Navajo solar

Solar Power Makes Electricity More Accessible On Navajo Reservation

navajo-solar Most people can’t imagine living without smartphones or the Internet, let alone without electricity. But even today — even in the United States — there are still people who live without lights and refrigeration. Many are Native Americans living on tribal reservations.

For many, electricity is a luxury; it can even be magical. Derrick Terry remembers the first winter when there were lights on at his grandmother’s house.

“You see the Christmas lights in the distance, it’s like seeing that unicorn,” he says. “It’s an indescribable feeling, I guess, when you first get electricity.”

Terry grew up on the Navajo Nation. It’s about the size of West Virginia and covers the Arizona, New Mexico and Utah portions of the Four Corners region. When Terry was a boy, his family used a 12-volt car battery to supply their house with power. He says the battery would get low simply by running the TV or house lights.

Is Solar Energy right for my house?

How to Know If Solar Energy Is Right for Your House

Is Solar Energy right for my house?By the end of 2015, solar panels will be on more than a million homes in the U.S. In over a dozen states around the country, you can go solar with $0 down and actually save money on your electric bill — and more states are coming online regularly.

Before you call a solar installer, how do you know if you’ll be a prime candidate for benefiting from solar energy? Here are a few things to know.

Is Your State Ready to Go Solar?

Solar energy only makes financial sense for your home if solar panels can make electricity for a lower cost than what you pay a utility for electricity. Not only does a sunny climate matter, high electricity costs are essential as well.

solar neighborhood

Solar Installations Are Performing Even Better than Promised

solar neighborhoodSolar is looking pretty resilient, according to research from the National Renewable Energy Lab. Now it’s time for international standardization to accelerate and protect investment and performance.

Crunching data from almost 50,000 PV systems pumping out 1.7 gigawatts from 2009 to 2012 — the infamous year of Hurricane Sandy — NREL’s report Reliability and Geographic Trends of 50,000 Photovoltaic Systems in the USA found that 85 percent of them performed 10 percent better than expected. The briefer version? Not even extreme weather events from America’s fearsomely changing climates can make solar panels seem like a dumb investment.

“Worldwide, trillions of dollars of capital are available for investing in photovoltaic systems, but technological and performance risks, among other barriers, remain limiting factors to investment in the PV asset class,” NREL’s study explained — during a market noticeably decoupling from fossil fuels. “Bankable PV that inspires investors’ confidence,” it added (using a three-legged stool as a symbol), requires internationally “consistent manufacturing, durable design, and system verification,” as well trackable durability and reliability in the field. No matter the superstorm.

In that respect, solar is a top performer in the field and the portfolio. NREL’s study found 90 percent of “normal” solar installations unaffected by lightning strikes, hail and wind storms, and even globally warmed events like Hurricane Sandy, still managed to outperform expectation. Divided by regional climates, solar systems in the desert Southwest and hot and humid Southeast United States slightly degraded over time, but of course that’s what usual happens to anything, like inverters, that soak up sun all day in the hottest parts of the nation. Similarly, so-called snowpocalypses like Sandy, blamed for a slim margin of underperforming systems studied by the NREL, can chill solar power down for a spell. But barely, and since underperforming modules comprised about 0.1 percent of all data, maybe not really.

“Considerable uncertainty exists due to the nature of the data,” the NREL concluded. “However, the loss in production is more likely to be associated with subsequent grid outages than with PV system damage.”

What needs to come next for solar to grow even more powerful are international standards and agreements.

“With manufacturers feeling pressure to lower prices, it is essential that quality be maintained and assured,” explained research fellow Sarah Kurtz, co-author of NREL’s Updated Proposal for a Guide for Quality Management Systems for PV Manufacturing (PDF). “The[se] new guidelines help to ensure that quality is not compromised for lower priced modules and make it easier for PV customers to assess the expected quality.”

With about $100 billion annual investment in solar on the table, NREL worked with American and international solar manufacturers to arrive at a global quality standard for PV module production for science and profit. The task force’s supplemental requirements for technical specification of testing, manufacturing and mounting — with respect to regional climate (change) — mandate that warranties for solar panels conform to their expected lifetimes, and that manufacturers are able to trace their products through their entire supply chains. The design product and process must consider potential failure modes, while product certification and reliability testing from China’s International Electrotechnical Commission is also a must.

Getting technical about it, these international standards are doubtlessly deemed important by Kurtz’s co-authors, some of whom hail from industry heavyweights like SunPower, Trina and First Solar. But more broadly speaking, streamlining global solar’s technical specifications will nevertheless greatly accelerate what is already a scorching market for Earth’s most resilient form of renewable energy. The more players we get to agree on the rules of the game, the greater the victories over 20th century energy system that is way past due for an upgrade.


Corporate Power Purchasing

Why Corporate Power Purchasing is Poised to be the Next Big Thing in Renewable Energy

Corporate Power PurchasingUtility-scale solar and wind power is the best source of cheap, large-scale renewable energy. If you’re just reading the 2015 headlines it can seem as though corporations are surging into that market. The first months of the year have seen a number of impressively large renewable-energy power purchase agreements (PPAs) signed by major corporations. General Motors signed one for 34 MW; Google, for 43 MW; Amazon, for 150 MW; and Apple, for 130 MW. “The Apple-First Solar deal in California was a renewable signal heard around the world,” says Lily Donge, a principal with RMI’s electricity practice and leader of the Business Renewables Center. “Then more recently, Kaiser Permanente signed 153 MW, and then Dow Chemical signed 200 MW—all in early 2015. We see the market growing in leaps and bounds.” So what’s the problem?

Success—so far—has been limited to a small number of very big players. “That growth is exciting and exactly what we want to see;” says Ian Kelly, a senior associate with RMI’s electricity practice. “What we haven’t seen though is a broadening of the market. The number of corporations that are doing these deals as a way to source renewable energy hasn’t increased in the way you might expect, given the way the market has started to take off.” Corporate renewable energy procurement is significant—it totaled about 1 GW last year—but it could and should be much larger. “We see less than two dozen of the Fortune 500 signing off-site PPAs,” says Donge. And RMI and its Business Renewables Center (BRC) is going to change that.

This week at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) Summit in New York, RMI Managing Director Hervé Touati is presenting about the BRC, the plan for which won RMI the prestigious FiRe award at last year’s summit. The BRC is a collaborative platform aimed at accelerating corporate renewable energy procurement. The BRC was announced in February of this year with 28 founding members and is set to revolutionize not only the way major corporations source renewable energy, but also the renewable energy market itself.

If the BRC can stimulate the corporate market for wind and solar power, it would completely change the face of the market. To almost double U.S. renewable capacity, Donge says, “requires roughly 60 GW of new renewable power.” Reaching the first 60 GW of installed capacity took many decades. Within the next 10–20 years, Kelly says, “our goal is to see 60 GW total of new installed solar and wind power capacity from off-site projects.”

Given the potential scale of corporate power purchases, it is within reach. For many large corporations, 100 MW of wind capacity represents about one quarter to one half of the power they require. If 600 companies purchased 100 MW of capacity each, the market would double. Just one company, Google, has already purchased wind power equivalent to 1.7 percent of the total capacity of the nation, and just four companies account for 2.5 percent of the total. The top ten Fortune 500 companies that report their purchases to the EPA buy nearly 11 TWh of green power per year, while the next ten (which include giants like Lockheed Martin and Citigroup) buy less than 14 percent of that amount. So few companies wielding such massive influence shows the enormous potential that could be unlocked. “As we get more companies doing these types of deals, it not only broadens the market but it causes the market to accelerate even more quickly,” says Kelly.

Even now, at a relatively undeveloped stage of the utility-scale wind and solar market, offsite renewable power is an attractive option for corporations. “Competitive power prices can be locked in for 20 years or more,” says Donge. Forgoing such favorable rates represents a large opportunity cost, even for the half of Fortune 500 companies that haven‘t committed to shifting to renewable power.

So what’s holding them back? First and foremost, many companies are simply not aware of the potential benefits, says Kelly. “Obviously the companies that are doing these deals are finding them to be pretty desirable, because they’re going back and doing those deals again, and again, and again,” he points out. The key for the BRC, he says, is to “show all of the companies that haven’t put their toe in the water yet that there’s a deal to be had on favorable terms—they can source renewable energy successfully and economically.”

Many barriers still exist for those that are aware of the benefits. These include the complexity of large-scale, off-site renewable transactions, high transaction costs, and a lack of necessary information and tools. Failure rates of potential deals are high: we estimate that there are five to ten failed attempts or significant delays for every successful deal. This slows market growth and evolution. “Our developers indicate there’s a lot of opportunity,” says Donge. And the RMI-convened BRC, in collaboration with industry, will directly work against those barriers to unlock that opportunity.

The founding members of the BRC are corporate renewable energy buyers, renewable energy project developers, and transaction service providers. Together with RMI, says Donge, “they represent a critical mass of market power and expertise.” The founding corporate buyers bring in more than $500 billion in revenue and consume more than 25,000 GWh of electricity annually. They include Bloomberg, eBay, GM, HP, Kaiser Permanente, Nestlé Waters North America, Owens Corning, Salesforce, and Sprint. By committing to share their experience in these complex deals, all the founding stakeholders of the BRC are opening up for public use the hard-earned expertise they gained by pioneering these transactions. By doing so they mean to drive the market forward and do much more than just help other companies replicate their success. As the market accelerates, all players will benefit from economies of scale and emergent solutions. “RMI’s role in all this is to move directly against the barriers to these complex and vital transactions, in concert with the BRC membership,” says Donge. By guiding corporate teams, helping them navigate the market and the steps of each deal, defining transactional standards, and exploring new market opportunities, RMI and BRC will serve as an accelerator and a catalyst, smoothing the path for all who follow. “We think we can help accelerate the deployment of wind and solar off-site capacity,” says Kelly. “Really we’re there to try to facilitate the different players in moving along that path.”

roof repair

SOLAR POWER: Tips for homeowners considering solar panel systems

roof repair

With solar power growing as an option for homeowners, here’s some things to consider when shopping for a system.


Solar power installation on a home is a permit project. Mike Lara , the director of building and safety for Riverside County, has some tips for consumers:

Electrical service panel: Ask if the new system will require replacement of your current electrical service panel. That’s the box with the meter on it outside your home.

“You will be feeding additional electrical power through the panel, so it has to be sized properly” to handle inbound from the local utility company as well as the solar panels’ contribution.

Firefighter clearance: A rooftop panel array must allow space for firefighters to walk on the roof.

“If it’s a daytime fire the panel stays energized all the time,” Lara said. “We work with fire departments to make sure the panel layouts have a clear path.”

Grading 10 Companies’ Commitments to Solar

commitment-to-solar“This is a market-making type of transaction,” prophesied SunPower CEO Tom Werner, after Apple recently awarded $850 million to First Solar for a 130-megawatt PV plant to green its world-beating empire. Let us pray, said the solarizers.

We’ll pray with data, of course, in this handy report card on corporate solar progress so far. Apple’s blockbuster deal with First Solar certainly sets both apart as a PV paragons although, as CEO Tim Cook will probably tell you himself, it was something of a renewable energy no-brainer. In the final analysis, the question is never really whether or not other titans will follow Apple’s example, but when? Are these corporations truly committing to solar, or are they focused on stalling innovations like net metering and distributed generation? Queries abound.

“Given the profile of Apple and their reputation, we think it’s going to stimulate a lot of other companies that may not have programs as active as Apple’s to ask questions,” First Solar CEO Jim Hughes said after the deal was announced. “Is there a smarter, better way we can procure our energy?”

Citizens spending hard-earned dollars to go solar also want to know who’s on their side. The goods news is that all of the following corporations are, after a fashion, throwing their political and economic clout into solar energy. The bad news is that some of them, even the best, have much more act to clean up.

Recreational Equipment Inc.
Grade: B Perhaps Earth’s best-known outdoor retailer, REI is aiming to be climate neutral by 2020 and has solarized 28 locations across eight states. Nationally, 21 percent of its facilities are solar powered, which puts it in the top five of commercial solar users, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Also, its former president and CEO, Sally Jewell, is now serving as the Secretary of Interior, which last year approved two First Solar farms with 550 megawatts of solar capacity on public land along the California-Nevada border. “Our clean energy future is bright,” Jewell promised in a statement. If you add Jewell’s solar bonafides from DOI to REI, then factor in that she once worked in the oil and banking industries, you’re left with a greening example of public-private partnership.
Grade: B

Duke Energy Like other power players in the energy market, Duke is trying to green its operations, lately paying $225 million to accelerate REC Solar‘s national deployment. Add that to the 150 megawatts of solar that Duke Energy company currently owns, plus the $500 million it recently shelled out to solarize North Carolina (where a frustrated Apple once had to build its own solar farms), and Duke’s negotiations on net metering and distributed generation in South Carolina feel less underwhelming — not to mention Duke’s own stance against net metering in NC. Of course, once you factor in Duke’s CO2 emissions, reportedly the second-largest in America, it’s hard to give it a passing grade.
Grade: D-

Citigroup One should never sneeze when the third largest bank on Earth creates a $100 billion climate change fund. Although there is some mystery as to just how much of that will be routed towards photovoltaics, Citigroup has already financed SunPower’s 579-megawatt Solar Star farm for Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, whose energy division accounts for 7 percent of America’s solar generation capacity. (Nor should it be ignored that Buffett dumped a $3.74 billion stake in Exxon.) Both Berkshire and Citigroup’s massive green maneuvers give hope that more banks and institutional investors will follow the example and exponentially solarize, but suspicious $50 billion tax write-offsaren’t making it happen any faster. Until then…
Grade: C

Costco According to the Solar Energy Industries Association’s Solar Means Business 2014 report on top U.S. commercial solar users, Costco has installed nearly 50 megawatts of solar capacity, which is neck-in-neck with fellow retailer Kohl’s, but half as much as the clear leader, Walmart — which, like Costco, has also begun selling panels in its expansive stores. Unlike the flattening Kohl’s, however, Costco is only growing stronger, bringing solar power to the people in ways the retail market cannot. Same goes for other top solar users on SEIA’s list, such as Staples (failing) and Macy’s under siege), who may not have a future in a downsized shopping market. The silver lining? When the other stores fail, their next buyers will already have solar panels.
Grade: B-

General Motors If you sift through SEIA’s Solar Means Business 2014 report, you find that GM has solarized 43 percent of its facilities. second only to the runaway leader IKEA. It happily boasts of being “fueled by the sun” online, empowered by 46 megawatts and once the record-holder for world’s largest rooftop solar installation (until 2012). But when one asks GM what it has done lately for solarizers, one doesn’t get much response. There are exciting evolutions on other renewable energy fronts, like GM’s electrifying Bolt, which could bring much-needed EVs to a middle class that wants to green its commute but can’t afford a Tesla. But after Apple’s “market-making” move, promising to generate 125 megawatts by 2025 isn’t going to win GM much solar street cred, not after a $49.5 billion bailout from the people.
Grade: C-

General Electric: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy,” GE’s Solar 101 site quotes Thomas Edison on its shiny header, while claiming on its footer that the energy multinational “has been involved in solar energy research for decade.” GE’s deep pockets also bankrolled half of First Solar’s Desert Sunlight solar farm, which at last check was the largest solar plant in the world. But while GE has reportedly committed approximately $10 billion to renewable energy projects, less than $2 billion of that haul has gone to solar. That’s cheap compared to the $33.9 billion GE made from 2008-2013, for which it was given an overall tax refund of $2.9 billion by the IRS. GE and its billions may operate in “every aspect of the solar energy value chain,” as it explains in Solar 101, but until its commitment to solarization is in sync with its earnings and influence, it needs a greener makeover if it wants to be considered a solar role model.
Grade: D

IKEA: It has installed over 700,000 solar panels on its facilities, and now it even sells them in stores — at a discount for some. Missouri’s largest rooftop solar array is coming to an IKEA store; indeed, 90 percent of the Swedish company’s stores have panels on them. IKEA also plans to be energy-independent by 2020, no slouch, and is internationally deploying its low-cost, in-store solar offers to other countries. When it comes to what’s left of the lifestyle market, IKEA is light years ahead of its competitors. If we could only get them to stop cutting down trees…
Grade: B+

WalMart: One of the largest stockholders of First Solar, the Walton family is a corporate solar champ, of sorts. It has legendarily installed more solar capacity than its American competitors, 100 megawatts and rising. Walmart has also poured hundreds of millions into solarization with the help of SolarCity. But once you factor in Walmart’s increasing emissions, plus the millions it’s backstopping for anti-solar advocates like the ALEC and AEI, it’s championship status as a solar role model is thrown into relief. Detach that funding, however, and you have a different company, especially once deeper environmental regulations begin kicking in. The utility-scale solar farms favored by corporations like Walmart, and First Solar, have as much a place in our globally warmed future as residential solar’s distributed generation and net metering. Look down the road a few years and you’ll likely find the Walton family significantly boosting its already impressive solar capacity, while giving up on the anti-solar antics.
Grade: C

 Not to be outdone by Wamart’s record solar capacity, Apple recently sealed a $850 million deal for what CEO Tim Cook called its “biggest, boldest and most ambitious project ever,” a power-purchase agreement for First Solar’s 150 megawatt California Flats project. First Solar promised the deal would significantly increase the entire state of California’s solar power supply, but that’s somewhat underselling Apple’s role. With billions to burn, Apple has given its new client First Solar, and in turn their major stockholder Walmart, enough work and money to make them temporary solar heroes, and perhaps even distract them from petty squabbles with the rooftop solar sector. As explained above, Walmart’s millions in funding for anti-solar advocates like ALEC and AEI is a loss leader. The astounding sum of Apple’s “biggest” project, so far but probably not for long, puts the lie to argument that rooftop solar is a threat to the business of utilities or their backers.
Grade: B

Google: The only future industry multinational that can (so far) match up to Apple, Google has lately cast its hundreds of millions into rooftop solar. It’s following the smart money predicting that residential solar financing could be a $6 billion dollar market by 2016, as both homeowners and businesses, such as the ones mentioned on this list, solarize everything in sight. Google’s recent money drop for SolarCity’s residential buildout totals $300 million, but its rich support for rooftop solar in the shadow of utility attacks is worth much more. That funding and influence has led to the first joint yieldco from First Solar and SunPower, which is a detente of sorts between two titans at the utility and residential scale. It’s doubtlessly the first of many to come as both the utility and residential sectors unite to solarize America, as fossil fuels are forcibly decoupled from the nation’s economy and infrastructure. Until they do, Google is the corporate solar role model to beat.
Grade: A-

These are just 10 of the big company commitments to solar that have made headlines recently. Regardless of how big and fast — or how small and slow — companies are doing on going solar, the fact that so many of them are being vocal about solar in the first place is yet another sign that solar is the future.


utility solar

California leads nation in solar installations as world sees 14% increase

utility solarCalifornia became the first state to generate more than 5% of its electricity from utility solar, according a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

California’s utility-scale (1 megawatt or larger) solar plants generated a record 9.9 million mega watt hours (MWh) of electricity in 2014, an increase of 6.1 million MWh from 2013. California’s utility-scale solar production in 2014 was more than three times the output of the next-highest state, Arizona, and more than all other states combined, according to the EIA.

Last year, several large solar power plants were phased into operation in the Golden State. Those plants include the Topaz and Desert Sunlight 550MW solar photovoltaic plants, the 377MW Ivanpah plant and the 250MW Genesis solar thermal plant. In total, nearly 1,900MW of new utility-scale solar capacity was added, bringing the state’s utility-scale capacity for all solar technologies to 5,400MW by the end of 2014 — enough new capacity to power more than 1.05 million typical households.


Apple solar deal

How Apple is making money off of its landmark solar deal

Apple solar dealThere’s a key aspect of Apple’s high-profile solar deal in California that’s been largely overlooked—until now.

When Apple announced to the world last month that it would be spending an eye-popping almost $850 million to buy solar power from a solar farm to be built in central California, clean energy fans naturally cheered. But there was another common reaction by industry watchers, too: confusion.

Apple  has long been known as one of shrewdest negotiators in the tech industry, and its tendency to make ultra aggressive deals has even led to partnersstruggling. But on the surface of Apple’s solar deal, the few financials they released just didn’t look all that competitive compared to the latest low cost solar panel farm deals that are being done.


solar home sale

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

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

Possibly both.

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

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

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


solar city google

Can Google bring solar power to the masses?

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

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

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


floating solar

Solar Power to develop floating photovoltaic projects

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

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

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

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



Portland Sunnier Than Houston?

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

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

What does a better map mean for you?

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


solar: makers or takers?

Are Residents With Solar Panels ‘Makers’ Or ‘Takers’?

solar: makers or takers?One of the more recurring disagreements before the legislature’s energy committee Tuesday centered on whether residents with solar panels are really paying for all they get from the power grid.

It is called cost shifting, a phrase that echoed through the hearing room in the Legislative Office Building during conversations on bills that would expand residential solar and enable shared solar facilities in Connecticut.

Because residents with solar installations only pay for the sparse number of kilowatt hours they pull from the grid (along with a small monthly set fee), utilities argue, the cost to keep the poles, wires, transformers and substations up and running is shifted to traditional customers who consume, and pay for, more electricity in a more standard way.


SRP solar tax

Critics question SRP’s solar-energy payments

SRP solar taxSeveral critics of Salt River Project’s recent decision to charge higher fees to solar customers accused the public utility of “profiting” from the solar power it gets from rooftops and sells to other customers.

Several of the people who attended SRP’s public meetings on the rate changes asked for a full accounting of the surplus power SRP gets from rooftop solar.

It’s a little difficult to follow the logic from such complaints. If SRP were profiting from customers’ rooftop solar, wouldn’t it be encouraging more rooftop solar, not raising rates on those customers and likely discouraging the technology?

Utilities are targeting rooftop solar for higher fees specifically because they are not good for power companies’ incomes.

Figures from SRP show rooftop solar is not a profit center for the utility, at least not under its old rate schedule that 15,000 solar customers use. Solar customers who signed up since Dec. 8 will have a different rate schedule.