NREL Releases New Utility-Scale Solar Reports

Utility-scale solar is still something of a novelty in the renewable energy ecosystem. Large-scale deployment of these multi-megawatt (MW) installations has only recently been enabled in the United States by two key pieces of federal legislation and state-level implementation of renewable energy standards. The market boomed in 2011, adding more than 760 MW of capacity and ending the year with a bullish outlook for 2012. In April, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) published a series of three reports on the market, technologies, policies, and cost of energy of utility-scale solar facilities in the United States. These reports provide a comprehensive portrait of this dynamic segment of the solar market.

Figure 1. U.S. utility-scale solar capacity in development as of January 2012

The first report in the series, Utility-Scale Concentrating Solar Power and Photovoltaics Projects: A Technology and Market Overview, offers a rundown of all the technologies that have been and are currently employed in producing solar power at the utility-scale (defined in the report as projects of 5 MW or above). Several of these technologies are familiar (e.g., crystalline silicon PV and parabolic trough solar thermal systems), but some exotic representatives are also in the mix (e.g., linear Fresnel, and the far-out “solar chimney” and “space solar” projects currently under contract with California utilities).

The report also provides a snapshot of the utility-scale solar development pipeline as of January 2012. According to NREL’s count, 1,176 MW of utility-scale solar capacity were operational and 16,043 MW were under development with utility or load-serving entity power purchase agreements (PPAs).

Approximately 72% of the capacity in development was comprised of PV technologies, primarily crystalline silicon and cadmium telluride thin-films (which were used almost exclusively on First Solar projects). A full quarter of the 16,043 MW were from concentrated solar thermal power projects: 9% parabolic troughs and 16% tower systems. Tower technology is a newcomer to the U.S. solar scene—presently there is only one operational tower plant, the 5-MW Sierra Sun Tower in Lancaster, California. BrightSource Energy plans to develop the majority of the tower projects in the pipeline (approx. 2.4 GW), and it will sell the power to California’s two largest utilities. Another up-and-coming technology to watch is concentrating PV (CPV), which uses lenses or mirrors to focus sunlight on small and highly efficient solar cells. As of January 2012, 471 MW of CPV were under PPAs.

Figure 2. Leading utilities with utility-scale solar PPAs

California’s three investor owned utilities—Pacific Gas and Electric PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E)—held PPAs with 72% of the total U.S. capacity in development as of the report’s publication. This is largely due to California’s aggressive renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which mandates that these three utilities derive 33% of their generation from renewable resources. The four states of California, Arizona, Nevada, and Florida—all but the last of which have coupled favorable RPSs with outstanding solar resources—are slated to host approximately 90% of the utility-scale solar projects in the United States.

State RPSs, in concert with the federal loan guarantee program and federal tax benefits (including the investment tax credit, accelerated depreciation schedule, and the Treasury’s 1603 grant program), comprise a policy trinity that is largely responsible for the utility-scale solar boom. This is one of the conclusions of the second utility-scale report from NREL, Federal and State Structures to Support Financing Utility-Scale Solar Projects and the Business Models Designed to Utilize Them.

The report also finds that state RPS requirements (for all eligible renewable technologies) will require an additional 200,000 gigawatt-hours be produced each year through 2020. The hypothetical analysis in Table 1 indicates 2,283 MW of solar resources would be required (assuming they provide 20% of the energy and produce at a 20% capacity factor). That value represents 570 MW per quarter, slightly more than the quarterly PV capacity installed in Q3 2011, but less than that achieved in Q4 2011.

Table 1. Potential Renewable Energy Annual Capacity Additions
Technology % of Assumed Portfolio Annual Energy Produced Assumed Capacity Factor Avg. Annual Capacity Addition (MW)
Wind 70% 14,000 35% 4,566
Solar 20% 4,000 20% 2,283
Biomass 5% 1,000 80% 143
Geothermal 5% 1,000 90% 127
Total 100% 20,000

It also appears that some states will hit their solar targets early because of the robust build-out in the last two years. Nine states and D.C. have specific solar renewable energy certificate (SREC) requirements and will need incremental solar capacity of 6,729 MW by 2025. That represents roughly 480 MW of solar capacity installed per year, less than half the total domestic installations in 2010. Of the nine states—and D.C.—with SREC requirements, New Jersey is the most aggressive. The state’s RPS dictates more than a 10-fold increase over its current solar capacity to 3,700 by 2025; that value represents only 264 MW per year (66 MW/quarter). To put that in perspective, the state reached 64 MW of solar installations in Q3 2011, thus achieving the pace required through 2025.

In addition to exploring the impacts of the various policies and mechanisms designed to spur the U.S. solar market, this second report also details the innovative project financial structures that have been engineered to use federal tax benefits. The third report in the series, Impact of Financial Structure on the Cost of Solar Energy, which I discussed in a previous post, performs System Advisor Model runs to determine how these structures affect the levelized cost of energy. All three reports are available at

Original Article on OpenEI


The DOE’s Sunshot Vision Study

The DOE‘s Sunshot Vision Study provides an in-depth assessment of the potential for solar technologies to share a significant portion of electricity demand in the United States in the coming decades.

Using NREL‘s Regional Energy Deployment System (ReEDS) and Solar Deployment System (SolarDS) models, the SunShot Vision Study provides least-cost geographical deployment of solar technologies, among other technologies.

Information about the ReEds and SolarDS apps can be found on OpenEI.

The study is meant to be the most comprehensive review of the potential for U.S. solar electricity generation to date. The study was initiated by the DOE Solar Energy Technologies Program (SETP) and managed by NREL.

Of the findings in the study, the cost of solar plays the most important role. Price is one of the main barriers to a widespread adoption of solar energy technologies. The SunShot Vision study explores a scenario in which the price of solar reduces by 75% from 2010 to 2020. Lowering the cost would give solar energy technologies a competitive advantage, an advantage that the SunShot Vision Study says would mean 14% of our power would come from solar in 2030, 27% by 2050.

Here are some other key findings in the study:

Achieving the SunShot price targets is projected to result in the cumulative installation of approximately 302 gigawatts (GW) of PV and 28 GW of CSP by 2030, and 632 GW of PV and 83 GW of CSP by 2050.

Annual U.S. electricity-sector carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are projected to be significantly lower in the SunShot scenario than in the reference scenario: 8%, or 181 million metric tons (MMT), lower in 2030, and 28%, or 760 MMT, lower in 2050.
Both the SunShot and reference scenarios require significant transmission expansion. In the reference scenario, transmission is expanded primarily to meet growing electricity demand by developing new conventional and wind resources. In the SunShot scenario, transmission is expanded at a similar level, but in different locations in order to develop solar resources.
The level of solar deployment envisioned in the SunShot scenario poses significant but not insurmountable technical challenges with respect to grid integration and could require substantial changes to system planning and operation practices.

Financing the scale of expansion in the SunShot scenario will require significant new investments in the solar manufacturing supply chain and in solar energy projects.
Achieving the SunShot scenario level of solar deployment would result in significant downward pressure on retail electricity prices.
Achieving the SunShot scenario level of solar deployment could support 290,000 new solar jobs by 2030, and 390,000 new solar jobs by 2050.
The Full SunShot Vision Study is available by clicking here

Original Article on OpenEI

Low-Income Housing Residents Going Solar

Until recently, the low-income housing community has been a tough nut for the solar industry to crack.
Low-income housing developments have historically avoided going solar due to the obvious difficulties of incorporating high-cost, discretionary photovoltaic (PV) systems into affordable housing. However, a unique mix of local, utility, and federal support combined with a little financial creativity allowed a community in Colorado to demonstrate the application of PV into a low-income housing program.
Here’s how it worked.
Figure 1. Solar PV and a low-income housing development in Denver, Colorado [1]

It Takes a Village

In northeast Denver, Colorado, a partnership of community stakeholders came together to pilot the first U.S. low-income housing project to take on solar. The partnership itself was a large and diverse collaboration of various interests groups. No less than six organizations were involved in the effort, including:

  • Northeast Denver Housing Center (NDHC)
  • Del Norte Neighborhood Corporation
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory
  • Bella Energy
  • Groundwork Denver
  • Governor’s Energy Office of Colorado.

Collectively, these organizations put the pieces together to develop the Whittier Affordable Housing Project (WAHP). Within WAHP, 30 affordable housing rentals across 12 buildings received residential-scale solar PV systems [1]. Figure 1 shows three of these systems.

One of the key enabling factors of the low-income solar housing is also evident in Figure 1; each of the housing units selected in the program is smaller than the average American home and has undergone recent energy efficiency retrofits (e.g., insulation, lighting, and building envelope improvements). Because of these small and energy efficient housing characteristics, the WAHP program was able to utilize relatively small 1.88-kW systems to offset approximately 85% of the occupant’s energy usage. The small size of the individual systems allowed for a greater number of system installations across WAHP [1].

The Financing Puzzle with One Wildcard

Like most renewable energy financing arrangements, the partnership utilized any and all available revenue streams to have the PV system’s economics pencil out. First, the project was set up for the first six years as a third-party financing mechanism, where a private tax-paying investor owns the PV system to take advantage of the federal 30% investment tax credit and accelerated depreciation benefits. Second, WAHP received a $2/Watt upfront cash incentive from the local utility Xcel Energy that significantly bought down the cost of the PV systems. Xcel also agreed to purchase the renewable energy certificates (RECs) at a healthy $0.11/kWh for the first 20 years of the project’s operation. Additionally, the low-income housing residents paid $0.08/kWh for the energy produced by the PV systems. By comparison, the average electric rate for NDHC residents was $0.95/kWh, thus the PV is projected to save NDHC money over the course of the 20-year contract period.

Even with these large revenue streams, there was one more puzzle piece required to complete the financing [1]. NDHC was successful in applying for a $107,500 grant from the Governor’s Energy Office of Colorado to finance the project. The NDHC award was immediately loaned to the investor to provide the final revenue piece to make the project viable. The investor, in turn, repays the loan with interest to NDHC over six years. At year seven of the project, NDHC will buy out the investor using the loan and interest repayments and will own the low-income solar project [1]. Figure 2 illustrates the lifetime cash flows between the investor and NDHC.

Figure 2. Lifetime cashflows of Whittier Affordable Housing Project [1]

Good for the Goose and for the Gander

Although not all tenants in NDHC received PV systems on their rooftops, WAHP program designers also implemented several community-wide programs to broaden the overall appeal.  First, a PV installation training and education program was created for low-income residents. From this training program, several community residents were hired by a local PV installer. Second, a neighborhood-wide energy conservation incentive program was established and funded through savings from the PV installation [1]. Lastly, the community was able to showcase its program as a first-of-a-kind in the nation with successful implementation.

Despite WAHP’s use of the one-time grant to fully fund the program, it was intended for the model to be a roadmap for other communities to follow. Since the development of WAHP, there have been sizable reductions in both renewable energy subsidies as well as PV system prices. Therefore, other communities will need to customize their program to take advantage of local financial strengths and resources, but WAHP demonstrates the successful application of PV to all income classes.


[1] Dean, J.; Smith-Drier, C.; Mekonnen, G.; Hawthorne, W. “Integrating Photovoltaic Systems into Low-Income Housing Developments: A Case Study on the Creation of a New Residential Financing Model and Low-Income Resident Job Training Program,” September 2011. Accessed April 23, 2012.

To view original blog post, click here

Original Article on OpenEI

The Green Button

The idea behind Green Button is simple. As a consumer, you will can access and use your personal energy usage data how you want. The federal government is encouraging utility companies to give consumers the ability to access their own energy usage information in an easy-to-use format for insight into how best to manage personal energy use. The concept took several years to make a reality, but today the Green Button is becoming more and more available to energy consumers.

Aneesh Chopra, U.S. Chief Technology Officer, announced the start of Green Button on January 18, 2012. The initiative has already since been adopted by 3 of California’s largest utility companies, along with other innovative companies, giving access to roughly 6 million people initially. That number is continuing to grow.

Here’s how it works. Once logged in to your utilities’ website, you will see a ‘Green Button’ icon like the image in this article. You can click on this button and download your personal energy usage data. To take advantage of this data, you can upload your data to Green Button apps. We’ve already made 6 cool apps available at These apps give you a nice interface, with multiple features that allow you to analyze your personal energy use data like never before. You can select how you want to analyze your data, rather than trying to understand the typically complex end of month energy bill from your utility.

The Green Button initiative is an example of the government encouraging industry to accelerate the use of a standard, as opposed to a federal mandate. Inevitably, this encouragement will create more educated energy consumers, which is good news for our planet and your bank account. The Green Button is a large part of the growing energy information economy.

Original Article on OpenEI

In Focus: Oil Tar Sands

Last week, OpenEI focused on the issues related to fracking. We showed both the potential gains and pitfalls of continued fracking policy in the United States. Another hot issue in the United States and internationally are oil sands, or tar sands.

The epicenter of this issue resides in Alberta, Canada, in the Athabasca river basin. It contains the largest concentration of bitumen in the world. Bitumen is a think, black, viscous type of petroleum. In recent years, oil sands have become a part of global oil reserves, and as a result Canada now ranks 2nd only to Saudi Arabia in oil reserves thanks to the oil sands in Alberta.
The oil sands are buried in mixed layers of clay and sand and varying depths in and around the Athabasca river basin. The process is a rather exhaustive process that requires clearing and mining. Then, the material must be heated in order to obtain the bitumen.
The Alberta economy has shown large rises in job growth and GDP due to the rise in value of the oil sands and foreign investment in extraction of the resource. However, similar to fracking, many environmentalists stand opposed to the process due to recent reports that deforestation and water contamination are having an effect on the ecosystem. Some environmentalists also argue that the boreal forest, making up 10% of the world’s forest, is vital to keeping GHGs low and clearing it is a detrimental act to people, natural resources, and animals.

To learn more and contribute to the oil sands issue, and find out about regulations and policies, related reports, and links to more information about the topic, visit the OpenEI Tar Sands page

Original Article on OpenEI

In Focus: Fracking

Fracking has been a hot topic in the United Statesin recent years, but did you know that the concept of fracking has actually been around for several decades? Read on to find out all you need to know about fracking.

Hydraulic fractures form naturally in rock layers, caused by the presence of high-pressure fluids that cause the rocks to fracture. The oil and gas industry has taken this natural occurrence one step further by creating their own hydraulic fractures in order to get to petroleum, natural gas, or coal seam gas buried deep under ground.
It is this procedure, along with the injection of fracking chemicals (a mixture of chemicals that helps break down rock faster than water) that has led to the concerns over what fracking is doing to the natural environment.

Two types of wells are drilled: horizontal and vertical. Vertical wells are most common, and have been drilled for many years, while horizontal wells are much more recent. They are drilled parallel to the rock layer targeted for extraction. The overall technique allows oil and gas companies to reach depths of 5,000 to 20,000 feet. At that depth, the fracking of rock is vital to enable natural gas and oil to flow from the rock to the well borehole.

The Marcellus Shale, stretching along the Appalachian basin and across several eastern states, is perhaps the epicenter of fracking in the United States. The number of marcellus wells in Pennsylvania alone has gone from 196 wells in 2008, to 1592 projected wells for 2011. The rush to cash in on the energy source has been mired in criticism due to several reports and numerous accounts of drilling activities contaminating drinking water.
Visit EnergyNOW! to hear EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and read other articles and reports on hydraulic fracturing.
In line with the concern, the EPA recently announced a fracking study plan set to take place over the next several years.

“The agency announced last year that it will study the natural gas extraction technique, which involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break up underground rock formations and release trapped gas. The aim of the study is to determine whether the process, also called “fracking,” affects drinking water supplies.” (EPA Releases Fracking Plan,

Three of the 7 locations that will be tested are in Pennsylvania. A preliminary report is expected next year, with the full report available by 2014.
Its clear this will be a contentious issue as long as environmental concerns abound, and as long as the energy payoff is so high. Energy companies will be lining up to drill for oil and gas. The next couple years will determine whether the activity can be completed safely and successfully, or if the technique is too dangerous to our drinking water.
Visit OpenEI’s Oil & Gas gateway for information and data related to fracking.

Original Article on OpenEI

Energy Expenditure vs. Energy Use

How much energy are we using? And what are the costs? Its a hot topic today, as companies market energy efficient products and the nation’s energy grid undergoes a make over. Its important for people to know what the current trends are, and what if their options are cost-effective.

To help with that, the Department of Energy has created several maps that will help you see the data today on energy use by state and personal energy use.

Check out these maps:

State Energy Expenditure

Energy Consumption/person

Original Article on OpenEI

Hydropower in the U.S

Hydropower is an important energy source in the United States, and has remained a relatively steady source of energy over the past several decades. But how well do you understand the landscape of hydropower in the United States?

EIA’s energy in brief is an in-depth analysis of the role of hydropower in the United States. Some important highlights of the resource are:
– Hydropower is the largest renewable electricity source in the United States
– The Pacific Northwest far exceeds the rest of the country in output of hydroelectricity. The Grand Coulee dam in Washington is the largest power plant in the United States, and 5th largest in the world with a net summer capacity of 7,079 megawatts
– The nation’s 25 oldest operating power plants are all hydroelectric, with the oldest beginning in 1891.
Check out EIA’s Energy brief: What is the role of hydropower in the United States in full.

Original Article on OpenEI

Energy Use and Thanksgiving

Our national holiday devoted to eating, Thanksgiving, is also a holiday that can spike your energy use. The chill of November, along with your guest’s expectations of a large traditional feast mean large amounts of energy use in the home. OpenEI thought it was appropriate to offer a couple of basic energy saving tips to keep in mind to help lower energy use over Thanksgiving.

1. Keep the oven door shut.
This is kind of a no-brainer, but with a bunch of hungry guests who want to sample whats in the oven, the door can be open a lot. Try to shut it as often as possible.

2. Stuff the oven.
You’re paying to heat the oven, so make sure you stuff the oven with several dishes to save on energy.

3. Use the microwave.
Compared to your oven, a microwave uses a fraction of the energy. If applicable, use the microwave for cooking or warming needs.

4. Choose the proper burner.
Make sure the size of your burner matches the size of the pot or dish on it. If your pot is small with a large burner area, you are wasting energy.

5. Load the dishwasher.
Using your dishwasher saves on energy versus scraping away at Thanksgiving dishes.

One final thing to keep in mind is that all of this cooking will heat your home, so don’t forget to turn down your thermostat. Last but not least, Happy Thanksgiving from everyone on the OpenEI team!!

Original Article on OpenEI Gets Revamped

Yesterday, the Obama Administration unveiled the new, a collection of energy data, maps, and apps for developers, scientists, and citizens interested in energy and the environment.

The unveiling was a highlight at the Council of Environmental Quality‘s three-day conference centered around GreenGov; focused efforts to make the federal government more green and energy-efficient.

Hundreds of new, open data, maps, and apps are now made available to the public at the website spanning several decades. The message is clear that the Federal Government will continue to make energy information open to the public to try to inspire a new energy portfolio. However, another message, somewhat more hidden, can be derived from the GreenGov unveiling.

All of the data and information were released from federal government statistics and recordings. However, the federal government is only a part of an energy whole that consists of private utilities and energy companies. The government hopes this initiative will inspire more to share in transparent energy information and data. shares the same vision for energy data, maps, and apps. We are working hard to incorporate similar information, and create unique visualizations from U.S. data, as well as data from international sources and crowd-sourcing.

Original Article on OpenEI

Rewarding Green Innovation

Green innovation has been a hot topic lately due, in part, to the collapse of Solyndra, as well as the debate over how the United States’ energy portfolio fits into the federal budget. But one idea may shift the notion of risk towards a reward system that could help spur green innovation.

Professor of Philosophy and International Affairs Thomas Pogge at Yale University believes that the creation of an Ecological Impact Fund is a great way to spur efficient innovation. The current practice places importance on companies receiving patents, garnering a temporary monopoly which allows innovators to recoup costs of R & D by setting the prices well above production costs. The result, says Pogge, is above-market prices and limited availability.

Pogge’s Ecological Impact Fund would aim at linking the accessibility of an innovation to its value, which could create a much better alignment of the private reward with the social benefit.

Some are skeptical of the fund, claiming that measuring ecological benefit is not an easy science, a viewpoint that Pogge has acknowledged. The fund is still an idea at this point, but it has already gained much public acknowledgment, both positive and negative.

Original Article on OpenEI

In Focus: Energy Poverty

Roughly one billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity, a staggering number. About 2.7 billion people do not have access to a clean cooking facility. These deficiencies lead to millions of preventable deaths every year.

Allowing people in developing countries to have access to electricity would improve health, education, and economic conditions. And while providing power to so many people sounds like a large undertaking, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that $48 billion could be enough to end energy poverty, only 3% of the worldwide investment IEA believes is needed in the energy sector.

The United Nations fully supports ending energy poverty, with secretary-general Ban Ki-moon announcing that universal access to electricity is needed by 2030. That fits with the 20 year timeline the IEA believes would be enough time to accomplish that goal.

OpenEI understands the need to expand electricity to developing nations, and also to do it in a responsible, low-emitting way. You can find information at OpenEI about these initiatives at the Low Emission Development Stategies gateway, the International Clean Energy Analysis gateway, and coming soon there will be a gateway devoted to Energy Poverty. Stay tuned for its release.

Original Article on OpenEI

Secretary Chu Steps Up Green Jobs Effort

The debate over clean energy jobs is at an all-time high amidst the recent Solyndra bankruptcy and the Obama administration seeking passage of a jobs bill. Despite recent questions related to how viable a clean energy economy can be, DOE Secretary Steven Chu urges people to not diminish their support of clean energy.

Steven Chu spoke before a group of young solar innovators, urging them and the United States to try to stay ahead of the clean energy race. Steven Chu and other supporters point to China, where support for clean energy is much higher than that of the United States. Chu emphasized that it is not only important to generate clean energy, but also to create a new United States economy that could help alleviate some of the burden placed on it by the recent faltering economy.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently projected that solar power could grow to 20% of the world’s electricity in the coming decades. The reports highlights the potential economic gain in leading this advance in solar, amongst other renewable energy technologies.

However, the state of the economy has led some to believe that the United States is not in a position to gain traction in the “clean energy race”. Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversights and Investigations Cliff Stearns told NPR recently that he didn’t believe the United States could compete with China in making solar panels and wind turbines, and that the United States should not be focusing on trying to.

The debate over the United States’ stance on clean energy will most certainly heat up as the 2012 election approaches.

Original Article on OpenEI

The Glendale California Smart Meter Program

Glendale Water and Power, supplying Glendale, California, is one of the first smart grids to connect customers in the United States. Three years and over 100,000 total smart meters later, and Glendale is close to announcing a fully functioning smart grid.

However, to get to that point, there is still more work left at this point. Once the smart meters are all installed, it will take two months of testing to confirm readings. There will also be a 12-month distribution automation pilot at one key substation. Finally, there are still PV units and energy storage units that need to be installed and integrated.

The project began through a $20 million dollar grant from DOE funding smart grid technologies. The business case Glendale presented to DOE indicated a 7 year payback, which they now say may take fewer than 5 years to fully repay the grant.

This is based on the overall positive support Glendale residents have shown towards the program, on top of the ability of smart grid technologies to reduce energy bills and improve efficiency. Glendale Power and Water expects to see even further reductions in peak demand, already reduced by 3%. They also expect to see a 7% reduction in water use.

While nationwide smart grid programs may still be several years down the line, the Glendale project serves as a good example of the benefits of a functioning smart grid.

Original Article on OpenEI