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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo: Matt Zimmerman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Elon Musk Push Solar Storage Over The Top?

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

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

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

Elon Musk looks to the future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solar Profile: Beth Spence, American Solar Direct

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

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

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

Beth Spence: American Solar Direct

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

How many years have you been with American Solar Direct?

September will mark 6 years at American Solar Direct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happens if the Federal Solar Tax Credit Expires?

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

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

image: the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solar Energy Storage In Five Years?

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

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

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

Flow Batteries image: pv magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California Tech Giants Google and SunCity Partner on Residential Solar Fund

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solar Naysayers Put Politics Before Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona Representative Paul Gosar photo:youtube

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

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

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

SunRun opens New Design Center in Irvine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enviros and Tea Party Agree: Solar is Good for Florida

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solar Profile: Wendi Zubillaga, PetersenDean

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

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

Wendi Zubillaga,President of the Builder Group at PetersenDean

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

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

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

How many years have you been with PetersenDean?

This is my 21st year with this incredible company.

Tell us a little about PetersenDean and your role there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama and California Partner to Make Solar available to Apartments

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

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

Sec. Castro and Gov. Brown photo:ABC news

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

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

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

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 Job numbers and rankings of economic indicators for all 50 states are available in The Solar Foundation’s updated State Solar Jobs Map at

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.

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,

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.


“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 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

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.

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

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.