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US Solar Industry

Industry

Project: US Solar Industry
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Inventor Clarence Kemp of Baltimore patents the first commercial solar water heater. Kemp, who sells cutting-edge home heating equipment, combines the older practice of exposing metal tanks to sunlight with the scientific principle of the “hot box” (see September 27, 1816), thus increasing the tanks’ capability of collecting and retaining heat. He calls his invention the “Climax.” He first markets it to Eastern “gentlemen” whose wives have gone on holiday for the summer, leaving them to their own devices. Kemp sells his heaters by claiming that they will reduce the effort needed to perform housekeeping duties, especially for men unaccustomed to lighting the gas furnace or stove to heat water. Later, Kemp will find a brisk market for his Climax heaters in warmer states such as California. By 1897, a third of the households in Pasadena will use the Climax to heat water in their homes. [California Solar Center, 2001; US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Clarence Kemp

Category Tags: History of Pre-Modern Solar Dev/Use, Non-Silicon Technology, Commercial Involvement

Despite the initial success of the “Climax” solar water heater (see 1891), consumers are dissatisfied with a major drawback of the heater: its inability to keep the water it heats hot for more than a few hours. Inventor William J. Bailey of the Carnegie Steel Company separates the solar heater into two components: a heating element exposed to the sun and an insulated storage unit kept inside the home. Bailey’s invention allows families to have solar-heated water day and night, and even into the next morning. The device keeps water in narrow pipes instead of a large tank, allowing the water to retain its heat longer and for less water needing to be exposed to the sun at any given time. Bailey calls his invention the Day and Night, and by 1918 sells over 4,000 of the heaters. [California Solar Center, 2001; US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: William J. Bailey

Category Tags: History of Pre-Modern Solar Dev/Use, Non-Silicon Technology, Commercial Involvement

By the 1930s, the solar water heater industry is essentially killed off in California by discoveries of huge natural gas reserves in the Los Angeles basin. William Bailey, who has grown rich selling his solar-powered water heaters (see 1909-1918), adapts his design for a thermostatically-controlled gas water heater. His Day and Night Solar Water Heater does quite well in Florida, where a building boom has brought in an influx of new residents, many of whom have to pay high rates for hot water. Florida’s semi-tropical climate and its housing boom creates an excellent selling environment for Bailey’s “hybrid” water heater. By 1941, over half of Florida residents heat their water with solar or solar-gas heaters. However, declining energy rates after World War II combined with an aggressive effort by Florida Power and Light to increase electrical consumption by offering electric water heaters at bargain prices brings the state’s solar water heater industry to its knees. [California Solar Center, 2001]

Entity Tags: William J. Bailey

Category Tags: History of Pre-Modern Solar Dev/Use, Non-Silicon Technology, Commercial Involvement, Utilities and the Solar Industry

In the United States, scarce energy due to the war effort produces a high demand for passive-solar buildings. The Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company publishes a book called Your Solar House, profiling 49 of the nation’s best-known solar architects. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company

Category Tags: History of Pre-Modern Solar Dev/Use, Popular Media, Commercial Involvement

1955: Western Electric Sells PV Licenses

Western Electric begins selling commercial licenses for silicon photovoltaic (PV) technologies (see 1954). Some successful products include PV-powered dollar bill changers and devices that decode computer punch cards and tape. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Western Electric

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Commercial Involvement

Architect Frank Bridgers and his partner, mechanical engineer Don Paxton, design and oversee the construction of the Bridgers-Paxton Building, the world’s first commercial office building using solar water heating and passive-solar design. The building, located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, still exists as of 2013, though it is no longer functional. It will be commemorated in the National Historic Register. Life magazine devotes a multi-page spread to the building in a December 1956 issue, calling it an odd-looking office building that “has one wall sheathed in glass and tilted to face the sun.” That south-facing wall is slanted 30 degrees to best capture the intense New Mexico sunlight, the “passive solar” aspect of the design. The building also employs active mechanical components that comprise a five-phase system controlled by a set of pneumatic controls. The building will be featured in dozens of consumer and engineering magazines throughout the world. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file; Earth Alert!, 2006]

Entity Tags: Bridgers-Paxton Building, Don Paxton, Frank Bridgers

Category Tags: Commercial Involvement

The first large commercial production of selenium and silicon PV cells (see 1955) begins at Silicon Sensors, Inc. of Dodgeville, Wisconsin. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Silicon Sensors, Inc.

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Commercial Involvement

1969: France Builds Odeilo Solar Furnace

Odeilo Solar Furnace.Odeilo Solar Furnace. [Source: Gizmodo]France builds the Odeilo Solar Furnace, located in the Pyrenees Mountains. It has an eight-story stack of some 10,000 mirrors that reflect sunlight into a large concave hemisphere to focus the energy—so-called “lensing technology.” Temperatures in the hemisphere can reach up to 6,300°F. The energy generates electricity via a steam turbine, and is later used for making hydrogen fuel, testing reentry materials for space vehicles, and performing high-temperature metallurgic experiments. Its extraordinary heat generation allows for the production of carbon nanotubes and zinc nanoparticles via solar induced sublimation. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file; Gizmodo, 7/26/2011]

Entity Tags: Odeilo Solar Furnace

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Other Nations' Policies

The German auto manufacturer Volkswagen begins testing solar-power arrays mounted on the roof of its Dasher station wagons. The system powers the car’s ignition system. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Volkswagen

Category Tags: Other Nations' Policies, Commercial Involvement

Hisperia, California launches the first PV megawatt-scale power station in existence. The station, developed by ARCO Solar, produces 1 megawatt of energy. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: ARCO Solar

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Commercial Involvement

The US Department of Energy (DOE), working with an industry consortium, puts into operation “Solar One,” a ten-megawatt central-receiver demonstration project in California. The project proves the feasibility of power-tower systems, a solar-thermal power generating system. The system runs until 1988, dispatching electricity 96 percent of the time. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: US Department of Energy

Category Tags: US Policies, Solar Industry

1983: Solar House Operates in Hudson River Valley

Solar Design Associates builds and operates a free-standing solar-powered home in New York’s Hudson River Valley. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Solar Design Associates

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Commercial Involvement

A new six-megawatt solar electricity substation in central California, operated by ARCO Solar, generates enough power for Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) to power up to 2,500 homes. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: ARCO Solar, Pacific Gas and Electric

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Utilities and the Solar Industry

The world’s largest solar-thermal facility opens in Kramer Junction, California. The solar field uses rows of mirrors that concentrate solar energy onto a system of pipes circulating a heat transfer fluid. That fluid produces steam, which in turn powers a conventional turbine to produce electricity. The Kramer Junction facility is the largest of nine such plants built in the 1980s. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Utilities and the Solar Industry

Pacific Gas and Electric begins operating the first grid-supported PV solar electricity generation system in Kerman, California. The system produces 500 kilowats of power. This “distributed system” allows for greater system reliability and peak-shaving capability. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Pacific Gas and Electric

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Utilities and the Solar Industry

4 Times Square, the tallest skyscraper built in New York City during the 1990s, is completed. The building incorporates a record-breaking amount of energy-efficient building techniques, which include an array of PV panels on the 37th through 43rd floors that produce power from sunlight. The array uses a “photovoltaic skin” that replaces the usual glass cladding materials. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: 4 Times Square

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Commercial Involvement

First Solar of Perrysburg, Ohio begins manufacturing photovoltaic solar panels, producing enough panels to generate 100 megawats of power per year. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: First Solar

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Commercial Involvement

The world’s largest hybrid power generating system comes online in Hawaii, combining wind and solar power production. The plant, built by PowerLight Corporation, generates more electricity from the sun than it does from wind. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: PowerLight Corporation

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Commercial Involvement

The Powerlight Corporation installs the US’s largest rooftop solar power system, at the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California. It is the fourth largest solar electric system in the world. It reduces the jail’s use of conventionally generated electricity by some 30 percent, and provides energy to the jail via three acres of solar electric or photovoltaic (PV) panels. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: PowerLight Corporation

Category Tags: Commercial Involvement, Solar Industry

The Home Depot in San Diego begins selling solar residential power systems in three of its stores. In 2002, the franchise will expand sales to 61 stores nationwide. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Home Depot

Category Tags: Commercial Involvement

A BP gas station in Indianapolis is outfitted with a solar-electric canopy built by BP Solar. The station is the first of a series of “BP Connect” stores, and is intended to serve as a model for all new or refurbished BP stores. The canopy uses translucent PV modules made of thin films of silicon on glass, the “PowerView Semi-Transparent Photovoltaic Module,” and is designed to double both as a power generation system and as a roof or a window. BP will incorporate the system into some 150 stations by 2001, having the modules replace conventional glass in walls, canopies, atriums, entrances, and facades in commercial and residential architecture. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: British Petroleum

Category Tags: Commercial Involvement

Richland, Washington, brings the largest solar power facility in the Northwest, the White Bluffs Solar Station, online. The facility generates almost 39 kilowatts of electricity. [US Department of Energy, 2002 pdf file]

Entity Tags: White Bluffs Solar Station

Category Tags: Utilities and the Solar Industry, Commercial Involvement

North Carolina implements a new program, “NC Greenpower,” that for the first time allows state residents to buy their electricity from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and biomass. Customers would pay between 2.5 cents and 4 cents per kilowatt-hour extra for the so-called “green” power. [Grist Magazine, 1/29/2003]

Entity Tags: NC Greenpower

Category Tags: Solar Industry, US Policies

An image of the proposed Co Op Canyon, inspired by the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi Indians.An image of the proposed Co Op Canyon, inspired by the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi Indians. [Source: InHabit]The Los Angeles design firm Standard submits a proposal for a fully sustainable, solar-powered arcology for the Re:Vision Dallas design challenge. The proposal, Co Op Canyon, is inspired by the cliffside villages of the ancient Anasazi Indians, who used sunlight to heat their homes (see 1200 and After). The winner of the challenge could have their design built by Dallas developers on a city block already set aside for the project. Co Op canyon would house up to 1,000 residents, who would be almost completely independent and sustainable between the solar energy, rainwater collection, and agriculture from the community gardens. The community would have a communal kitchen, gathering area, child care facility, fitness center, and retail space. It is designed to have a near-zero carbon footprint. [InHabitat, 6/8/2009]

Entity Tags: Standard

Category Tags: Solar Industry

The Center for American Progress releases a study that shows how economically viable a transition from the US’s current dependence on carbon-intensive and fossil fuels to a clean energy economy can be. Making this transition is a necessity, the study says, due to “global climate change due to rising carbon emissions” forcing the US to “dramatically cut its consumption of traditional fossil fuels, the primary source of carbon dioxide (CO2) delivered into our atmosphere by human activity.” The transition must achieve three interrelated goals:
bullet Dramatically increasing energy efficiency;
bullet Dramatically lowering the cost of supplying energy from such renewable sources of energy as solar, wind, and biomass; and
bullet Mandating limits and then establishing a price on pollution from the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas.
According to the study, a dramatic decrease in CO2 emissions can be achieved alongside an increase in employment opportunities, individual incomes, and economic growth. The authors of the study say their work is done within the parameters of two government initiatives: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA—see February 2009) and the proposed American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA), which remains to be passed by Congress. Taken together, the authors claim, the two measures can generate roughly $150 billion per year in new clean-energy investments in the United States over the next decade. Most of this new spending will be undertaken by the private sector, the authors say, triggered by the ARRA and the yet-to-be-passed ACESA, and will, they predict, create some 1.7 million new jobs that will be sustained if the spending continues year after year. That job gain would drop the unemployment rate about one percent, “even after taking into full account the inevitable job losses in conventional fossil fuel sectors of the US economy as they contract.” The authors say the clean energy program would do a great deal to combat the recession. The program would rely on three elements:
bullet Regulations aimed at promoting clean energy;
bullet A mandated cap on carbon emissions that will be phased in through 2050; and
bullet Measures designed to help businesses, communities, and individuals successfully manage the transition to a clean-energy economy.
The authors conclude: “To be sure, any economic modeling effort that estimates changes in employment growth, economic growth, and income growth will result in forecasts that are problematic by nature. We make this clear in our paper wherever we rely on our own economic models and those employed by others. But we also take pains to examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of all the modeling approaches—including our own. This enables us to cross check our own conclusions with those of other researchers to reach the most reliable possible understanding of the overall impact of advancing a clean-energy agenda within the US economy.” [Center for American Progress, 6/18/2009; Robert Pollin, James Heintz, and Heidi Garrett-Peltier, 6/18/2009 pdf file]

Entity Tags: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, American Clean Energy and Security Act, Center for American Progress

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Academic Media

David White, who chairs the Energy Practice Group at Oregon’s Tonkon Corporation, writes in the Portland, Oregon, Daily Journal of Commerce about a pilot program going into effect that affects Oregon solar energy users. The Oregon Public Utility Commission (OPUC) is starting a program that White says “offers a promising alternative to more traditional financing of solar projects.” Traditionally, solar projects in Oregon have been financed with a combination of state business energy tax credits (BETCs), incentives from the Energy Trust of Oregon (ETO), federal tax credits, and credits from the utility based on the energy produced by the solar facility but not used by the customer. The BETCs are set to expire in 2012, thusly the new program offers new incentives for solar energy producers. White writes: “Under the pilot program, solar owners will be able to sell the energy they produce back to the utility at rates more than five times retail electricity rates. They also will be eligible for federal tax credits, but not BETCs or ETO incentives. The program is geared primarily to small (less than 10 kilowatt) and medium-sized (10 kilowatt to 100 kilowatt) solar producers, but systems of up to 500 kilowatts will qualify. That’s pretty big when you think of two acres covered with solar panels.” Net metering will be an option for systems generating 100 kilowatts or less, essentially allowing those producers to receive monthly credits equal to the electricity they generate. Solar producers can even sell excess energy to the utility at market rates. White acknowledges that the reception to the program has been mixed. Supporters say similar programs in Germany made that country the world’s largest solar energy producer; critics say the program has limited capacity and relies on an uncertain bidding process. White says the program “provides financial incentive options for solar owners in the short-term and for Oregon’s solar industry in the long-term.… The pilot program reflects a new public policy perspective. Rather than having solar development hinge on the inherently unstable BETC approach, which is funded by the general public, this pilot program is paid for by utility customers through higher retail rates. Businesses and homeowners should sharpen their pencils and compare the options based on their individual needs.” [Portland Daily Journal of Commerce, 6/16/2010]

Entity Tags: Oregon Public Utility Commission, David White, Energy Trust of Oregon

Category Tags: Public Finance, Utilities and the 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

Category Tags: Commercial Involvement, Silicon Technology

Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and the author of Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, writes an op-ed for the New York Times claiming that solar power production is too costly in part because of the “huge” amount of land it requires. “[W]hile energy sources like sunlight and wind are free and naturally replenished, converting them into large quantities of electricity requires vast amounts of natural resources—most notably, land,” he writes. “Even a cursory look at these costs exposes the deep contradictions in the renewable energy movement.” Bryce cites as one example the Ivanpah solar plant, which takes up about five and a half acres in the Mojave Desert and will generate about 370 megawatts of power when completed (see September 22, 2013). “The math is simple: to have 8,500 megawatts of solar capacity, California would need at least 23 projects the size of Ivanpah, covering about 129 square miles, an area more than five times as large as Manhattan,” he writes. “While there’s plenty of land in the Mojave, projects as big as Ivanpah raise environmental concerns. In April, the federal Bureau of Land Management ordered a halt to construction on part of the facility out of concern for the desert tortoise, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act” (see August 13, 2013). Wind power generation consumes even more land, he writes, citing the example of a wind farm in Texas that covers 154 square miles and generates over 781 megawatts of energy. Add to that the need for “long swaths of land for power lines,” and you have what one conservation group calls “energy sprawl,” the need for large amounts of land to generate power. He concludes: “All energy and power systems exact a toll. If we are to [keep power generation systems small] while also reducing the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions, we must exploit the low-carbon energy sources—natural gas and, yes, nuclear—that have smaller footprints.” [New York Times, 8/6/2011]
'Gusher of Lies' - In 2010, the progressive news Web site Think Progress called Bryce’s book “a gusher of lies,” and recruited renewable energy expert Adam Siegel to debunk it. Siegel wrote: “Masquerading as an unbiased, fact-based look at America’s energy situation and viable paths forward into the future, Robert Bryce’s Power Hungry is a mixed collection of factual material, thought-provoking constructs, selective ‘truthiness,’ questionable (if not simply wrong) data crunching, and outright deceptions. This mix of material makes Bryce’s work dangerous reading for those without a serious grounding in energy (related) issues while that same mix calls into question this work’s value for anyone with that more serious background.” [Think Progress, 9/14/2010]
Counter-Claims - In 2003, the US Department of Energy concluded that most of the land needed for renewable energy sites could be supplied by abandoned industrial sites. Moreover, “with today’s commercial systems, the solar energy resource in a 100-by-100-mile area of Nevada could supply the United States with all of its electricity. If these systems were distributed to the 50 states, the land required from each state would be an area of about 17 by 17 miles. This area is available now from parking lots, rooftops, and vacant land. In fact, 90 percent of America’s current electricity needs could be supplied with solar electric systems built on the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities.” The federal government is expanding its efforts to find “disturbed and abandoned lands that are suitable for renewable energy development.” Groups concerned with minimizing the impacts of energy development on wildlife prefer prioritizing these areas for development. The Energy Information Administration says: “Covering 4 percent of the world’s desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world’s total electricity demand.” And a 2009 study found that “in most cases” solar arrays in areas with plenty of sunlight use “less land than the coal-fuel cycle coupled with surface mining.” [National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1/2003 pdf file; US Energy Information Administration, 12/19/2011; Defenders of Wildlife, 1/14/2013 pdf file; Media Matters, 1/24/2013]

Entity Tags: Energy Information Administration, Think Progress (.org), Ivanpah Solar Complex, Bureau of Land Management, Adam Siegel, New York Times, US Department of Energy, Robert Bryce

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Popular Media

The Los Angeles Times publishes a long analysis of the environmental impact solar power projects are expected to have on the southwestern US desert (see August 13, 2013). Written by Julie Cart, the analysis focuses on the Ivanpah solar power project in the Mojave (see September 22, 2013), which is projected to expand to some 3,500 acres of public land when finished. The plant “will soon be a humming city with 24-hour lighting, a wastewater processing facility, and a gas-fired power plant. To make room, BrightSource [the firm building the plant] has mowed down a swath of desert plants, displaced dozens of animal species, and relocated scores of imperiled desert tortoises, a move that some experts say could kill up to a third of them.” Environmental attorney Johanna Wald, who was involved in the negotiations to build the plant, says: “I have spent my entire career thinking of myself as an advocate on behalf of public lands and acting for their protection. I am now helping facilitate an activity on public lands that will have very significant environmental impacts. We are doing it because of the threat of climate change. It’s not an accommodation; it’s a change I had to make to respond to climate.” Cart says that plants like the Ivanpah facility will result in “a wholesale remodeling of the American desert” in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. “[H]undreds of square miles of wild land will be scraped clear,” Cart writes. “Several thousand miles of power transmission corridors will be created. The desert will be scarred well beyond a human life span, and no amount of mitigation will repair it, according to scores of federal and state environmental reviews.” Dennis Schramm, the former superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve, warns: “The scale of impacts that we are facing, collectively across the desert, is phenomenal. The reality of the Ivanpah project is that what it will look like on the ground is worse than any of the analyses predicted.” Cart writes that at the moment, solar energy is “three times more expensive than natural gas or coal” because of “capital costs and other market factors,” and ratepayers will pay “as much as 50 percent higher for renewable energy, according to an analysis from the consumer advocate branch of the [California] state Public Utilities Commission.” The impact on the environment will be dramatic in some places, with birds and other wildlife abandoning some areas entirely, and the possible “massive losses of pollinators because you have all these insects getting burned in the mirrors,” according to government biologist Larry LaPre. Desert tortoise expert Jeffrey Lovich says no one really knows the impact the plants will have on the desert. “This is an experiment on a grand scale,” he says. “Science is racing to catch up.” Most large environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have chosen not to protest the development, instead agreeing to become part of the negotiation process and winning some environmental concessions from the developers. Wald, who works with the NRDC, says of the projects: “We didn’t make them perfect. We didn’t eliminate their environmental impact because you can’t eliminate the environmental impact. But we made them better.” [Los Angeles Times, 2/5/2012]
Refutation of Land Use Requirements - In 2003, the US Department of Energy concluded that most of the land needed for renewable energy sites could be supplied by abandoned industrial sites. Moreover, “with today’s commercial systems, the solar energy resource in a 100-by-100-mile area of Nevada could supply the United States with all of its electricity. If these systems were distributed to the 50 states, the land required from each state would be an area of about 17 by 17 miles. This area is available now from parking lots, rooftops, and vacant land. In fact, 90 percent of America’s current electricity needs could be supplied with solar electric systems built on the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities.” The federal government is expanding its efforts to find “disturbed and abandoned lands that are suitable for renewable energy development.” Groups concerned with minimizing the impacts of energy development on wildlife prefer prioritizing these areas for development. The Energy Information Administration says: “Covering 4 percent of the world’s desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world’s total electricity demand.” And a 2009 study found that “in most cases” solar arrays in areas with plenty of sunlight use “less land than the coal-fuel cycle coupled with surface mining.” [National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1/2003 pdf file; US Energy Information Administration, 12/19/2011; Defenders of Wildlife, 1/14/2013 pdf file; Media Matters, 1/24/2013]

Entity Tags: Ivanpah Solar Complex, Energy Information Administration, BrightSource Energy, US Department of Energy, Sierra Club, Los Angeles Times, Dennis Schramm, Natural Resources Defense Council, Julie Cart, Larry LaPre, Jeffrey Lovich, Johanna Wald

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, Solar Industry, Popular Media

A small New Jersey utility leads the nation in providing solar-powered electricity to its customers. The Vineland Municipal Utilities Authority provides solar-generated power to its 25,000 customers, leading the nation on a watts-per-customer basis, according to an analysis by the Solar Energy Power Association. Three of the state’s four electric utilities are among the top 10 nationwide in the amount of electricity generated from solar units installed or the number of watts produced from solar during 2011. The utilities in New Jersey, far from battling solar energy, are embracing it, though some fear this push will be undercut by a proposed cut in the prices solar owners earn for the power their units produce. The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities is considering whether to expand the utilities’ solar promotion efforts, a move supported by the solar industry. Proponents say the move would help stabilize the solar energy market in the state, which is trying to handle a drop in the amount of money solar systems earn for their owners. The Vineland utility, located in Cumberland County, used to operate one of the dirtiest coal plants in the state to provide its customers with electricity. The analysis shows that utilities are increasing their involvement in building solar plants, contrasting the status of a few years ago, when the market was dominated by customer-owned, net-metered systems that do not supply electricity directly to the grid. [NJ Spotlight, 4/18/2012]

Entity Tags: Solar Energy Power Association, Vineland Municipal Utilities Authority, New Jersey Board of Public Utilities

Category Tags: Utilities and the Solar Industry

The conservative Investors Business Daily (IBD) publishes an op-ed criticizing the White House’s willingness to grant permits for solar energy producers to use public lands to build their solar plants. The editorial says, “Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar, who has apparently forgotten about the Obama administration’s many solar power scandals, announced the initiative in what he called a ‘proud moment,’” apparently a swipe at the administration over the Solyndra bankruptcy, and then makes the broad claim: “There were no solar projects on federal land when Barack Obama was elected four years ago. And for good reason: Solar is an inferior source of energy.” Fossil fuels are cheaper, more efficient, sun-dependent, and even cleaner, the editorial claims, writing: “Solar power needs a large—and ugly—footprint that creates its own environmental issues. Solar cells contain toxic materials and therefore create toxic waste.” The editorial concludes by lambasting the Obama administration for not opening public lands for oil and gas development. [Investors Business Daily, 8/1/2012] In 2003, the US Department of Energy concluded that most of the land needed for renewable energy sites could be supplied by abandoned industrial sites. Moreover, “with today’s commercial systems, the solar energy resource in a 100-by-100-mile area of Nevada could supply the United States with all of its electricity. If these systems were distributed to the 50 states, the land required from each state would be an area of about 17 by 17 miles. This area is available now from parking lots, rooftops, and vacant land. In fact, 90 percent of America’s current electricity needs could be supplied with solar electric systems built on the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities.” The federal government is expanding its efforts to find “disturbed and abandoned lands that are suitable for renewable energy development.… Groups concerned with minimizing the impacts of energy development on wildlife prefer prioritizing these areas for development.” The Energy Information Administration says: “Covering 4 percent of the world’s desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world’s total electricity demand.” And a 2009 study found that “in most cases” solar arrays in areas with plenty of sunlight use “less land than the coal-fuel cycle coupled with surface mining.” [National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1/2003 pdf file; US Energy Information Administration, 12/19/2011; Defenders of Wildlife, 1/14/2013 pdf file; Media Matters, 1/24/2013]

Entity Tags: Investors Business Daily, Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy, Obama administration, Ken Salazar

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, Solar Industry, Popular Media

In an editorial claiming that the Obama administration is engaged in giving preferential land-use permits to solar energy producers over fossil fuel corporations, the Wall Street Journal claims, “The dirty secret of solar and wind power is that they are extremely land intensive, especially compared to coal mining, oil and gas drilling, or building a nuclear power plant.” [Wall Street Journal, 8/13/2012] In 2003, the US Department of Energy concluded that most of the land needed for renewable energy sites could be supplied by abandoned industrial sites. Moreover, “with today’s commercial systems, the solar energy resource in a 100-by-100-mile area of Nevada could supply the United States with all of its electricity. If these systems were distributed to the 50 states, the land required from each state would be an area of about 17 by 17 miles. This area is available now from parking lots, rooftops, and vacant land. In fact, 90 percent of America’s current electricity needs could be supplied with solar electric systems built on the estimated 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities.” The federal government is expanding its efforts to find “disturbed and abandoned lands that are suitable for renewable energy development.… Groups concerned with minimizing the impacts of energy development on wildlife prefer prioritizing these areas for development.” The Energy Information Administration says: “Covering 4 percent of the world’s desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world’s total electricity demand.” And a 2009 study found that “in most cases” solar arrays in areas with plenty of sunlight use “less land than the coal-fuel cycle coupled with surface mining.” [National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 1/2003 pdf file; US Energy Information Administration, 12/19/2011; Defenders of Wildlife, 1/14/2013 pdf file; Media Matters, 1/24/2013]

Entity Tags: Wall Street Journal, Obama administration, US Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, Popular Media, US Policies

A brief article in the Wall Street Journal claims that solar energy does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the aggregate, because the carbon savings from desert-based solar projects will be offset by “disturbing caliche deposits that release carbon dioxide.” The Journal cites a formal complaint filed by three Western environmental organizations claiming that desert-based solar projects not only endanger desert ecosystems, but “soil disturbance from large-scale solar development may disrupt Pleistocene-era caliche deposits that release carbon to the atmosphere when exposed to the elements, thus negat[ing] the solar development C [carbon] gains.” The Journal acknowledges that some aspects of the complaint may be exaggerated. The Journal does not mention that the report cited in the complaint, a 2011 study released by the University of California-Riverside, says that the 560,000 metric tons of carbon saved per year by a single solar plant would more than offset the estimated 6,000 metric tons of carbon released by disturbing caliche deposits. [Wall Street Journal, 9/4/2012; Media Matters, 1/24/2013]

Entity Tags: Wall Street Journal, University of California-Riverside

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, Popular Media

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

Category Tags: Utilities and the Solar Industry

Solar expert David Roberts, a columnist for the online magazine Grist, writes that like most modern industrial systems, the traditional electricity generating utility is extraordinarily “over-engineered,” which he defines as “built to be prepared for maximum demand even though maximum demand is, by definition, rare.” Over-engineering is not necessarily a bad thing; for example, an SUV can be considered “over-engineered” until it becomes involved in a collision, when its capability of protecting its passengers comes into play. The electricity system is also over-engineered, Roberts says, mostly because there is no simple way to store electricity. Demand for electricity must be met by generated electricity; it cannot be stored. “That imposes a certain logic on the system,” he writes. “There must always be enough power generation capacity available to handle the maximum possible demand (what’s called ‘peak load’). The result is that most of our power plants, like most of our cars, spend most of their time parked, idled. They are there for those few minutes of the day when everyone gets home from work and turns on the TV.” Because of the “real-time” nature of the electrical grid, it is susceptible to blackouts. On occasion, less responsive grids are prone to cascade failures, leading to hundreds of thousands of customers being without power. In contrast, Roberts writes, the data grid operating the Internet is “fault-tolerant,” with built-in responsive features to handle blockages, slowdowns, and errors. The Internet uses buffering to increase the durability of the system and reduce the need for overcapacity, and has the capability to isolate and route around faults and failures. Electricity systems generally have neither. These capacities can be built into modern electrical grids, and the costs of such upgrades is declining. But most utility companies do not install such upgrades. Why not? Because, he writes, “the oversight system governing the utilities does not provide incentive for upgrades. These costs must be shared directly with the ratepayer and public service commissions have been reluctant to approve such measures.” Public utility commissions (PUCs) are obliged by law to have utilities provide power at the lowest cost to the consumer, and as a result there is no incentive for utilities to spend more money than necessary upgrading and improving their systems. “There is no way build a new power system while also providing lowest-cost electricity from moment to moment,” he writes. “It’s impossible. The legal and regulatory system is practically built to prevent long-term systemic change.” As the energy production and transmission systems of the United States transform themselves into a 21st-century model, systems will need to be redesigned. Roberts concludes: “We could be doing that with our electrical system. We would be doing it already if we had open, competitive markets for electricity services. Instead we have quasi-public quasi-monopolies practically mandated by law to stick with what they know and nibble around the edges. Until that legal and regulatory system changes, we’ll be stuck with the dumb, over-engineered, wasteful system we have today.” [Grist Magazine, 2/7/2013]

Entity Tags: David Roberts

Category Tags: Utilities and the 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

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Utilities and the Solar Industry

In a press release, Kyocera Solar announces the opening of the Arlington Valley Solar Energy II (AV Solar II) installation in Maricopa County, Arizona, near the Hassayampa Substation. Kyocera, one of the world’s largest producers of solar photovoltaic (PV—see 1954) modules and systems, operates the facility in conjunction with LS Power and the state of Arizona; Governor Jan Brewer (R-AZ) is on hand to officially open the facility. Block 1 is online; Blocks 2 through 5 are expected to be complete by the end of the year. Kyocera Solar vice president Steve Hill says: “Today’s opening of the AV Solar II mega-installation marks a major milestone in Kyocera’s four decades of manufacturing high-quality, long-lasting solar modules. We’re proud to provide US-made products to this utility-scale installation, which adds to the mega-installations around the world showcasing Kyocera’s unrivaled solar solutions including a 204MW project in Thailand and a 70MW installation in Kagoshima, Japan.” When complete, the facility will be one of the largest solar PV installations in North America and will provide 127 megawatts of power for the surrounding community. Brewer tells the press: “Thanks to our strategic location, pro-business climate, skilled workforce, and strong incentives for solar development, Arizona is a national leader in the solar industry. As an Arizona-based company, Kyocera Solar understands how critical this industry is to a secure economic and renewable energy future.” [Business Wire, 5/1/2013]

Entity Tags: Steve Hill, Arlington Valley Solar Energy II, Jan Brewer, Kyocera Solar, LS Power

Category Tags: Public Finance, Commercial Involvement, Solar Industry, Silicon Technology

Several of the nation’s largest solar installers, including SolarCity, Sungevity, SunRun, and Verengo, form a lobbying organization, the Alliance for Solar Choice (ASC), to fight back against conventional utilities’ efforts to curtail or cancel programs that support renewable energy in 43 states. The ASC will begin by working to preserve “net metering” policies that require utilities to purchase surplus electricity at retail rates from customers with rooftop solar systems. ASC president Bryan Miller, a SunRun executive, says the group is responding to “the coordinated utility attack on net metering throughout the country.” Many utilities “have opposed net energy metering since its inception.” Utilities argue that as more people install solar arrays and generate power for themselves, non-solar customers are forced to pay higher rates to subsidize utility costs for grid maintenance and the like. (That argument has been strongly challenged—see April 5, 2013.) [Bloomberg, 5/10/2013]

Entity Tags: Sungevity, SolarCity, Verengo, SunRun, Bryan Miller, Alliance for Solar Choice

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Utilities and the 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

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Utilities and the Solar Industry

Arizona’s largest public utility, Arizona Public Service (APS), is proposing to charge its customers who install rooftop solar panels $50 to $100 a month, or more, to cover what it says is the cost of maintaining its power grid. The increase would primarily impact new solar consumers, and not those who already have solar arrays installed. Solar energy advocates say the utility’s move will cost thousands of jobs in the solar industry, but APS says the surcharge is justified. Gregory Bernosky, an APS official in charge of the company’s renewable energy policy, says: “Right now the model isn’t sustainable. We love customers to go solar; the energy is a great resource as part of our energy portfolio. But this is about cost shifting and fairness to non-solar customers.” Bernosky says that solar-producing customers are not paying their fair share for the conventional electricity they use, in part because under a policy known as net metering, they can sell the excess energy they generate back to APS for what Bernosky says is too much credit. “We’re not collecting all the costs we need to maintain infrastructure from solar customers, and as time goes on and we have more of them, they put a greater burden on non-solar customers,” he says. This claim has been strongly challenged (see April 5, 2013 and July 31, 2013). Tim Hanna, a Solar City employee who has a rooftop array, says he pays little more than $20 or $30 for electricity even in the summer, because he generates so much solar energy for his own use. He would not be affected by the rate increase, but says many others would, stating, “I think it will put a big damper on things because whenever you talk to people, you tell them they can save a good chunk of money, and now they might not be able to save like they used to.” Arizona’s solar industry employs over 10,000 people now, a number that is expected to rise. But many solar advocates say that APS’s new policy could halt job growth and cost current jobs. Meghan Nutting of Solar City says: “Louisiana and Idaho fought similar proposals. No other state with net metering, which is 43 states, has enacted a tax hike like this. It’s crazy that Arizona, the sunniest state in the nation, might actually consider doing this.” [AZFamily.com, 7/16/2013]

Entity Tags: Gregory Bernosky, Meghan Nutting, Arizona Public Service, Tim Hanna

Category Tags: Utilities and the 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

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Utilities and the Solar Industry, Academic Media

As the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) begins phasing out coal and natural gas power plants, it is turning more and more to “solar parks” in the desert to the east to generate much-needed power. However, these solar parks are raising concerns among environmentalists and local residents. The Ivanpah Solar Complex in the Mojave Desert has taken steps to minimize the impact its existence will have on the fragile desert tortoise population. The Genesis Solar Energy Project in Riverside County, California, was recently forced to halt construction when Native American burial remains were found on the construction site. Donna Charpeid, a farmer in Desert Center, California, says of the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm being built near her home: “My heart aches every time I look out my window and see the construction over there. It’s just unbelievable, the destruction.” The Desert Sunlight plant is being built near Charpeid’s 10-acre plot near the Joshua Tree State Park. It is projected to provide enough power to run 160,000 average homes and decrease the amount of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by 300,000 tons annually. Seventeen “Solar Energy Zones” have been proposed for California by the Bureau of Land Management and the US Department of Energy. Charpeid says of the zones: “This is a whole new form of gentrification. If all these projects come to fruition, people will simply not be able to live here. This is all seems like corporate welfare to me.” Critics worry that although water is not used by all solar-thermal plants for power generation, the water consumed by the plants—keeping dust down, rinsing panels, providing for the needs of workers—will deplete the water reserves in the area. In Desert Center, the residents’ water comes from deep underground reservoirs that are not generally replenished by groundwater; Charpeid says their water was found to be up to 30,000 years old. She also worries about the impact on the local weather: dust storms have increased over the last few years, she says, threatening her ability to farm jojoba. And animal habitats are being threatened. “I really wish [President] Obama would’ve given out that stimulus money to do rooftop solar instead,” she says, “like they’ve done in Germany.” LADWP board commissioner Jonathan Parfrey, the director of advocacy organization Climate Resolve, says: “I’ve been out in the desert; I know some of the people being impacted. I’m an enviro, I want to conserve that land. But it’s not just as easy as saying LA’s got to slap solar on rooftops. There has to be a balanced approach.” Parfrey says that solar plants need to be constructed in areas that are not rich in wildlife or used for recreational purposes, but adds that these solar desert plants must be built somewhere. Using solar arrays on rooftops of businesses and homes is expensive, he says, and sometimes interferes with distribution balancing and voltage problems as they co-exist with grid-produced electricity. He says: “In my view the transition to clean energy has to happen as inexpensively as possible. Otherwise people will rebel and they won’t even want to pay for it in the face of climate impacts. They will say, ‘That’s too bad about what’s happening to the environment, but I can’t afford to put food on my table because my electricity bills are too high.’” The LADWP is experimenting with inexpensive solar rooftop arrays, Palfrey says. “If I could have my moment like in The Graduate where [a character] says to Dustin Hoffman, ‘The future is in plastics,’ mine is how do we do distributed generation where we maintain the utility business model and we’re able to provide continual service for people. When we find the magic key to that I think it will be a revolution. I think it will really help affect the transition away from fossil-fuel energy sources.” [Grist Magazine, 8/13/2013]

Entity Tags: Genesis Solar Energy Project, Bureau of Land Management, Desert Sunlight Solar Farm, Ivanpah Solar Complex, Donna Charpeid, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Jonathan Parfrey, US Department of Energy

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, Solar Industry, Utilities and the Solar Industry

Keally DeWitt, an executive with solar provider SunRun, writes an opinion column lambasting a proposal by the Arizona Public Service (APS) utility company that would drastically overhaul Arizona’s net metering policy, favoring the utilities and damaging the ability of solar installers like SunRun to function in Arizona. DeWitt says the proposal, if approved by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC), would doom the solar industry in that state. APS has proposed two options to replace the current policy. One is to charge solar homeowners $50 to $100 a month for accessing the electrical grid, no matter how little they may actually use electricity generated by the utilities (see July 16, 2013). The second option is to change the net metering practice from paying solar power consumers a credit for solar consumption at the retail rate to the much lower wholesale rate. APS has stated, “The plan is built around two options, either of which would ensure that APS customers who choose rooftop solar in the future will be compensated fairly for the electricity they generate and pay a fair price for their use of the electricity grid.” DeWitt writes that APS is “ignoring the fact that clean, local energy is worth more than fossil fuel-generated energy being transported hundreds of miles.… Both options would eliminate any financial benefits for homeowners, especially those in the working or middle classes, who want to control costs with rooftop solar.” DeWitt says that APS has created “astroturf,” or fake grassroots, groups such as 60 Plus and Prosper HQ, and used those groups to air advertisements attacking solar users. One ad compares Arizona’s solar industry to the bankrupt, much-reviled solar corporation Solyndra, and claims, “California billionaires are getting rich off of your tax dollars.” DeWitt writes, “Using outdated scare tactics and financial figures that have been publicly denounced, the groups appear to be blatantly lying to the public (and driving people crazy through overplaying their ads on YouTube).” Bryan Miller, an executive for SunRun and the head of the Alliance for Solar Choice (see Shortly Before May 10, 2013), called the ad a “disgusting attack against their own Arizona solar customers,” and said APS is responsible for the video. APS spokesperson Jenna Shaver retorted, “APS had nothing to do with the making of or the content of the video, but we were aware 60 Plus was going to engage in the discussion and we welcome their support.” Shaver said the ad merely counters attack ads aired by the Arizona solar industry. A solar advocacy group, Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed (TUSK), headed by Republican Barry Goldwater Jr., has countered with its own ad featuring rooftop solar customers and a rooftop solar worker, all APS ratepayers, who are against the changes. TUSK’s Jason Rose recently said: “The proposal allows the ACC to create a backdoor tax on solar owners that will either severely curtail or kill solar in Arizona.… Solar is a disruptive technology and APS can’t compete. They are trying to maintain their profits and protect their shareholders’ stock price. We have spent a lot of time talking with them and they fear for their future.” One homeowner told DeWitt: “I had a solar system installed over a year ago and it has been a great benefit to me. APS, even more, benefits from the electricity that I produce. It does not cost them anything to produce the electricity; I even pay for the repairs that are needed. Why should I be penalized from going solar? This will only deter people from purchasing solar and eliminate jobs in the growing solar market in Arizona.” Rose recently told a reporter, “After conservative states like Idaho and Louisiana rejected proposals to change net metering, it would be a travesty for Arizona, the sunniest state in the union, to do it.” Miller said flatly, “The fight for net metering in Arizona is the most significant fight for solar in the country.” [Greentech Media, 7/3/2013; Greentech Media, 7/12/2013; Renewable Energy World, 8/14/2013]

Entity Tags: Jenna Shaver, Arizona Public Service, Arizona Corporation Commission, 60 Plus, Barry Goldwater Jr., Jason Rose, Prosper HQ, SunRun, Keally DeWitt, Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed, Bryan Miller

Category Tags: Public Finance, Solar Industry, Utilities and the Solar Industry

Grist columnist and solar power expert David Roberts lays out three ways the American populace can have relatively unfettered access to solar energy, given the recalcitrance and active opposition of the conventional power utility companies and many lawmakers. Once renewable energy becomes more accessible and widespread, it becomes more of an economic force, creating jobs and generating a revenue stream. “That’s why renewable power remains untouchable in German politics,” he writes, “lots of Germans are directly involved with it.” [Grist Magazine, 9/13/2013]
Leasing - Most American families cannot afford the initial costs of a rooftop solar array, especially when it will take five or 10 years to recoup those costs. Add to that the fact that the homeowner must manage their individual “power plant,” and stay in the home long enough to see financial benefits, and most American families are unwilling to take on such a burden. Roberts suggests that many families may benefit from leasing rooftop solar arrays from companies such as SunRun, SolarCity, or Sungevity. “The solar company effectively becomes a utility,” he writes. “You pay them a monthly fee for the electricity the panels produce.” Most homeowners will either break even on their electricity costs, or save money, in part depending on whether the solar providers in their areas are eligible for state mandates or rebates. Southern California is experiencing quite a boom in solar leasing, with some $1 billion in economic activity being generated since 2007. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently found that solar leasing “has enticed a new demographic to adopt PV [photovoltaic] systems that is more highly correlated to younger, less affluent, and less educated populations than the demographics correlated to purchasing PV systems.” By appealing to less affluent consumers, “third-party PV products are likely increasing total PV demand rather than gaining market share entirely at the expense of existing customer owned PV demand.” SunRun president Lynn Jurich says, “[A]bout 75 percent of Californians switching to solar now choose solar power service” over ownership. Other states featuring solar leasing include Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas. SunPower executive Howard Wenger said of his company’s lease program in August 2012: “It’s growing incredibly fast. We’re at a rate of about 1.5 megawatts to 2 megawatts per week.” [Forbes, 8/9/2012; Grist Magazine, 9/13/2013]
Community Solar - Some 70 to 80 percent of Americans live in buildings unsuitable for rooftop solar panel arrays. One alternative they have is to form communities of solar power users. Together, they can lease or buy solar arrays. Some power utilities own or operate solar power projects that ratepayers can join. Other people are forming their own communities, either in a business or non-profit enterprise. [Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 5/1/2012; Grist Magazine, 9/13/2013]
Solar Power Purchasing Agreements - Solar power purchasing agreements (PPAs) are similar to leases, where individuals buy power from third-party owners and operators of solar arrays. One large organization investing in PPAs is the US military, which is working with SolarCity to lease solar arrays for 120,000 military residences in California and Colorado. Some states have laws making it difficult or downright impossible for PPAs to exist. [Los Angeles Times, 7/17/2012; Environmental Protection Agency, 10/16/2012; Grist Magazine, 9/13/2013]

Entity Tags: SunRun, SolarCity, Sungevity, Lynn Jurich, David Roberts, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Howard Wenger

Category Tags: Private Finance, Solar Industry, Utilities and the Solar Industry

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, located on 3,500 acres in the Mojave Desert, begins generating electricity. The solar thermal power plant uses a circular array of mirrors to concentrate sunlight at a water-filled central tower. The resulting steam powers turbines, which in turn produce electricity. When fully operational, the Ivanpah plant will feed 377 megawatts of power into two California utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and Southern California Edison. During some days, the power generated could serve up to 200,000 residential consumers. The project is a partnership between NRG Energy, BrightSource Energy, Google, Bechtel, and the federal government, which leased public land to the plant and provided loan guarantees (see February 2009). Some environmentalists have been sharply critical of the impact on the desert environment (see August 13, 2013), and other critics have asked why a desert solar power plant is not using photovoltaic panels to collect sunlight. NRG Solar president Tom Doyle says, “Given the magnitude and complexity of Ivanpah, it was very important that we successfully complete this milestone showing all systems were on track.” Unit 1 is producing energy; Units 2 and 3 are coming online soon. When fully operational, the three plants will almost double the amount of commercial solar thermal energy capacity now operating in the US. [NRG Solar, 2012; Business Wire, 9/24/2013; Grist Magazine, 9/25/2013]

Entity Tags: Ivanpah Solar Complex, Bechtel, Google, Pacific Gas and Electric, NRG Energy, Tom Doyle, BrightSource Energy, Southern California Edison

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, Solar Industry, Utilities and the 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

Category Tags: Solar Industry, Utilities and the Solar Industry

Grist reports new data that shows America is using substantially less energy than in previous years, because of gains in energy efficiency as well as shifting market conditions and pollution regulations. CO2 emissions have dropped from 1.6 billion tons in 2007 (a record peak) to 1.4 billion tons in 2011, an 11 percent drop. Emily E. Adams of Earth Policy writes that both vehicle fuel efficiency and the number of miles driven by vehicles are improving, adding: “Average fuel efficiency, which had been deteriorating for years in the United States, started to increase in 2005 and keeps getting better. Americans are traveling farther on each gallon of gas than ever before. Furthermore, people are driving less. For many years Americans as a group drove billions more miles each year than the previous one. But in 2007 this changed. Now more cars stay parked because more people live in urban areas, opt for public transit, work remotely, or retire and thus no longer commute to work.” Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is shrinking in usage, though it continues to dominate conventional energy generation structures. Utilities are steadily shifting from coal to natural gas, and some are retiring old, inefficient coal plants instead of paying for expensive retrofits to bring them in line with current pollution regulations. US carbon emissions from coal have fallen 20 percent from their peak in 2005. Natural gas usage has risen sharply, and even though it produces only half the CO2 emissions that coal produces, natural gas added 373 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere in 2012. Solar and wind energy have no carbon emissions whatsoever; solar usage has increased 1,400 percent since 2007, and wind usage over 300 percent. Adams writes, “This is just the beginning of reductions in carbon dioxide emissions as the explosive growth of wind and solar power cuts down the use of dirty fossil fuels.” President Obama has set a goal for the nation to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020, and the decrease in energy usage and improvements in fuel efficiency are helping to reach that goal. [Grist Magazine, 10/2/2013; Grist Magazine, 10/11/2013]

Entity Tags: Grist, Obama administration, Emily E. Adams

Category Tags: Environmental Impact, US Policies

Arizona Public Service (APS), the state’s largest utility company, is using a new project it calls Solana to store solar energy collected during daylight hours to serve power demands during the night, according to an article published in the New York Times. APS had a three-mile stretch of desert near Gila Bend, southwest of Phoenix, bulldozed flat, and installed a network of parabolic mirrors that focus the sun’s energy onto a series of black-painted pipes. The pipes funnel the heat to large tanks of molten salt, which traps the heat until the plant draws the heat out of the salt and uses it to generate steam and electricity. The Solana project is an attempt to overcome one of the largest drawbacks of solar energy, the dearth of energy when the sun is not shining. “We’re going to care more and more about that as time goes on,” says APS general manager Brad Albert. Other states are watching the Solana project closely; California has just approved a rule requiring the state’s utilities to install storage facilities by 2024. Robert Gibson of the Solar Electric Power Association says: “The impetus to require storage is definitely inspired by the success of solar. Hopefully the California initiative is going to kick-start this and bring down costs.” Battery storage has always been a promise, he says, but cost-effective storage “has always been a few years out.” The biggest challenge for Arizona solar users, mainly individuals with rooftop solar arrays, is generating power in the early morning hours, before the sun has risen enough to activate the panels. Arizona and California also face similar problems in the evening, when the sun is too low for the panels to work well and people are returning home. By 6 p.m., most solar arrays are working at half capacity at best, even if they are installed on tracking devices that tilt the panels to follow the sun across the sky. Solana was built with a $1.45 billion loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy. Another similar project, also built with federal loan guarantees, is the Ivanpah project in California (see September 22, 2013). Cara S. Libby of the Electric Power Research Institute says, “There will be a trend towards storage as we see more variable renewables like photovoltaics and wind being added to the grid.” The flexibility of such a system becomes more important as a utility adds higher volumes of inflexible renewables, Libby says. Solana is not the first renewable energy plant with storage; others use banks of electric batteries. But battery storage is so expensive that it is primarily used to smooth the output of the plant and not to store large amounts of energy overnight. Storing energy as heat is much cheaper, but is mechanically inefficient. [New York Times, 10/17/2013]

Entity Tags: Brad Albert, Arizona Public Service, Cara S. Libby, New York Times, Solana, Robert Gibson

Category Tags: Utilities and the Solar Industry, Non-Silicon Technology

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

Category Tags: Utilities and the Solar Industry, Popular Media

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