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1972: Institute of Energy Conversion Established

The University of Delaware establishes the Institute of Energy Conversion, dedicated to researching and developing thin-film PV and solar thermal energy production systems. It is the first laboratory of its kind. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Institute of Energy Conversion, University of Delaware

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

The University of Delaware, home to the world’s first solar energy research institute (see 1972), builds a PV-powered residence called “Solar One.” The system is a PV/thermal hybrid, with roof-integrated arrays having surplus power fed through a special meter during the day, and power purchased from the local utility at hight. The arrays also act as flat-plate thermal collectors, with fans blowing the warm air from over the array to phase-change heat-storage bins. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: University of Delaware

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

The US Department of Energy launches the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI)‘s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a facility dedicated to harnessing power from the sun. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: National Renewable Energy Laboratory, US Department of Energy, Solar Energy Research Institute

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

1988: Solar Power Technologies Patented

Dr. Alvin Marks patents two solar power technologies: Lepcon and Lumeloid. Lepcon consists of glass panels covered with a large array of millions of aluminum or copper strips, each less than a micron wide. As sunlight hits the metal strips, the energy in the light is transferred to electrons in the metal, which escape at one end in the form of electricity. Lumeloid uses a similar approach but substitutes less expensive sheets of filmed plastic for the glass panels and covers the plastic with conductive polymers. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Alvin Marks

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

Denis Hayes, the chairman of the Earth Day Network and the head of the Bullitt Foundation, writes of how the US government could encourage the expansion of solar power as a means to combat global warming. The federal government could sink significant funds into buying “wind turbines, biofuels, fuel cells, hydrogen, hypercars, and other elements of a solar future,” he writes. Doing so “will accelerate the speed at which such products become affordable for the rest of us. We typically think in terms of federal procurement, but state and local governments can play an important role too.” The most obvious candidate for federal purchasing is solar cells, Hayes writes. “Lowering the cost of solar cells would provide extraordinary public benefits. Solar cells make electricity, but they consume no fuel, produce no pollution, generate no radioactive waste, have long lifetimes, contain no moving parts, and require little maintenance. They can be fashioned mostly from silicon, which is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. Solar cells produce zero carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas. Unfortunately, solar cells are not yet cheap enough to compete with heavily subsidized fossil fuels. Although the price of solar cells already has fallen about 40-fold, this technology remains roughly three times too expensive to achieve skyrocketing growth as a power source in the United States. For a quarter-century, affordable solar cells have been the environmental brass ring, lying just outside the grasp of those who favor green power. Governmental procurement could lower their price to the point where they will take off on their own in the private sector. A comparison of the experiences of computer chips and solar cells vividly illustrates the value of government procurement in bringing new products to market.” If the government were to invest in the production of solar cells, their production price would drop precipitously as mass-production procedures would be instituted. Hayes gives the example of the integrated circuit, which was viewed as an expensive oddity until the Defense Department began buying it in bulk. The price of the circuits dropped dramatically, and private market opportunities began presenting themselves. Hayes notes, “In just six years, the price of integrated circuits plummeted 95 percent and an enormous commercial market developed.” A similar cost-production curve was followed by CPUs, which at first were too expensive to use, but when Intel and other firms achieved the ability to make them in bulk, their price dropped. As a result, integrated circuits and CPUs drove the information revolution. The same could happen with solar cells, Hayes argues. Hayes concludes that if the government sinks a significant amount of money into buying solar cells—he suggests $5 billion over the next four years—“the impact on the world will be revolutionary.” [Grist Magazine, 5/8/2000]

Entity Tags: Denis Hayes

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

Author and computer scientist Ramez Naam writes a column for Scientific American explaining how “Moore’s Law” is at work in the dropping cost of solar energy generation. The benefits are obvious, he writes: “If humanity could capture one tenth of one percent of the solar energy striking the earth—one part in one thousand—we would have access to six times as much energy as we consume in all forms today, with almost no greenhouse gas emissions. At the current rate of energy consumption increase—about 1 percent per year—we will not be using that much energy for another 180 years.” Currently, solar energy only makes up 0.2 percent of the world’s energy production, mostly because the systems to capture and use solar energy are, he says, “expensive and inefficient.” But that is changing for the better. Moore’s Law is an observation made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965, in which he said that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled each year. Moore predicted that trend would continue. Later observations codified the “law” to say that the number of transistors per square inch would double approximately every 18 months, in essence doubling the amount of computing power available to a given computer every 18 months. Naam is extrapolating the law to apply to the exponential decrease in the cost of generating solar energy. “If similar dynamics worked in solar power technology,” he writes, “then we would eventually have the solar equivalent of an iPhone—incredibly cheap, mass distributed energy technology that was many times more effective than the giant and centralized technologies it was born from.” Naam takes data generated by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL—see 1977) to note that since 1980, the cost of solar energy has dropped from $22 to $3 per watt. It is an almost perfect exponential drop, on average, trending at an average of a 7 percent drop in the dollars per watt cost per year. 2010 data indicates that the drop in price may be accelerating. Two main factors are driving this price drop: solar manufacturers are continually improving their abilities to reduce the costs of developing solar energy systems, and the efficiency of solar cells is rising dramatically. Laboratory results show solar efficiencies as high as 41 percent, and inexpensive thin-film methods (see 1972 and 1988) are achieving up to 20 percent efficiency in the lab, twice as high as most of the solar systems in use today. Moreover, installation costs are dropping as rapidly as technology costs. Naam writes that the trends indicate that the cost of solar will rival that of average retail conventionally generated electricity, about 12 cents per kilowatt hours, by 2020, or sooner. By 2030, solar electricity will cost half of what it will cost to generate electricity with coal. Naam writes: “Solar capacity is being built out at an exponential pace already. When the prices become so much more favorable than those of alternate energy sources, that pace will only accelerate.” Naam concludes: “The exponential trend in solar watts per dollar has been going on for at least 31 years now. If it continues for another 8-10, which looks extremely likely, we’ll have a power source which is as cheap as coal for electricity, with virtually no carbon emissions. If it continues for 20 years, which is also well within the realm of scientific and technical possibility, then we’ll have a green power source which is half the price of coal for electricity. That’s good news for the world.” [Scientific American, 3/16/2011; Investopedia, 2013]

Entity Tags: Ramez Naam, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Gordon Moore

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

A report by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) finds that within a decade or so, solar energy and other renewable distributed energy resources (DER) could lay waste to the utility business model and to American power utilities. The utility business model, which has remained relatively unchanged since the early 20th century, is not capable of coping with the “disruptive challenges” posed to it by solar and other renewable energy power generation. David Roberts, a staff writer for the environmental news publication Grist, will write of the EEI report in April 2013: “It is one of the most prescient and brutally frank things I’ve ever read about the power sector. It is a rare thing to hear an industry tell the tale of its own incipient obsolescence.” Standard power utilities are “regulated monopolies,” which means they are the sole providers of power in their service areas. The business model relies on the utilities selling power as “overseen” by public utility commissions (PUCs), which control what utilities can charge for their power. Inexpensive solar (photovoltaic, or PV) power “eats away at [that business model] like acid,” Roberts writes. Solar power is not regulated for the benefit of the utility companies. In simplistic terms, a kilowatt-hour (kwh) of solar energy generated by, say, a rooftop solar array is a kilowatt-hour of reduced demand for the utility. Solar power peaks each day at noon, usually the time of most intense sunlight, which is one of the power utilities’ “peak load” times. Power utilities make much of their profits from peak load electricity, as they charge more per kwh for peak load electricity. Roberts writes, “[W]hen solar panels provide peak power, they aren’t just reducing demand, they’re reducing demand for the utilities’ most valuable product.” The EEI report also challenges the myth that power consumers must rely on grid power and not solar power because solar power is not available when the sun is not shining. Battery storage, micro turbine, and other developing technologies are making it possible for many consumers to go entirely “grid free,” to opt out of grid-generated electricity entirely. Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers says, “If the cost of solar panels keeps coming down, installation costs come down and if they combine solar with battery technology and a power management system, then we have someone just using [the grid] for backup.” If a large number of consumers begin generating their own power and using the grid for backup alone, the EEI report says, the utilities face “irreparable damage to [their] revenues and growth prospects.” Utilities generally anticipate revenues that allow them to invest heavily in fossil fuel plants that will not recoup costs for 30 years. Those investments could be more difficult to recoup if consumers begin generating their own power via solar and other DER power sources, leading the utility companies to contemplate raising the rates of those consumers who do not opt out of grid-based power. The EEI report states: “The financial implications of these threats are fairly evident. Start with the increased cost of supporting a network capable of managing and integrating distributed generation sources. Next, under most rate structures, add the decline in revenues attributed to revenues lost from sales foregone. These forces lead to increased revenues required from remaining customers… and sought through rate increases. The result of higher electricity prices and competitive threats will encourage a higher rate of DER additions, or will promote greater use of efficiency or demand-side solutions. Increased uncertainty and risk will not be welcomed by investors, who will seek a higher return on investment and force defensive-minded investors to reduce exposure to the sector. These competitive and financial risks would likely erode credit quality. The decline in credit quality will lead to a higher cost of capital, putting further pressure on customer rates. Ultimately, capital availability will be reduced, and this will affect future investment plans. The cycle of decline has been previously witnessed in technology-disrupted sectors (such as telecommunications) and other deregulated industries (airlines).” In other words, as consumers begin to opt out of grid-based power consumption, and utilities raise their rates to compensate for the loss of revenue, more and more consumers will opt out, further shrinking the number of consumers paying the utilities to generate their electricity. Even small numbers of consumers using rooftop solar strikes at the utilities’ main profit centers (one reason why German utilities are already feeling the pinch). Currently, less than 1 percent of US electricity is generated by solar arrays. But a projection by Bloomberg Energy Finance forecasts that in some areas of the nation, up to 10 percent of power load will be generated by solar arrays. The EEI report speculates that utility consumers in those areas will see massive increases in their rates as the utilities compensate for the lost revenues. [Kind, 1/2013 pdf file; Grist Magazine, 4/10/2013]

Entity Tags: Edison Electric Institute, Bloomberg Energy Finance, Grist, David Roberts, Jim Rogers

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

On Fox News’s morning show Fox and Friends, “expert” commentator Shibani Joshi of Fox Business tells viewers that the reason Germany has had so much success with its solar power industry is that it gets a great deal more sunlight than America does. In reality, Germany gets comparatively little sunlight, comparative to Alaska, the US state that gets the least amount of annual direct solar energy. Neither Joshi nor any of the hosts on the show mention Germany’s long governmental support of solar energy development and its backing of green technology research and development. Host Gretchen Carlson and her fellow hosts deride the Obama administration’s “failed” solar subsidies, with Carlson saying: “The United States simply hasn’t figured out how to do solar cheaply and effectively. You look at the country of Germany, it’s working out great for them.” The future of America’s solar industry, Carlson asserts, “is dim.” She then asks Joshi: “What was Germany doing correct? Are they just a smaller country, and that made it more feasible?” Joshi replies: “They’re a smaller country and they’ve got lots of sun. Right? They’ve got a lot more sun than we do.… The problem is it’s a cloudy day and it’s raining, you’re not gonna have it.” A few American states like California get a relatively plentiful amount of sunshine, Joshi says, and experience some success with generating energy from sunlight, “but here on the East Coast, it’s just not going to work.” Slate reporter Will Oremus will later write: “Gosh, why hasn’t anyone thought of that before? Wouldn’t you think that some scientist, somewhere, would have noticed that the East Coast is far less sunny than Central Europe and therefore incapable of producing solar power on the same scale? You would—if it were true.” According to the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL—see 1977), almost the entire continental US gets more sunlight than the sunniest region of Germany. NREL scientist Sarah Kurtz tells Oremus, “Germany’s solar resource is akin to Alaska’s.” According to an NREL map, the American Southwest is one of the best places in the world to generate solar power, and all of the continental US with the possible exception of the Puget Sound region in Washington state gets far more sunlight than anywhere in Germany. [Slate, 2/7/2013; Media Matters, 2/7/2013] Four days later, Joshi will admit she is wrong. In a post on Fox News’s blog, she will write: “I incorrectly stated that the chief difference between the US and Germany’s success with solar installations had to do with climate differences on a Fox and Friends appearance on Feb. 7. In fact, the difference come down more to subsidies and political priorities and has nothing to with sunshine.” She will then continue to deride solar energy as a minor element in a “divers[ified] energy portfolio,” and will claim that natural gas obtained via “fracking” is a better and more reliable source of energy for the next century. [Fox News, 2/11/2013]

Entity Tags: Shibani Joshi, Gretchen Carlson, Fox News, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sarah Kurtz, Will Oremus, Obama administration

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

San Antonio electric utility CPS Energy says it intends to cut the amount it pays for solar power generated from residential customers by about half, claiming that some of the city’s power users are not paying their fair share for the utility’s transmission infrastructure. Clean energy activists and system installers say the cuts are intended to cripple the region’s solar industry. Lanny Sinkin of Solar San Antonio says: “There was zero consultation with the solar industry in the development of this proposal. They’re going to kill the solar industry.” CPS, a municipally owned utility that in theory is owned by the ratepayers, wants to end the current system of “net metering,” which allows residential customers with solar panels to use each kilowatt-hour of energy they generate to cancel each kilowatt-hour they draw from the utility’s electric grid—in essence, the residence owners cancel a kilowatt-hour they pay for to CPS (at retail rates) by generating a kilowatt-hour of solar energy. Instead, CPS proposes a system it calls “SunCredit,” which would assign a fixed value to the price of the solar power produced and credit that amount against their accounts. The SunCredit program would give only a little over half of what a kilowatt-hour of solar power is worth under net metering, by crediting residential consumers with solar-produced kilowatt-hours at CPS’s wholesale rate. CPS spokesperson Lisa Lewis says of the existing practice: “I think that it’s not unimportant to recognize that solar customers use poles and wires and the grid. If we move to a situation where more and more customers have solar systems, they leave that infrastructure cost… stranded, and the people who can least afford to pay it are the ones paying for it” (see January 2013). Existing solar power producers would be granted the existing rates until 2023, while new solar producers would begin receiving the new, lower rate immediately.
Decision Already Made? - Although Lewis says the utility is still soliciting feedback on the program and will consider making changes, Sinkin says the utility has already made its decision. Recently, the utility informed the public of its decision during a contentious meeting, when solar installers said the new program would make it impossible for them to sell systems to the public. CPS Energy instituted cuts in its solar subsidies in 2012 when it reduced the size of the rebate it offers to help customers cover the cost of installing their solar power systems at their homes.
Expert Explains Issue - Solar expert David Roberts of Grist explains the issue, writing: “Under net metering, if a rooftop solar customer generates as much electricity as she consumes, she pays nothing. If she generates more than she consumes, the utility pays her. In either case, her portion of the utility’s fixed costs is transferred onto other, non-solar ratepayers. As more and more people opt for solar, fixed costs are paid by a smaller and smaller group of customers, which drives rates up, which drives more and more of them to solar, in a vicious cycle. The utility’s fixed assets are ‘stranded’—it is unable to recover those investment costs because of the shrinking pool of customers. (It’s also worth noting that the first customers to go solar tend to be well-off, which leaves the less well-off paying more, so there’s an economic-justice angle here too.)” Roberts notes that CPS is being ingenuous in its contentions that solar consumers are costing the utility money, as rooftop solar arrays save the utility money in terms of avoided transmission and equipment costs. Moreover, solar power benefits the region in reduced air pollution and carbon emissions. He also notes that CPS did not hesitate to offer its employees $16.4 million in bonuses in 2012 (most of which went to the firm’s top executives), the same year it cut its solar subsidies. Roberts concludes: “The dilemma… is how to align CPS’s incentives so that it can drive rapid solar adoption and reliably recover costs from its fixed assets and protect its lower-income ratepayers from being unfairly burdened. If we can’t figure out a solution to that dilemma, more and more utilities will do what CPS is doing and the spread of rooftop solar in the US, which has barely gotten underway, will slow to a crawl. That isn’t what we want, is it?” [San Antonio Express-News, 6/21/2012; San Antonio Express-News, 4/9/2013; Grist Magazine, 4/12/2013]
Idea that Solar Power Consumers Pay Unfairly Low Share Challenged - Many solar advocates have successfully challenged the idea that solar power consumers cost their area’s utilities revenue (see April 5, 2013).
Utility Agrees to Postpone Implementation - Following the announcement, CPS will agree to postpone implementation of the new policy for a year and to work with solar advocates to craft changes to the policy. [CPS Energy, 5/9/2013; Grist Magazine, 5/15/2013]

Entity Tags: Lisa Lewis, CPS Energy, David Roberts, Lanny Sinkin

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

Grist columnist and distributed energy expert David Roberts attempts to explain the viewpoints of the solar and the conventional utility industries over utility regulations as they pertain to solar power generation. He calls the issue “unavoidably wonky” but “a pivotal issue” that is “long overdue” for public understanding. The problem between the two has two components: short-term and long-term. The short-term argument between the two camps involves how electricity rates are structured and how utilities compensate, or do not compensate, customers who generate some of their own power with rooftop solar PV panels. The long-term issue revolves around the creation of “an entirely new business model for utilities, one that aligns their financial interests with the spread of distributed energy.” Battling over the short-term issues delays resolution of the long-term issue, Roberts writes.
Utilities' Perspective - About 70 percent of Americans are served by investor-owned utilities (IOUs), the traditional, for-profit, regulated-monopoly utilities that have what Roberts calls “a captive customer base and profits guaranteed by law.” IOUs are leading the pushback against distributed solar energy. IOUs make their profits by:
bullet estimating how much power their customers will need;
bullet estimating the investments they will need to make in power plants, fuel, transmission lines, and so forth in order to meet that demand;
bullet estimating how much they need to charge customers to cover their investments and offer a reasonable rate of return to their investors;
bullet convincing their state’s public utility commission (PUC) that their rates are warranted and fair; and
bullet charging that rate until they can convince the PUC to let them raise their rates.
Residential customers pay the PUC-approved “retail rate” for their electricity. [Grist Magazine, 5/15/2013]
Net Metering - NC State’s Database for State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) defines net metering as “a popular and administratively simple policy option [that] allows electric customers who generate their own electricity using solar or other forms of renewable energy to bank excess electricity on the grid, usually in the form of kilowatt-hour (kWh) credits.… In effect, the customer uses excess generation credits to offset electricity that the customer otherwise would have to purchase at the utility’s retail rate. Traditionally, net metering has been accomplished through the use of a single, conventional, bi-directional meter.” In its most simple terms, customers who participate in net metering programs get rebates or subsidies from their IOUs based on how much solar energy they generate for themselves: if they generate 10 hours of solar power a week, they receive 10 kilowatt-hours (at the retail rate) of credit on their electric bills. The policies are in force in some 40 states, though the details of their implementation vary widely from state to state. The utilities say that net metering is inherently unfair, since a consumer who lowers or even zeroes out their utility bill through solar power generation does not pay enough for fixed costs such as power plant construction, transmission line installation and maintenance, etc., even though these consumers still make use of these services. The utilities argue that the complexity of managing these distributed energy producing consumers increases their costs; net metering, they say, makes customers who cannot afford solar arrays subsidize those who can. (This argument has been strongly challenged—see April 5, 2013.) Utilities in many states are trying to end or dramatically cut back on net metering rebates (see April 9-12, 2013). As noted in a January 2013 report that predicted utilities will be forced into near-bankruptcy by increasing use of solar-generated power (see January 2013), many IOUs are attempting to add “customer service charges” to subsidize their fixed costs, and to lower the subsidies paid to rooftop solar producers. David Rubin of Pacific Gas and Electric has said, “We need to set the stage for continued growth in solar in what we believe will be a sustainable way which is to not have solar customers that are being subsidized by the rest of our customers and producing unsustainable rates for those customers.” [DSIRE Solar, 2013; Grist Magazine, 5/15/2013]
Solar Perspective - The solar community is not convinced, Roberts writes, and is actively, and sometimes angrily, pushing back against the utilities’ stance. Recently, some of the nation’s largest solar installers formed an organization called the Alliance for Solar Choice (see Shortly Before May 10, 2013). Their argument boils down to the contention that utilities raise their rates regardless of who produces solar or wind power for themselves. In fact, they charge, utilities raise their rates far more than is warranted to cover what they argue are higher costs due to solar generation. Because of their monopolistic structure, they are able to make extraordinarily high profits even while bemoaning their costs. PUCs guarantee them hefty profit margins (rates of return on their investments) regardless of whether the investments were necessary. They essentially have a captive customer base, Roberts writes, and are used to charging heavily padded retail rates on the power they sell their customers. Utilities have no interest in innovation or competition, he writes, and as a result their customers “are getting shafted all over the country. Utilities overestimate demand, underestimate efficiency, and contract for gigantic central-generation power plants that customers pay for whether or not they need the power.” Roberts cites the examples of Southern California Edison customers, who are paying $68 million a month to subsidize a nuclear plant in San Onofre that has not produced a watt of energy in over a year. Mississippi customers are paying huge amounts to subsidize a coal-fired plant in Kemper County. We Energies in Wisconsin is trying to force its customers to pay for its Oak Creek coal plant, a hugely expensive facility that has been plagued with outages and breakdowns. Roberts says that utilities are not worried about increasing customers’ rates, but do not like the loss in revenue due to solar consumption. “It’s competition they don’t like,” he writes, “the potential loss of their captive customers.” Homes that are essentially “unplugged” from the grid do not impose costs on the utility, and actually save the utility money on transmission and distribution costs and in other areas. Utilities rely on consumers to pay exorbitant rates for their poorly envisioned and constructed power plants, transmission facilities, and the like, Roberts argues, instead of absorbing the losses themselves. [Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 6/27/2012; Grist Magazine, 5/15/2013]
Conclusion - While the solar advocates have a stronger case, Roberts says, some of them have become a bit extreme in their view that all utilities are automatically the enemy. “Some utilities, at least, seem to be grappling with this issue in good faith,” he says. But even these utilities, he says, “are struggling with the question of how to appropriately compensate for distributed solar. The fact is, as long as utilities operate under their current business model, rooftop solar really does hurt them.” Roberts says the best solution is to revamp the business model, particularly the IOU. [Grist Magazine, 5/15/2013] The regulatory contract that most IOUs operate under—existing as corporations legally protected from competition, charging rates as approved by state governments, and receiving guaranteed returns—is almost completely the opposite of the free market concept. “It is the most Soviet of economic sectors,” Roberts writes. Moreover, utilities make most of their profits not from selling electricity, but from making investments and receiving returns on them. The more power lines and plants they build, the more money they earn. In the ideal free market, companies profit by competing, cutting costs, and innovating. None of this applies to the typical American utility. As long as they can make their local PUC happy, utilities are free to generate revenue merely by building more facilities, whether those facilities are needed or even useful. Now, though, the paradigm is not as profitable. Utilities’ profits have peaked, and in coming years they will continue to drop, in large part because of the increase in the usage of renewable energy in place of utility-generated energy. Meanwhile, utilities are locked into paying for facilities and improvements for the next 20 years or so, and want to charge customers as much as possible to help them pay off the debts they have incurred and keep their profit margins in place. Roberts says that while society as a whole needs distributed, renewable energy platforms, the utilities do not want them: “As a society, we need energy efficiency and demand response. We need distributed renewable energy. We need to cancel out future power plants and transmission lines. All those things are to the good, economically and ecologically. Yet utilities have every incentive to oppose them, as they are direct threats to their familiar, comfortable business model, which has survived nearly a century unchanged.… We need a ground-up rethink of how utilities work, how they are structured, and how they can be reformed in a way that enables and accelerates long-overdue innovation in the electricity space.” [Grist Magazine, 5/21/2013]

Entity Tags: Southern California Edison, David Rubin, David Roberts, Alliance for Solar Choice, Database for State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

Amory B. Lovins, the chief scientist for the Rocky Mountain Institute and a well-known expert on sustainable and renewable energy, writes in a blog post for the Institute that the US solar industry is being attacked by an onslaught of disinformation and lies by the mainstream media, much of it designed to promote the interests of the conventional electric utilities. He begins by citing the infamous “flub” by Fox Business reporter Shibani Joshi, who in January 2013 lied to viewers when she said Germany has a more successful solar industry than the US because it has “got a lot more sun than we do” (see February 7, 2013). Lovins notes, “She recanted the next day while adding new errors.” He cites a pattern of what he calls “misinformed or, worse, systematically and falsely negative stories about renewable energy.” Some are simply erroneous, he admits, “due to careless reporting, sloppy fact checking, and perpetuation of old myths. But other coverage walks, or crosses, the dangerous line of a disinformation campaign—a persistent pattern of coverage meant to undermine renewables’ strong market reality. This has become common enough in mainstream media that some researchers have focused their attention on this balance of accurate and positive coverage vs. inaccurate and negative coverage.” The coverage issue has become one of note, he says. Tim Holmes of the UK’s Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) says that media reporting has an outsized influence on the thinking of lawmakers. In Britain, Holmes says, left-leaning newspapers tend to write positively about renewable energy, while more conservative, Tory-favoring news outlets give far more negative coverage. Overall, negative coverage of renewable energy more than doubles the amount of positive coverage in the British press. In Britain, the “lopsided” coverage is largely driven by nuclear power advocates who fear competition from wind power.
Myth: Renewable Energy Industries Cause Job Losses - Lovins cites the October 2012 claim by a Washington Post opinion columnist that subsidies for green energy do not create jobs, where the columnist cited Germany as an example of his assertion (see October 15, 2012). He cites data from a German study debunking the Post claim, showing that Germany’s renewable energy sector created over 380,000 jobs in 2011 alone and was continuing to create more jobs each year. Lovins writes, “More jobs have been created than lost in Germany’s energy sector—plus any jobs gained as heavy industry moves to Germany for its competitive electricity.” He writes that “a myth persists that countries lose more jobs then they gain when they transition to renewables.” He calls this claim an “upside-down fantasy” promulgated by a faulty study released by King Juan Carlos University in Spain in 2009 and written by an economist with reported ties to ExxonMobil, the conservative Heartland Institute, and the far-right Koch brothers (see August 30, 2010). The study claimed that for every job created in Spain’s renewable energy industry, 2.2 jobs were lost in the general job market. The story is still reported as fact today. But the study was debunked by experts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL—see 1977) and the Spanish government. A 2012 study by the International Labour Organization shows that Spain is leading Europe in “green” job creation. Similar claims have been made about the American job market, with right-wing think tanks such as the Cato Institute (also funded by the Koch brothers—see 1977-Present and February 29, 2012) asserting that if people think renewable energy industries will create jobs, “we’re in a lot of trouble.” In reality, the American renewable energy industries created over 110,000 new jobs in 2012; in 2010, the US had more jobs in the “clean economy” than in the fossil-fuel industries.
Disinformation Campaign - Lovins writes that the attacks on the renewable energy industry are too systematic and coordinated to be accidental. Only one out of every 10 articles written about renewable energy had a quote from a spokesperson with the renewable energy industry, according to a recent survey. Retired Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, head of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), says that enemies of the renewable energy industries “are dominating the conversation through misrepresentation, exaggeration, distraction, and millions of dollars in lobbying and advertising.” Lovins concludes: “This misleading coverage fuels policy uncertainty and doubt, reducing investment security and industry development. Disinformation hurts the industry and retards its—and our nation’s—progress. As Germany has shown, investing in renewables can grow economies and create jobs while cutting greenhouse gas emissions even in a climate as ‘sunny’ as Seattle. We just have to get the facts right, and insist that our reporters and media tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” [Rocky Mountain Institute, 7/31/2013]

Entity Tags: Rocky Mountain Institute, Amory B. Lovins, Cato Institute, International Labour Organization, Shibani Joshi, Tim Holmes, Dennis McGinn, Washington Post

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

Reporter Grace Wyler of the online technology magazine Motherboard writes that solar power generation “poses a mortal threat to the mainline power utilities that have dominated energy distribution in the US since the late 19th century.” Wyler echoes the findings of a January 2013 report by the Edison Electric Institute (EEI—see January 2013). The price of solar energy is dropping, she writes, and a new solar unit is being installed somewhere in the country every four minutes. The nation’s solar capacity has doubled since 2008 and costs are down 40 percent. Within 10 years, perhaps sooner, analysts predict, the price of solar generated energy will reach parity with other power sources. Naturally, conventional energy utility companies “are waging an escalating war against independent power distributors, and particularly against a new crop of solar technology companies that threaten to disrupt their century-old business model,” she writes.
Net Metering Among Largest Issues - One of the biggest issues is “net metering,” a policy which allows renewable energy consumers to sell their excess power back to the grid at retail prices. Net metering is taking the place of state subsidies for solar energy producers, allowing solar consumers to lower their energy bills. However, utilities fear what Wyler calls “a so-called ‘utility death spiral,’ in which more and more customers generate their own power, forcing utilities to charge higher rates to maintain infrastructure that was intended for a much larger pool of energy consumers, which will in turn encourage more people to turn to distributed energy options—which in most cases means solar panels.” Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers told a Bloomberg reporter: “It is obviously a potential threat to us over the long term. If the cost of solar panels keeps coming down, installation costs come down, and if they combine solar with battery technology and a power management system, then we have someone just using [the grid] for backup.” The EEI wrote that if the utility industry does not take immediate action, renewable energy could soon cause “irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects” of utilities. These firms are battling net metering, claiming that conventional energy consumers are paying higher rates because of solar energy usage, a claim that has been challenged (see April 5, 2013). Utilities are fighting net metering policies in at least 11 states, asking regulators to impose new rate structures that would lower the amount utilities pay to buy back excess power from renewables consumers, and in some cases impose new grid-use fees on solar customers. Solar energy and technology producers such as Sungevity, SunRun, and SolarCity are fighting back against the utilities’ push.
Odd Political Bedfellows Joining to Fight Utility Restrictions - The solar companies are fighting the policy restrictions, not just on financial grounds, but, Wyler writes, because they believe government-sanctioned utilities monopolies are outdated and interfere with progress, calling it “the techno-libertarian view that regulation is an impediment to innovation and technological progress.” SolarCity spokesperson William Craven says: “Having more choice and more competition in the sector benefits pretty much everyone except the monopoly that has enjoyed having a monopoly for the past 100 years. It’s not clear that that system benefits anyone else. Generally, greater choice and greater competition drives innovation and drives reduced costs.” Many libertarian conservatives are joining the push for deregulation, broadening the base of solar consumers and advocates by aligning themselves with the more left-leaning solar advocates whose push for renewable energy is largely driven by environmental concerns. Even some far-right tea party groups are joining the push for deregulation. “From a conservative, or libertarian, perspective, it raises the question of why are we giving these guys a monopoly when they don’t need it anymore?” says John Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which pushes for distributed generation. “We can generate electricity in lots of different ways. We don’t need a big centralized corporate entity to generate electricity. We can do it ourselves.” Wyler says this “strange grassroots coalition” is successfully fighting back against the utilities’ attempts to weaken net metering, citing victories in California, Georgia, Idaho, and Louisiana. Rosalind Jackson of Vote Solar says: “Utilities have a simple argument that sounds compelling, but time and again, we’ve seen such strong public outcry against the idea of utilities trying to take away the right to generate power that the decisions have actually come down on the side of solar customers.… This is a regulated industry that has not had to innovate for a century. But they are faced with a real disruptive technology. There are new entrants for customers who have never had an option before. So that’s a very real threat.” [Motherboard, 9/23/2013]

Entity Tags: Sungevity, SunRun, William Craven, Rosalind Jackson, Edison Electric Institute, Grace Wyler, Jim Rogers, SolarCity, John Farrell

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

The Arizona Public Service (APS), Arizona’s largest utility, admits that it paid a national conservative organization, the 60 Plus Association, to run advertisements attacking Arizona’s solar energy industry. APS has previously denied funding the ad campaign (see August 14, 2013). APS is trying to persuade the state’s public utility commission to change a state policy allowing homes and businesses that generate their own solar power to sell the excess energy they generate back to the grid (see July 16, 2013), a practice known as “net metering.” Solar advocates say the policy has helped create an increasing demand for rooftop solar energy equipment. APS has argued that solar energy producers pay less than their fair share for conventionally generated electricity, a popular argument among conservative opponents of solar power (see October 15, 2012) that has been challenged as false and misleading (see April 5, 2013 and July 31, 2013). A recent report showed that the utility companies fear massive loss of revenues in the future as solar power begins to eat into their monopoly on electricity provision in Arizona and other states (see January 2013), in part because most utility companies find it difficult and expensive to modernize their industry (see February 7, 2013). Solar advocates say that the elimination of net metering would essentially “kill rooftop solar in Arizona” (see August 14, 2013). Republican state icon Barry Goldwater Jr. leads a pro-solar organization, TUSK, that many in the conventional utility industry seem to fear. In July 2013, APS spokesman Jim McDonald flatly denied that APS was paying 60 Plus to run the ads, telling a reporter, “No, we are not” funding the ad campaign. But reporting by the Arizona Republic has revealed that APS did pay 60 Plus to run ads attacking the solar industry, as well as paying other groups such as Prosper and perhaps others to engage in similar advertising. McDonald now admits, “It goes through our consultant, but APS money does ultimately fund 60 Plus and Prosper.” McDonald now says he was not lying in July, because “[t]hat was my understanding at the time.” He denies knowing how much APS has paid 60 Plus, Prosper, and perhaps other groups, but says whatever money was spent came from shareholders’ funds and not ratepayer money. He then pivots, saying that the issue is “a phony controversy fueled by opponents who are eager to distract attention from the real substance from the issue.” He adds: “We’re in the middle of a bitter political fight. This is not a battle that we want to fight, but we cannot back down.… [W]e are not going to lie down and get our heads kicked in. We are just not. We are obligated to fight. It is irresponsible to our customers not to fight back.” APS vice president John Hatfield tells another reporter that APS “is contributing money to the nonprofits [60 Plus and Prosper], and potentially other groups through political consultant Sean Noble and his firm, DC London.” McDonald denies that APS is anti-solar, but the ads by 60 Plus are openly hostile to solar energy. Prosper has aired ads attacking both solar energy and Medicaid expansion. Bryan Miller of the Alliance for Solar Choice says: “APS knows how popular solar is. Rather than owning up to their attacks, they set up shady organizations and worked behind them, and lied to the public and regulators for months and months. They owe the public an explanation.” Solar industry officials say that most consumers would not choose to use solar if they did not get credit for the excess energy they give back to APS. Lyndon Rive, the founder and CEO of Solar City, says that most new solar customers are installing the panels with leases, and with their new lower power bill and lease payment, they save from $5 to $10 a month. Any additional cost to solar customers greater than a few dollars would prevent most people from using solar, he says, a claim that other industry experts echo. Goldwater recently told a reporter, “Innovation is happening all around APS, and they are sitting there like an elephant in a mud puddle.” He added: “All of the [utility] commissioners are Republicans and conservatives who believe in [market] choice. They will come down on the side of competition and against APS. They better, or they are in trouble. That’s why we have elections. If we don’t like the job they are doing, we will replace them. The people in the bleachers know a lot more about what’s going on down on the field than we give them credit for.” McDonald says TUSK and other pro-solar groups are merely masquerading as conservatives, and in truth are linked to Democrats and the Obama administration.
60 Plus Funded by Koch Brothers; Ads Link Arizona Solar Industries to Solyndra - 60 Plus, an organization that calls itself a more conservative alternative to the more mainstream AARP, is a lobbying organization funded by oil magnates Charles and David Koch (see 1981-2010). In recent years, 60 Plus has produced ads attacking health care reform using false and misleading claims (see Shortly Before August 10, 2009 and August 11, 2009), and was part of a 2009 push to create “astroturf” (fake grassroots) organizations to attack health care legislation (see August 14, 2009). 60 Plus has led the conservative pushback against TUSK and other pro-solar lobbying and advocacy groups, calling net metering “corporate welfare.” The ads attempt to link Arizona solar energy companies SolarCity and SunRun with Solyndra, the solar manufacturer that went bankrupt in 2011. The two firms have no known connections to Solyndra. One ad shows images of secretive businessmen doing deals outside a corporate jet while the voiceover tells listeners, “California billionaires are getting rich off of your tax dollars.” The Prosper ad made an unsubstantiated claim that every rooftop array “adds $20,000 in costs to customers,” a claim that APS CEO Don Brandt has made since the spring of 2013. 60 Plus is led by Noble, a conservative operator who has been called “the wizard behind the screen” in the Koch’s donor network.
Prosper Founded by Republican Politicians and Staffers - Prosper is led by former Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams, a Republican, and former staffers for ex-Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ). Adams denies that Prosper was formed to work on APS’s behalf, and that it is also working to block Arizona’s planned expansion of Medicaid. [Arizona Republic, 10/21/2013; Mother Jones, 10/21/2013; GreenTech, 10/22/2013; Huffington Post, 10/25/2013]

Entity Tags: David Koch, Barry Goldwater Jr., Arizona Republic, Arizona Public Service, 60 Plus Association, Charles Koch, SunRun, Sean Noble, SolarCity, Lyndon Rive, Kirk Adams, John Hatfield, Bryan Miller, Jim McDonald, Prosper, Solyndra Corporation

Timeline Tags: US Solar Industry

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