Kansas utility targets solar customers for higher rate

westar-energy-officeAs utilities around the U.S. have sought to increase fixed charges in response to growing numbers of customers generating their own power, a Kansas utility is taking a more targeted approach.

In a case now pending before the Kansas Corporation Commission, customers of Topeka-based Westar Energy with their own solar, wind or other generation will pay a higher fixed chargethan other ratepayers.

“We just want to make sure it’s fair to any customer, whether they decide to generate some of their own power or not,” said Jeff Martin, Westar’s vice president for regulatory affairs.

Opponents see the proposal as another effort to fend off competition from residential solar after Westar’s effort to kill net metering ended in a compromise last year.

“This is another attempt by the utility to kill solar in Kansas,” said Aron Cromwell, co-owner of Cromwell Environmental, a Lawrence-based solar installer.

‘Somehow the rules are different’

Over the past year, utilities across the country have been hiking – or attempting to hike – the fixed portion of their bills.

Last fall, three Wisconsin utilities won increases in fixed-cost recovery from the utility commission there. More recently, Kansas City Power & Light and the Empire District Electric Co., in southwest Missouri, filed requests with Missouri’s Public Service Commission to substantially increase the fixed portion of customer bills.

Westar, which serves about 600,000 customers in eastern Kansas, has crafted three billing options. Two would require customers to pay a $50 monthly fee along with other charges, while the fixed charge for other customers would rise from $12 to $15. Rates for energy consumption would vary depending on the plans.

Customers with their own generation would be required to pay the $50 monthly fee. According to Martin, a typical residential solar customer could end up paying something like $100 a month in fixed costs. Existing solar systems would be grandfathered in.

Cromwell predicts that the billing options outlined in Westar’s rate proposal will increase payback time from 12 years to more than 20 years, thereby creating a powerful disincentive to solar installation.

“It’s discriminatory to say that (solar customers) can’t have ‘this’ rate, they can only have ‘those’ rates,” Cromwell said. And he pointed out that “there are all kinds of ways to use less power,” like turning up the thermostat in July, or replacing incandescent lightbulbs with CFLs or LEDs.

“Is there a reason these people are not being forced into these rate structures?” he asked. “When it comes to solar, somehow the rules are different.”

Martin said the 280 solar generators in Kansas typically offset about 90 percent of their bill, whereas even Westar’s most energy-conserving non-solar customers generally consume at least 300 kilowatt hours in a month.

And although solar customers can produce a good deal of power, Martin said, there are plenty of times when their panels aren’t producing, meaning those customers draw on the utility’s system to get power.

‘Fixed’ costs

Martin said that for the purposes of the rate plan, Westar estimates its fixed costs at 73 percent of the cost of delivering power to customers.

However, the notion of “fixed” costs is more nuanced than Westar and other utilities often portray it, according to Karl Rabago, a former Texas utilities regulator who is now the executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center. As an example, he pointed to a California project done 20 years ago.

In an experiment, a utility installed a 0.5 megawatt solar array next to a transformer in Kerman, California and found that it added 4.6 years to the life of that transformer, resulting in a $398,000 reduction in “fixed ” costs.

Although utilities generally would classify a transformer as a fixed cost, Rabago said that in the Kerman experiment, “by changing the pattern of use, they got it to be variable.”

Along the same lines, he said, “If I got everybody to reduce their use of electricity at the hottest time of day, the transformer wouldn’t get as hot. Not getting as hot means they last longer.”

Brad Klein, a lawyer with the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said, “The problem is one of timing and perspective. Over the long term, all costs are variable. Costs ‘vary’ based on customer behavior over the long term.”

Solar a cost, or a benefit?

Cromwell concedes that solar customers – like all utility customers – are tapping into the infrastructure for generating power and getting it to customers. But how much should a solar customer pay for that privilege?

“They have made no effort whatsoever to justify their rates,” he said of Westar. “No study has been done to prove that solar is a cost to ratepayers.”

In fact, “every independent study done on that point has shown exactly the opposite,” said Bryan Miller, vice president of public policy at solar developer Sunrun. Studies in Vermont, New York, Texas, Nevada and, most recently, Missouri, have concluded that solar customers are a net benefit to the power system.

Solar customers create costs, he said, but benefits as well, such as avoided investments in transmission and distribution, and reductions in the amount of power lost in the course of moving it long distances.

There is some overlap between when solar panels are producing and when system demands are at their highest, according to Martin. He said rooftop solar panels, which generally face south, tend to produce maximum power at about 2 p.m.

Peak demand on the system, however, is from about 5 to 7 p.m. And because peak demand, rather than total demand, is what really drives utility costs, he said that customers with south-facing solar panels reduce demand at a time of heavy use, but generally are pulling energy from the system when it’s producing its costliest, peak-hour power.

Distributed generation engenders both costs and benefits, Cromwell said. As to how those compare, and just how much solar customers should pay for using the system, he said, “That’s something the KCC needs to look at.”


Chinese solar boom

China’s New Solar Target Could Set the Stage for a Solar Boom

Chinese solar boomThe solar industry is growing around the world, but China is taking growth to another level. It recently set the most aggressive goal of any country by targeting 17.8 GW of solar installations in 2015. That’s 19% higher than the proposed 15 GW goal, and 70% higher than the 10.5 GW installed in 2014.

Considering that around 46 GW of solar energy capacity was installed in 2014, China is leading the market in both market share and absolute growth. What’s incredible is how good this could be for investors in solar companies.

Just how big is China’s goal?
To put China’s goal into some perspective, here is how 17.8 GW stacks up in the solar industry.

  • 17.8 GW of solar energy would power 2.9 million U.S. households, or about 2.5% of the homes in the U.S.
  • If built as a utility-scale power plant, 17.8 GW of solar energy would cover about 107,000 acres, or 167 square miles.
  • Next year alone, China could approach the grand total of 18.3 GW of solar ever installed in the U.S.
solar home sale

Leased solar panels can complicate — or kill — a home sale

solar home saleCan going green by leasing solar panels for your roof cost you money — or give you headaches — when you go to sell the house?

Possibly both.

Say you get pitched by one of the growing number of companies offering solar panels at no upfront cost that they claim will save you lots of money on electricity bills. Sounds like a slam-dunk. So you sign on.

Then a few years later you decide to sell the house. You assume that the presence of solar panels can only be a marketing plus, maybe even get you a higher price. Everybody goes for green, right?

But that’s when it gets weird. Some would-be buyers balk when they learn that they’ll need to qualify on credit to take over your solar lease payments for the next 15 to 17 years. Others say they like the house but won’t sign a contract unless you buy out the remaining lease payment stream — $15,000 or $20,000 or more — because they’re worried that the solar equipment will become obsolete or won’t save as much on electricity bills as advertised.


George Schultz

A Reagan approach to climate change – The Washington Post

George SchultzThe trend of disappearing summer sea ice in the Arctic is clear even though there is always some variability from year to year. Severe winter weather underscores the importance of keeping track of significant trends. Here are the numbers, according to Julienne Stroeve, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., as reported in the Economist in February:

“Between 1953 and 2014, the average area of the Arctic sea ice shrank by 48,000 square kilometers a year.”

“Between 1979 and 2014, it shrank by 87,000 square kilometers a year.”

“Between 1996 and 2014, the rate rose to 148,000 square kilometers.”

The accelerating rate is explained in part by the fact that ice reflects sunlight but water, which is darker, absorbs it. So as water replaces ice, more heat is retained. Heat transported from lower latitudes could also be part of the explanation.



Renewables Curtailment: What We Can Learn From Grid Operations in California and the Midwest

SmartGridAmerica’s electric grid is undergoing rapid metamorphosis as wind and solar become a significant part of the system: Half of all new generation capacity added in 2014 was from renewables. Nearly 7 gigawatts of solar were installedin 2014 to reach just under 20 gigawatts of cumulative capacity, and 4.7 gigawatts of wind were installed in 2014, pushing total onshore capacity over 64 gigawatts.

But this renewables influx is entering a system designed for very different resources. As low-cost wind and solar evolve to provide more and more electricity, grid operations, power markets and financial structures must evolve along with them.

Some organized markets already have begun transitioning, and while these varied changes reflect different market conditions, the results are similar: increases revenue stability and lower risk for developers. Comparing how contracts and markets are evolving in two parts of the country, California and the Midwest, sheds light on changes that will be necessary as renewables begin to form the core of our electricity mix.


lousiana solar

What’s the Problem with Louisiana Solar Incentives?

lousiana solarSince the Obama administration took office, solar net energy metering in Louisiana has grown 180 percent on an average annual basis. So what’s the problem?

The answer is that Louisiana solar incentives are welfarefor the state’s wealthy, according to a Louisiana Public Services Commission report (PDF). It was drafted by Louisiana State University professor David Dismukes, an economist with “extensive experience in all aspects of the natural gas industry.” Dismukes admits in its early pages that net metering’s exponential growth ballooned state tax incentives to an average of $23 million a year since 2009, which led to “concerns raised by utilities” about breached capacity limits while filing complaints with the LPSC, who in turn decided to revisit its NEM policy.

Hence, Dismukes’ report, which notes that it was unable to acquire “detailed hourly information…from the LPSC-jurisdictional utilities” it was charged with studying. Maybe this is why the study doesn’t appear anywhere on the LPSC’s official news page, which hasn’t been updated since last year — and barely updated at that.

There are a few variables to factor into LPSC and Dismukes’ study, which offers “no explicit policy recommendations” other than the “noncontroversial” suggestion that “at its earliest opportunity the Commission adopt a standardized reporting format for utilities to provide solar NEM information on an annual basis.” One variable is that, as Wikipedia elegantly puts it, “Louisiana’s petroleum and gas industry, as well as its subsidiary industries such as transport and refining, have dominated Louisiana’s economy since the 1940s.” Another is Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal’s recent budget, which targeted the state’s generous solar incentives for rollback while blaming its $1.6 billion shortfall on cratering oil prices. Considering that claim was demolished by one of only two economists in charge of revenue projections for Louisiana’s state government, and that Jindal has received more than a cool million dollars in donations from the petroleum and gas industry — which Jindal saved billions last year by signing a bill killing off environmental lawsuits — and suddenly $23 million a year for solar net energy metering subsidies starts looking like serious chump change.

“Solar energy is a permanent part of the electrical grid, and it’s time that an unbiased assessment is conducted of how it fits into our existing infrastructure,” Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association president Tucker Crawford said last year, explaining that Dismukes’ “direct conflict of interest and blatant bias” toward the natural gas industry should have disqualified him from consideration by LPSC. “This study is a distortion of the truth, an assault on consumer energy choice and property rights by the monopoly utilities and certain allies on the Commission,” GSREIA added this month in a pretty thorough takedown, after Dismukes’ study finally arrived “several months overdue.”

But you don’t really need GSREIA’s detailed rebuttal, or even Dismukes’ wonky 115-page study itself, to see the greater power struggle at play in Louisiana, which was once sued by the U.S. government for ownership of its rich oil and gas deposits in the Gulf of Mexico. Tectonic energy infrastructure shifts, in this case from oil to solar, are messy but necessary, and there’s no way to stop them — which is why Dismukes’ only explicit policy recommendation is that the LPSC starts demanding better reporting standards from the utilities when it comes to net metering. The Alliance for Affordable Energy had the best headline on the flame war: “Pro-Utility Consultant Inadvertently Writes Pro-Solar Report.” Once AAE “corrected” Dismukes’ tardy study — “which mistakenly applied the state tax credit as a cost in the analysis” rather than a benefit to customers, which it is “in all cases of utility electric rate treatment” — the “direct conflict of interest” GSREIA complained of became harder to ignore.

“At no time ever, have these tax credits been added to the rate as a cost to customers,” AAE added, mentioning that it’s releasing a white paper in April to “clear up the confusion” of Dismukes’ “math-olympics.” Until then, it’s safe to say that even if Dismukes’ number-crunching survives the controversy, $23 million a year for a net metering subsidy is a drop in Louisiana’s bucket compared to the hundred of billions it annually generates in gross state product. LPSC could have saved the state money by not paying for Dismukes’ study in the first place.


against solar power

Environmentalists against solar power

against solar powerEnvironmental activists are gearing up for a fight against solar power in the rural borderland East County region of Boulevard, claiming that a proposed solar project will destroy thousands of acres of wildlife habitat.

Backcountry Against Dumps and Donna Tisdale, the group’s Boulevard-based leader, have filed a lawsuit against “San Diego County, two lobbyists, several people and companies that have interest in the properties to be developed, and the developers, Soitec Solar, Tierra Del Sol Solar Farm LLC,” according to a report from Courthouse News Service.

The group claims that the proposed project, to be constructed by French firm Solar Development, will “destroy 1,185 acres of irreplaceable wildlife habitat and undeveloped open space, and replace it with industrial-scale energy development that will cut through the heart of the quiet and scenic Boulevard community,” while depleting groundwater resources, reducing agricultural land, and destroy scenic views with transmission lines supported by poles up to 150 feet tall.


solar city google

Can Google bring solar power to the masses?

solar city googleIs there anything better than powering your home with solar?

The electricity generation comes with no air or water pollution. There are no carbon dioxide emissions to contribute to climate change, outside of the manufacture of solar panels. Because they’re on roofs, land use impact is basically nil. Solar power generates more jobs per unit of energy than fossil fuels, and those jobs can’t be outsourced because construction is local by definition. It also consumes much less water than sources like coal, natural gas, or nuclear, preventing strains on community supplies.

But there’s a big hurdle: The systems generally cost more than $10,000 a pop, an imposing chunk of change to finance or borrow for all but the luckiest Americans.


European power grids keep lights on though solar eclipse

solar-eclipseElectrical grids in Europe claimed success on Friday in managing the unprecedented disruption to solar power from a 2-1/2-hour eclipse that brought sudden, massive drops in supply.

Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, at the heart of the event, boasts the world’s biggest solar-powered installations, which last year supplied 6 percent of national power requirements.

The initial 13 gigawatts (GW) drop in Germany was less than operators had feared and they were able to draw on alternative power sources including coal, gas, biogas and hydroelectric energy pumped from storage.

Grid spokespeople said control rooms were tense. “The mood is concentrated but confident that it will go smoothly,” said Andreas Preuss, spokesman of TenneT peer Amprion, which operates the longest network inside Germany.


floating solar

Solar Power to develop floating photovoltaic projects

floating solarSolar Power Inc. said Thursday it signed a partnership to develop 50 megawatts of floating solar photovoltaic projects in California, three other states and Mexico.

Floating photovoltaic arrays are relatively new technology for irrigation ponds, reservoirs and water treatment plants. They are getting notice because they don’t take up valuable farmland or expensive real estate.

There are existing floating solar projects in Napa County, Japan and India, and many more are planned.

“Large-scale floating PV systems have increasingly shown their effectiveness in various settings, and this platform gives SPI a strong competitive advantage in this growing market segment,” Xiaofeng Peng, chairman of SPI, said in a news release. “This technology not only generates clean solar power energy, but also serves to conserve water in critically dry regions like the Southwestern U.S. and California in particular.”



Solarize South Carolina

Solarize South Carolina Campaign Aims to Rev Up SC’s Home Solar Industry

Solarize South CarolinaThanks to the launch of a new grassroots campaign in South Carolina, the longtime solar laggard could be poised to triple its installed capacity among homes and small businesses.

Today, clean energy nonprofit group SmartPower officially kicks off a Solarize bulk discount buying program. Solarize South Carolina aims to inflate South Carolina’s solar capacity among homes and small businesses from 11 MW (enough to power 1,000 homes) to 33 MW in the next 18 months.

“New policies within the state have made it more attractive,” said SmartPower president Brian Keane, referring to legislation passed in June 2014 that gave the green light to third-party leasing — and required investor-owned utilities such as Duke Energy and South Carolina Energy & Gas to increase its distributed energy resources. The utilities will also pay businesses and residents that are producing their own renewable energy.

“There’s enough changes happening for it to make financial sense for consumers to go solar,” Keane said.

The Solarize model — which has been widely implemented across the U.S. in cities such as Portland, Seattle, Asheville and Raleigh — aims to quickly ramp up residential solar capacity on a citywide and neighborhood level by working with solar contractors offering discounts that are proportional to the number of residents who take the solar plunge.

But unlike most other Solarize efforts, Solarize South Carolina marks one of the first times that an investor-owned utility has expressed an interest in becoming an official partner in the campaign, according to Keane, who said that his group is currently working out how South Carolina Energy & Gas will be involved. San Francisco-based Dividend Solar, a residential financing company, is another partner.

The first phase of Solarize South Carolina will be rolled out at community events (such as farmer’s markets, book clubs and civic organization gatherings) in Charleston, West Ashley, James Island and Mount Pleasant.

“We’re basically going where the people are,” Keane said of the decision to launch the campaign in these areas. “I believe that there’s this pent-up demand for those who want to go solar.”

The Charleston chapter of the Rotary Club will host Thursday’s launch event. At that time, the city will be given an incentive: If 69 residents sign up for solar systems, it will receive 5 kW of donated solar.

After the first campaigns get off the ground, Columbia and Greenville are next on the list.

Yet despite a widespread awareness of solar, Keane says there are still challenges.

“It’s getting people to walk that last mile from awareness to installation,” he said. “You just don’t walk into a store and get solar. But we’re bringing the solar store to you.”


Portland Sunnier Than Houston?

solar-sunlightThe spring equinox is a fine time to celebrate the sun. And, for the solar power lovers among us, it’s a great time to take stock of how much sun is available for rooftop solar across the country.

When we do, we find that, over the course of the year, the sun for solar power generation is actually much more evenly distributed than sunny-Southwest-postcards-vs.-Northern-snow-scenes would suggest. It’s also more evenly spread than typical solar maps would lead you to believe. Here’s a better way to see how much you’ve got.

What does a better map mean for you?

A good solar map will allow you to get a ballpark sense, right off the bat, of how well solar panels might perform where you live.


DRECP report

If You Want to Solve the Energy Crisis, Put Solar Everywhere

DRECP reportThere’s been a lot of back-and-forth in recent weeks about where in California solar belongs. (Tellingly, the debate isn’t about whether or not to install solar, just where….)

It started with the news that public opposition to the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a big part of California’s clean energy future. DRECP would put big solar farms throughout the desert in the southeastern part of the state — a plan has put environmentalists in the tough spot of choosing between clean energy and protecting fragile ecosystems.

Last week, public officials from California and the federal government announced a dramatic change to the plan, so that it will focus first on putting solar on federal and state lands and then taking more time to address concerns about solar farms sited on private lands.

This week, however, researchers from the Carnegie Institution for Science announce new findings that propose an alternative path to clean energy for the state: Put solar everywhere.

new paper in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that putting solar “on and around existing infrastructure in California would exceed the state’s demand by up to five times.”

“Integrating solar facilities into the urban and suburban environment causes the least amount of land-cover change and the lowest environmental impact,” explained Rebecca R. Hernandez on the Carnegie Science blog.

DRECP2Looking at two kinds of solar technology — solar photovoltaics and concentrating solar power — the study found that California is home to about 6.7 million acres of land suitable for solar PV and about 1.6 million acres suitable for concentrating solar power. If all that land is solarized (which is of course a tall order, at least in the near term), the researchers found that solar PV could generate up to 15,000 terawatt-hours of energy each year and concentrating solar could generate up to 6,000 terrawatt-hours of energy a year.

According to the U.S. EIA, California’s total electricity consumption in 2014 was just under 198 terawatt-hours — so even without developing all of those millions of acres of solar-friendly land, we could dramatically exceed our current energy demand.


georgetown texas is going 100% renewable

Georgetown to go 100% renewable energy, first in state, city says

georgetown texas is going 100% renewableGeorgetown says it plans to be the first city in Texas entirely powered by renewable energy.

The city’s electrical utility is planning to announce Wednesday that it is signing a deal with solar developer SunEdison for 150 megawatts of solar power beginning in 2016.

Combined with a 2014 deal with wind developer EDF, the city of 54,000 north of Austin says it now has enough renewable power under contract to cover its customers’ entire electricity needs.

As wind and solar farms proliferate around the United States, communities have slowly begun to commit to all-renewable power deals in what have been billed as a response to residents’ concern over the impact of carbon emissions on global warming.