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.


Harrop: The sun is rising globally on solar panels

residential-solarOn the average sunny day, Germany’s huge energy grid gets 40 percent of its power from the sun. Guess what happened one recent morning when the sun went into eclipse. Nothing.

Or close to nothing. When the moon hid the sun for a few hours, the backup natural gas and coal plants switched on. The price of electricity rose briefly. That was it. Solar again showed itself to be a reliable energy source under a tough challenge.

Back in the United States, meanwhile, electric companies and various fossil fuel interests are fighting the American public’s growing passion for rooftop solar panels. They’re also doing battle with state laws requiring utilities to get a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources.

Oil, gas and coal lobbyists, fed by Koch brother checks, are backing a campaign by utilities to slap fees on solar panels. Their target is net metering — the system whereby homes and businesses with solar panels sell their excess electricity back to the grid.


For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight

solar shouldn't blightIf one were to draw up a list of the most benign technologies ever invented, it seems obvious that solar power would be near the top.

Electricity produced merely by the action of sunlight falling on a silicon panel seems to be drawback-free – no moving parts to go wrong, no combustible materials and most important of all, no harmful emissions of noxious gases to damage human health, or wreck the Earth’s atmospheric balance. If we are to meet our commitments to deal with climate change through the switch to renewable energy, solar will be more necessary than ever.

Yet the recent runaway expansion of the technology in Britain is now clashing headlong with nature protection in a key case in Dorset, which ultimately involves high stakes, concerning a solar farm – a concept that did not exist in the UK until five years ago.


Federal Tax Credit

The Solar Industry Needs to Let Its Federal Tax Credit Die, Says This CEO

Federal Tax Credit

Wind has suffered from its reliance on the whims of Congress. Don’t let solar suffer the same fate, argues Camilo Patrignani.

The Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is arguably America’s most important solar policy. This 30 percent tax credit spurred 1,600 percent annual growth since its implementation in 2007 and turned solar into an economic engine.

But the ITC is only authorized at 30 percent through 2016 before falling to 10 percent thereafter (for non-residential systems), and federal gridlock leaves its extension in doubt. America’s wind industry has suffered boom-and-bust cycles from Production Tax Credit reauthorization uncertainty, leaving analysts to ask if solar will suffer the same fate.

So here’s a proposal: let’s prevent a tumultuous future by reducing the ITC to 10 percent in 2017 and letting it expire in 2018. This may seem odd for a solar CEO to call for, but we won’t need the ITC if we’re given a smooth glide path to prepare as an industry.

Consider a scenario after the 2016 elections, in which a lame duck White House and U.S. Senate fully extend the ITC for six months, providing continuity for solar developers while allowing the new government to take shape. Then, the ITC is lowered to 10 percent at the end of 2017, scheduled to end on December 31 2018, and all projects started by the end of each calendar year qualify for that year’s full credit.

Precedent exists in the California Solar Initiative, which provided incentives for rooftop solar starting in 2007 with a goal of installing 2,000 new megawatts by 2016. But California’s ending incentives this year, well ahead of schedule, and the state’s solar industry is growing faster than ever – why?

The answer’s simple: regulators volumetrically reduced payments at installation milestones as the industry matured, letting market forces direct incentives instead of artificial inputs.

This measured decline is important. Consider the ongoing Chinese solar panel import tariff fight. Developers were only given a few months notice before the U.S. Commerce Department imposed tariffs, hardly adequate time to react.

Industries are typically given time to prepare, but in this case tariffs were imposed and developers immediately faced new economics on projects already under development. Even the nuclear industry was given several years to react to new regulations after the Fukushima disaster.

Without domestic manufacturing capacity, tariffs place solar developers at barely a net economic advantage, even with the ITC. On foreign projects, my company buys panels around .55 cents per watt, but on projects within the U.S., we’re paying almost .75 cents – an extra .20 cents/watt.

If a solar project averages $1.50/watt, the ITC provides approximately .50 cents/watt, but add extra costs for imports or U.S.-made panels, and projects only receive .30 cents/watt of the ITC’s intended effect.

Import tariffs incentivize domestic manufacturing and this is starting to happen: SolarCity is building a plant in New York State and foreign firms will establish manufacturing in the U.S. and Mexico next year to meet demand across North and Latin America.

But even with increased domestic manufacturing, U.S.-made panels would still be more expensive than Chinese-made panels. Initial estimates place them in the high .60 cent/watt range, meaning developers will still face a financial crunch.

Reducing import tariffs would cut incentive reliance, but even if they stay in place, solar’s improving economics provide another reason to look beyond the ITC. Average American retail electricity prices have risen from 7.61 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2004 to 10.52 cents per kilowatt-hour in September 2014, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Meanwhile, solar keeps getting cheaper. International competition, technology innovations and new investment have lowered project costs 45 percent since 2012, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. And the National Renewable Energy Laboratory forecasts double-digit annual declines will continue at least several more years.

Rising power prices and falling project costs mean distributed solar is approaching grid parity with fossil fuels (as cheap or cheaper than average utility bill prices). Deutsche Bank estimates solar will soon hit grid parity in at least 36 states even if the ITC drops to 10 percent.

The financial sector can also chip in. America has robust capital markets, and as more banks invest in solar they improve projects economics through competitive financing compensating for higher capital costs.

Post-ITC, solar developers may find it easier to bring in debt financing on a project and increase levered return to investors. The ITC attracts investors by reducing project costs and adding tax benefits, but complicates the deal by adding a tax equity investor to the equation. As solar costs fall, projects can be packaged as simplified traditional investments – debt and equity secured by the asset and long-tem returns.

In lieu of import tariffs, policymakers could also boost domestic manufacturer competitiveness through “Made in America” local sourcing rules. For context, the Brazilian Development Bank requires local components for renewable energy projects in order to secure loans at favorable rates, and India just announced it is providing hundreds of millions to fund new solar projects using Indian-made panels.

America’s solar industry still needs an ITC, at least today, but we must empower developers to be competitive without subsidies. It won’t happen overnight, but smart policy steps and a predictable wind-down will compliment industry trends to prevent volatile market contractions.

So let’s push for a smooth end to the ITC as our solar industry diversifies and becomes more efficient, creating a situation where American solar stands on its own, without federal subsidies.


Camilo Patrignani is the CEO of Greenwood Energy, an engineering, procurement and construction firm focused on the clean energy sector.


american solar manufacturing

China Solar Tariffs Won’t Help U.S. Jobs

american solar manufacturingThe Barack Obama administration’s decision to put tariffs on Chinese and Taiwanese solar panels is almost certainly bad for the planet. It may also be bad for U.S. jobs.

The tariffs, announced yesterday, could increase the price of solar products from China and Taiwan by more than 200 percent. The move was prompted by SolarWorld AG, a German maker of solar panels that has a factory in Oregon. The U.S. claims that the imports benefited from unfair subsidies.

That may be true. But the broader context here is that despite impressive gains, the U.S. is failing to expand its renewable energy sector quickly enough to meet the challenge of climate change.


india solar power

Solar power can be the game-changer for inclusive growth

india solar power
Solar power can ease up the availability of these resources to the rural population.

With the positive intent and progressive action from the new government, the country is excited about entering a new era of growth & revolutionary transformation. This can happen faster and more effectively if the whole ecosystem is geared for it. And most important component of the ecosystem are the people, who are the primary beneficiaries as well as the key catalysts to stimulate this growth and transformation. Hence, their inclusive growth is imperative for this transformation to succeed and its benefits to accrue to the “nook and corner” of the population.

The key enabler for the inclusive growth is the availability of basic resources and tools affecting their daily life, viz, Power, Education, Transport, E-governance, Communication and Staple commodities. Today, for majority of the population, access to these resources is a big struggle and the challenge only gets bigger as we move to rural areas, where easy and abundant access to these resources is a pipe dream – only exception being the agro-products, which are produced and so available locally.



The Best Pipeline is a Pipeline that does not get Built


 Slowing or stopping the building of fossil fuel pipelines is an important part of efforts to decrease emissions. In addition to a series of delays for pipelines originating in Canada, Russia has recently been forced to cancel a major pipeline to Europe.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ongoing destabilization of the Ukraine has resulted in the cancellation of the $29 billion, 63 billion cubic meter South Stream gas pipeline project. Gazprom confirmed that the pipeline is being diverted through Turkey and Greece, instead of going through Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Austria.

Although European countries have been trying to reduce their dependence on Russian energy, they still get 33 percent of their gas supplies from Russia. In 2014 they will receive 155 bcm from Russia in 2014, half of which will flow through Ukraine, and the rest through Nord Stream, Yamal and other, smaller pipelines.

Russian difficulties building the South Stream pipeline are a scaled down version of the difficulties being faced by the Canadian government as it seeks to find a way to export its tar sands oil. All of canada’s pipeline projects, including the southbound Keystone XL, the westbound Northern Gateway, the eastbound Energy East pipeline and the northbound Arctic Gateway, have met with strenuous opposition. As has the Edmonton to Burnaby pipeline know as the Kinder-Morgan.

Each day that a fossil fuel pipeline is prevented from being built is a victory for the growth of clean energy and efforts to curtail emissions. A report this fall showed how delaying the Keystone pipeline in North America prevented $17 billion in new investments in the tar sands of Canada. These investments would have produced carbon equivalent to 735 coal-fired power plants.

The more pipelines we have the more carbon will be burned and the more emissions will rise. If we are to have a chance of staying within the internationally agreed upon 2 degree temperature increase, three quarters of existing fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground. In this context it makes little sense to keep building more pipelines.


Wayne Stroessner: Don’t be fooled by utility rhetoric on solar power

rock-on-wayne-520On June 1, 2007, 7.2 kW of photovoltaic panels were installed on our residential rooftop. Seven years and four months later, the photovoltaic array has produced 54,133 kWh of electrical energy, saved our atmosphere from 92,024 pounds of carbon dioxide and prevented 12.5 tons of coal from being burned in We Energies’ coal plants.

At the time of installation, We Energies considered solar panels to be beneficial for their electrical energy production. Photovoltaics are most effective when the sun is shining brightly on long summer days. This is the same time when most air conditioners are running to supply “peak” energy demand. Solar panels have indeed provided that electrical energy to prevent We Energies from starting up additional auxiliary electrical generators during hot days. In fact, We Energies found it to be so beneficial that they established a 10-year program in which they would pay photovoltaic owners a premium per kilowatt-hour for the electrical energy the panels produced.


Latinos shouldn’t be pawns in fight over rooftop solar power

chess-pawnThe three largest utility companies in California – Pacific Gas and Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison – have been using Latinos and others who live in middle- and lower-income communities as pawns in a war against rooftop solar.

Unfortunately, the longer their war continues, the more harm will come to Latinos and other communities of color. We are bearing the brunt of toxic pollution from utility-run coal plants. Latinos, who are concentrated in the drought-stricken Southwest and coastal cities like Miami, are on the front lines of extreme weather caused by climate change.

But, of course, the powerful utilities are looking out for their best interests, not ours. For years they have been trying to buy off Latino legislators to limit the expansion of rooftop solar and increase our community’s dependence on dirty energy that is poisoning us.