jeanine cotter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you tap into gender, ethnic and economic diversity, “you are able to access folks that are not necessarily in the competitive workforce. And that means you can access talent that currently isn’t within any solar organization,” according to Cotter. spoke with Cotter about her drive to find new talent among underrepresented groups, why some companies find it hard to diversify their workforce, and how she is looking to change Luminalt to make sure the company provides stable work for families, which she says is key to diversifying solar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.”

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.


solar revolution

The Revolution will be Solarized

solar revolutionThere’s a clean energy revolution happening in California – and it has the potential to topple the old polluting forces while fighting climate change with the power of the sun.

California is not only producing the most solar power in the country – 8.5 gigawatts, enough to power two million homes – it’s producing more solar power than the rest of the country combined. In 2014 alone, the state more than doubled its solar power, becoming the first state to generate five percent of its total electricity from utility-scale solar. This record does not even count rooftop solar and distributed generation (where California also leads the country), bringing the state closer to an estimated seven percent of its total power generation from free sunshine.

The solar industry employs more than 54,000 Californians – nearly one-third of all solar workers in the nation – and solar jobs in the state grew by 16 percent in 2014 alone (compared to 2.2 percent overall state job growth in 2014). California solar jobs are expected to grow by another 17 percent in 2015.

California cities are the vanguard of this revolution, with Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, and Sacramento leading the charge. New research finds that California’s cities and urban centers could generate enough solar to meet the state’s power needs three to five times over, without developing a single additional acre of the state’s natural areas.

This solar revolution could not come sooner for my hometown of Los Angeles. The city is in a fight to rid itself of coal power by 2025, while also battling the impacts of climate change that are stressing our energy grid and worsened by fossil fuels.

Los Angeles’ historic heatwaves are expected to increase in number and frequency in the coming decades; some regions will experience triple or quadruple the number of heat days. The city broke its all-time record for energy demand last year on a particularly hot day, with nearly double the peak energy demand experienced on a typical day in the city. Pollution-free solar power can help us convert a potentially dangerous heat source into a source of cooling.

Statewide, record heatwaves will continue to drive up energy demand while the worst drought in at least 1,200 years and record-low snowpack has slashed in half the state’s available hydro-electric power. To help make our energy future less vulnerable to these and other impacts of climate change, we need a clean energy revolution now more than ever.

But, here’s the thing about a good revolution: it can’t rely on a few remarkable events, it needs a solid foundation to sustain itself and it needs to empower people, the true lifeblood of any revolution.

Forward-thinking state policy has been a solid foundation and driving force, including the Governor’s recent commitment to achieve 50 percent of California’s total energy from renewable sources by 2030. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has the opportunity to develop clear plans to integrate renewable energy, energy efficiency, advanced storage, and other enabling technologies that can displace dirty “peaker” power plants to balance the grid during periods of variability or when electricity demand exceeds supply.

Speaking of balancing the grid, we need to move our energy demand to align with our peak solar production (when the sun is shining brightest, roughly 11 AM to 4 PM). Right now, most electricity demand occurs later in the evening when people get home from work and flip on their appliances and electronics, causing a mismatch between demand and clean energy supply. Fortunately, policies like ‘Time of Use’ pricing and ‘Demand Response’ – energy management tools that incentivize customers to reduce their energy use during times of high demand – can put the power in the hands of the people to advance the clean energy revolution and displace dirty and costly fossil fuels.

Finally, and most importantly, any worthwhile revolution needs to uplift and empower all people. Our clean energy revolution needs to be equitable, affordable, and accessible to all Californians, especially low income people, communities of color, and communities overburdened by fossil fuel pollution. While there are still many equity questions to answer, we are making great strides forward.

Step outside into the sunshine, California’s clean energy revolution is happening live!


solar sunset

US: Best practices guides aim to lower financing costs for solar energy systems

solar sunsetThe Solar Access to Public Capital (SAPC), a working group convened by the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), has released new best practices guidelines for solar PV systems with the goal of increasing investor confidence in the long-term viability of PV systems.

SAPC subcommittees, each involving dozens of solar and finance entities, developed the guides, SAPC Best Practices in PV System Installation and SAPC Best Practices in PV Operations and Maintenance.

SAPC is comprised of 425 members representing the PV market chain, including development, legal, financial, accounting, engineering and other segments engaged in solar asset deployment, finance and operation.



community solar

Solar Power To Become Cheapest Source Of Energy In Many Regions By 2025

community solarSolar power still amounts for a small share of net electricity generation around the world. In the USA, for instance, as of December 2014 it was responsiblefor just 0.45% of the total electricity produced.

Things are changing quite quickly, however, and if the German think tank Agora Energiewende is right, faster than expected.

The main obstacle to a more widespread adoption of photovoltaic so far, has been cost: solar used to be very expensive compared to coal or gas, but, according to Agora – that recently commissioned a study on the subject to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems – this is no longer true.

Solar power – researchers say – thanks to technological advancements, is already cost-effective in some sunny regions: in Dubai, a long-term power purchase contract was signed recently for 5 cents per kilowatt hour. Projects under construction in Brazil, Uruguay and other countries are reported to produce at costs below 7 ct/KWh.


Georgia solar

Georgia one step closer to solar ‘free market financing’

Georgia solarA bill to make it easier for customers to install solar was passed unanimously by the Georgia Senate last week.

Georgia House Bill 57, called the Solar Power Free Market Financing Act of 2015, is meant to make it easier for customers to understand their options when it comes to financing small solar installation. It was introduced by Sen. Mike Dudgeon.

The bill allows residential solar customers applying for less than 100 kilowatts (kW), “the electric service provider may require the retail electric customer or solar financing agent to provide, at the retail electric customer’s or solar financing agent’s expense, all equipment necessary to meet applicable safety, power quality, and interconnection requirements established by the National Electrical Code, National Electrical Safety Code, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and Underwriters Laboratories.”


fort collins renewables

A Utility Business Model That Embraces Efficiency and Solar Without Sacrificing Revenue?

fort-collins-renewableA few weeks ago the city council in Fort Collins, Colorado, unanimously voted to accelerate the city’s climate action goals to achieve an 80-percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. The municipally owned Fort Collins Utilities understood the community’s desire for such aggressive action, which will be critical to the success of the effort, and has taken steps to better understand the utility’s role helping the community meet its energy transformation goals. One of those steps was working with RMI.

At first glance it may seem as though the utility’s revenue is doomed to plummet—among other elements, the city’s approach calls for a rapid scale-up of distributed renewables and building efficiency—but an exciting innovation suggests otherwise: the integrated utility services (IUS) model. The IUS utility business model that RMI developed for Fort Collins Utilities: a) deploys energy efficiency and rooftop solar as default options for residential and small commercial customers, b) does so with on-bill financing and other mechanisms to ensure no increase in customers’ monthly utility bills, and c) preserves utility revenue. This sounds like an unlikely, too-good-to-be-true combination, but our analysis shows that both municipally-owned utilities like Fort Collins Utilities and other member- or independently-owned utilities alike can achieve very real success.

Here’s how the IUS model came about. In the fall of 2012, RMI published Stepping Up in partnership with Fort Collins Utilities, which assessed the costs and benefits of accelerating the community’s greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets. The Fort Collins of that future would look very similar to today: beautiful old historic buildings, respectfully renovated to become more energy efficient; parks and open spaces with more trees and more expansive biking and walking trails; empty lots developed with transit-oriented, multi-use buildings. But such a future would also be fundamentally different. In order to hit such aggressive emissions reduction goals, the majority of the ways citizens consume energy (e.g., when driving their cars, heating their homes, and powering their buildings) would need to be electrified. In tandem, the electricity generation mix would need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, such as utility-scale wind, distributed rooftop solar, and storage.

The electrification of the energy system would have large implications for the utility, including changes to traditional electricity demand—our research suggested a 31-percent decrease in building energy use and almost 320 MW of distributed solar on customers’ roofs. And it would imply the emergence of new, non-traditional demand—our research also suggested that electrification of almost 50 percent of passenger vehicles and a switch to non-gas heating sources for one in three homes would be required.

Given the large changes the utility and its customers would have to make, Fort Collins Utilities approached us with a second set of questions that we think utilities of all stripes should consider:

  • How can a utility help most of its customers participate in the energy transition (by investing in efficiency, distributed solar, or other opportunities)?
  • How can a utility roll out these new services without disrupting or destroying its own revenue?

RMI, with the support of an e-Lab working group, the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster, and Fort Collins Utilities, set out to answer these questions through the design of a new utility business model.


The first conclusion we reached was that expanding the area of a utility that typically delivers efficiency and distributed solar programs (known as an energy services program) would be inadequate. To reach mass adoption, we wanted to start with a clean slate. The utility would need to seamlessly weave together various products, services, and financing tools that had never been integrated, and do so with an eye towards supporting revenue in the way it has with traditional electricity sales. This business model would help customers access a broader range of energy services—including efficiency improvements, distributed renewables, transport and heat system electrification, and demand response—in one comprehensive package, with monthly payments on the electricity bill. This integrated utility services model—the IUS model—could, if designed correctly, align a utility’s interest in its financial health with the interests of customers who want to invest in efficiency and distributed solar, and make these investments appealing to a wider range of customers.

Key program features would include:

  • A package of basic efficiency and distributed solar offerings that, when financed on a customer’s bill, do not increase monthly costs
  • An integrated intake and service-delivery experience for customers
  • A platform that allows for new services to be offered over time (and for innovative partners to participate in such offerings)
  • An on-bill financing program that would leverage diverse sources of capital

Here’s how the program we developed could work. The utility would contact customers to notify them of the new program and the options available for their home energy goals. An experienced third-party provider would contact customers and walk them through a set of choices for a bundle of services customized to their home. Contractors would then conduct audits and install measures in one fell swoop, keeping installation and procurement costs low. With high customer adoption and bundling offering a sort of “mass customization,” the utility could likely achieve economies of scale that would lower costs even further. Billing, quality control, monitoring and verification, and reporting would continue to be managed by the utility to ensure program success. Customer bills would reflect energy cost savings netted against service charges for the improvement measures. As the program delivered results, customers could consider upgrading for additional services such as new windows or a new refrigerator. Figure 1 shows one option for how services, energy, and cash would flow in such a program.



Our initial analysis shows customers could reduce their bills by roughly five percent when participating in the program’s basic, bill-neutral package. Since the customers’ service charges, like power purchase agreements, need not escalate as fast as utility pricing (or at all), these savings could rise substantially over time, to as much as a 25-percent bill reduction by 2030, according to one projection we ran (see Figure 2).


Meanwhile, utility income could increase, as these services, many of which continue to experience technology-driven cost reductions, are likely to be more profitable than traditional sales of electricity. There is also room to sell new services (just as some utilities are now offering high-speed Internet).

Our analysis, using public data, of Fort Collins Utilities’ revenue projected over the next 15 years shows how a utility’s balance sheet might be affected. We compared a business-as-usual (BAU) case with an IUS case. The IUS case includes at least a 60 percent adoption rate of the basic package, as well as a 10 percent additional adoption of premium offerings. Depending on the program’s financing structure, Fort Collins Utilities’ annual revenues in 2030 could remain roughly constant, even as overall kWh sales decline. But crucially, revenue net of costs can remain stable (or even increase if this was the goal).

While the utilities and individual customers would do well, the community would see tremendous gains. If 60 percent of the Fort Collins residential market segment participated in a basic package and 10 percent chose to upgrade to additional services (things like energy-efficient windows that might come at a cost premium but deliver great energy savings), Fort Collins’s greenhouse gas emissions could drop by more than a half-million metric tons per year. These reductions would achieve 32 percent of what RMI showed was possible across all sectors (electricity, buildings, and transportation) in the Stepping Up report. It would also help customers access 195 MW of distributed-renewable generation capacity by 2030.


In the face of declining overall electricity sales, even publicly traded utilities should explore options like this. Concern abounds in the energy industry about the “utility death spiral,” the phenomenon where utilities’ revenues are eroded so dramatically by the adoption of distributed energy resources that they find themselves forced to raise their rates continually, causing energy efficiency and renewables to become that much more cost competitive, further exacerbating utilities’ top-line erosion. But some industry players see the advent of a new era. Publicly traded independent power producer NRG’s CEO, David Crane, wrote in a letter to share holders:

There is no energy company that relates to the American energy consumer by offering a comprehensive or seamless solution to the individual’s energy needs… that connects the consumer with their own energy generating potential… that enables the consumer to make their own energy choices… that the consumer can partner with to combat global warming without compromising the prosperous “plugged-in” modern lifestyle that we all aspire to… NRG is not that energy company either, but we are doing everything in our power to head in that direction… as fast as we can.

Just recently, NRG partnered with Green Mountain Power in Vermont to offer products and services ranging from micropower for residential consumers (a package of renewable generation, water and space heating, and storage) to electric vehicle infrastructure programs for the state. Simultaneously, companies such as Next Step Living, CLEAResult, and Snugg Home seek to create energy-concierge services that provide an interface between utilities, their customers, contractors, electric vehicle dealerships, and lending agencies.


Utilities have an incredible opportunity in the IUS model and related approaches to leverage their direct access to energy customers and provide them with the very products that are traditionally viewed as a threat. While it will require establishing more nuanced billing and banking systems, among other capabilities, these challenges are not insurmountable. In fact, in many ways that is exactly what competitors such as SolarCity do well. Utilities have predominantly viewed their energy-services departments as money pits, administering cumbersome efficiency and rebate programs. But perhaps it’s time to circle back and take a fresh look at the activities and services these departments know so well. After all, those services could be utilities’ biggest hope for the future.


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.


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.


California solar has potential to power itself up to 5 times over

calfcomparableCalifornia has been an important leader in solar planning and installation, and a new report has found that the state’s solar capacity can power more than just California residents. The report, “Efficient use of land to meet sustainable energy needs” was published in Nature Climate Change, and found that there is enough space in the state suitable for solar power to power three to five Californias.

“The deployment of renewable energy systems, such as solar energy, to achieve universal access to electricity, heat and transportation, and to mitigate climate change is arguably the most exigent challenge facing humans today,” the report explained. “However, the goal of rapidly developing solar energy systems is complicated by land and environmental constraints, increasing uncertainty about the future of the global energy landscape.”

IREC report

6 Steps that Will Bring Energy Storage into Prime Time

IREC reportThe regulatory regime for distributed energy storage needs a revamp, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. And it’s got the proposal to prove it.

“The potential of distributed energy storage to lower costs and improve the quality of electric service is considerable,” explains IREC’s new reportDeploying Distributed Energy Storage: Near-Term Regulatory Considerations to Maximize Benefits (PDF). “However, since the market for distributed energy storage is still in its infancy there is a significant need for regulatory guidance and proactive policies to ensure a smooth rollout of this technology.”

IREC’s guidance for unlocking the power of our future grid hinges upon on six major points. First, rate structures need to specifically designed so energy storage customers know how to operate their systems to benefit the entire grid. “Distributed storage developers have identified rate structures as the most critical regulatory change needed to help facilitate growth in the distributed storage market,” the report said.

To make that happen seamlessly, storage systems also need to be able to stack different services. “Regulators should still give serious consideration to programs that would allow third party providers to aggregate those services at the distribution level,” explained IREC. “Without a market that allows for such aggregation, the ability of energy storage providers to assist utilities and grid managers will likely go untapped.”

Inefficient interconnection standards aren’t helping utilities or customers, either. Standards need to be upgraded so distributed energy storage pioneers have “fair and efficient” access to an increasingly internetworked smart grid. In 2013, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission got the procedural ball rolling by amending the definition of a “Small Generating Facility” to specifically to include storage systems. But states need to streamline their clarification and review policies, so FERC’s redefinition can nationally evolve. Clarifying eligibility rules for net metering programs to include storage systems would smooth our transition to a smart grid as well.

“Where there is a need to reduce peak demand, or increase generation during certain periods, there could be some benefits to allowing customers with storage systems to export energy onto the grid in exchange for bill credits even if they are not eligible for a renewable-based NEM program,” IREC report proposed.

Finally, utilities and policymakers need to widen their scopes when it comes to distribution system planning and management, beyond what “has been seen historically,” IREC added. The smart grid’s bidirectional flow demands more vision, meaning that utilities must identify prime energy storage locations while states must to develop accordant methodologies for assigning them value, so mutually beneficial rates and incentives can be calculated. Adding greater oversight coordination of energy storage systems between both states and utilities would also “ensure safety without imposing duplicative or conflicting regulatory requirements.”

It’s a pretty common-sense proposal, if you’re viewing the present from the future, where our solar-powered smart grid is humming along nicely. The good news, IREC notes, is that most states are beginning to work toward this common purpose, as investment and innovation in renewable, distributed energy take off. And will be little in the way of bad news, IREC’s report concludes, “if the electric industry moves now to capture the benefits of the new technologies before the challenges associated with integrating these 21st century technologies into a 20th century grid are realized.”


Could solar power overtake natural gas in the US?

solar-panelsOn the outskirts of downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, Xcel Energy’s High Bridge Generating Station offers an iconic view of the current state of electrical generation in the United States. Opened in 2008 as a replacement for an aging coal plant, the 534-megawatt natural gas facility looms over three solar photovoltaic panels that provide a sculptural element to the site in addition to 9.8 kilowatts of electricity.

In the United States in 2014, PV accounted for around half of a percent of the nation’s electricity production compared with natural gas’s 27%, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Yet if PV seems more ornamental than a serious energy contender, the data over the past two years documenting a dramatic increase in PV generation show a promising rookie ready to compete in the big leagues.

Both natural gas and PV have compelling attributes in an age where concerns over global climate change have led to mounting public and political pressure to reduce carbon emissions. PV is virtually carbon free and for all practical purposes has an endless energy generator in the sun. However, it’s intermittent, while natural gas provides constant baseline energy at nearly half the level of carbon dioxide emissions as coal.

San Antonio solar

CPS Energy’s San Antonio Solar Program: How a Utility Wins By Going Solar

San Antonio solarWhen San Antonio’s newest PV solar farm Alamo 3 opened a few weeks ago, it fired up with a unique history: Almost all of the system’s components — from the panels to the dual-axis trackers to the inverters — were manufactured in the central Texas city.

It’s a direct result of local utility CPS Energy’s strategy to bring in more jobs and investment to the economy via its New Energy Economy initiative — or, in other words, a way to squeeze in an added bonus from getting more renewables online. Alamo 3 is the third of seven solar farms to be built from a 2012 deal between the municipal utility and project developer OCI Solar.

“All the components of those solar farms would have to be built here in San Antonio,” said Cris Eugster, CPS Energy vice president, who added that, to his knowledge, it’s the only such program set up by a U.S. utility. When complete, the Alamo farms will add a total installed capacity of 400 MW to the Texas grid.

As a result of the New Energy Economy initiative, approximately seven companies have set up shop in San Antonio over the course of a few years, including panel maker Mission Solar Energy, LED manufacturer Greenstar and KACO New Energy, which moved its headquarters from California to San Antonio to produce inverters under the Texas sun. (Just last week, KACO announced that it will be expanding operations in San Antonio).

And the impact on local job and economic investments? Over 2,600 jobs — both direct and indirect — have been generated in the area since 2011, according to a September report (PDF) from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. Five hundred of those jobs, which were directly created from the initiative, represent a combined salary of $26 million, the analysis found. In total, the report estimates that the utility’s partnerships with these clean energy companies have injected $808 million to the local economy.

Eugster says that from a broader perspective, the New Energy Economy initiative is part of CPS Energy’s desire to set itself up as a utility of the future by shifting its energy mix to more renewables and distributed energy resources.

“In the last 5 years or so we’ve become much more forward-thinking and progressive in power and energy and serving our customers. We have a vision that by 2020, 65 percent [of our energy mix] will be coming from low-carbon resources,” he said, adding that the utility expects to reach this goal next year — in part thanks to two coal plants (generating a combined total of 871 MW in energy) that the utility plans to retire in 2018.

So far, the projections for San Antonio solar and the New Energy Economy initiative continue to be sunny. CPS predicts that by 2019, its impact will reach $1.6 billion.

And Eugster forecasts that the utility will continue to look for ways to tie its low-carbon quest to creating not just new jobs, but new kinds of jobs — such as when the pair of coal plants shut down five years from now.

“We’re committed not to lay off anyone [from the retired plants], so we’re thinking about training some of our workers on new skills and getting them to maintain a solar farm instead,” he said.