Tag Archives: Utilities

Smug About Your Solar Roof? Not So Fast

By Severin Borenstein (Professor, UC Berkeley), The Los Angeles Times

If you’ve installed solar panels on your roof and feel aglow with environmental virtue, you may be in for a rude awakening. There’s a good chance someone else has purchased your halo and is wearing it right now.

In most states (including California), rooftop solar panels earn Renewable Energy Certificates, which quantify how much clean electricity they produce. But if panels are leased or installed under a power purchase agreement, it’s the “third-party owner” — not the homeowner — who gets those certificates. Most then turn around and sell the RECs, a process that magically turns brown electrons green.

Here’s how it works: Joe’s Solar puts panels on your roof that produce 7,500 kilowatt-hours a year, and Joe sells you the electricity under a power purchase agreement. Because Joe still owns the panels, he gets credit — in the form of RECs — for that renewable electricity. Meanwhile, Bob’s all-fossil utility wants to “green up” so it buys RECs from Joe. That allows Bob to relabel 7,500 kilowatt-hours of his coal- or gas-fired power generation as “renewable energy.”

It may sound strange, but a market to sell or trade RECs can be extremely useful. California, for instance, has a mandate for its utilities to generate 33% renewable power by 2020, but some parts of the state have little sun or wind resources. Still, utilities in sunny or windy spots can produce more than their requirement and then sell the extra RECs to areas where it would be much more costly, or impossible, to hit the target. Thus, the RECs market allows a utility in one region to finance additional green energy production in another where it is cheaper, supporting more carbon reduction at a lower cost to consumers.

That seems sensible enough. But something’s wrong if the buying and selling utility companies both claim that green power as their own. And that’s essentially what’s been going on with solar rooftops.

Read full op-ed in the Los Angeles Times

 

A Trifecta for Solar Energy and Distributed Generation

We all have good weeks and bad weeks. For proponents of Solar Energy (and all other inhabitants of our planet) this has been an historic week, with major achievements at the International, National and California-state levels. Setbacks will be inevitable, but the events of this week will have memorable and lasting impact.

The first and International achievement was the December 12 Agreement of 188 countries at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris to take measureable actions with the eventual goal of keeping global temperature rise to less than 2ᵒ Celsius (3.6ᵒ Fahrenheit) by 2050 compared with pre-industrial levels. As we have repeatedly been informed, this is the level estimated by numerous scientists to avoid the worst affects of atmospheric warming and ocean rise.

Though yet to be ratified (a process that starts in April 2016), the agreement commits those countries that do ratify the agreement to establish national emission targets and report on progress every 5 years. While the agreement calls for zero net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to be reached during the second half of the 21st century, lowering the target would (according to some scientists) move this goal forward to the 2030 – 2050 timeframe. Either way, implementation of this agreement puts pressure on countries to support low- and non-carbon energy sources, solar very much included, accelerating their deployment and continued improvements.

The second and national achievement has not been enacted as this is written, but is the tentative agreement by Republican and Democratic House party leaders incorporated into the Appropriations bill that would extend tax credits for solar and wind projects from the current end-2016 expiration date through 2021. The agreement was the result of a compromise where-in Democratic Representatives would support eliminating the ban on US oil exports in exchange for Republican support for the Tax Credit extension.

While the vote can still go awry, a senior analyst at GTM Research (who closely follows the Solar market and industry) commented “the extension to the federal ITC is without question a game-changer for U.S. solar’s growth trajectory. Between now and 2020, the U.S. solar market is poised to see a number of new geographies open up with a 30% ITC, within both distributed and utility-scale solar.”

Finally, the third and California state achievement was the December 15 proposed ruling by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to leave in place most of the charges and fees now in place between the state’s major investor-owned utilities (Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric) and customers who have installed residential and commercial PV systems. Though yet to be finalized (in January 2016), the proposed ruling leaves in place most of the terms that allow customers with PV systems to recoup their investments in a timely manner thereby increasing the desirability of these systems.

Challenges to PV-favorable net metering terms and (lack of) other fees have been raised in many states, and regulator decisions have been mixed. The proposed CPUC ruling is perhaps the strongest pushback by any state regulator to utility claims of the high costs distributed PV systems impose on other (non-PV owning) rate payers. While new costs are proposed, and some uncertainty is introduced by requiring PV-system owners to be placed on Time-of-Use rates (with unknown impact on their bills), the proposed ruling is seen as leaving the business environment favorable for continued expansion of distributed generation.

For now the sun shines on distributed generation and the growth of solar-sourced clean energy. Let us hope that all three events help realize solar’s potential contribution to our future energy mix for the sake of maintaining our habitable planet.

Why Rooftop Solar Advocates Are Upset About California’s Clean-Energy Law

By Ivan Penn, The Los Angeles Times

California’s aggressive push to increase renewable energy production comes with a catch for people with solar panels on the roof: You don’t count.

If a home or business has a rooftop solar system, most of the wattage isn’t included in the ambitious requirement to generate half of the state’s electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2030, part of legislation signed in October by Gov. Jerry Brown.

That means rooftop solar owners are missing out on a potentially lucrative subsidy that is paid to utilities and developers of big power projects. It also means that utility ratepayers could end up overpaying for clean electricity to meet the state’s benchmark because lawmakers, by excluding rooftop solar, left out the source of more than a third of the state’s solar power.

Owners of rooftop solar systems and their advocates aren’t happy about the policy…The rooftop solar industry and consumer advocates say opposition to including rooftop solar in California’s renewable energy mandate came from large developers that feared competition for subsidies as well as unions that were upset because rooftop solar installers typically aren’t members.

Read full article in the Los Angeles Times

Not just California: Solar Battles Raging Across U.S.

By Sammy Roth, The Desert Sun

California has more rooftop solar installations than any other state, and it isn’t particularly close. But the Golden State is far from the only place where the solar industry and utility companies are clashing over how much money solar customers should be allowed to save.

Officials in 24 states have recently changed or are debating changes to rate structures for solar customers, according to a report released by the N.C. Clean Energy Technology Center earlier this month. Many of those battles mirror the one taking place in California, where utilities like Southern California Edison say homes and businesses with solar panels need to pay more.

There’s a reason all these battles are happening now: As rooftop solar prices fall, the industry is growing more quickly than ever. That growth has reduced planet-warming carbon emissions, but it’s also thrown the utility industry into a panic about its long-term ability to make money, clean energy advocates say.

Read full article in the Desert Sun

California’s Chief Utility Regulator: The Future Grid Is All About ‘Distributed Decision-Making’

By Jeff St. John, Greentech Media

Michael Picker has spent part of his 11 months as president of the California Public Utilities Commission managing the aftermath of the alleged misdeeds of his predecessor. But as he oversees some of the biggest changes to California energy policy in over a decade, he’s also spent a good deal of time explaining his vision for greening the state with distributed energy, along with the distributed decision-making to make it work for the grid.

Since he was appointed in December, Picker has been stressing certain key policy philosophies for how the CPUC can help the state reach its carbon reduction and green energy goals. These include a preference for market-based solutions over technology mandates, a heavy emphasis on electric vehicles as part of the mix, and an enthusiasm for technologies that can manage lots and lots of distributed energy resources (DERs) in concert with the grid as a whole.

In a series of talks this month, Picker declined to discuss details of big proceedings under review, such as the CPUC’s net-metering reform, which has pitted the solar industry against the state’s big three investor-owned utilities. But he did sketch out a plan for managing the inevitable growth of intermittent renewable energy, whether from millions of rooftops or ever-cheaper utility-scale solar and wind projects.

Read full article from Greentech Media

From theory to practice: The challenges in moving to ‘Utility 2.0’

By Herman K. Trabish, Utility Dive

For all the theorizing about what the utility of the future will look like, real world examples of how to adapt current power sector business models to the new world of renewables and distributed resources can seem few and far between.

While utilities often trumpet their new smart grid technologies, microgrid projects and storage pilots, actually working out how to make those solutions scalable and profitable can be a lot harder than it looks from the outside.

But utilities across the nation can learn from each other’s experiences, with the aim that the questionable technologies of the day can become the ubiquitous tools of tomorrow.

That was the goal of the emerging technologies panel at the recently-concluded Energy Storage North America 2015 conference in San Diego. There, representatives from four major utilities—PG&E, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), Southern California Edison, and Consolidated Edison—highlighted the challenges and successes of a diverse set of DER pilots, hoping their struggles could translate into easier adoption of distributed resources and demand side resources at other companies…

Read full article from Utility Dive

Inside California’s energy politics, the FERC Order 745 case, and the coming storage cost shift

By Gavin Bade, Utility Dive

[Editor’s Note: The following is part of Utility Dive’s coverage of the 2015 Energy Storage North America conference.]

For many power sector observers, California utilities are the ideal partners for forward-thinking regulators looking to adapt the utility business model to the 21st century. California’s investor-owned utilities proclaim their commitment to clean energy technologies demonstrating how they’ve surpassed mandates, accepted more rooftop solar, or integrated large amounts of storage.

Utility executives from San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), provided apt examples in their keynotes at the Energy Storage North America conference. All these announcements could logically lead observers to conclude that California utilities have been proactive partners in helping set California’s ambitious clean energy goals. Not exactly, two veteran state legislators told Utility Dive at the conference.

Politics of renewable energy policy:

State Sen. Ben Hueso, chair of the Senate energy and utilities committee, ushered SB 350, the bill that set the state’s 50% RPS, through committee earlier this year. He said that the utilities have always fought hard against any mandates behind closed doors, whether it was SB 350 or earlier efforts. Former Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, echoed Hueso’s observations, but said that the power industry doesn’t behave much differently than others in this respect. “No industry likes mandates,” she said, noting that it took three legislative sessions to usher through the state’s previous 33% RPS, which was met with utility pressure behind closed doors.

California’s new RPS, by contrast, was authored and passed in one legislative session, a feat that Skinner said cannot be overstated. Not only does the bill increase the renewables portfolio standard to 50% by 2030, it also specifically calls on utilities to deploy energy storage and combines the renewables goal with an aggressive efficiency standard. So what changed to get such an aggressive bill passed so quickly?

…Clifford Rechtschaffen, a senior advisor to Brown, said the most important thing was that, in the end, “all of the utilities with the tiny exception of some northern California power agencies that had some qualms, they all supported SB 350.” Rechtschaffen said that while the utilities may have shown some resistance as the bill was working its way through the legislature, most of their concerns were operational in nature. “They weren’t quarreling with the notion that we needed to get to 50%,” he said. “They had concerns about how best to do it — some of which we agree with and others which we aren’t completely in line with, but we’re working on those. Storage is a big part of the solution.”

The role of storage in California’s renewable energy economy:

In a keynote panel discussion the California policymakers highlighted energy storage as the technology that can make 50% renewables and beyond possible for California. Once you get to that level of renewables, Rechtschaffen said, “storage is absolutely critical for grid integration. There’s no arguing about that.”

But the situation for storage, especially in the eyes of utilities, wasn’t always so rosy, Rechtschaffen said. Back in 2014, the state’s IOUs were resistant to the PUC’s mandate to deploy over 1,300 MW of storage on the grid by 2020, worried that the technology wasn’t ready and that it would “put storage in a bad light.”

In reality, the opposite happened, and SCE started off the storage procurements by buying 264 MW, when it was only compelled to purchase 50 MW at the time. For the California policymakers, it was a validation of the power of mandates to drive innovation in the power sector.

Read full article from Utility Dive

Related article: Why energy storage is key to a future with ‘no more gas turbines’ (Utility Dive) – Oct. 15, 2015

Should homeowners with solar panels pay to help maintain the electrical grid?

By Aaron Orlowski, The Orange County Register

Homeowners face a simple calculus when deciding whether to install solar panels on their roof: Will the panels pay for themselves with savings on their electric bill?

But buried in that bill are complex variables defined by what’s known as the state’s net metering rules – the very essence of which are under debate at the California Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco. Those rules must be changed or renewed by the end of the year. As the deadline nears, the clash over whether solar panel users should be forced to pay to support a grid from which they seek to disconnect is getting fiercer. Utilities want to slap fees on solar users, while the solar industry wants them left largely untouched.

Since 1996, California’s net metering rules have allowed homeowners with solar panels to effectively spin their electric meters backwards when their panels are generating more power than their homes are using. That helped pave the way for the state to lead the nation by installing 11,500 megawatts of solar capacity and building an industry that employs 54,700 people. Whether the new rules will bolster that industry even more or prick its balloon will likely be decided in the next two months.

Read full article in the O.C. Register

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

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.