Tag Archives: Solar Industry

A Sunny Future for Utility-Scale Solar

By John Finnigan, The Energy Collective

Utility-scale solar and distributed solar both have an important role to play in reducing greenhouse emissions, and both have made great strides in the past year.

Utility-scale solar, the focus of this article, is reaching “grid parity” (i.e., cost equivalency) with traditional generation in more areas across the country. And solar received a major boost when the federal tax incentive was recently extended through 2021. The amount of the incentive decreases over time, but the solar industry may be able to offset the lower tax incentive if costs continue to decline. New changes in policy and technology may further boost its prospects.

Some of the world’s largest solar plants came on-line in the U.S. during the past year, such as the 550-megawatt (MW) Topaz Solar plant in San Luis Obispo County, California and the 550MW Desert Sunlight plant in Desert Center, California. Last year saw a record increase in the amount of new utility-scale solar photovoltaic generation installed – about four gigawatts (GW), a whopping 38 percent increase over 2013, and enough solar power to supply electricity to 1.2 million homes. This number is expected to increase in 2015 when the final numbers are in.

Read complete article from The Energy Collective

U.S. solar industry battles ‘white privilege’ image problem

By Nichola Groom, Reuters

Solar power companies have an image problem—and they are beginning to do something about it.

Despite a sharp drop in the price of solar panels and innovative financing plans that have brought the technology to many middle income households over the past decade, it is still seen as a luxury only rich, mostly white, consumers can afford. That perception both hampers solar expansion in less affluent communities and drives political opposition to initiatives promoting greater use of solar power as a renewable alternative to gas, oil and coal.

Though it has grown dramatically in recent years, solar power still makes up less than 1 percent of U.S. energy supplies and relies heavily on government incentives to compete with traditional energy sources. Those incentives help companies such as SolarCity, Sunrun and others market solar power contracts that offer customers 20 percent savings on their energy bills. However, the schemes come with certain credit requirements and are ill-suited for apartment dwellers, homes with low monthly bills or low-income households that qualify for reduced power rates.

Since minorities make up a disproportionate number of low-income households, some advocacy groups have opposed certain solar power initiatives arguing that they deepen social and racial inequality. Solar companies are now trying to tackle both the perceptions and the economics by pushing to diversify their workforce, forging alliances with minority groups, and making solar power more suitable for multi-family housing.

The stakes are particularly high in California, by far the top U.S. solar market where solar power is expected to make up more than 10 percent of the state’s power generation in 2015, according to IHS. Communities with median household incomes below $40,000 account for just 5 percent of installations in the state even though a third of California households fall into that category. That share has not changed over the past seven years even as solar installations in communities in the $55,000-$70,000 income bracket have risen to more than half of the total market.

Read full article from Reuters

The Silicon Valley Idea That’s Driving Solar Use Worldwide

By Mark Chediak & Christopher Martin, Bloomberg News

Silicon Valley has something to offer the world in the drive toward a clean energy economy. And it’s not technology.

It’s a financing formula. In a region that spawned tech giants Apple Inc. and Google and is famous for innovators and entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, a handful of startups began offering to install solar panels on the homes of middle-class families in return for no-money down and monthly payments cheaper than a utility bill. This third-party leasing method — which made expensive clean energy gear affordable — ignited a rooftop solar revolution with annual U.S. home installations increasing 16-fold since 2008, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research.

“There is a reason why California is a tech Mecca for the world because the infrastructure is here to attract that talent,” said SolarCity Corp.’s Chief Executive Officer Lyndon Rive, whose company popularized third-party solar leases for homeowners starting in 2008. “All the major innovation is going to occur in California. One of the innovations is the financing of solar assets.”

SolarCity took the leasing model that SunEdison Inc. first developed for the solar industry by a graduate student named Jigar Shah. SolarCity adapted that model for residential consumers in 2008 and many more offered similar arrangements including Sunrun Inc., which developed the first one in September 2007, and Vivint Solar Inc. And now the idea is spreading to other industries trying to sell expensive capital equipment that reduce pollution and fossil fuel consumption.

Read full article from Bloomberg News

SunPower Plans to Sell Rooftop Solar Electricity in California

By Mark Chediak, Bloomberg Business

SunPower Corp., the second-biggest U.S. solar manufacturer, is developing a plan to sell electricity in California.

As the company combines its rooftop solar, energy storage and management systems, it will tap those resources to sell into the California bulk-power marketplace, Chief Executive Officer Tom Werner said in an interview Tuesday at the Edison Electric Institute Financial Conference in Hollywood, Florida.

“Participating in the wholesale markets is definitely where we will go,” Werner said. The company will initially focus on selling batteries along with its solar systems for backup power and reduction of power use during peak demand hours. “Walk before you run,” he said.

The move would represent a shift for SunPower, which has focused on making panels and developing solar farms. It comes after the California Independent System Operator Corp. approved in July rules that would allow aggregated distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar and batteries to participate for the first time in the state’s wholesale power market.

Read full article from Bloomberg Business

Big Energy’s Solar Grab Protested in California

Despite California Gov. Jerry Brown’s ceaseless tour of publicizing climate change and renewable-energy reforms, regulators are mulling expansive changes to the state’s solar-energy policy that critics claim could decimate a booming solar industry.

Ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline, the California Public Utilities Commission is considering proposals from the state’s largest utilities that would drastically alter how solar users pay for access to electricity grids. The utilities’ proposals could eliminate or weaken a popular state program that reimburses homeowners for their extra solar energy while increasing fees for accessing the grid.

At a rally Thursday at the state capital, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association Bernadette Del Chiaro told a crowd that the utilities are attempting to stifle residential solar systems in California and their proposals are aimed at increasing profits.

“The utilities are threatened by consumers generating their own electricity; it threatens their bottom lines,” Del Chiaro said, with dozens of solar-industry representatives clad in teal blue shirts behind her. “They make money off building big expensive infrastructure projects.”

At stake is a tariff program known as net metering, which allows homeowners with solar panels to send back excess energy to the electricity grid in exchange for compensation from the utility. Advocates credit net metering with making California the largest solar power producer in the nation and contributing more than 54,000 solar industry jobs statewide.

Read full article from Courthouse News Service

Brown signs climate law mandating 50% renewable power by 2030

By David R. Baker, The San Francisco Chronicle

By the end of 2030, half of California’s electricity will come from the wind, the sun and other renewable sources under a new law that sets one of the country’s most ambitious clean-energy targets. The legislation, SB 350, signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Jerry Brown, accelerates California’s shift away from fossil fuels as its dominant source of energy and marks another milestone in the state’s fight against climate change.

The law expands a transformation already well under way. For more than a decade, California has required its electrical utility companies to use more renewable power, with the Legislature repeatedly raising the goal. The requirement led to a construction boom for solar power plants and wind farms. But the activity slowed in recent years as developers waited to see whether the Legislature would once again set a higher target. The new law eases that uncertainty, ensuring that California remains a major market for companies that design and build renewable power facilities.

While some business groups have complained that California’s aggressive climate and energy policies could burden local companies with higher costs, the same policies have helped create a thriving clean-technology industry in the state. Supporters of the new law say it sends those companies a signal that the state won’t back off its goals.

Read full article in the San Francisco Chronicle

California Leads a Quiet Revolution

By Beth Gardiner, The New York Times

California is cruising toward its 2020 goal for increasing renewable energy and is setting far more ambitious targets for the future. Its large-scale solar arrays produced more energy in 2014 than those in all other states combined. Half the nation’s solar home rooftops are in the state, and thousands more are added each week.

With its progressive politics, high-tech bent and abundant sunshine, California is fast ramping up its production of clean electricity, setting an example its leaders hope the rest of the country, and other nations, will follow as they seek to cut emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of California in terms of renewables,” said William Nelson, head of North American analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “It’s like an experiment in terms of how quickly we can add solar to the grid.”

Fifteen years after an energy crisis, caused partly by deregulation and market manipulation, brought blackouts and price spikes, the shift has been remarkably smooth, many analysts say. Even without counting the big contribution from home solar generation, 26 percent of the state’s power this year will come from clean sources like the sun and wind, Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates. The national average is about 10 percent. “It’s kind of a quiet revolution,” said Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. “Nothing weird or strange has happened, electricity prices haven’t shot up or down.”

Read full article in the New York Times

As the push for solar increases, so do the scams, sketchy sales tactics

By Lily Leung, The Orange County Register

Solar scams are on the rise, as some companies hit homeowners with increasingly aggressive sales and marketing tactics, and under-deliver on promises of low installation cost and big electricity savings. Recent stories from around the state include a solar installer climbing atop a home without permission to take roof measurements and contractors pulling city building permits even before customers sign contracts, state officials say.

This year, state officials have logged roughly 200 complaints arising from solar projects throughout California, a fourfold increase from the same period five years ago, according to the Contractors State License Board, which regulates contractors and the construction industry in California. Close to 800 such complaints have been filed with the agency since 2010. The California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates utility companies, also has noticed a recent uptick in complaints about solar scams and telemarketing misrepresentations, and it is looking at ways to address the problem.

Why the recent increase? “Because of the money available for rebates and the push to go green,” said David Fogt, enforcement chief at the licensing board. “It’s bringing into the marketplace unscrupulous individuals.” Such government incentive programs have provided fertile ground for novice solar equipment and installation companies. As the industry has grown, so have consumer complaints.

Read full article in the Orange County Register

Solar Power International: Moving into Second Gear?

It’s a challenge to summarize what transpired over four days at an event with 600 exhibits, 70 concurrent sessions (forcing choice between 6 at a time), 15 manufacturer-sponsored hands-on training sessions, 10 workshops, plenary sessions, parties and, oh, did I mention solar-supportive keynote remarks by Vice President Joe Biden to an enthusiastic audience.  With participants from over 75 countries, it’s easy to see why Solar Power International (SPI) claims to be the largest and fastest growing solar conference in North America.  But let me try to extract a few themes from this mid-September event sprawled across all four Exhibit Halls at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Clearly the industry is growing.  In advance of the conference, the Solar Energy Industry Association and GTM Research released their quarterly update.  With 1,393 Megawatts of PV capacity installed in the second quarter, the US Solar industry remains on track for an annual forecast total of 7,700 MW.   Of this, 840 MW (60%) was installed in California.  (A brief reminder that the capacity of a typical nuclear powerplant is 1,000 MW.)  The fact that the California Senate and Assembly passed SB350 increasing the state’s current Renewable Energy target of 30% by 2020 to 50% by 2030 days before SPI added to the conference’s buoyancy.  Repeatedly cited was the statistic that California has over 55,000 employees working in the industry (more employees than the state’s top 5 utilities combined).

Clearly the industry faces challenges.  The major one is the currently scheduled expiration of the 30% residential tax credit and reduction of the commercial investment tax credit (ITC) from 30% to 10% fifteen months from now, the Administration’s request for a permanent extension of the ITC not withstanding. A Bloomberg forecast released at the conference anticipates that without an extension, 2017 will see installation activity dropping to its 2012 level.  The loss of the tax credit would hit California’s businesses as hard as elsewhere.  In addition, the fact that California’s Public Utility Commission (CPUC) is in the process of redesigning the utility rate structure, including deciding on an appropriate level of compensation for customers who generate their own solar energy, has the industry on edge.  Utilities have requested the compensation (or credits) allowed solar customers be reduced by 40%, and that fixed fees be added to solar users’ bills.  (If this sounds completely contrary to the legislative action on SB350 cited above, welcome to the world of Government.)

But beneath these Good News / Bad News headlines, several themes emerged that cut across the gazillion specific new product and service announcements.

Energy Storage developments are booming with a variety of technologies and products. Over 50 firms provided products or services related to Storage.  Those in California are as diverse as 90-year old Trojan Battery Company of Santa Fe Springs and Milpitas-based JuiceBox Energy, a start-up barely out of the garage.  Many clustered together on the exhibit floor in a zone known as the “Energy Storage Pavilion.” The CPUC mandate to the state’s three largest Utilities and other energy service providers to procure 1.3 GW of energy storage by 2020 creates an immediate market in California.  And the recognition that commercial electric customers can utilize storage to reduce their bills through reductions in their peak demand charges creates a market rationale for growing storage demand beyond the utility mandate.

Finance is another area experiencing dramatic change.   While the discussion only a couple years ago focused on lease or buy, a plethora of new financial instruments and capital sources have emerged.  Sessions and exhibits provided information on new approaches to debt financing for non-residential projects (which appears to focus on financial support for Commercial and Industrial (C&I) customers, a growing solar niche), Tax equity markets, and the pooling of solar project cash flows (in what’s become known as a YieldCo).  The good news is that investors (not just system owners) are seeing value (!) in PV installations.

And of course there were new panel developments, racking system improvements, Inverter advances and the like.

So what’s the take-away?  The Solar industry is growing through its increased cost-competitiveness as a result of new product and service innovation. This dynamic was well captured by Vice President Biden’s comment, “Anyone who thinks it (Solar) is not happening just take a look at the market.  It’s a competitive choice for consumers. …  Look, this isn’t a government mandate, this is the market working.”  Yes, but the uncertain future of tax credits and utility pushback (in California and elsewhere) continue the uphill slog.

Is California’s Net Metering 2.0 a Solar Tax Risk?

By Jeff St. John, Greentech Media

Everyone agrees that net-metered rooftop solar doesn’t pay income tax. But nobody really knows how Uncle Sam will treat feed-in tariffs, wholesale export compensation, and other arrangements that California’s utilities are suggesting to replace the state’s net metering regime — and that’s a risk exposure the industry shouldn’t have to bear.

Solar groups have asked the California Public Utilities Commission to consider this argument as it mulls the biggest changes to state solar policy in over a decade. Under AB 327, the CPUC has until the end of 2015 to create a successor “NEM 2.0” tariff that balances solar, utility and non-solar customers’ needs, and will apply to all new customers starting as early as next year.

The NEM 2.0 proceeding has pitted utilities, whose proposals would roughly halve the per-kilowatt-hour rates that customers are paid for their net-exported solar, against solar and environmental advocates, who have argued in favor of keeping net metering the way it is. Utility proposals would also impose fixed or per-kilowatt-hour charges, and impose other restrictions that chafe solar advocates.

Read full article from Greentech Media