hawaii close to 100% renewable

Hawaii May Be Closer to Achieving a 100% Renewable Grid Than You Think

hawaii close to 100% renewableHawaii is famously reliant on imported fossil fuels, for both electricity and transportation. But that’s changing rapidly as the state invests heavily in renewables.

Two new bills are now pending in the Hawaii legislature that would codify the 100 percent renewables goal statewide, up from the current mandate of 40 percent by 2030. HB 623 would require 70 percent renewables by 2040 and 100 percent by 2050. SB 715 would require 70 percent by 2035 and 100 percent by 2050, but this bill is apparently languishing now while HB 623 is still active. Both of these bills originally called for 100 percent renewables by 2040.

Can the state realistically achieve 100 percent renewables by then?


solar vs utilities

There’s A Fight Brewing Over Who Profits From Solar Power

solar vs utilitiesIn the ongoing wars over solar energy, one power company is consistently painted as the archetypal, mustache-twirling nemesis of clean electricity: Arizona Public Service. So you might be surprised to learn that this same company is about to become a big new producer of rooftop solar power.

APS is an unlikely solar patron: In the summer of 2013, the Phoenix-area utility launched a campaign to weaken Arizona’s net metering rule, which requires utilities to buy the extra solar power their customers generate and provides a major incentive for homeowners to install rooftop panels. A few months later, APS admitted giving cash to two nonprofits that ran an anti-solar ad blitz in the state. Early this year, the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that a letter criticizing the solar industry’s business practices, sent by members of Congress to federal regulators, was originally authored by an employee of APS. And a couple weeks ago, APS asked state regulators to let the company quadruple the fees it tacks on to the monthly bills of solar-equipped homeowners.


tesla solar plus

Tesla’s New Battery Could Solve One of Solar Power’s Biggest Problems

tesla solar plusSo far, specific details are thin on the new battery designed for home use that Tesla’s announcing next week. But just based on what we do know, it’s a pretty big deal. The quest for a good battery that can store home-generated power is kind of like the holy grail for a renewable energy future. This one product might change everything.

New York Times article published earlier this week essentially sets up the problem that Tesla’s battery will solve. In Hawaii, 12 percent of homes have some kind of solar energy, by far the highest rate for any place in the US at the moment. In fact, that rate is growing too quickly—solar customers are dumping so much energy back onto the grid that they’re taxing the delicate and often aging infrastructure that was only designed to deliver power to homes. What’s happening in Hawaii is actually indicative of what’s going to be an issue everywhere as many cities start to see an increase in large-scale solar implementation: There’s going to be too much energy generated, and nowhere to put it.


solar plus

The Home Solar plus Energy Storage Revolution Is About to Begin

solar plusHome solar batteries from Tesla Motors, which could upset utilities as we know them. Billion dollar solar bonds from SolarCity, backstopped by banking bigshots.

Happy Earth Day!

After being artificially suppressed for decades, renewable energy developments have accelerated, with excellent timing. Earth Day brought mounting news via Bloomberg that Tesla’s anticipated home solar batteries, hinted at in March by an Elon Musk tweet, will be announced at the end of the month. But the truth is really that they have already arrived, beneath our noses, in about 300 California homes solarized by SolarCity, as well as 11 smart Wal-Marts.

On April 30, Tesla will unveil further details on its forthcoming line of residential and utility scale solar batteries, to the delight of greens looking to pile up cash while downsizing their carbon footprints. Utilities, whose electricity generation is America’s top source of greenhouse gas emissions, are certainly going to be watching — and counting too. They know, like Tesla and other cleantech titans on the come-up, that energy storage is going to be a billion dollar market, thanks to demand, incentives and inevitable climate changes. Simply wading into the home solar market has given Tesla access to $65 million in incentives, reportedly boosting its stock price, which has lately been on $200 autopilot, by another $70 per share.

Tesla’s partnership with SolarCity has proven as green: In honor of Earth Day, America’s panel installation leader activated a billion dollar solar fund, in partnership with Credit Suisse, to finance 300 megawatts of commercial projects over the next few years. Add that to the hundreds of millions that SolarCity has pulled in, from Goldman Sachs to Google, to accelerate its industry-beating residential and commercial installation pipeline, and you have two renewable energy titans that are taking Earth Day quite seriously.

But it’s not just them, and it’s not just beginning. As I wrote above (and elsewhere, everywhere), these exponential solarizations have been held back by an energy industry simply too used to doing the same dirty business for too long.

If Tesla’s home solar batteries — predicted by Thomas Edison way back in 1931 — are as user-friendly as its electric vehicles, then they could prove epochally influential. A more recent pre-Earth Day study from Rocky Mountain Institute prophesied that utilities could be up next for extinction, thanks to home solar plus energy storage. It’s going to be a bright, hot summer.


Elon Musk Had a Deal to Sell Tesla to Google in 2013

tesla-googleThis story is excerpted and adapted from Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, due out May 19 from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.

On May 8, 2013, Tesla Motors shocked just about everyone by posting its first-ever quarterly profit, reporting higher-than-expected demand for its Model S electric sedan. That moment marked the beginning of a turnaround for Elon Musk’s tumultuous automaker. The next year would see the Model S win most of the automotive industry’s major awards and Tesla’s share price rise roughly fivefold, to more than $200. The 2013 profit announcement was fortuitous. Just weeks before, Tesla had been on the verge of bankruptcy.

Read more

first solar

Solar Power Is on the Rise? We Suggested Harnessing the Sun’s Heat Back in 1866

first solar
Printing press driven by solar energy in 1882

“The Great Energy Transition to Solar and Wind Is Underway,” declared a headline yesterday on the environmental-news website EcoWatch. Thanks in no small part to Obama-era government subsidies, renewable energy appears poised for a much-belated breakthrough over the next few years.

Yet it cannot be understated how much time has been lost, as we can see from a little feature that appeared in The Nation’s issue of May 29, 1966.

The item ran in the magazine’s column on scientific issues under the headline “UTILIZATION OF THE SUN’S HEAT.”

Referring to a Nation piece some weeks earlier about “the ultimate exhaustion of the coal fields…and the possibility of substituting other sources of power for the fossil fuel which is now so important an element in the existing order of human society,” the item summarized the 1830s experiments of the English scientist and inventor John Herschel. On an expedition near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa—where, the Nation column noted, “the sun pours down its rays without hindrance”—Herschel trapped the sun’s heat in a mahogany box he covered with glass and painted black on the inside. He then put uncooked food in the box and waited to see what would happen.


jeanine cotter

Luminalt’s Jeanine Cotter: How Solar Loses Without a Diverse Workforce

jeanine cotterJeanine Cotter, CEO of solar installation company Luminalt, has witnessed profound resiliency. She watched her mother transform her life from divorcée, single teenage mother of two children, and public-assistance recipient to college graduate with a degree in urban planning, and then co-founder of a nonprofit that provides renewable energy and water systems to alleviate poverty in the developing world.

“Being in poverty does not define what your capabilities are. It does not define your ability to perform or your ability succeed,” Cotter said.

What poverty does do, she said, is limit access to opportunities. That’s why Cotter has made it part of her professional work to open up doors for people who might not have thought of solar as source of livelihood, and a way to help their families and communities rise.

Cotter co-founded San Francisco-based Luminalt with her husband Noel Cotter in 2004, making the company the city’s first and still only woman-owned solar company. Before starting Luminalt, she practiced law at Fenwick and West and was an attorney for financial software maker Intuit.

In 2008, Cotter helped lead Luminalt to become the city’s first workforce-development certified solar company, which commits the business to hiring in part from communities that have high levels of unemployment. For Cotter, this means when Luminalt has an entry-level position to fill, she first goes looking for new hires at community-based organizations, like Asian Neighborhood Design, an architecture and planning nonprofit that provides work training to help disadvantaged individuals become self-sufficient.

Although Luminalt has helped charter new hiring efforts in San Francisco, the company is small, at least when compared to industry giants such as SolarCity, which is one of the country’s largest solar installers and has more than 6,000 employees. Luminalt has 23 employees.

Cotter doesn’t let the sheer size of companies like SolarCity shake her. She believes that solar customers need a diverse array of solar installers — both large and small — to choose from in order to keep the industry healthy, which might help explain why Luminalt has continued to see a rise in revenues. Last year Luminalt pulled in $5.5 million, up $1.2 million from the year before.

She also believes the solar industry needs to increase its efforts to diversify the gender and ethnic makeup of its workforce. Women accounted for almost 22 percent of the 2014 workforce, according to the latest research by The Solar Foundation. The foundation also found that Latinos comprised 16.3 percent, Asians or Pacific Islanders represented 7 percent, and African-Americans made up 6 percent of last year’s solar workforce.

In March, the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA) announced that Cotter would co-chair the association’s initiative to help diversify the state’s growing solar workforce and access to the energy-making technology.

When you tap into gender, ethnic and economic diversity, “you are able to access folks that are not necessarily in the competitive workforce. And that means you can access talent that currently isn’t within any solar organization,” according to Cotter.

SolarEnergy.net spoke with Cotter about her drive to find new talent among underrepresented groups, why some companies find it hard to diversify their workforce, and how she is looking to change Luminalt to make sure the company provides stable work for families, which she says is key to diversifying solar.

Why is it important to hire employees from workforce-development programs?

The only way that you can transform the life of a family and of a community is to ensure that there are good jobs. I know from my own life that the only way that you get stability in your household is for the parents in that household to have the skill set necessary to command a wage that enables them to provide for a stable home for their children.

Working families are the backbone of a functioning society. The stronger and more resilient those families are — the less stressed out they are about money, and the more choices those families have about jobs and security — the better we are as a society.

Your mother has been an important figure in your life. How has her experience as a young struggling mother who rose above the odds influenced the way you run your business?

If it wasn’t for programs that extended opportunities to me, I would not be sitting where I am. It’s not that I didn’t work hard. I worked hard. It’s just that if predictive demographics determined my mother’s and my life I would be a single mother on public assistance.

Now my mother is remarried to a very wonderful man, and they have gone on and done amazing things. One of those amazing things is that they started the nonprofit Green Empowerment, which has a mission of social justice, environmental justice and economic justice. It is the same mission that has inspired aspects of my company except in an urban environment.

Are there challenges that come with hiring from workforce-development programs?

Yes. We have underinvested in the inner city and in rural America. We have underinvested in the education of communities of color and poor white communities, and that carries through in terms of some of the skill sets that folks bring to the workplace. But that doesn’t mean that given the opportunity to build those skill sets and perform that you aren’t going to have an amazing performer.

Some solar companies have been vocal about wanting to diversify their workforce but have struggled to do so. Why do you think that is?

It is a struggle for all of us in part because we’re not always getting resumes that reflect the depth and the diversity of our communities. We’re often getting resumes from folks interested in solar that are very similar to the existing workforce.

How do you think your work with CALSEIA to diversify the solar industry will help companies tap into new talent pools?

One of the reasons why I’m super excited by CALSEIA, as well as why I’m super excited about organizations like Women in Solar Energy and Grid Alternatives that push for women and also for disadvantaged communities to get into solar, is that it gives a platform and a megaphone to say, “People hey, look at solar. Apply for these jobs.” That helps expand the pool of individuals who are working in solar.

What’s CALSEIA’s plan to further diversify the solar workforce and marketplace?

We know where we want to go, which is a more diverse workforce and a more diverse market, but we do not have a specific launch plan that is detailed and ready to go.

We are still working on expanding the table right now so that we have who we need to build inclusion of different viewpoints so we can drive both of those objectives, both being the workforce objective and the market aspect.

Providing stable work for families is a theme that underlies much of your work to diversify the solar industry. With so much uncertainty surrounding whether the federal solar tax credit — which is a huge driver of solar sales — will expire at the end of 2016, how are you preparing Luminalt for a future that could mean industry retraction and layoffs?

I see us getting more involved in the operations and maintenance of existing systems. A lot of folks moved into the solar industry and then hopped out over the course of the last several years. So we get a lot of calls for troubleshooting systems that were installed by folks who aren’t around anymore. This is good work and it requires an incredibly talented workforce of people that really need to understand how solar works and how it is installed, because troubleshooting requires a different skill set. Also, it’s critical to keep all of the systems that the solar industry has installed up and running and doing what they were intended to do.

Ensuring that Luminalt is relevant, that we are doing really good work, and that we are expanding in a responsible way to ensure that my colleagues and I continue to have our weekly paychecks beginning in 2017 is something I am working hard on. We never had layoffs, and it’s important to me that we don’t.


Navajo solar

Solar Power Makes Electricity More Accessible On Navajo Reservation

navajo-solar Most people can’t imagine living without smartphones or the Internet, let alone without electricity. But even today — even in the United States — there are still people who live without lights and refrigeration. Many are Native Americans living on tribal reservations.

For many, electricity is a luxury; it can even be magical. Derrick Terry remembers the first winter when there were lights on at his grandmother’s house.

“You see the Christmas lights in the distance, it’s like seeing that unicorn,” he says. “It’s an indescribable feeling, I guess, when you first get electricity.”

Terry grew up on the Navajo Nation. It’s about the size of West Virginia and covers the Arizona, New Mexico and Utah portions of the Four Corners region. When Terry was a boy, his family used a 12-volt car battery to supply their house with power. He says the battery would get low simply by running the TV or house lights.

What yieldco finance can do for the solar industry

YieldCoFor years, the big news in solar has been coming out of research and development, from technical innovation. But in what appears to be a sign of the maturing of the industry, this year it seems that the bigger news is coming from the development of new methods of project finance that hold the promise of cutting financing costs.

The biggest of these driving forces in cutting financing costs is the yieldco. Yieldcos are essentially publicly traded holding companies which bundle assets that produce a steady and predictable flow of income, such as energy plants, that have long-term distribution agreements. The cash flow is distributed among investors in the vehicle as dividends.

Perfect for utility-scale solar PPAs

Yieldcos are almost perfectly suited to capturing the value of renewable projects. While they can face many uncertainties during bidding, permitting and development, once they are connected to the grid their cash flows are low-risk, because they typically generate a steady income from 20 or 25-year PPAs or tariffs, once in operation.


Folsom Labs receives $1 million to expand Helioscope PV design software

helioscopeFolsom Labs, the San Francisco-based developer of HelioScope, has raised a $1MM round of funding from leading industry executives. The capital will be used to expand HelioScope to become a full end-to-end solar software solution, from initial customer lead to final close.

“HelioScope is already a phenomenal PV design tool, and we have the opportunity to extend it further, from refining residential functionality to generating permitting documents – and all steps in between. Even though we are profitable and growing rapidly, our customers are ready for that complete solution,” said Paul Gibbs, CEO of Folsom Labs. “This group of highly strategic investors will really help accelerate that vision.”

The round was led by Sheldon Kimber, Principal at Kokosing Capital, and formerly the COO of Recurrent Energy. It includes a number of solar industry veterans, including Tim Ball (founder of REC Solar and board member of SunRun), and Fred Kittler of Firelake Capital.

“The solar industry doesn’t need a new semiconductor technology – it needs tools like HelioScope that help installers design, deploy and finance projects more efficiently. Few understand this as well as the Folsom Labs team,” said Kimber. “Folsom Labs started by attacking the most valuable problem – system design and energy calculations – and are now uniquely positioned to become a true end-to-end solution for solar developers.”

“By raising when we didn’t need the money, we were able to be very selective about the investors we wanted to work with – and ended up with a group of investors that include the most experienced executives in the solar industry,” said Paul Grana, co-founder of Folsom Labs and Head of Sales & Marketing.  “Our investors make sure we are tuned in with where the industry is going on a 5- to 15-year horizon, and help us manage our growth opportunities effectively.”

HelioScope has gained widespread adoption across residential and commercial solar developers and EPCs. Customers include REC Solar, SunEdison, NRG, Rosendin Electric, GE Power & Water, and Borrego Solar – plus hundreds of small and medium-sized developers and installers.

“HelioScope has become essential to the way we run our business,” said Jay Miller, Director of Engineering at groSolar. “The software has transformed our pre-sales process, helping us cut our customer turnaround time in half. It then enables me to do powerful value-engineering – and then integrates seamlessly with the rest of our processes.”

Chris Anderson, CTO of Borrego Solar summarized the value of an expanded offering from Folsom Labs: “We’ve already adopted HelioScope across the prospecting stage of our business, dramatically reducing our turnaround time,” said Chris, “with this expanded offering, we will be able to adopt HelioScope throughout our end-to-end process, enabling us to leverage the labor savings even further.

“The Folsom Labs team has a proven track record of being responsive to customers and delivering improvements that really make a difference,” Anderson added. “We couldn’t be happier to be a HelioScope customer, and can’t wait to see what is in store next.”


time of use pricing

A California Utility Explores Time-Sensitive Electricity Pricing

time of use pricingThe Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), a utility that serves approximately 540,000 customers in and around Sacramento, California, has a summer peaking problem. SMUD’s peak load is around 3,000 MW, but 400 MW of that total is needed only about 40 hours a year (less than one half of one percent of the time), during summer afternoons. Those 40 hours drive significant costs for SMUD and in turn, its customers. e-Lab’s Rate Design for the Distribution Edge advocated more sophisticated rate structures along time, location, and attribute continuums. Some progressive utilities around the country have been exploring such rates. SMUD is one of them, conducting a two-year pilot experimenting with time-of-use (TOU) options to cut its peak load.


TOU rates pay heed to predictable, but significant, differences in the cost of producing and delivering electricity throughout the day, charging a higher price during peak hours (usually a handful occurring at the same time each weekday) and less at all other times. A critical-peak pricing (CPP) rate is used during the most expensive hours per year—in essence the highest-peak hours on the highest-peak days. SMUD operated a two-year SmartPricing Options (SPO) pilot program in which it tested three time-of-use options. In one scenario it charged an on-peak rate from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. on weekdays; in another scenario it charged a critical peak rate from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. on up to 12 days per summer; and in the third scenario it charged both an on-peak rate and critical peak rate. One set of customers were defaulted into these pilot scenarios; other customers voluntarily opted in.

SMUD discovered that time-of-use pricing works. Customers turned off appliances and lights and were less likely to crank up their air conditioners during peak pricing times. SPO’s TOU rates reduced demand by nearly 12 percent during the peak period. Consistent with the larger price differential, CPP was able to shave around 25 percent of load during peak hours on peak days.


So how were customers affected? There is no evidence that comfort was sacrificed; indeed, SPO participants did not differ from regular SMUD customers in how frequently they reported feeling too warm in their homes because of a reluctance to pay to run their air conditioners

In contrast, SPO customers did differ markedly from standard customers when it came to believing that their pricing plans enabled them to save money.

Approximately one-third of the study participants qualified for SMUD’s low-income tariff, the Energy Assistance Program Rate. These participants received discounted SPO rates as well, and results were similar, proving that low-income customers can also benefit from time-of-use rate designs. “We’re seeing that well-constructed rate designs can and do work for a broad array of customers, including low-income customers,” according to Owen Smith, a principal in RMI’s electricity practice.


SPO employed both opt-in and opt-out recruitment approaches. Opt-in customers had to take action to be part of the program. In contrast, those selected for the opt-out treatment were defaulted by SMUD onto the SPO rates without a prior customer request; opt-out “recruits” stayed on SPO rates unless they demanded a return to standard pricing.

SMUD devoted considerable resources to its marketing for opt-in customers, utilizing various channels, including direct mail, mass media, door hangers, and outbound calling. And the results were impressive, with enrollment rates between 16 and 19 percent. But compare those recruitment outcomes with the acceptance levels for the defaulted, where such a small percentage of people opted out that enrollment rates were between 93 and 98 percent. For anyone inclined to assume that customers will balk en masse if defaulted away from traditional flat volumetric rates onto innovative pricing structures, SPO should be an eye opener.


Some customers received an in-home display so they could in theory know how much energy they were consuming at what time and at what price.  But forget paying attention to that info. Most customers never even bothered connecting the in-home displays. And yet TOU pricing still made a difference. It seems that simple customer knowledge of TOU pricing with big enough price differences was sufficient to change behavior.


Of all the plans in the pilot project, the people who opted in to the critical-peak pricing plan showed the largest load impacts, cutting the peak load during CPP events by 25 percent. Yet although the customers who opted in to the programs had twice as much impact as the default customers, that effect was outweighed by the customer “acceptance” rates. This is because the defaulted customers accepted time-sensitive pricing in overwhelming numbers. In other words, opt-in customers on the critical-peak plan had a bigger load difference, but there were fewer of them. Conversely, defaulted customers had smaller load differences, but there far more of them, so their aggregate impact was bigger.

Per customer, the defaulted demonstrated smaller load impacts than those who actively sought inclusion in the pilot, but as it turned out there was value inherent in the low-intensity nature of their engagement: lower recruitment costs, greater penetration rates, and lower dropout rates combined to outweigh reduced individual impacts. By SMUD’s estimate, deploying the CPP plan on an opt-out basis to 100,000 customers would yield 34.5 MW of load reduction, three times more than offering the same plan to customers who have to opt in.


Time-varying pricing is just one of the methods that utilities (and their consumers) can use to free up value in a more flexible and data-rich electricity generating and delivery system. RMI’s Smith explains, “This program is part of a growing body of evidence that reveals the benefits and customer acceptance of more sophisticated electricity pricing structures. Well-constructed pricing structures can align the interests of utilities with those of customers and innovative distributed energy resource providers. We are encouraged by these findings and are eager to see more utilities moving aggressively in this direction.”

With SPO, SMUD has shown the potential to achieve major system benefits without sacrificing customer satisfaction. By smashing the taboo against the use of opt-out recruitment, SMUD has also demonstrated a low-touch path forward to mass participation. The challenge now is to encourage other utilities to follow this impressive lead.


Is Solar Energy right for my house?

How to Know If Solar Energy Is Right for Your House

Is Solar Energy right for my house?By the end of 2015, solar panels will be on more than a million homes in the U.S. In over a dozen states around the country, you can go solar with $0 down and actually save money on your electric bill — and more states are coming online regularly.

Before you call a solar installer, how do you know if you’ll be a prime candidate for benefiting from solar energy? Here are a few things to know.

Is Your State Ready to Go Solar?

Solar energy only makes financial sense for your home if solar panels can make electricity for a lower cost than what you pay a utility for electricity. Not only does a sunny climate matter, high electricity costs are essential as well.

solar and EV

5 solar and EV partnerships making our world much, much cleaner

solar and EVSolar power and electric vehicles (EV) each get a lot of attention amongst their own segments of followers, and there’s certainly a lot of overlap there. Even the mass media is picking up on the exponential growth trends and falling prices in these two markets. However, I don’t think the combination of the two gets the attention it deserves. Solar power + electric vehicles = “driving on sunlight,” or “gallons of light” as some have put it. If your aim is to have a positive impact on the climate crisis (and/or water crisis and/or air quality crisis), there’s often no better thing you can do.

Of course, there are a lot of companies working to make the world a much, much better place via this combo. I wanted to spend a little time highlighting some of these partnerships for those who don’t obsessively follow the solar and EV industries industries.


Solar Power Battle Puts Hawaii at Forefront of Worldwide Changes

hawaii-solarAllan Akamine has looked all around the winding, palm tree-lined cul-de-sacs of his suburban neighborhood in Mililani here on Oahu and, with an equal mix of frustration and bemusement, seen roof after roof bearing solar panels.

Mr. Akamine, 61, a manager for a cable company, has wanted nothing more than to lower his $600 to $700 monthly electric bill with a solar system of his own. But for 18 months or so, the state’s biggest utility barred him and thousands of other customers from getting one, citing concerns that power generated by rooftop systems was overwhelming its ability to handle it.

Only under strict orders from state energy officials did the utility, the Hawaiian Electric Company, recently rush to approve the lengthy backlog of solar applications, including Mr. Akamine’s.