attack for their appearance. Project designers, take note…

Bennington, Vermont is the scene of one of the latest NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) case against a solar project based on aesthetics. According to, the Vermont Public Services Board denied certification of Chelsea Solar, was one-half of a 4-megawatt, 27-acre solar array planned for a forested area east of U.S. Route 7, in the Apple Hill residential area of Bennington.

Vermont has a set of aesthetic development standards known as the “Quechee test,” which was commonly used to fight windpower developments in past decades. Now, it is being used to pass judgement on large solar projects as well. Under the Quechee test, an adverse effect is considered undue when a positive finding is reached regarding anyone of the following factors:

    Bennington Solar Project

  1. Does the project violate a clear, written community standard intended to preserve the aesthetics or scenic beauty of the area?
  2. Have the applicants failed to take generally available mitigating steps which a reasonable person would take to improve the harmony of the project with its surroundings?
  3. Does the project offend the sensibilities of the average person? Is it offensive or shocking because it is out of character with its surroundings or significantly diminishes the scenic qualities of the area?

As any reader can clearly see, at least two of the three criteria of Vermont’s Quechee test are very subjective. According to reports, the aesthetic concerns were recently raised by a single area resident in regard to the Chelsea solar project, and despite lack of widespread public support, the single activist was able to stop the project using the Quechee test criteria.

Throughout the case, the activist, a retired New York school teacher,  received “harsh criticism” from the projects father and son development team of Thomas and Michael Melone. The duo own New York-based Allco Renewable Energy, the parent company of the Chelsea Solar project.

In a August 12th petitioner’s reply brief , Michael Melone disparages the activist as a “lone wolf” objector and dismisses her worries as “NIMBY concerns.”  Ironically,  in 2010, Thomas Melone himself tried to block the Cape Wind offshore wind project over similar “NIMBY” concerns — namely, the giant turbines would stand in view of his summer home on Martha’s Vineyard.

Independent solar projects, commonly referred to as “rooftop solar” are becoming less of an issue as neighbors become accustomed to the look of solar panels, and as panel design and rack technology give independent solar a sleeker and more low-profile appearance. However, as centralized solar generating plants get larger and larger, the public concern over the aesthetics of solar installations have shifted away from small independent projects to large, utility scale installations.

Meanwhile, not all large solar developers are all oblivious to the aesthetic element of their projects. If fact, Duke Energy’s new solar generating station in Orlando, Florida is laid out in the shape of Disney’s Mickey Mouse-head logo to greet visitors flying into town. According to

The farm is 48,000 solar panels across 20 acres, with an energy output of five megawatts, according to builder Duke Energy Florida. That a large structure forms an image from above is a tradition that dates back to cruciform churches and the Nazca Lines in the Peruvian desert. But with the advent of Google Maps and the DJI Phantom quadcopter, it’s becoming more important than ever to have sh*t look awesome from above.

Less “Mickey Mouse” approaches to making large solar arrays more acceptable generally involve screening off projects with trees or landscaping. Another approach is building integrated solar, which has been slow to take off in the current trend away from independent, distributed generation of solar to a utility-scale model. However, developers in other parts of the world are looking at innovative designs that may “up the game” of building integrated, distributed solar in the near future. In China, plans are underway for the construction of the Phoenix Towers, which, if built according to plans, will not only be the world’s tallest towers, but will be covered with building integrated solar as well. Meanwhile, in the United Arab Emirates, several solar mega-structures are slated for construction in the next five years.

Meanwhile, in the US, look for more NIMBY backlash to large solar projects, and more innovative ways to make them more aesthetically pleasing.

The post The Aesthetics of Solar: Why Looks Matter appeared first on Solar Tribune.

Los Angeles Leads California to Record Solar Job Growth

Sun, 02/14/2016 - 4:24pm

2015 was a record breaking year for solar jobs nationwide – and California led the way. Over 20,000 new solar jobs were created within the state, representing more than half of the nationwide new job total of 35,000. According to a new report, the California Solar Job Census (part of the annual National Solar Job Census), the total number of solar workers in the state was nearly 75,600 by the end of 2015, representing a 38 percent increase over 2014. (Nationwide, all solar jobs totaled about 209,000.) According to the California Solar Energy Industries Association, the California solar total represents more jobs than all those held at the state’s top five utility companies. In addition, one out of three employees in the solar industry nationwide works in California.

Los Angeles was the leader of all counties in the state with 15,142 total jobs. Furthermore, Los Angeles had a higher percentage of women solar workers than the statewide average: 34.7, more than a third (the average is 27.7). The next number of total solar jobs was in San Diego County, with 8,336 jobs. Orange and Santa Clara counties were the two others in California that have more than 5,000 jobs.

More than half the total of solar jobs statewide were in installations: almost 40,600. Although growth in California installations dipped slightly from that of 2014, the 3000 MW installed in the state was greater than the next six largest state solar markets combined. Manufacturing and sales/distribution jobs totaled a little over 11,000 apiece. Slightly less than 9,000 jobs were for Product Development and slightly more than 3,600 were classified as “Other.”

“Solar power is a bright spot in California’s economy, bringing jobs and economic development to every corner of the state,” Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association, was quoted as saying. “While conventional energy industries are losing jobs, we are seeing record growth, and bringing clean air and climate solutions along the way.”

Michelle Kinman of Environment California Research & Policy Center said, “As today’s census shows, when we place solar on the rooftops of homes, businesses, schools and places of worship, we not only reduce pollution, but also create jobs in communities across California. The detractors of solar power, including California’s big utilities, should take note – solar is growing, it’s employing real people and it’s here to stay.”

The National Solar Jobs Census 2015 was conducted by The Solar Foundation and BW Research Partnership. The report includes data collected from more than 19,000 U.S. businesses.


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The War on Net Metering: Will It Drive Demand for Battery Storage?

Wed, 02/10/2016 - 7:12pm

Utility lobbyists across the US are fighting to repeal net metering laws. They may regret that move, and soon.

Net Metering is under assault in states across the country. Last week, I covered the attempt by   U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Senator Angus King (I-Maine) to prevent state governments from gutting net metering policies by adding a pro-net metering amendment to the energy bill now stalled in congress. Reid in particular is trying to address the recent blow to the solar industry in his home state. At the behest of the utility industry, lawmakers not only put an end to new net metered projects, but retroactively hammered existing solar projects as well. The anti-net metering outbreak is not restricted to Nevada, though. It is spreading like a plague, driven by the dissemination of model legislation by The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Koch-sponsored anti-solar lobbying group.

In Virginia and Indiana, Maine and most recently Iowa are all facing attempts by ALEC affiliated legislators to punish independent solar owners and early adopters. The Iowa bill, House File 2100, was introduced by Representative Dave Heaton (R- Mt. Pleasant) reads in part:

“a. A rate-regulated electric utility that purchases electricity from an alternate energy production facility or small hydro facility pursuant to a net metering agreement shall compensate the facility at a rate that is based upon, and does not exceed, the rate applicable to the rate-regulated electric utility’s wholesale purchase of electricity.
   b.  Net metering agreements entered into prior to July 1, 2016, with an applicable rate that exceeds the rate-regulated electric utility’s wholesale rate shall be subject to a graduated rate reduction whereby the difference between the applicable rate in the agreement and the wholesale rate shall be reduced by twenty-five percent annually over a four-year period.”

In other words, If you based your system financing on the current law of the state of Iowa, just as in the state of Nevada, you are SCREWED, if Heaton’s bill moves forward. For some reason, legislators like Heaton (who is affiliated with ALEC),  don’t understand that most rate-regulated, government-sanctioned monopolies are not looking for a free market for energy, but rather to smash competition from independent solar owners.

But what if state lawmakers are convinced to forsake their constituents in favor of their deep-pocketed drinking buddies from the fossil fuel industry? At one time, the death of net metering would be the death of independent, or “Rooftop” distributed solar. But not now.

The Buzz About Batteries

Last year at this time, Tony Stark analog and uber-geek Elon Musk rolled out Tesla’s new “Powerwall” lithium ion storage unit. Sleek, sexy and ready to adorn the home of wealthy enviros, the tech media was atwitter for a longer than average news cycle. I, along with the rest of the solarati, furiously attempted to get our hands on installation manuals, shipping dates, or just spec sheets on the Powerwall, but none were to be had. As quickly as some had cheered Tesla CEO Musk’s announcement, others denounced Powerwall as “vaporware.” None the less, the business is abuzz about batteries, and residential storage looks to be just over the horizon.

In my new year’s preview,  Solar Trends to Watch in 2016: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,  I predicted:

“Residential battery storage will not be ready for prime time in 2016. After the Tesla PowerWall hype, it’s going to take a few more years to become reality. Expect a lot of smoke this year- and hopefully we’ll see fire in 2017.”

Tesla is far from the only player in the solar storage game. As they roll out their first commercially-available Powerwalls in Australia this year, German battery maker Sonnen is partnering with Sungevity to make add-on storage available to US solar customers. A Recent market study by  finds that “with the rising demand for PV installations for residential purposes, the market for residential solar energy storage is also rising at a very high pace. The report states that the market is expected to expand at a 67.7% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) between 2014 and 2019.”

Will tearing down net metering drive new independent solar owners into the waiting arms of Elon Musk and his fellow battery buddies? The price is still too high for average consumers, but early adopters who want to give the finger to the utilities that lobbied for the death of net metering will soon have the chance. When demand goes up, supply is soon to follow, and prices will fall, and fall fast for solar storage.

Large utility interests like Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway would love to push rooftop solar indies out of the game and consolidate solar production in large solar generating plants owned by, you guessed it, them. What they are missing is that it isn’t just solar generation consumers want. It isn’t all about global warming for a lot of solar owners. It’s also about CHOICE. Americans don’t like monopolies. They don’t like to be told that they have only one choice of where to buy their electricity. It’s not in our nature to accept what we are handed and  get back in line.

We are at the dawn of a new era. Soon enough, we might find that battery storage has made net metering obsolete. Perhaps we will no longer need to bank our excess power with the utility company. And when that time comes, utility companies are going to pine for the days of net metering. They are going to wish that they had been forward thinking enough to appreciate the peak shaving and system resilience that distributed solar could have provided them, had they only embraced it.

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Senate Energy Bill: Net Metering Policies on the Line

Fri, 02/05/2016 - 8:20am

Net metering laws for solar are under attack… can the U.S. Senate protect solar owners?

An unusually bi-partisan bill has been gaining support in the United States senate to address America’s energy policies. Co-sponsors Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) drafted the Energy Policy Modernization Act specifically to identify areas of common ground that would avoid the gridlock that has plagued congress on nearly every issue this year.  Murkowski told the Alaska Dispatch News: “I want to change energy policy and you can’t do that without the legislation becoming law.” Among the 200+ amendments filed for the bill are an amendment to protect net metering from the current series of attacks  against it in some states. Predictably, there is also an anti-net metering amendment up for consideration.

However, a controversial amendment to address the water quality issues of Flint, Michigan has been tacked onto the bill in the 11th hour, causing the passage of the energy bill to stall. The move has been called “Gamesmanship” by Republican Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. At the time of this writing, there is no indication of when the amendment, and the funding for the crisis in Flint, will be resolved.

The pro-net metering amendment, filed by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Senator Angus King (I-Maine) would prevent state utilities boards from gutting net metering policies. PV-Magazine explains:

“The amendment to the Energy Policy Modernization Act (S.2012) would add new language to PURPA, a landmark 1978 energy law, to require that state regulators include the benefits of distributed solar in any change to net metering valuations. The Reid-King amendment would further prohibit regulators from retroactively changing net metering arrangements for existing customers.”

U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, right, and Maine Audubon Executive Director Charles Gauvin survey a new solar array.

Reid’s home state of Nevada has been waging economic warfare on solar owners by levying unfair charges on net metered solar installations, as well as introducing new, restrictive rate structures. Not only are Nevada’s regulators attempting to eliminate new net metered systems, but they are retroactively changing existing net metering agreements as well.

Predictably, The National Association of Utility Regulatory Commissioners (NARUC) joined the utility industry lobby and fossil fuel groups in its opposition to the King-Reid amendment.

Meanwhile, Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) has introduced the so-called “Ratepayer Fairness” amendment to PURPA..  “requiring state regulatory authorities and non-regulated boards to examine whether new policies would result in cost shifts among customers, where a large customer class ends up cross-subsidizing a technology (re: solar) only used by a few customers.”

The Alliance for Solar Choice called for the adoption of the Reid/King amendment. Evan Dube, director of public policy for Sunrun and a spokesman for the alliance, said in a statement:

“We applaud Senators King and Reid for introducing legislation that protects consumer choice and free market competition. “The King-Reid legislation stands in stark contrast to Arizona Senator Flake’s amendment that seeks to weaken states’ and consumers’ rights…Senator Flake’s legislation is a blatant attempt to impose more regulations that benefit Arizona Public Service and other state-sponsored monopolies to the detriment of homeowners. The utility trade lobby, the Edison Electric Institute, wants to eliminate all forms of energy competition, and Senator Flake is doing their bidding,Fortunately, consumers have powerful advocates in Senators King and Reid.”

Mr. Dube makes clear in his statement the gravity of the net metering situation. Rooftop solar (more accurately, independent solar)  is currently under attack from a number of different directions. Flake and the Edison Institute have presented an Orwellian version of “fairness” in which independent ownership of solar can be crushed, competition in the utility industry eliminated, and any hope for  free market competition is destroyed.

About the Author: Rich Dana has spent the last 18 years in and around the solar industry. He is a former energy specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology and senior partner at Plan B Consulting LLP. His clients have included GoSolar, ReneSola, Bergey Windpower, The Union of Concerned Scientists, Alliant Energy and the USDOE.


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Iowa Caucuses: How Will Solar Do?

Fri, 01/29/2016 - 5:17am

How will solar advocates cast their votes in Iowa? Will parties make creating a fair market for solar part of their platforms?

As Iowa Democrats and Republicans prepare to participate in their local caucuses, Presidential hopefuls of both parties careen across the midwestern farm state in a last-minute frenzy to build last minute support for their campaigns ahead of Monday night. Unlike residents of larger states who go to their polling places to vote in primaries, Iowans come together in public libraries and auditoriums to speak out publicly in favor of their candidates and hash out their political differences face-to-face with their neighbors. Not only do Iowa Democrats and Republicans get to be the first to choose presidential candidates, but they also have the opportunity to draft and adopt resolutions, which may eventually become “planks” in their party’s platform. An article from the Iowa political blog Bleeding Heartland explains the process:

Most Iowa caucus-goers head home after the presidential candidate selection, but hard-core activists stick around to elect county convention delegates and consider resolutions for the party platform. If you bring a resolution to your precinct caucus, you have a good chance of getting it approved.

Many business groups and NGOs offer their members sample resolutions that they can take to caucus with them and offer up for consideration. For instance, the Iowa Sierra Club suggests that voters propose this resolution:


In order to protect the public from the effects of climate change, be it resolved that we support:

  • Undertaking efforts immediately to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases and to bring the level of CO2 in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million.
  • Increasing renewable energy production to 50% in Iowa by 2030.

The Iowa Sierra Club’s resolution reflects the goal set by NextGen Climate Action, a California-based advocacy group founded by hedge fund manager and environmentalist Tom Steyer. Steyer’s NextGen  has been running  TV ads in Iowa encouraging caucus goers to adopt their #50by30 goal. NextGen is relying heavily on student activists and promoting caucus attendance among young voters.


Where does renewable energy production rank with Iowa’s voters?

In August of 2015, the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association (ISETA) published a survey performed by Public Policy Polling. Key findings from the survey include:

  • 60% of voters in the state generally support the new EPA limits on carbon pollution from power plants, compared to only 36 % who oppose them. That includes support from87% of Democrats, 62% of independents, and33% of Republicans. When it comes to the specific goal of a 41% reduction in carbon pollution for Iowa by 2030 voters are even more supportive, with 65% in support of it to only 34% against.
  • 78% of voters believe that renewable electricity sources like wind and solar power are important to invest in, including 95% of Democrats, 82% of independents and 62% of Republicans.

Does this translate to support for pro-solar candidates in the Iowa caucuses? It depends on your definition of “pro-solar.” Solar Tribune began regular coverage of the candidates and their stands on solar over a year ago with our 2016 Presidential Campaign Solar Scorecard.  At that point, Chris Christie was the only Republican to score an A, and Donald Trump had not yet entered the race. Among Democrats, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders scored A grades, and Martin O’Malley had not declared his candidacy.   Look for an updated version of the Solar Scorecard as the race narrows.

As for Iowa’s solar advocates and their plans for caucus night, Solar Tribune spoke with David Osterberg of The Iowa Policy Project. Osterberg is a former Iowa state representative who was chairman of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, and a strong advocate for solar. Osterberg doesn’t mince words on the subject:

“Solar advocates should only support candidates who agree that humans contribute to climate change and that federal energy policies should support clean, renewable energy.”

When asked if he could draft a sample resolution for Iowans to add to their state party platforms he responded:

We resolve that Iowa’s net metering law that allows producers of renewable electricity to receive and produce electricity at the same price should be retained. We further resolve that electric utility companies can not charge an extra charge for serving renewable power customers aside from the small charge for a meter.

As voters from all parties pass resolutions that will become the “planks” of their party platforms, solar advocates will have the opportunity to make their priorities into policy, and next week, it all starts in Iowa.

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Palo Alto-Based Institute to Research Solar and Storage Integration

Sun, 01/24/2016 - 1:49pm

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) SunShot initiative has chosen a Palo Alto, California-based nonprofit, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), to collaborate on a new project. According to a DOE webpage, the project’s purpose is to develop and demonstrate, “integrated photovoltaic (PV) and energy storage solutions that are scalable, secure, reliable, and cost-effective.” According to an EPRI media release, the “value of the research agreement will be about $6.3 million, with DOE contributing $3.1 million and the EPRI team providing a $3.2 million cost share.”

The award, which was announced on January 19, is part of the DOE’s SHINES (Sustainable and Holistic Integration of Energy Storage and Solar PV) program, which in turn is a part of the DOE’s $220 million Grid Modernization Initiative. In addition to EPRI, five other entities received awards, for a total of $18 million for the six projects. EPRI describes itself as an independent nonprofit that “conducts research and development relating to the generation, delivery and use of electricity for the benefit of the public.”

As the release explains, “the key innovation of this research project is the design, development, and demonstration of a two-level control architecture using optimal strategies.” EPRI gives the following examples of this:

  • “A system controller strategy which maintains wide area reliability of the electric system through coordinated control of multiple, local controllers and other distribution equipment; and
  • “A local controller strategy which makes solar PV more predictable through efficient utilization of energy storage, load management, smart inverters, and solar/load forecasting, and also responds to system controller needs.”

In an article published in Forbes, the author noted two significant things about the DOE’s SHINES initiative: a) the goal of the program – to drive down the cost of solar-plus-storage to a “levelized cost of energy” (LCOE) of 14 cents per kWh and that of solar alone to 6 cents per kWh by 2020 – is a very ambitious one, and b) solar storage isn’t merely about accumulating electrons, but about using the system as if it were a computer, to balance loads dynamically and analyze costs to achieve the best possible outcome. An article that appeared in Greentech Media (GTM) cites GTM Research’s senior storage analyst, Ravi Manghani, as claiming that to get to 14 cents per kWh, “storage costs will have to fall by more than 50 percent [from present levels], in addition to the projected drop in utility-scale solar costs.”

Mike Howard, president and CEO of EPRI, said, “Solar PV and energy storage introduce a new level of opportunity and complexity in the delicate balancing act performed by grid planners every day. This effort can help integrate important components of our future energy system.” The DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, David Danielson, said, “Without a doubt, innovation in energy storage will help drive [solar] adoption in the United States to new heights.”

In addition to EPRI, the other five awardees are:

  • Austin Energy (Austin, TX),
  • Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA),
  • Commonwealth Edison Company (Chicago, IL),
  • Fraunhofer USA Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (Boston, MA), and
  • The Hawaiian Electric Company (Honolulu, HI).


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Why is Rooftop Solar Getting a Bad Rap?

Tue, 01/19/2016 - 7:34pm

A recent article in the left-wing mouthpiece Mother Jones has right-wing anti-solar critics cheering. What is all the fuss about?

The January/February 2016 issue of Mother Jones  features an article by Tim McDonnell entitled The Problem With Rooftop Solar That Nobody Is Talking About: Where does the green energy from your panels really go? McDonnell does a very good job of explaining how solar Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) can be retained by solar power installation companies and then used by utility companies to do an end-run around their legal obligations to reduce carbon emissions.

From the article:
“Because RECs have value—ranging from under a penny to a buck or two for each hour’s worth of electricity your roof produces, depending on the state, companies like SolarCity can sell them and thus help justify giving you the solar panels for little to nothing. The biggest buyers of RECs are power companies looking to satisfy state-mandated clean-energy requirements, known as renewable portfolio standards. In effect, the power company pays for the right to claim the climate benefits of the panels on your roof.”

McDonnell continues:
“It sounds like an esoteric distinction, but it matters: By selling the RECs instead of keeping them for yourself, you could just be helping the utility meet a goal it was already mandated to meet—thus helping excuse it from building more solar capacity itself. In other words, your direct net contribution to reducing greenhouse gas pollution is nil.”

Well, yes and no. At least in theory, the electrons flowing from your rooftop array are offsetting some of the fossil fuel generation by reducing demand. In reality, because of the structure of the grid, this isn’t necessarily true. And, RECs have definitely served as a dubious financial instrument by which large solar installers make projects cash flow. However, these deals have also opened the door for solar in a utility industry that has, in the past, a hard nut for solar advocates to crack.

McDonnell’s piece is short and not terribly in-depth, but it is fair, and it is factual. However, it didn’t take long for anti-solar click hunters to pounce on the opportunity to make their own headlines with Mother Jones’ less-than-glowing assessment of the RECs market. Over at the Daily Caller, fledgeling energy and environmental reporter Andrew Follett’s headline shrilly proclaimed Progressive Mother Jones Finally Realizes Why Rooftop Solar Is A Total Scam. Oh my. Is this really what McDonnell’s piece proposed?

Follett states:
“Mother Jones argues credits and subsidies ensure rooftop solar companies aren’t actually helping fight global warming and instead are just enriching themselves while distracting from real solutions to global warming. The magazine claims RECs ensure someone who buys a rooftop solar panel isn’t actually fighting global warming…”

Follett relies heavily on another anti-solar article published earlier in the Wall Street Journal. In The Hole in the Rooftop Solar-Panel Craze, Brian H. Potts writes that:

“Most people buy rooftop solar panels because they think it will save them money or make them green, or both. But the truth is that rooftop solar shouldn’t be saving them money (though it often does), and it almost certainly isn’t green. In fact, the rooftop-solar craze is wasting billions of dollars a year that could be spent on greener initiatives. It also is hindering the growth of much more cost-effective renewable sources of power…The primary reason these small solar systems are cost-effective, however, is that they’re heavily subsidized. Utilities are forced by law to purchase solar power generated from the rooftops of homeowners and businesses at two to three times more than it would cost to buy solar power from large, independently run solar plants. Without subsidies, rooftop solar isn’t close to cost-effective.”

Sadly, so-called conservative commentators who claim to be “energy experts” often show their true colors when it comes to the subject of solar. They lump all rooftop solar into one category and point at nebulous “subsidies” with which they make apples to oranges comparisons between the new and booming solar business and the the long-mature coal industry. They fail to mention the benefits of the truly distributed generation that rooftop solar projects bring to the grid. Rooftop solar require no additional buffering or load-following, and they require no new transmission lines or substations. They also provide individuals with more choice and more freedom in a utility marketplace that has never known a free market. They point to the California power-purchase model (where REC trading can be abused) and then make blanket condemnations of all of private solar owners, small, regional installers and state regulators where REC trading is not even an issue. And in most states, RECS are NOT an issue. Yet somehow, even in states with few or no subsidies or PPAs, solar is still growing quickly. Why is that? Is that a “scam”? A “craze”?

It’s easy to point fingers at RECS now and cry foul, but that die was cast years ago. Of course it is time to re-examine these policies. But this is a question of validity of policy, not of the technology itself.  Sadly, even the environmentally friendly website Grist couldn’t resist jumping on the bandwagon, reposting McDonnell’s piece under the title Rooftop solar isn’t quite as great as you thought it was (but it’s still pretty great).” Sheesh- with friends like that, who needs enemies?
About the Author: Rich Dana has spent the last 18 years in and around the solar industry. He is a former energy specialist at the National Center for Appropriate Technology and senior partner at Plan B Consulting LLP. His clients have included GoSolar, ReneSola, Bergey Windpower, The Union of Concerned Scientists, Alliant Energy and the USDOE.

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