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Solar Tribune

Solar Energy News, Analysis, Education
Updated: 38 min 4 sec ago

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 Forbes.com 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.

New Report: California Leads the Nation in Solar Job Growth

Thu, 02/12/2015 - 8:06am

The Solar Foundation’s California Solar Jobs Census Finds that California Solar Jobs Grew by Nearly 16% Last Year with Nearly 10,000 More Solar Jobs Expected in 2015.

The non-profit research group The Solar Foundation (TSF), released its California Solar Jobs Census 2014 this week, and news was good for the California solar job market. The new report found that the solar industry employed 54,690 people in California in 2014, nearly 7,500 solar jobs more than the previous year. This represents 15.8 percent growth in California solar industry employment since November 2013. Additionally, California solar employment grew 10 times faster than overall employment in the state during the same period.

“California’s solar industry has once again proven to be a powerful engine of economic growth and job creation,” said Andrea Luecke, President and Executive Director of The Solar Foundation. “California solar jobs have grown quite rapidly over the last few years, and the solar industry is continuing to attract highly-skilled, well-paid professionals. That growth is putting people back to work and strengthening California’s diverse economy.”

“For decades, our state has been on the cutting edge of clean energy innovations and solar deployment,” said California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom. “We’re very proud that we continue to be first in the nation in solar jobs – and to see 16% solar job growth in 2014 reaffirms our leadership in this industry.”

The full National Solar Jobs Census and State Solar Jobs Census reports with district level jobs for California, Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Texas and New York are available at www.TSFcensus.org. Job numbers and rankings of economic indicators for all 50 states are available in The Solar Foundation’s updated State Solar Jobs Map at www.SolarStates.org.

Solar Profile: Erica Johnson, Sullivan Solar

Wed, 02/11/2015 - 3:36pm

Starting this week, Solar Tribune will feature a series profiling committed individuals who are helping to lead the way to a brighter future, powered by clean, solar energy. The first in our series showcases the work of Erica Johnson from Sullivan Solar Power. Sullivan Solar Power is one of California’s top solar power companies. Based in San Diego County, Sullivan serves all of Southern California. Erica serves as the Marketing and Communications manager.

Erica was one of the nominees for San Diego Magazine’s “2013 Women Who Move the City,” and was responsible for the partnership that Sullivan Solar forged with the Non-Profit Grid Alternatives to provide free solar electric systems to low-income families.

Sullivan Solar’s Erica Johnson – Alon David Photography

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

My educational background is in Business Administration and Public Relations. I found my passion for environmental sustainability at San Diego State University, where I was actively engaged in student leadership. I spent majority of my college years focusing on transitioning the campus to a clean energy future, and was responsible for chairing a board that allocated money to sustainable upgrades on campus. I learned about solar energy and became enamored by photovoltaic technology. With the abundance of solar radiation we receive in Southern California, I decided that I would spend my life’s work putting solar on every rooftop in the region.


How many years have you been with Sullivan Solar Power?

I have been with the company nearly 6 years.

Tell us a little about Sullivan Solar Power and your role there.

Sullivan Solar Power is a turnkey solar provider that designs each project from concept to completion, using the highest quality products and most well-trained employees that this industry has to offer. The company, which services all of Southern California, has installed more solar in the SDG&E territory than any other company. In 2014, Sullivan Solar Power celebrated a decade in business, and became the first NABCEP-accredited company in San Diego and Orange County; and the fourth in the nation.

At Sullivan Solar Power, I directly manage the marketing and communications efforts to promote our company’s services. I oversee the Community Development department and am responsible for coordinating market research, marketing strategy, advertising, promotions and public relations activities.

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

Currently, we are in an extremely interested time to be working in the solar industry. There are a lot of changes on the horizon with the Net Energy Metering cap closely approaching in the SDG&E territory, and the tax credit also expiring in 2016. I am very excited to be politically engaged, and being a part of the changing energy policy in California.

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

Quality- Sullivan Solar Power only uses the highest quality products, installed by quality professionals to deliver quality systems. We do not subcontract our work, which is only done by state licensed electricians. Our skilled labor is the highest trained that the industry has to offer.
Reputation – Sullivan Solar Power has been serving Southern California for more than a decade. We have more than 3,500 residential, commercial and municipal customers. High profile clienst include the City of San Diego, the Port of Long Beach, UC San Diego, and even SDG&E has hire us to install solar for their facilities.
Proven- Sullivan Solar Power is one of the longest standing solar companies in Southern California, and we have proven that we can deliver. We do one thing – and we do it exceedingly well.

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

Sullivan Solar Power is the leader in San Diego, and is a powerful company in Orange and Riverside Counties. I see us continuing to grow our market share throughout Southern California, and expanding into other regions over the next 5 years.

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

As battery technology improves and becomes cheaper, I think we will see a lot more property owners looking to go off-the-grid. Roadblocks for growth are competing interests that do not wish to see people declare energy independence. Policy and legislation that support energy interests outside of renewables.

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

I am passionate about scuba diving, yoga, travel and other cultures, music, and making the world a better place for future generations.

Erica Johnson – Alon David Photography

USDA funding for Solar

Mon, 02/09/2015 - 1:00pm

Rural solar users may have an easier time accessing funding through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2015. The highly popular Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) is a part of the Energy Title of the 2014 Farm Bill. REAP provides grants and loans to farmers and rural small businesses to help purchase renewable energy systems, make energy efficiency improvements and perform renewable energy feasibility studies. It also funds an energy audit and technical assistance program to serve agricultural producers and rural small businesses.

photo:bigpicturefarm.com

Over 4,000 grants have been awarded since the programs inception on 2002. At the end of 2014, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reported that the 2015 grants and loans will total $68 million dollars; For energy efficiency projects, the minimum grant amount is $1,500 and the maximum grant amount is $250,000. For renewable energy systems, the minimum grant amount is $2,500 and the maximum grant amount is $500,000. No grant can exceed 25% of total project or study cost. The remaining 75% must come from non-federal sources including loans, investors, your own assets or any available state or local grant. “These loan guarantees and grants will have far-reaching impacts nationwide, particularly in the rural communities where these projects are located,” says Secretary Vilsack, who issued the statement while visiting North Carolina, where a number of solar projects were funded last year.

One successful REAP grant recipient last year was Burris Pecan Farm near Belen, New Mexico. The owners used to wait until night to irrigate their trees, when electricity was cheaper. With help from a $107,100 REAP grant, they installed a 564-panel solar array to offset the power used by the irrigation system. They hope to break even on the $428,402 investment within about four years and to save at least $25,000 each year moving forward.

ELPC reports that With the release of the final rule, the USDA has significantly overhauled REAP. One huge barrier to farmer-owned small solar arrays has been the requirement to have  separate meters for the house and the farming operation. In the case of many small farms, the house is an integral part of the business and the installation of a 2nd meter can exceed the amount of the actual grant.  The USDA have relaxed this requirement a bit by allowing applicants to certify that 51% or more of the power generated will be used by the agricultural operation or rural small business. Alternatively, the applicant can certify that any excess power will be sold back to the grid and not used for residential purposes.

More changes are discussed in a recent article at  ELPC’s website, farmenergy.org:

The core program remains unchanged but a number of significant modifications should clarify and simplify the program. Following are key changes from the final rule, as provided by the USDA:

  • Outlines a three tier application structure for REAP based on total project costs. Application requirements under all three tiers have been streamlined to reduce the time required to prepare applications, with application complexity decreasing with decreasing project costs:
    • total project  costs of $80,000 or less,
    • total project costs more than $80,000 but less than $200,000, or
    • total project costs of $200,000 and greater.
  • Determination of “technical merit” has been simplified and is now part of the eligibility criteria rather than the scoring criteria. So the question has been reduced to “Pass/Fail,” to increase efficiency in application preparation and processing.
  • Grant applications of $20,000 or less will compete in 5 competitions. (Congress required that 20% of funding should be used for small grants of $20,000 or less.)
  • Eligibility for precommercial technologies has been removed. Only commercially available technologies are considered eligible.
    • The definition of commercially available technologies now applies to certification standards that are acceptable to the Agency from a recognized industry organization such as the Small Wind Certification Council.
    • Refurbished equipment is still allowed but must be refurbished in a “commercial facility” and must come with a warranty approved by USDA.
    • Establishes permanent annual grant deadlines of April 30th and October 31st for renewable energy system and energy efficiency applications for state-level competitions for small grants ($20,000 and less).  These deadlines will no longer be dependent up on the annual notice, but there will be other deadlines for other program elements.
  • Establishes a grant deadline of January 30th for Energy Audit and Renewable Energy Development Assistance Grants (EA/REDA), or 45 days after publication of the funding notice. These awards must be made by April 1.
    • Resource Conservation Districts (RC&D) councils have been added as eligible applicants for EA/REDA.
  • The “small business” definition has been broadened to be more in line with regulations from the Small Business Administration (SBA), specifically the 7A and the SBA 504 programs, as found in 13 CFR 121.301(a) and (b).
    • The definition will allow applicants to use either net income and/or net worth in determining business size.
  • Following changes in the 2014 Farm Bill, the following projects are no longer eligible to receive REAP grant or loan guarantee funding:
    • Stand-alone feasibility studies. Eligible costs for feasibility studies can still be covered as part of a constructed project.
    • Flexible fuel pumps or any other technology for dispensing energy at retail.
  •  Application scoring criteria were changed in a number of ways and is described in the rule in §4280.120. Total possible points are now 100. This section is complex and applicants should review the rule for further details.
    •  Environmental benefits are now a total of five points, based upon addressing resource conservation (e.g., water, soil, forest), public health and the environment (e.g., compliance with EPA’s renewable fuel standard(s), greenhouse gases).
    • Energy generated, replaced, or saved is worth 25 points. Changes include evaluating projects by BTU saved or generated per dollar of REAP grant.
    • Commitment of funds is worth a total of 20 points, based upon the percentage of funds that have a written commitment.
    • Size of Agricultural Producer or Rural Small Business is worth a total of 10 points, based a sliding scale of the actual size compared to the maximum allowable size.
    • Previous grantees and borrowers allows a maximum of 15 points for those who have not previously received a REAP award and declining based upon when the previous award was received.
    • Simple payback calculations allow a maximum of 15 points.
    • State Director and Administrator priority points provide a maximum of 10 points for factors such as technological and geographic diversity, economically distressed areas or policy priorities.

 

PG&E Offers New Community Solar Program

Thu, 02/05/2015 - 9:10am

Recently, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) announced that it has received permission from California regulators to offer electric customers a new program that will provide as much as 100 percent solar power for what the company describes as a “modest cost premium.”

PG&E plans to begin enrolling customers at the end of 2015 for the new community solar program, which follows a popular new model which offers residential and business customers the chance to invest in a solar farm, rather than installing solar at their home. This option allows renters, homeowners on shady lots and those who can’t afford the high upfront cost to utilize green, locally produced solar energy.

photo:PG&E

“Our green option is all about giving customers the power to choose and about bringing the benefits of solar to our communities. Our customers already enjoy some of the cleanest power in the United States, but we want to help them do even more to support clean energy and the green economy. Our green option will let them buy into a pool of clean solar energy, locally produced in our service area, to meet all of their electricity needs,” said Chris Johns, president of PG&E.

PG&E will purchase energy from nearby small and mid-sized solar farms Customers will pay the incremental cost of the new solar energy they consume, as well as related program costs. The initial estimated premium is estimated to be 2-3 cents per kWh. Customers will also have the option to contract directly with independent third-party developers for a share of the output of a local solar project.

Solar Thermal Technology: Will It Survive?

Mon, 02/02/2015 - 10:47am

Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) has definitely taken a back seat to Photovoltaics (PV) in the last few years when it comes to solar electricity generation, but solar thermal technologies are still far from obsolete.

With PV’s installed price continuing its multi-year decline, there are some questions about the viability of solar thermal technologies. Solar thermal for both residential scale water and space heating as well as utility scale electricity generation were long thought to have better economic potential than PV. As recently as 2008, Home Power magazine was reporting that Solar Domestic Hot Water (SDHW) was paying back 2 ½ times faster than PV for residential use. Then, the installed cost of PV began to drop, and dropped more than 50% between 2007 and 2014. By 2013, Renewable Energy World was reporting that “…household-level solar water heating comes with so many unnecessary drawbacks that it is clear the future lies in another direction. Solar photovoltaic is a highly-effective source for a heat-pump water-heating system.” PV panel prices are so low right now that by most reports it is actually more cost effective to use PV for space heating or hot water than are conventional solar thermal systems.

As for large scale projects, construction of CSP generating stations in the US have all but halted, although the technology seems to be going strong in North Africa and the Middle East. Despite the rapid decline in PV prices and the advances in efficiency, CSP has made advances as well, including new projects that include up to 16 hours of energy storage, allowing CSP plants to make power much more consistently than PV. So why is CSP flourishing in the Middle East and languishing in the US? RP Seigel of justmeans.com reports: “In Arizona, the Solana plant, built by Abengoa … has the additional feature of thermal storage that allows it to provide power through most of the night as well, only without the use of fossil fuels. This accomplishment represents a sort of Holy Grail for renewables, yet, despite this, it’s unclear whether the company will build another one of these, either. In this case, it’s because of uncertainty about the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) which is due to expire at its current 30% level in 2016…”

Agengoa CSP plant in Arizona photo:cspworld.com

In addition to the highly politicized nature of the energy sector in the US, it is a simple fact that CSP suits the needs of the developing world better than it does those of highly developed northern nations. Current commercial CSP technology operates best at the high levels of irradiance found in the equatorial and desert regions. Also, CSP can only be done economically on a large scale, so vast stretches of flat, unshaded land are needed. CSP can integrate energy storage, as stated earlier, or it can easily be integrated into a hybrid steam plant that uses fossil fuels as well. This option makes it attractive in many middle eastern countries where oil and natural gas are plentiful. And with the World Banks recent announcement of the launch of the “Scaling Solar” program, we can expect to see CSP plants continue to flourish across the developing nations of the Sun Belt.

Will we ever see a resurgence in the solar thermal business, either large scale or residential in the US, or will PV continue to dominate while solar thermal languishes and eventually fades away? No one can say for sure, but if solar thermal is to make a comeback, it will require the right circumstances. PV prices will need to level out, and solar thermal will need to find it’s new niche. As for PV panel prices, the glut of cheap Chinese panels flooding into the US may be coming to an end in the near future, if the federal government decides to levy a tariff on the Chinese to prevent future dumping. Also, if grid access becomes more difficult, as many utility companies would like to make it, it may make solar thermal look more attractive.

Solar thermal is finding specialty uses in the industrial sector as well. The team of the James S. Markiewicz Solar Energy Facility at Valparaiso University, funded through a $2.3 million grant through the Department of Energy, is nearing its goal to create a commercially viable process of making magnesium using sunlight.

“The team has proven the feasibility of doing this in the laboratory, and now we are preparing to do this in the solar furnace,” said Scott Duncan, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering, Valpo College of Engineering. Success could result in a cost-effective manufacturing process in the U.S. that is less harmful to the environment and less energy intensive. Today, most magnesium comes from China and is desirable in the transportation sector because it is 30% lighter than aluminum. In fact, any process that uses large amounts of heat, like kiln-drying lumber and dehydrating food could utilize solar thermal technology.

In the mean time, we can expect to see solar thermals market narrow in the US until the market shifts again.

Solar Suds: California Boasts World’s Largest Solar Brewery

Fri, 01/30/2015 - 9:08am

This weekend, many Americans will be enjoying the culmination of the 2014-2015 NFL season by drinking some of their favorite frosty adult beverages while watching the Seattle Seahawks and The New England Patriots face off in Super Bowl XLIX. What they may not know, is that they may be drinking beer brewed with solar power.

The MillerCoors brewing company has announced the completion of the largest photovoltaic (PV) solar installation at any brewery in the U.S. In the Los Angeles suburb of Irwindale, California. Installed by SolarCity, one of the states premier solar installation providers, The 3.2 megawatt array consists of more than 10,000 solar panels installed across ten acres. The array will produce enough electricty to brew more than 7 million cases of beer each year.

State Senator Ed Hernandez of West Covina commented: “This project will help MillerCoors control its energy costs and support clean energy jobs, and demonstrates that MillerCoors is doing its part to reduce carbon emissions and help the state meet its clean energy goals.”

According to MillerCoors, the project will help to offset electricity use on the local grid during periods of high demand. It will also help further reduce the brewery’s traditional energy use, which has decreased by more than 30 percent over the last five years. The brewery also creates biogas from wastewater to power two GE Jenbacher engines, and the new solar project continues to illustrate the company’s commitment to energy independence.

Kim Marotta, Director of Sustainability, MillerCoors.
photo: denverpost.com

Solar Adds to Home Sale Value, New Report Shows

Fri, 01/23/2015 - 11:54am

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

Rooftop solar PV (photovoltaic) systems increased the sale of homes an average of $15,000, according to researchers led by Ben Hoen and Ryan Wiser of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkley Laboratory’s Environmental Energy Technologies Division. Berkley Labs worked on the report in cooperation with researchers from Adomatis Appraisal Services, Real Property Analytics/Texas A&M University, University of California at San Diego, San Diego State University, and Sandia National Laboratories.

Their new study (entitled “Selling into the Sun: Price Premium Analysis of a Multi-State Dataset of Solar Homes”) found that home buyers are definitely willing to pay more for homes with a host-owned PV systems. Host-owned means that the system is owned by the property owner, not a third-party-owned or leased system. This study did not include information on third-party owned systems (but future research on the value of third-party-owned systems is planned for the future.) However, the study did cover eight states and various housing markets, PV markets and home types. The team analyzed nearly 22,000 sales of homes– almost 4,000 of which contained PV systems– in eight states from 1999 to 2013. This doubled the number of homes analyzed in previous studies and producing the most authoritative estimates to date of price premiums for U.S. homes with PV systems.

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

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

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

Reading the rather unimpressive report and the lukewarm response by Forbes only 4 years ago reflects the huge advances that the solar market is making as installed costs continue to drop. With more and homes featuring host-owned solar generation, the real estate industry is desperately in need of reliable methods to value the rapidly growing number of solar homes. The number of US homes with solar PV installations has grown to more than half a million, as of 2014.

“As PV systems become more and more common on U.S. homes, it will be increasingly important to value them accurately, using a variety of methods,” says co-author Sandra Adomatis, an appraiser who helped develop the Appraisal Institute’s Green Addendum and who has written and spoken extensively on valuing green features. She noted, “Our findings should provide greater confidence that PV adds a quantifiable premium to a wide variety of homes in California and beyond.”

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

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

Saudi Moves To Corner the Energy Market May Include Solar

Thu, 01/15/2015 - 6:11pm

It is becoming increasingly apparent that the current plummet in oil prices is driven in part by OPEC’s desire to hurt the North American shale oil industry. Could they also be looking at a future in the solar market?

Speaking at the opening day of the fourth Solar Arabia summit in Riyadh in October of last year, Hamed al-Saggaf, executive director of the Saudi Electricity Company, told attendees that the kingdom must learn to wean itself off its dependence on oil and gas for electricity production.

“If we continue to consume fuel at the same rate, then there will be a great lost opportunity,” Saggaf said. “We have to start pursuing solar now.”

With a peak electricity load of 57 GW and a growing, power-hungry middle class, Saudi Arabia has begun to give greater consideration to its energy future, especially with the increasingly politicized oil market.

In a recent article for Market Watch, Satyajit Das (author of Traders, Guns & Money) wrote: “In theory, Saudi Arabian oil and foreign policy are separate. In practice, they are related. Low oil prices hurt Iran, Saudi Arabia’s competitor for Middle East political influence…. Low oil prices also hurt Russia, which also supports Syria and Iran. Low prices also undermine the financial basis of Islamic State militants, whose sales of cheap smuggled oil funds their military activities….Low oil prices can be seen through a Saudi prism as reprisals against the U.S. It is designed to undermine American attempts at greater energy self-sufficiency through aggressive exploitation of its shale gas and liquid resources. It is revenge for America’s strategic rebalancing away from the region to a greater Asian focus. The oil strategy is a signal from Saudi Arabia that it still wields significant power on the geopolitical stage.”

Now, solar is playing an odd supporting role in Saudi Arabia’s game of economic/political energy brinksmanship. The solar industry has struggled to take off in the energy rich nation, despite the obvious solar assets the desert nation has. Now, with a battle on over oil, there appears to be a somewhat counter-intuitive spike in interest in solar for the Saudis. What solar seems to be providing is not only security from the perspective of the utility sector, but also a potential future energy export.

  • Just last month, it was announced that General Electric (GE) has won a contract to supply a 600 MW integrated solar combined-cycle power plant for the Green Duba project in Saudi Arabia, according to recent reports. It is being developed in the Saudi port-city of Duba by the country’s utility, the Saudi Electricity Company. The project represents what is expected to be a series of concentrating solar combined-cycle power plants.
  • This week, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority announced on Thursday that a consortium of Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power and Spain’s TSK had been selected to build a solar power plant in the UAE emirate. The utility’s chief executive, Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer, also announced that the size of the plant, Phase Two of the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, would be increased to 200 MW of generating capacity from the previous target of 100 MW.
  • A consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power International has won a 1.7 billion euro contract to build two solar power plants totaling 350 megawatts in the southern Moroccan city of Ouarzazate, according to the Moroccan solar energy agency. The two plants are the second phase of the 500 MW Ouarzazate project, which is part of a government plan to produce two gigawatts of solar power by 2020, equivalent to about 38 per cent of Morocco’s current installed generation capacity.

Is Saudi Arabia quietly moving to expand their energy dominance into the electricity sector? It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Saudi-built solar generation could be delivering power into the European Union’s grid in the next 10 to 20 years.

Desertec was an ambitious project to do just that, launched in 2003. The German-led initiative aimed to provide 15% of Europe’s electricity by 2050 through a vast network of solar and wind farms stretching right across North Africa and the Mediterranean region and connecting to Europe via special high voltage, direct-current transmission cables, which lose only around 3% of the electricity they carry per 1,000 kilometers. The tentative total cost of building the project has been estimated at 400 billion euros.

As of this writing, it would appear as if Desertec has bitten the dust, with a major exodus of European investors. However, with the recent Saudi/Spanish solar deals, it looks like the Saudi’s may be picking up some of the pieces, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a push to complete the Morroco-Spain grid link. Will the Saudi’s make a move to deliver solar to the EU’s grid?

The implications are serious. Large amounts of inexpensive solar electricity pouring onto the European grid could have an effect similar to that shock currently being felt by the fledgeling US shale oil industry.

 

 

2016 Presidential Campaign: Solar Scorecard

Wed, 01/07/2015 - 11:29am

Which Candidates are Strong on Solar?

A we enter the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, a plethora of Republican and Democratic hopefuls are powering up their campaign machines. Many are already taking up part-time residence in the “first in the nation” states of Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping to separate themselves from the pack.

In the wake of the Obama administration’s mixed bag of hits and misses on energy policy, some Republicans are looking to use the Solyndra debacle and supports for solar power in general as a sign of the failure of Democratic energy policy. Other Republicans have their own solar success stories to tell. On the Democratic side as well, the current group of front runners range from strong solar supporters to openly anti-solar.

Solar Tribune has compiled a list of the leading candidates as of the beginning of 2015, and assigned each a grade, based on their commitment to solar power. Admittedly, it is a somewhat subjective process, but the criteria is as follows:

A- Strong support in statements and actions
B- Support in statements, moderate action
C- Moderate support in statements
D- Little or no support
F- Anti-Solar in statement or action

This ranking does not reflect the candidates philosophy on markets vs. incentives, climate science, support for fossil fuels or any other criteria other than their actual statements regarding solar’s significance in the future of the nation’s energy mix, and their personal actions to help or hinder the growth of the industry.

REPUBLICANS

Jeb Bush: C
Jeb Bush currently is currently generating a lot of heat in the Republican field, and is very popular with the big-money funders needed to mount a successful campaign.
Bush endorsed setting a national goal of 25% renewable energy by 2025, but as governor of Florida, he did not promote much in the way of solar policy. Florida does not have a renewable portfolio standard, property tax exemptions, or a statewide solar power rebate system.

Chris Christie: A
Chris Christie is probably the most outspoken advocate for solar energy of any of the leading republican contenders. Gov. Christie stated that “The future for New Jersey is in green energy and already we’ve put in place policies to broaden our access to renewable sources of energy, cleaner natural gas generation and ending our reliance on coal generation.” Christie signed into law an acceleration of the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) for solar energy and a reduction of the solar alternate compliance payments.

Ted Cruz: F
Although Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has not gone on record as being vehemently anti-solar, he has been remarkably silent on renewable energy issues in general. However, Cruz has long been active in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC has provided model legislation for many conservative state legislators across the country, and is currently promoting rolling back net metering and charging solar energy producers for access to the grid.

 

Mike Huckabee: C
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has not offered a lot of specifics as far as renewable energy policy goes, other than voicing support in general for reducing dependence on foreign energy sources. His home state of Arkansas has average to above average solar policies.

 

 

Bobby Jindal: C
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has said: “Republicans seem instinctively to oppose cultivating…solar and wind power. Likewise, Democrats often stridently oppose… oil, coal, and nuclear power. Here’s an idea: how about we do it all? That’s not a Republican or Democrat solution. That’s an American solution.” Meanwhile, he has signed legislation to end solar tax credits.

 

Rand Paul: C
Senator Rand Paul makes no bones about his beliefs that government should not be playing favorites in the market, so it is so surprise that he is not a fan of government-funded solar programs. In fact, he blames “government intervention” for much of the nations energy problems. Sen Paul has stated: “”I favor tax incentives for alternative energy, but I oppose subsidies, which has the effect of allowing the government to choose winners and losers.” If taken at his word, that means he opposes subsidies for fossil fuels as well, which give them an unfair advantage over emerging renewable technologies.

Rick Perry: D
As governor of Texas, Rick Perry has done a lot to promote utility scale wind power development, but very little in the way of leadership on solar development. In 2005, he signed a bill requiring Texas to have 5,880 megawatts of renewables capacity by 2015. The state has already surpassed that requirement, primarily through large wind. The Texas Public Utilities Commission, appointed by Perry, has blocked significant implementation of net metering.

 

Marco Rubio: C
Florida Senator Marco Rubio has stated his support for a broad energy mix, including more biofuels, and more nuclear, solar and wind power. However, he has been skeptical about the role of renewable energy. “What I have a problem with is this idea we can windmill our way into the 21st Century,” he said.

 

 

Paul Ryan: F
Wisconsin Senator Paul Ryan, Like Senator Ted Cruz, is heavily tied to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In addition to supporting ALEC’s anti-solar agenda, Paul Ryan has tried to make an example of solar incentives as a poor use of federal funds. Despite his criticisms, several of the projects he has sited as failures have actually been successfully completed.

 

 

 

DEMOCRATS

Joe Biden: B
Vice President Joe Biden has been an outspoken supporter of renewable energy around the globe. In fact, his brother, Frank Biden, is involved in developing solar projects at luxury resorts in Central America and the Middle East. Biden has had a primarily pro-renewables voting record in the senate.

 

 

Hillary Clinton: A
At the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, former New York Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told warned the audience that the U.S. “cannot afford to cede leadership in this area,” addressing China’s growing position in the solar marketplace. “Our economic recovery, our efforts against climate change, our strategic position in the world all will improve if we can build a safe bridge to a clean energy economy.” Clinton had a strong pro-renewables voting record in the senate.

Bernie Sanders: A
The Senator from Vermont has been a stalwart advocate of renewable energy, and solar in particular, for many years. In 2010, Bernie Sanders introduced a bill to encourage the implementation of 10 million rooftop solar projects in 10 years. Unfortunately, it didn’t go anywhere. An Independent and self-described “socialist”, Sanders plans to run for the Democratic Party nomination.

 

Elizabeth Warren: C
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is still relatively new to the US Senate, and she has not taken a strong stand on solar issues as of yet. Senator Warren is known as a strong financial regulator in favor of bank reforms, and on her website she states: “Right now, renewable energy competes with old energies that get lots of special breaks from Washington. We know that we can generate power with alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and hydropower.”

 

Jim Webb: F
Jim Webb is considered a moderate Democrat from the coal-producing state of Virginia. As Senator, he held a very conservative position on energy issues. Rather than solar and wind, Webb has stated that “I believe the way to go with coal is to get the technology to address the issues, rather than to put coal out of business. And I’m a strong believer, from the time that I was 18 years old, in the advantages of nuclear power.”

Turbulence in the Energy Market: What Does it Mean for Solar?

Wed, 12/31/2014 - 4:56pm

As we usher in 2015, we see a great deal of volatility in the energy sector, both domestically and internationally, both in the fossil fuel market and the renewable energy industry. An interconnected web of economics, politics and technology, it is hard to know what might be over the horizon. One thing is for sure, though– we are in a state of flux, and headed for more change. To paraphrase the great Bette Davis in the classic 1950 film “All About Eve,” “Fasten your seat belts…it’s going to be a bumpy year!”

Low U.S. Oil and Gas Prices Pull Solar Stocks Lower

If you live in the USA, you would have to be living under a rock to not notice the plummeting gas prices. In an article earlier this fall, I discussed why solar stock prices are being wrongly tied to the liquid fuels market, and why they should be decoupled. Plans for large solar thermal generation projects are being shelved because of low photovoltaic (PV) panel prices. The price of natural gas is approaching a two-year low. Internationally, wind-power development continues to be strong, while stalling in the US. The only stable market seems to be coal, which is rarely affected by anything.

What are some of the root causes of the turmoil, and what does it all mean for those of us in the solar industry? Let’s take a look at how we got here and where we might be going.

To begin with, the slowdown in the global economy is causing less demand worldwide. This is very bad for Russia’s economy, but here in the US it certainly is making consumers happy. The other reason that US pump prices are so low, is that US production has doubled recently, due in part with new shale oil drilling and fracking technology.

image: economist.com


As far as natural gas, the warm winter is putting downward pressure on the market with decreased demand for heating. Lower gas prices may mean cheaper peak electricity prices, and that may create less demand for solar in 2015. Particularly hard hit may be the utility-scale solar installations and community solar gardens that are popping up across the country. More relevant to the installation of distributed residential and business-scale generation will be the actions of the new congress and state legislatures, many of which slid farther into the conservative column in the last election.

Where is Solar Headed in 2015?

Some stock analysts are predicting a rally for solar stocks at the beginning of 2015, despite the drag that crude prices have been putting on solar in recent months. The market watching website Seeking Alpha recently ran an article entitled A January Comeback for Solar Stocks that makes a lot of great points. Recent indicators may be showing that solar stocks are finally decoupling from the liquid fuels price crash, and a bounce may be in cards for the new year. The optimistic writer goes as far as to say that “tax-loss related selling is a more likely culprit than plunging oil prices for solar’s losses,” which may very well be the case.

image: seekingalpha.com


However, another big factor in the outlook for solar is not related to oil or gas prices in the United states at all, but rather what is happening in China. First, the Chinese economy in general seems to be losing a little steam. Second, the US government is raising tariffs on Chinese made solar panels. This action comes after Chinese manufacturers have driven several US manufacturers out of the market by dumping solar panels onto the U.S. market, in some cases below the cost of production. It is hard to imagine that these tariffs will not raise panel prices in the US, but China has managed to get around tariff rules in the past. According to the New York Times; “The main beneficiary of the ruling is likely to be Malaysia, a Southeast Asian nation that is already the second-largest exporter of solar panels to the United States, after China and narrowly ahead of Taiwan. Western, Japanese and Korean companies are pouring investment into extensive operations there, seeing it as a stable country with a fairly low cost yet highly skilled labor force, and without China’s persistent trade frictions with the West.”

The Solar industry has been divided on the Chinese tariff. Fledgeling American solar manufacturers have been fighting for their lives in the wake of the flood of cheap Chinese equipment. For those that have survived, it is questionable as to whether or not they can still recover. The tariff may have a positive effect on stock prices of U.S. manufacturers initially, but if equipment costs go up, it’s going to hurt the installers, and slow the market. If state governments and utility companies continue to cut subsidies and rebates or implement user’s fees for grid access, 2015 could get very rough for American solar installation companies.

Still, the Solar Energy Industry Association points out the big gains in 2014, and predicts another record year for 2015. “The U.S. installed 1,354 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaics (PV) in the third quarter of 2014 to total 16.1 gigawatts (GW) installed PV capacity, with another 1.4 GW of concentrating solar power (CSP) capacity, enough to power 3.5 million homes. This quarter was the second largest quarter in history for solar growth, and SEIA and GTM Research predict another record-breaking year for 2014, with total installed capacity reaching three times the size of the market just three years ago.”

Global Outlook

While the US Solar industry seems mired in uncertainty, solar continues to move ahead in many other parts of the world. “Global PV end-market demand continues to set new records, restoring investor confidence in the PV industry after several years of overcapacity and declining profits,” said Michael Barker, senior analyst at Solarbuzz. “Having been put on hold over the past six months, due mainly to trade-related uncertainties, record quarterly and annual shipment levels will prove crucial to investors that have been hesitant to commit to new capacity funds.”

Despite the fact that US utilities are preferring to cash in on the availability of cheap Chinese PV, Solar thermal generation is going full-bore in equatorial regions like Chile, South Africa and Morocco. Just this month, Germany announced that it will be loaning $796 million to Morocco for solar thermal development. There are even plans to link the Moroccan plants to Europe’s power grid.

Despite stumbling a bit at the end of 2014, there is still plenty to be optimistic about for the Solar Industry in coming years. The market seems to be approaching a global tipping point, where despite the manipulations of governments and energy companies and banks, Solar energy generation is truly here to stay.

Happy Solar Holidays!

Tue, 12/23/2014 - 12:57pm

Did you know that solar energy is at the root of many holiday traditions? December is a time for celebrating faith, family…and the power of the sun!

Each December, people of nearly every culture around the world celebrate a significant holiday. In the Christian community, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Jews celebrate Hanukah. In the Hindu world it is the time for the celebration of Diwali, and for followers of Islam, it is Eid-al-Adha. In China, it is Dongzhi, and Kwanzaa is a pan-African celebration also observed in December. For many ancient cultures, though, December was a time for festivals marking the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and celebrating the beginning of the gradual return to longer days and shorter nights. For those of us in the solar business, more hours of sunlight is a reason to celebrate as well!

The gathering of family and friends to celebrate faith and community is a welcome break from the long, dark winter, no matter your cultural heritage. But many of us don’t really know the roots of some of our winter holiday traditions. For instance, in many cultures, the winter festival is known as a “Festival of Lights.” The tradition of decorating with candles or torches goes back to ancient times, when the long, dark nights were difficult and dangerous, especially in agricultural communities. At the time of the winter solstice (December in the Northern Hemisphere, June in the Southern Hemisphere), ancient people going back to Neolithic times gathered together on the shortest day of the year to light up the long night with the warmth of fire and fellowship.

Diwali candle photo:fest300.com


Saturnalia was the winter feast of ancient Rome which occurred in the week leading up to December 25th. Celebrating the agricultural god Saturn, Saturnalia was a time of feasting and exchanging gifts. Other traditions like decorating with greenery and trees is also thought to date back to Saturnalia, as many of the pagan traditions were kept alive even after the advent of the Holy Roman Empire.

Dongzhi is the winter solstice feast in China and much of east Asia. Again, agricultural in origin, it is a time for gatherings to eat special foods that are not prepared at any other time of the year. In India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and other Asian countries, Diwali is celebrated to mark historical events, tell stories and myths. The myths celebrate the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, hope over despair.

As you can see, many, if not all of our winter festivals are attached to the in the seasonal movement of the sun. Much like our agricultural forbearers who relied on the sun for their livelihoods, solar businesses see a natural slow-down at this time of the year. Systems in northern regions are at the lowest point in their daily production. In colder areas, performing installations become more challenging, and work slows down. And like the farmers of ancient times, it is a good time for solar businesses to reflect on the past year and plan for the next.

Solstice Solar Science 101

For those of us in the United States who live in the mid-latitudes, daylight ranges from about 15 hours around the summer solstice to around 9 hours close to the winter solstice. Just why is this?
As we know, the Earth’s axis is not perpendicular to the sun. It is tilted on its axis 23.5 degrees, so that it tilts as it spins, and that tilt changes seasonally in relation to the the sun. On the winter solstice, the northern hemisphere of the planet (everything north of the equator) will face directly away from the sun, putting the North Pole in complete darkness.

This means that the sun crosses the sky at its lowest trajectory as seen from the Northern Hemisphere, and therefor the Northern Hemisphere receives the fewest hours of daylight. Not only are there less hours of daylight, but the intensity of the light varies as well. For instance, In Chicago Illinois, the solar radiation in December is 2.7 kWh/m 2/day. In late June, it is 5.97 kWh/m 2/day. This mean weaker sunlight, and less hours of it.
What does this mean for a solar array? It means dramatically lower output. For instance, if we look at the PV Watts calculator at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s website, we will see that a 10kW photovoltaic solar array in Caribou, Maine, could be expected to produce over 1100 kWh per month near the time of the summer solstice, and only about 690 kWh per month in December. In Brownsville Texas, the same array will produce over 1200 kWh per month at the summer solstice, and 740 kWh in December.

Celebrate the Sun!

No matter your faith or cultural heritage, it is easy to see that the energy from the sun is essential to life on our planet. It’s no wonder that our ancestors chose the solstices as times for celebration. Just as farmers have used the sun to grow crops and harvest energy (in the form of calories) modern solar technology harvests the majority of its “crop” in the summer months. Now that winter is upon us and life has slowed down for a while, let’s take the time to be thankful for all that we have. Family, Friends… and the bountiful energy of the sun! Happy Solar Holidays!!

The sun’s path a the winter solstice photo:nasa.gov

The War Over Rooftop Solar

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 5:48pm

Is Distributed Generation dead? Perhaps not, but some utility companies are trying hard to redefine DG and privately owned residential solar is not part of their plan. In 2014, distributed local solar power constituted over 25% of new power plant capacity, but that growth won’t continue if powerful utility lobbyists have their way.

Since the invention of the modern grid-tied inverter, U.S. advocates for solar have battled for the right to generate power with small-scale solar arrays. American homeowners and businesses wanting to install solar have had to deal with as many different policies as there are states in the union, some much more favorable to rooftop solar than others. States like Massachusetts and Maryland offer tax credits or other incentives, while states like Oklahoma and Arkansas are openly hostile toward solar development. Monopoly electrical utilities can pile fees and charges on owners of private solar generation that prevent projects from being economically feasible, and blocking all but committed (and wealthy) environmentalists from using solar.

photo credit: NREL


According to the Solar Energy Industry Association’s website, “Distributed generation (DG) refers to electricity that is produced at or near the point where it is used. Distributed solar energy can be located on rooftops or ground-mounted, and is typically connected to the local utility distribution grid. States, cities and towns are experimenting with policies to encourage distributed solar to offset peak electricity demand and stabilize the local grid.”

However, there is a good deal of disagreement about exactly what constitutes “distributed generation”, when to comes to solar photovoltaics (PV). In 1997, the federal government established the “Million Solar Roofs Initiative” (MSR). The goal of the MSR was to transform markets for distributed solar technologies by facilitating the installation of PV systems. Although the effectiveness of this program is debatable, it did illustrate the push to open up access to the grid to individuals who wished to install a grid-tied solar array, and it gave support to the small systems approach to Distributed Generation. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of solar photovoltaic installations in the US and the equally rapid decline in installed cost of solar has made solar more attractive to utility companies, who are now more interested in building their own “distributed” solar generation facilities than allowing their customers to install their own PV generation. Utilities are building large, multi megawatt solar plants in the same way they have developed small gas generating stations in the past. Utilities prefer a model where generation is distributed, but ownership is not.

In 2013, Arizona regulators voted 3-2 to set a fixed charge of 70 cents per kilowatt of system capacity on solar producers, to recoup their own capital costs. That’s roughly $5 a month for an average system that Arizona electric companies can now charge the people who are offsetting the utilities peak demand and covering their own maintenance costs. In April of 2014, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin followed suit and signed the “solar surcharge” bill into law, permitting utilities to charge an extra fee to any customer using distributed power generation, such as rooftop solar.

Net metering, the policy which allows small systems owners to use their solar energy to receive credit for the energy they produce at retail cost, is capped at a percentage of total generation in over half the states in the U.S. With small systems going in faster than ever, potential solar generators in many states will begin to come up against net metering caps, virtually freezing out new residential and business installations. These caps are so low in most states, that they make no practical sense at all. With solar at 1% of peak demand, the intermittent nature of solar poses no danger to grid stability. In fact, solar generation matches peak demand. Hot, sunny days when demand is greatest, solar is producing at its peak.

Why the hostility toward small systems? Up until recently, utility companies have seen rooftop solar as a novelty. Now, with the solar boom, the marginal threat of small solar is growing rapidly. They let the camel’s nose under the tent flap, and now the camel wants in. At the same time, the current low installed cost of solar is giving utilities solar ambitions of their own.

Utilities prefer to keep their eggs in as few baskets as possible. Losing control of their generating capacity is not something they want to do, because in their model, they make power and send it to customers on a one way street. They are far from ready to give up the early 20th century transmission model. Their solution? Solar farms.

Topaz Image: First Solar


In November, Warren Buffet’s MidAmerican Solar flipped the switch on Topaz, the world’s largest solar farm, weighing in at a whopping 550 Megawatts, and located near San Luis Obispo County on California’s Carrizo Plain. Buffet’s company will top its own record next year, bringing the 579 Megawatt Solar Star online, also in California.

Just this month, First Solar, the same developer who built the Topaz plant, announced their entry into the “Residential” solar market. However, they are not going into the rooftop solar business. Instead, they are partnering with Clean Energy Collective to build “community” solar farms. This unique approach allows those who live in locations that are impractical for rooftop solar to buy into a larger solar farm.

image: Clean Energy Collective


“Distributed generation in the form of community solar expands the addressable market dramatically beyond the traditional residential or commercial sectors,” said Jim Hughes, First Solar’s CEO. “This innovative and cost-competitive approach will further establish solar, and specifically community solar, as a critical part of the global energy mix for all markets.”

The community solar approach is a huge step forward in allowing consumers access to solar technology, and it’s definitely a trend to watch. Large solar farms put huge amounts of clean energy onto the grid in a short amount of time. So why are lobbyist for companies like Buffet’s trying to shut out rooftop solar? Is it really a threat to their business model? After all, the more distributed the generation, the more resilient the grid. After all, with energy storage solutions on the horizon, residential customers may not need to beg for grid access much longer. They’ll just cancel their electrical service.

Gatherings of the Tribe: Grassroots Solar Events Build Community Support

Thu, 12/11/2014 - 7:27pm

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

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

Texas Renewable Roundup photo:digitaljournal.com


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

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

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

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

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

photo:MREA


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

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

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

A New Direction For Solar

Wed, 12/03/2014 - 5:22pm

Since the advent of modern solar technology, common wisdom has always taught us that solar panels should face the equator. For those of us in the Northern hemisphere, that means south. Now, with falling panel prices, the South-facing paradigm may be falling by the wayside.

Photo Credit: NREL.gov

As we know, the suns relative position to any given location on earth changes not only throughout the day, but throughout the year. It rises in the East and sets in the West each day, while it rises higher in the sky during the summer and lower in the winter. The seasonal change is less drastic the closer you are to the equator. Solar collectors, be they Photovoltaic (PV) electrical generating panels or solar thermal collectors which create heat, perform best when they are perpendicular to the sun’s rays. For this reason, solar installations have traditionally been designed with a tilt toward the equator, relative to the latitude.

In the world of PV solar, high PV panel prices have always required optimum system performance for maximum economic benefit. In many cases, this meant seasonally adjusting the tilt of panels or using “trackers” to automatically adjust the tilt of the array though the day. For fixed arrays, like roof mounted systems, South has always been the required direction. Now, as panel prices are falling, we are seeing many more panels being mounted on roofs facing east and west. So what gives?

photo: http://jb-electrical.co.uk

The paradigm-buster in this case is more economic than technical. Your PV panel may loose a degree of performance by not facing south, but the value of the power during a given time of day may make other orientations more financially attractive. For instance, panels facing West will be exposed to less sun during the day than panels facing south, and will therefor make less power. But the power produced by the west-facing panels reaches its peak in the late afternoon, at the same time that demand for utility power peaks. As people come home from work and school, air conditioning goes on, along with TVs washing machines and other appliances. Utility companies rely on more expensive natural gas “peaking” plants to generate power during these times, and so the power produced costs more. That means that late afternoon solar generation is worth more, too.

According to a report from the Texas-based research firm Pecan Street: “residential solar systems, and particularly west-facing rooftop systems, may also act as a fairly impactful peak demand reduction device for utilities struggling to meet afternoon demand in hot summer months.”

Key findings from the report included:

Counting only the electricity generated by a rooftop solar system that is actually used in the home (and therefore not counting electricity that was sent to the grid because it could not be used in the home), homes averaged a 58 percent peak demand reduction for electricity from the grid.

South-facing solar systems cut peak demand from the grid by 54%, while west-facing systems reduced their homes’ peak demand from the grid by 65%.
During peak hours, homes used 80% of the power generated from the rooftop systems and returned 20% to the grid. In the homes with south-facing systems, 78% of the power generated was used in the home; 22% was returned to the grid. 
In homes with west-facing systems, 84% was used in the home; 16% was returned to the grid.
Over the course of the full day, 64% of the energy generated by the rooftop systems was consumed on-site; 36% was returned to the grid.

Over the course of the full day, and not including surplus energy returned to the grid, the solar systems provided 36% of the average power used per home.  Nearly a third (32%) of the power was generated during peak demand hours.
In the wake of findings like those of Pecan Street, The California Energy Administration has announced a new $500 incentive for new, West-facing solar arrays.

“We are hoping to squeeze more energy out of the afternoon daylight hours when electricity demand is highest,” said David Hochschild, lead commissioner for the agency’s renewable energy division, which will be administering the program. “By encouraging west-facing solar systems, we can better match our renewable supply with energy demand.”

In Europe, where solar installations far outpace those in the United States, the South-facing paradigm is rapidly becoming a problem for utilities. According the The Telegraph: “… Professor Ralph Gottshalg of Loughborough University…said Germany has too many solar panels which means that its grid is disrupted on sunny summer lunchtimes with a flood of solar power so cheap it has to be almost given away. He is urging to the UK to follow Germany’s recent policy of putting panels on east-west facing roofs to smooth the supply of power during the day and prevent spikes of power at midday.”

So, what about East? According to Professor. Gottshalg, there should be more solar going in on East roofs as well. This is true, from the perspective of solar as an offset for a users overall demand for grid power. However, in most areas, the power generated in the morning will be worth less money than that generated in the afternoon. However, in some areas, morning usage might be higher, for instance in colder rural areas in the North. Also, shading can be an issue at individual locations, and a wide open Eastern solar window may be a more viable option than a partially shaded southern or western exposure.

So what about trackers? Don’t they still offer the most power throughout the day? Stated simply, yes. However, tracking system technology has not fallen in price as quickly as panel prices. In most cases, it is now cheaper to buy more panels and use them less efficiently than it is to use tracking technology to maximize panel output.
The one glaring exception to this discussion is, of course, off grid-applications. When storing electricity on-site in a battery bank, utility time-of-day pricing does not apply. For everyone else, it looks like solar system designs may be looking to a new direction.

Solar Values = American Values

Wed, 11/26/2014 - 12:49pm

“By the way, if you want to have a war over oil, leave me out of it- because I don’t think we need it. All I have to say is, go solar! Go wind! Let a little freedom into your life, and help your neighbors stay free, too.”

Richard Perez, Publisher, Home Power Magazine- keynote address, I-Renew Energy Expo, Sept.8, 2001

Home Power #1: 1987

Just three days before the terrorist attacks that rocked the nation, Richard Perez, the publisher of the independent renewable energy publication Home Power addressed a packed audience at one of the nations oldest gatherings of wind and solar power enthusiasts. He inspired the audience with a talk about the importance of freedom. Freedom to make one’s own choices, and accepting the responsibilities that come with that freedom.

It has been more than 13 years since Perez gave that speech and the solar landscape has changed immensely. Solar is no longer primarily the purview of off-grid survivalists and back-to-the-land hippies. The installed price of solar has dropped from above $10 per watt to under $4. More states around the nation are encouraging solar development, and the economic benefits of solar are becoming more obvious by the day. And yet, there remains a strong anti-solar contingent in the United States. But why? In post-911 America, isn’t freedom still an American value?

Home Power: Today

Many will point out the obvious political divide between liberals and conservatives, or Democrats and Republicans, but on closer examination, this separation is relatively superficial in the debate over solar values. Despite the perception that using solar energy to generate power is a “left-coast liberal” idea, using renewable energy sources like wind and solar has long been favored by many extremely conservative individuals. The motivations for using solar may be different for liberals and conservatives, but historically, there has been plenty of interest on both ends of the political spectrum.

Unfortunately for energy consumers (and that includes just about everyone in America) solar has become a strawman for both of Americas big political parties. Before the advent of major debate over climate change in congress, the debate centered simply around how new technologies would mature in this country. “Mandates” or the “free market?” This was the crux of the argument as we entered the 21st century. Now, anti-climate legislation activists paint solar as part of a scheme to raise taxes, while pro-climate legislation activists paint opponents of solar as “anti-science” or the “tools of the oil industry.” In most cases, both parties are arguing points that are peripheral to the central issue: the inevitable move away from the 19th century central station generation model toward a more distributed generation model.

Contrary to popular belief, all large energy companies are not opposed to renewable energy. Both BP and Shell Oil have dipped their toes in the solar market, and Shell executives have been quoted as saying that solar may grow to be the planets biggest power source by mid-century. Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy boasts a generation portfolio that is 30% wind power and growing. Energy companies understand that renewable energy, and solar in particular are coming on strong. However, they want to be in control of the transition. MidAmerican energy fought to keep any and all farmer-owned wind projects off of their grid until economics were right for MidAm to build its own wind farms. Other large utilities see the writing on the wall, with the rapid decline in cost of solar. Some embrace it, others fight it, and because of their powerful political lobbyists, politicians reflect those concerns.

However, more and more political conservatives are recognizing that distributed electrical generation through solar and wind is ultimately the most consistent with their own core conservative values. The central station model and national transmission grid grew from the federal social programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” That infrastructure is aging, and so is the technology. The market needs to be opened up, and individuals deserve the right to make their own energy choices.

Debbie Dooley, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, said that she supports solar development as “a free market issue that gives consumers more choice.”

Although Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has sided with utilities to kill solar development in his state, his neighbor to the South, Governor Terry Branstad (R) of Iowa, has signed an extension of a wildly successful solar tax credit program in his state. Utility company lobbyists are having an increasingly difficult time keeping the lid on solar’s success in the market, and Conservatives are realizing that solar is a “free market” success story, whether they like it or not. It’s hard to argue with the conservative credentials of these solar supporters. Even Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the Conservative icon and former Republican Arizona legislator has been a vocal supporter of solar development.

Debbie Dooley Photo: midwesternenergy.com

Gov. Terry Branstad photo:qctimes.com

Among Democrats, the majority support renewable energy development, because of their core value of protecting the environment. BUT… the devil is in the details. Once again, political special interest groups play a major role in how Democratic legislators view the implementation of solar. Unions, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have traditionally opposed distributed generation, and clung to the central station model because power plants have traditionally employed many IBEW members. Because of their traditional ties to unions, many Democrats prefer to see solar deployed and owned by–wait for it–the large utility companies. One egregious example is in Oklahoma, where a bill to fine individuals who use solar passed 29 Democrats in the state House and 12 Democrats in the state Senate.

As we can see, when focusing on core values, there is a great deal of room for agreement over the value of solar development. Freedom to choose our energy source, freedom to advance new and better technologies, freedom from foreign entanglements over energy and freedom from pollution; It would be hard to find an American who doesn’t share those values. Solar values ARE American values. It’s when special interests get involved that the waters get muddied, and progress stops. And let’s face it… inertia in the marketplace is good ONLY for the old and established businesses. If the US hopes to compete in the global marketplace of the 21st century, it is time to open up the energy market to new technologies. After all, if survivalists and hippies can agree that solar is a good idea, why can’t Republicans and Democrats?

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