solar plus batteries

Home Solar Plus Batteries May Be the Final Nail in Utilities’ Coffins


The utilities are at an existential crossroads. Let’s hope they pick the road leading to grid-connected systems of solar plus batteries, before they lose thousands of customers and billions of dollars.

Unlike their larger off-grid counterparts, leaner and meaner grid-connected battery systems could check electricity costs and increase savings no matter what peak retail prices may be, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute and HOMER Energy’s new report, The Economics of Load Defection. Better yet, they could supplant the traditional grid by supplying the majority of utility customers with power, rewriting what the general public believes a utility to be in the process. Even if a fraction of customers independently go solar using grid-connected battery systems, the utilities stand to lose millions of kilowatts and billions of dollars in central generation. The utilities now must decide whether they want to part of the energy problem, or part of its solution.

“Today’s electricity system is at a metaphorical fork in the road,” RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst explained in a press release. “Down one path are pricing structures, business models and regulatory environments that favor eventual grid defection. Down another road, those same factors are appropriately valued as part of a transactive grid with lower system-wide costs and the foundation of a reliable, resilient, affordable and low-carbon grid of the future in which customers are empowered with choice.”

According to RMI, cratering PV costs and rising retail grid electricity prices are making grid-connected solar-plus battery systems economic within the next 10-15 years — if not sooner, given the industry’s dizzying acceleration. By keeping these systems connected to the grid, the utilities can participate in the value being generated by their increasingly green customers, who won’t be encouraged to leave the grid entirely. Pursuing reform across three fronts — “rate structures, utility business models, and regulatory frameworks,” RMI explained — could insure that utilities eventually share in the creation of a vastly more interconnected energy infrastructure, instead of being bankrupted by it. Viewing and treating solar power, on or off the grid, as a threat is going to get them nowhere.

As grid-connected solar systems grow to redefine the role of central generation, the grid as we knew it is significantly relieved of its duty to meet its customers’ electricity needs. Using HOMER’s software, RMI’s report specified where and when these systems could be deployed, and even crunched the numbers on the amount of load and revenue loss the utilities could expect, should they decide against helping their “customers adopt the economically optimal configuration of these systems over time,” RMI explained.

“This is not all risk,” said report coauthor Leia Guccione. “Because these solar-plus-battery systems are grid-connected, they can offer value and services back to the grid. We need not see them only as a threat.”

California Public Utilities Commission

California’s Investor-Owned Utilities Surpass Efficiency Goals

California Public Utilities CommissionThe California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the state’s four large investor-owned utilities, which serve 75 percent of the state, have proved yet again that energy efficiency is a great investment to save customers money and clean the air. The electricity and natural gas savings from efficiency surpassed the utilities’ 2010-2012 energy-savings goals and put more than $750 million back into consumers’ pockets after accounting for the costs of running the programs.

That’s according to the CPUC’s new assessment of the customer-funded efficiency programs operated from 2010-2012 by Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and Southern California Gas, with the help of local government and third-party partners. While it naturally takes time after the conclusion of a program to conduct a complete evaluation, it would be helpful for the CPUC to leverage successful evaluation processes across the country to improve the timeliness of the information so program implementers can more quickly use it to improve their programs.

Regardless, the $2.5 billion invested in three years of programs overseen by the commission — ranging from weatherization to rebates for high-efficiency appliances and equipment — yielded substantial benefits as opposed to spending the same amount of money on polluting conventional power resources that harm our health and the environment, and provide zero net benefits for customers. In particular, the efficiency programs serving over 28 million Californians:

  • Saved enough electricity to power 600,000 households;
  • Reduced demand enough to avoid the need for nearly three large power plants(500 megawatts each); and
  • Avoided enough carbon pollution from electricity generation to equal the emissions from more than 1 million cars.

According to this week’s report, the utilities collectively surpassed all of their goals (147% of electric saving goals, 111% of the reduction in peak demand (the time when energy use is the highest), and 132% of natural gas savings goals for 2010-2012). While this is GREAT news, there is always more that can be done to improve the programs and the policies that guide what utilities, local governments, and third- parties can do to support smarter energy use. The CPUC is currently looking at how to move toward a rolling portfolio approach to program planning, an unprecedented and exciting development, as well as what changes the utilities and their partners can make for 2016 to save customers even more energy and money.

In addition, ramping up efficiency — and NOW — is critical to meeting Governor Jerry Brown’s call to double the expected energy savings from existing buildings by 2030. The CPUC should therefore focus on the following in the coming year to enhance policies and programs for existing and new buildings:

Continue encouraging extensive building energy codes and appliance standards programs

The most cost-effective way to save energy is by locking in minimum levels of energy usage for products and buildings. Utilities are critical partners to advance codes and standards as they fund numerous studies and work with California Energy Commission staff and other stakeholders to make sure the next level of codes and standards updates get adopted. As noted in the report, energy codes and standards programs cost just 1 percent of utilities’ total portfolio budget ($30 million), but accounted for approximately 22 percent of total electricity savings and 20 percent of peak demand savings. This represents impressive energy and cost savings for customers and the utilities should continue to be incentivized to focus on state – as well as federal – codes and standards improvements.

Use market assessments to focus programs on motivating customers to cut energy waste

Assessing “what would happen” without the efficiency program is critical to ensure that customer funds are spent wisely. The state’s approach often relies on a customer survey years after the efficiency upgrade action was taken, making it difficult, if not impossible, to get accurate and useful information. It would be far better to conduct an assessment of the market before the program begins, and then again soon after it ends, to get a more accurate and timely accounting of program impacts (that is, what additional savings were achieved due to the program beyond what was originally anticipated).

Design programs to capture savings where and when they are needed the most

While the programs are currently providing enormous energy savings to customers, improving the value of efficiency that is focused on certain locations and/or during particular times of the day (or year) could yield even more benefit. To ensure the efficiency programs are able to be used to offset investment in costly utility infrastructure (like power plants, poles, and wires) and to better support the integration of renewable power into the electricity generation mix, the CPUC should gather better details about where and when efficiency makes the most impact and alter portfolios accordingly.

Expand energy savings from low-income programs

The new CPUC analysis also shows that 2 percent of the energy savings came from efficiency programs aimed at low-income customers. While this is a great start, the Energy Savings Assistance Program, which provides no-cost efficiency upgrades to qualifying customers, could be significantly enhanced to produce even more savings. For example, the CPUC should set an energy-saving goal to accompany the current outreach goal, including criteria to determine which energy-saving measures should be offered to particular customers. These programs should better reach multifamily customers, as well as multifamily building owners, to ensure individual dwellings as well as whole building approaches can be maximized to save energy and lower bills for customers who need relief the most.

There is no doubt that energy efficiency has provided substantial savings to customers and environmental benefits to all Californians. But to get even more benefit from efficiency, the CPUC should take a hard look at current policies to determine whether they are in line with California’s climate and energy goals – and to make sure efficiency savings aren’t being missed. After all, as this week’s report shows, using efficiency to save customers energy is the cleanest, cheapest, and fastest way to lower bills and reduce pollution.

All signs point to solar power juggernaut rolling on

FirstSolar constructionIt’s not a contest. Renewable energy is no zero-sum game (or doesn’t have to be, at least), and according to the experts, all of it and then some will be needed to keep global temperatures from rising beyond safe levels. Still, it’s hard not to view the growth of the two leading non-hydro renewable energy technologies – wind and solar – in relation to each other.

We reported recently that wind grew quickly in 2014, but solar had itself a very good year as well. And there are signs that it could be in for even more rapid growth.

According to the respected “Global Trends In Renewable Energy 2015” report from the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance, the world poured $270.2 billion into renewable energy in 2014, and more than half the total – $149.6 billion – went into solar.

It was the fifth year in a row that solar investment topped wind, and what made solar’s dominance all the more remarkable is that it is dramatically less expensive than it used to be. So each one of those billions of dollars was buying more solar than it used to.

Last year, 46 gigawatts of solar PV was installed around the world, a record. In the U.S., the number was also a record, 6.2 GW of PV, a 30 percent increase over 2013, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research. With 767 megawatts of new concentrating solar power thrown into the mix, U.S. solar capacity climbed past the 20 GW mark.

First, there’s solar’s versatility. Wind works best at very large scale, and nearly all ($92.4 billion) of the $99.5 billion invested in wind in 2014 went into building big wind farms. Solar can do big, but it can also do small. In 2014, $62.8 billion went into building utility-scale solar, while $73.5 billion went into small projects.

In addition, solar can flourish in places where wind struggles – amid the hustle-and-bustle of humanity, in and around cities and towns. For instance, a study published last month in Nature Climate Change estimated that in California, the “built environment” alone could house enough solar to “meet the state of California’s energy consumptive demand three to five times over.” Essentially there is enough roof space that, were it covered with solar panels would generate 3 to 5 times more energy than the stat consumes!

Solar is also popular. In a new survey, U.S. homeowners were asked to name three forms of energy they felt were important to the country’s future, and more named solar (50 percent) than any other form of energy.

Lastly, there’s price. While solar has plummeted in price in recent years (it’s cheaper than power from the utility in many US states), there are indications it could become even cheaper. Way cheaper. The German think tank Agora Energiewende believes that in Europe, solar could fall to 4-6 cents/kilowatt-hour by 2025 and 2-4 cents/kWh by 2050.

“Plans for future power supply systems should therefore be revised worldwide,” remarked Dr. Patrick Graichen, director of the Agora Energiewende. “Until now, most of them only anticipate a small share of solar power in the mix. In view of the extremely favorable costs, solar power will on the contrary play a prominent role, together with wind energy – also, and most importantly, as a cheap way of contributing to international climate protection.”

Going solar should be no more difficult than getting cable TV

520-iStock_14578547_solar workers_we own_JPG-thumb-500xauto-19199-thumb-500x332-19200Americans love solar and recognize that beyond producing energy it powers us toward greater energy independence, combats global warming and lowers our utility bills. Getting a grid-connected home solar electric system up and running shouldn’t be particularly hard or time-consuming. Construction, on average, takes about two days. Yet, a report published recently by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory finds utilities often take more than a month and a half–an average of 52 days, actually–to connect residential solar systems to the electric grid, even though the process is about as complicated as installing cable TV. That’s unfortunate, because a lengthy timetable slows the deployment of solar around the country, bumps up the cost of pollution-free power systems, and even threatens the viability of small and mid-sized solar installers. Think about it: “Time is money,” explains Sara Baldwin Auck, director of the regulatory program at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), a non-profit resource on renewable energy technologies. “Longer processes mean higher costs that are often transferred to the end users.” In other words, to you and me.

There’s a simple fix for this problem, though. And it involves utilities and the public service commissions (PSCs) that regulate them taking an active role. Utilities can streamline and fast-track the interconnection process, by, to begin with, enabling developers to be aware of potential interconnection issues before they start. And, by expediting small projects that rarely require extensive review. The PSCs that regulate utilities can require these provisions as well, allowing most residential solar systems to connect to the grid in a matter of days, not months, all while ensuring safety and reliability.

Interconnection–the hooking up of a solar system to the electric grid–might seem like one of those wonky issues that is hopelessly technical or complicated. Electric grids, after all, are complex things. But research and the experiences of many utilities and solar developers shows that the process is often relatively simple and requires little study. “For the vast majority of small, net-metered systems,” says Baldwin Auck, “the system can be reviewed in a matter of hours, or even minutes.” IREC develops guidelines that are best practices for the industry. And it believes that most residential systems should be put on a fast track with reviews that can be completed in less than a month, because small systems have relatively little impact on the reliability of local electric grids. The organization is not the only one that has reached this conclusion. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the government agency tasked with regulating interstate energy transmission, agrees. It’s develop what it calls “small generator interconnection procedures” (SGIPs) that encourage fast-tracking and apply to distributed generation systems in areas it regulates.

Delays in interconnections can have big impacts. To begin with, slow interconnection processes can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of a residential solar system. And, despite the increasingly low cost of solar, those extra dollars can mean fewer interested homeowners can afford the price. Once panels are up on roofs, the wait in getting customers connected to the grid can mean less cost-savings and a lot of frustration, something that can give both the solar and utility industry a black eye. “For a lot of customers, going solar is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Evan Conley, manager of business development at NRG Home Solar. “To have the panels put up and then not hear from the developers for months, because they’re waiting for the interconnection is frustrating to say the least.” Developers like NRG are concerned such experiences may put some off from buying solar. Moreover, slow interconnection rates mean developers need to tie up their capital in inventory while they wait for the systems to become operational and for their customers to pay them. “NRG is not as cash-constrained as many players in the market,” Conley says. “But inventory can kill small and medium-sized companies.”

To address the slow speed of many interconnection processes, a handful of states have what IREC terms “best practice” interconnection rules. “California has what’s considered to be the gold standard,” Baldwin Auck explains. The state’s policy allows applications to be submitted electronically, so solar employees don’t have to waste hours in line waiting to turn in paperwork. There’s a fast-tracked review process for small solar systems. And, “they’re working toward making their grid information available to solar developers, so they can know whether connecting a system at a particular location might cause a problem that would require lengthy review.” Massachusetts and Ohio also follow these best practices.

Addressing inefficiencies in the interconnection process as solar begins to go mainstream makes sense for all of us–homeowners, grid operators, solar developers, and, of course, the nation as a whole. After all, the benefits residential and other small solar systems offer are very well-documented–cost-savings on energy, a more stable and reliable grid, good-paying jobs, and pollution-free electricity. It behooves us to deploy these systems as quickly as possible. NREL’s report shows there are opportunities to do that almost everywhere, when utilities and public service commissions decide to act.


climate denial divide

There’s an emerging right-wing divide on climate denial. Here’s what it means (and doesn’t)

climate denial divideFor as long as climate change has been a public agenda item — let’s date it back to 1988, when James Hansen testified to Congress — there has been a large faction within the public that refuses to accept it, composed primarily (not entirely, but primarily) of conservative white men.

It’s difficult to remember these days, but that faction did not always dominate the Republican Party. Establishment Republicans from George H.W. Bush to George W. Bush acknowledged that climate change is a real problem requiring a policy solution. John McCain put forward his own cap-and-trade plan when he ran against Obama in 2008.

But denial was always closer to the conservative heart than acceptance was. When the Tea Party swallowed the GOP in 2010, it eradicated the last shreds of accommodationism on climate. Since then, the party, at least the public face of the party, has been almost entirely dominated by old-school, unapologetic denial. The few remaining “moderates” in the party quickly fell in line and went silent (including courageous “maverick” John McCain).


power grid

3 Reasons Solar and Wind Energy Will Take Over Our Power Grid Much Sooner Than You Think

power gridGetting power from the wind and the sun no longer seems like a hippie fantasy: Elon Musk is betting that solar power will be so profitable it will help fund space travel, and big tech companies like Apple and Google are buying in, too. Today most homes and businesses are still powered by fossil fuels, but in just a few decades — maybe even as little as 15 years — most energy could be coming from renewable sources.

An enormous new survey of industry experts shows how fast things are moving. Recently, DNV GL, an international energy consulting company, asked 1,600 people who actually work in the field — at equipment manufacturers, power producers, utilities, policy-making agencies, energy retailers, regulators, and equity investment firms — about the future of renewables. One of the main questions: How quickly will renewables be generating 70 percent of the energy in the markets you work with?

Almost half of the survey respondents said they could see that happening by 2030. And almost all of them — about 80 percent — thought renewables would dominate by 2050.

Here’s why they’re optimistic about renewable energy:


Misunderstanding Puts Vivint Solar Employee At Roundtable With President Obama

vivint polo shirt

If Marvin Lance Futch had known that he would be meeting with President Barack Obama, he may have worn something nicer than a wrinkled polo shirt.

Last week, Obama hosted a roundtable discussion on solar energy at Hill Air Force base in Utah. Among those in attendance were Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Futch, a mid-level designer at Vivint Solar. Futch told the New York Post that he’d been instructed to wear business casual to Obama’s speech, and didn’t know he’d be speaking privately with the president himself.

“So when President Obama walked in the room, I’m looking down at my white polo going, ‘Well, if I would have known this, I would have worn my military blues or at least a suit and tie.’ I admit I was feeling a little underdressed at the moment,” Futch said.

Why 2015 could be a record year for renewables

US power sector emissions poised to fall to two-decade low due to new records expected for renewables deployment, coal retirements, and gas burn

Why 2015 could be a record year for renewablesIn general, changes to our energy system come slowly. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

In general.

Nonetheless, 2015 is shaping up to be a pretty special year and a pretty significant 365-day shift in how we get our power, says a 2015 power market outlook released Thursday by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

“This Research Note is more sensationalist than we typically write,” it confesses.

The reason is a combination of three separate factors all moving in the same direction — an expected record for renewable energy installations, another forecast record for coal plant retirements and booming natural gas. The consequence, if these forecasts are realized, would be considerably cleaner energy and an impressive one-year drop in U.S. emissions.



Yeloha: It’s Like Airbnb but for Solar Power

yelohaIsraeli entrepreneur Amit Rosner lives in Tel Aviv and is launching a business in Boston. He spends a lot of time on airplanes. “And whenever I look out of the window before we land, it drives me nuts to see roofs baking in the sun,” Rosner says. “I feel this is absurd–that so much energy falls on the roofs, and it just bakes the roofs without doing anything helpful.”

He’s right; it’s crazy. Consider: The price of photovoltaic cells is plummeting; an overwhelming majority of Americans (79 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll) want the U.S. to develop more solar power; and solar power is in fact growing, accounting for 36 percent of all new electric capacity through the first nine months of 2014, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. And yet, solar power remains all but invisible on the big stage of U.S. electricity generation.


Tom Steyer

Tom Steyer Launches Effort To Defeat 2016 Climate Denier Candidates

Tom SteyerTom Steyer’s climate-focused political group is already gearing up for the 2016 presidential race, announcing on Monday a new effort that will focus on putting Republican candidates on the defense when it comes to global warming.

NextGen Climate’s chief strategist, Chris Lehane, said in a call with reporters that the group’s mission heading into 2016 is to “disqualify” candidates who deny that climate change is real or caused by human activity by proving that “they don’t have what it takes to be president.” The effort will be called Hot Seat, and NextGen Climate says it will involve media and on-the-ground campaigns in key electoral states aimed at linking Republican deniers to the Koch brothers and other interests that seek to undermine climate science.

The idea, NextGen says, is to force Republican candidates who are skeptical of climate change to defend their views right out of the gate.


solar storage

How do you catch the sun to make electricity at night? This German inventor has an answer.

solar storageHe’s electrified his bicycle. He’s electrified his Porsche. When he introduces his dog, Paula, you almost expect him to tell you that he’s electrified her, too.

Not yet, but you never know. The engineer from a small town in southwestern Germany is a classic tinkerer. His home is his development lab, and when he’s not wiring up his vehicles, he’s working on the latest iteration of an invention that he thinks will help solve what might be the biggest problem in Germany’s energiewende — its historic transition from fossil fuels and nuclear power to mostly solar and wind power.

Just a few years in, the country already gets more than a quarter of its electricity from renewables. But those sources aren’t always available, which limits their effectiveness


Solar War Games to Test Green Power’s Resilience for NATO

solar-flowerGreen energy is going to war.

Starting in June, defense companies including Thales SA and Multicon Solar AG will join NATO to test the military’s ability to use renewable power in combat and humanitarian operations.

About 1,000 North Atlantic Treaty Organization soldiers will spend 12 days deploying wind turbines, solar panels and self-contained power grids in Hungary, according to Susanne Michaelis, the group’s action officer for smart energy.

The soldiers will test small solar power plants that open within 10 minutes like flowers to the sun, highly insulated tents and solar-powered battery chargers — technologies that displace conventional fuels which must be delivered along vulnerable supply lines. The testing follows the wounding or killing of 3,000 U.S. soldiers in attacks on fuel and waterconvoys in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to NATO.


drought's effect on utilities

How utilities are being affected by the California drought

drought's effect on utilitiesCalifornia Governor Jerry Brown made an announcement last week ordering California residents to conserve water, only days after his $1 billion emergency relief package. The drought is affecting many in the state — and utilities are learning to manage their resources.

Hydroelectric production is down due to the shortage of water, but it’s not the only obstacle utilities have to consider. According to the California Energy Commission (CEC), “The times when the highest intense energy water supply options are needed occur during multiyear droughts when surface water supplies are low and groundwater levels drop, requiring even more energy to pump each gallon of water. To compound the problem, reduced surface water supplies and snowpack in higher elevations are likely to reduce the availability of valuable hydroelectric supplies.”

Utilities are working to meet the needs of the customer, the CEC is working to make that an easy process for utilities.


Americans Support Renewables

Report: Americans Support Incentives for Renewables

Americans Support RenewablesWhile members of Congress appear divided on whether or not to extend federal incentives for clean energy, their constituents are not, according to a national poll of U.S. homeowners commissioned by Clean Edge, Inc. and SolarCity and conducted by national polling firm Zogby Analytics. In the second annual survey, 74 percent of Americans polled favored continuing federal tax incentives that support the growth of the solar and wind industries, including 82% of Democrats, two thirds of Republicans (67%) and 72% of Independents.

A nation divided on a range of issues appears overwhelmingly united in its support of renewables, with nearly nine in ten Americans (87%) saying renewable energy is important to the country’s future. When homeowners were asked to pick which specific energy sources were most important to the nation’s future, solar (50%) and wind (42%) led the pack, followed by natural gas (33%) and energy efficiency (25%). Lower in the rankings were one-time energy stalwarts nuclear power (14%) and coal (8%). Solar power was the top choice among a wide range of demographic groups including Republicans, Democrats, Independents, conservatives, liberals, city and rural dwellers, youth, and the elderly. The report, “U.S. Homeowners on Clean Energy: A National Survey,” is available for download at and

“There’s a misconception that the nation is divided on its attitudes toward clean energy, but our research shows this to be false,” says Clean Edge managing director and report lead author Ron Pernick. “There is broad support for renewables across the political spectrum. Opposition to solar fees charged by utilities, for example, is higher among Republicans (66%) than Democrats (53%).”

Additional Key Report Findings: 

  • Survey respondents say they care about the environment, but it’s cost savings that truly motivate them. Similar to last year’s findings, “saving money” (82%) tops the list as the primary motivator influencing homeowners’ decisions to purchase clean-energy products and services.
  • When making investment decisions, a majority of homeowners say that they consider the social/environmental impact of their investments (52%). Three quarters (74%) said that such investments would be compelling if they offered a “potentially higher return than other options.” More than 60% said that such investments would be compelling if they offered “equal or higher return than other options.” When it comes to investments, sustainability doesn’t trump returns, however. Support drops to 22% when such investments offer a “slightly lower return than other options.”
  • Over the next year, the most planned clean-energy purchase by homeowners is LED light bulbs (27%), followed by smart thermostats, Energy Star-rated hot water heaters, double- or triple-pane windows, and hybrid cars.
  • Support for natural gas and nuclear decline significantly with younger respondents. Natural gas was supported by those over 70 (43%) but dropped down to 27% for those aged 18-24. Nuclear power was supported by those over 70 (24%) but dropped precipitously to 8% for ages 25-34 and to just 1% for ages 18-24.
  • In addition to analyzing results from the public survey, the report also looked at clean-energy adoption rates in the U.S. through the end of 2013. The 11-year compound annual growth rates (CAGRs) for the purchase of clean-energy products and services continue to be in the double digits, with LEED-certified projects at 56%, solar PV at 52%, hybrid electric vehicles at 24%, and utility-scale clean electricity generation at 20%. Between 2009 and 2013, LEDs experienced a CAGR of 145% and EVs chalked up a 309% CAGR between 2010 and 2013.

1,400 U.S. homeowners participated in the survey conducted by Zogby Analytics. Respondents were randomly selected to answer questions about renewables, energy efficiency, clean transportation, green investing, conventional energy sources, electric utilities, and other related topics. All interviews were completed in late January 2014. Based on a confidence interval of 95%, the margin of error for the survey is +/- 2.7 percentage points.