At last month’s Solar Power International conference (as well as Intersolar before it), many discussions revolved around the growing importance of solar standards and best practices. While workforce training initiatives and regulatory reform aren’t nearly as alluring as “solar freakin’ roadways,” hot storage technologies, or stories of well-funded start-ups trailblazing the economy’s way, it is clear that the work of the Interstate Renewable Energy Commission (IREC) has never been more important.
IREC, a national policy and standards nonprofit, has a long reach into clean energy industries, especially solar. Their wide-ranging programs train the trainers, they offer credentials in credentialing, and they were recently accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). It could be said that the continued success of the U.S. solar market in many ways depends on the IREC’s work.
IREC released a report titled “Trends Shaping Our Clean Energy Future” last month, in the midst of SPI. The group’s latest solar trends report explores the policies, regulations, and stories that will shape the economy moving forward, but the report is in essence an annual report of IREC’s work from the past calendar year. Beginning in regulatory reform, Trends then works through workforce topics (development, credentialing, education and training), and concludes with a U.S. solar market trends analysis.
Behind IREC’s national, state, municipal, and community-level efforts are mountains of independent research that informs their best practices. It’s this respected research that gives regulatory bodies like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) the confidence to work with and adopt the suggestions of the IREC. Similar to federal politics, when standards are adopted at the national level, they typically trickle down to the states. This was evidenced this year by FERC’s adoption of IREC modifications to their Small Generator Interconnection Procedures. Ohio approved similar procedures within two weeks of the FERC’s changes.
Another major win highlighted in this year’s Trends report was the IREC’s own accreditation by the American National Standards Institute. This (meta) designation allowed for IREC to have their Standard 14732 recognized as an American National Standard (for Accreditation for Clean Energy Technology Training). We will forgo the acronyms here and summarize the importance of this accomplishment: a respected national standard in training promotes a qualified workforce that is more quickly deployable into the fast-growing solar market. The more qualified workforce also helps to minimize costly mistakes, like an anomalous roof fire that can draw national headlines like a super magnet. As president Jane Weissman is quoted as saying, “quality is invisible; mistakes are not.”
“Black eyes in the industry have a long shelf life.” – Jane Weissman, IREC President & CEO
On the net metering front, a significant portion of IREC’s 2013 work focused on debunking the increasingly popular myth that net metering is more damaging than beneficial. As headlines about net metering freeloaders and the utility death spiral swirled around this past year, IREC presented a more solutions-based approach with its 40-plus page “Regulator’s Guidebook on Calculating the Benefits and Costs of Distributed Solar Generation.” The Regulator’s Guidebook proposes a new methodology for evaluating the benefits and costs of distributed solar, which will hopefully bring more consistency to the conversation.
Shared renewables (no longer referred to as “community solar”) is another burgeoning area of the industry that continues to benefit from IREC’s outreach. Again discrediting claims that renewable energy serves only those who can afford to be involved, IREC’s work with programs like California Alternative Rates for Energy (CARE) highlighted in the Trends report demonstrate how the involvement of low-income participants and roof-sharing renters can benefit all involved.
With innovations happening quickly at so many disparate corners of the industry, IREC has an impressively omnipresent reach. For each area of focus, their team has the daunting task of understanding and advising about today’s market… but must also be thinking down the solar freakin’ roadway. For instance, with regards to workplace education and training, the places where jobs exist today might not be where jobs exist tomorrow. IREC can’t predict the future, but their work to develop the IREC Credentialing Program late last year attempts to address the ever-changing demands of the solar workforce. The program was designed to be a highly portable, competency-based credential for certified instructors and master trainers.
Another important IREC program making moves since last year is the Grid Engineering for Accelerated Renewable Energy Deployment. What’s that spell? GEARED. What’s that mean? Basically, GEARED is a needed shot in the arm for the aging, phasing utility workforce — a reboot of the curriculum for power systems engineering programs for the next gen grid. Joining IREC in this effort are the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), as well as a newly formed consortia/acronym known as the Distributed Technology Training Consortia (DTTC). With a strong social-marketing push and a full schedule of student events, we should be hearing more soon about the development of this national framework.
If the reader of Trends Shaping Our Clean Energy Future isn’t inspired after the first 25 pages, even more impressive numbers are delivered with the Solar Market Trends Report, the section which documents enormous gains in PV capacity in almost all sectors. Some highlights:
- Utility-scale, up 48 percent in capacity over 2012
- Distributed installations, up 17 percent in capacity and up 65 percent in number of systems installed
- Residential, up 68 percent over 2012. Interesting to note here is California’s mammoth role in this percentage — without California, the national installation trend is in fact down from 2012.
- Nonresidential (government, retail, military), actually went down about 10 percent in both installations and capacity.
While most gains are attributed to the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) and other factors, such as lower total cost for distributed PV installs, state renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requirements, and third-party ownership, the noticeable losses in the nonresidential sector can be chalked up to the end of the Treasury Grant Program in 2012, which took its toll in NJ, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
For as much negative coverage as Concentrating Solar Power has been receiving recently, the Trends report highlights the significant potential of three parabolic and “power tower” technologies (Solana, Genesis, and Ivanpah) that came online in 2013.
As the solar industry works away, heads-down in their respective corners of the solar world, IREC President Jane Weissman reminds us that “all of [IREC’s] points of action are linked and promote a responsive, safe, and resilient clean energy economy.” While Trends Shaping Our Clean Energy Futureis an impressive catalog of IREC’s achievements of the past year, the report also demonstrates how mercilessly fast the industry continues to develop. It is no small task to stay ahead of this curve of innovation, but we can be confident that some of the brightest minds in clean energy are giving 100 percent to keep the clean energy economy in a straight, upward-trending line.