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Solar Power Grows by Leaps and Bounds in USA…But NOT in Virginia

Posted By Lowell F. on January 23rd, 2015

The other day, I ran into yet another article – on the superb website Greentech Media – regarding the rapid rise of clean energy in America. The numbers this article (“America Installed 22 Times More Solar in 2014 Than in 2008“) presents are truly eye popping.

In 2008, the U.S. installed 263 megawatts (AC) of solar PV and CSP. In 2014, based on GTM Research’s conservative estimates, the U.S. installed at least 5.7 gigawatts (AC). The PV figures were discounted into AC from DC in order to make an accurate comparison and include concentrating solar.

More than 80,000 new jobs have been created in the industry since then. Today, one company, SolarCity, is booking almost as much solar capacity in one quarter as the entire industry put on-line in all of 2008.

So, yeah, solar power installation in this country is growing by leaps and bounds as the cost of solar plummets. And no, the fastest-growing states are not just in the Desert Southwest, but also in northern and mid-Atlantic states like Colorado, Delaware, Massachussetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Vermont, Maryland, Connecticut, Oregon and Pennsylvania. Notice a state missing here? That’s right, Virginia, also known as the “Old Dominion, with the emphasis on the word “Dominion” – as in Dominion Virginia Power, a largely fossil-fuel (and nuclear) utility which essentially owns the Virginia General Assembly, as well as the powerful State Corporation Commission, which ostensibly is supposed to regulate Dominion.

So, what have the results been in Virginia (note: we’re focusing on Virginia because Tigercomm is located there, and also because it’s an excellent case study into the effect of clean-energy-unfriendly policies), with Dominion and its fossil-fuel-funded friends in the state legislature blocking and tackling for dirty, carbon-based fuels, while doing their utmost to stymie the explosion of clean energy (wind, solar, energy efficiency, etc.) we’re seeing in the rest of the country and world?

In two words: not good. Here’s the sad story, courtesy of the Solar Energy Industries Asssociation (SEIA):

In 2013, Virginia installed 6 MW of solar electric capacity, ranking it 27th nationally…The 9 MW of solar energy currently installed in Virginia ranks the state 30th in the country in installed solar capacity. There is enough solar energy installed in the state to power 1,000 homes.

Wow, 1,000 homes out of millions. Yes, that number really is as pitiful as it looks. The frustrating thing is that the situation is pitiful not because Virginia is lacking in sunshine, wind, or potential for energy efficiency gains, but simply because of bad policies.

On the upside, policy is something we can change, at least in theory. Of course, the “powers that be” could decide not to change policy, but that won’t help their pals at Dominion Power in the long run. For more on that, see David Roberts’ superb article, Rooftop solar is just the beginning; utilities must innovate or go extinct.

So, Dominion (and Virginia more broadly) has a stark choice: 1) continue to fight inevitable change, saddle Virginians with dirty energy for years to come, yet eventually see the entire business model collapse anyway (what Roberts calls the “death spiral”); or 2) adapt to a changing world, one in which even oil-rich Middle Eastern countries are moving heavily into solar power for purely economic reasons — because its price is low and heading lower. It seems like an easy call to make, but as we saw just this morning, with the defeat of a Virginia renewable energy tax credit bill (by Del. Rip Sullivan) in a House of Delegates committee, there are a lot of politicians who still don’t “get it.”

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New Poll: Likely 2016 Voters Want Shift to Solar, Wind; Away from Coal, Oil

Posted By Lowell F. on January 16th, 2015

Despite the fossil fuel industry’s well-funded efforts over many years to turn the American public against clean energy, a new poll by Hart Research of likely 2016 voters finds overwhelming support for clean energy.  Check out the graphics below and see for yourself: likely 2016 voters want the federal government to rely more on solar power by a 71-point margin (80%-9%), and to rely more on wind power by a 59-point margin (73%-14%). In stark contrast, those same likely voters want the federal government to rely less on coal by a 34-point margin (55%-21%) and less on oil by a 29-points margin (53%-24%). You can’t much clearer than that.

Also note that likely 2016 voters overwhelmingly do NOT support anti-environmental policies such as weakening protections for our drinking water supplies and clean air; allowing oil and gas drilling in national forests/parks. Again, you can’t get much clearer than that. The question is, what will it take for anti-clean-energy, pro-fossil-fuel members of Congress get the message?

New Poll Finds Maryland Voters Support Solar by More than 4:1; Oppose Coal

Posted By Lowell F. on November 19th, 2014

Another day, another poll showing overwhelming support for clean energy. This time it’s a poll of Maryland voters, commissioned by Ethical Electric. Also note that Maryland voters have a highly favorable view of wind, and a net unfavorable view of coal. Hopefully, Maryland’s new governor will keep all this in mind as he formulates Maryland’s energy policy in coming years.

Maryland voters support solar energy by a more than four to one ratio, say it’s the top energy technology they’d support if they were in charge of state policy, and want the state to be a solar leader, according to a new poll commissioned by Ethical Electric.

Solar is the most popular form of renewable energy in Maryland. 64% of voters have a favorable opinion of it, compared to just 13% who have an unfavorable opinion of the zero emission technology. All other forms of renewable energy performed well, including wind (57% favorable, 21% unfavorable), geothermal (56% favorable, 11% unfavorable), and hydropower (63% favorable, 8% unfavorable).

“The message is clear: solar power is incredibly popular with Maryland’s voters and they want their government to help it grow across the state,” said Tom Matzzie, CEO of Ethical Electric. “Solar’s a winner with Democrats and Republicans – Governor-elect Larry Hogan should keep this mandate in mind as he assembles his administration and begins to shape policy.”

And if the average Maryland voter were governor for a day, solar power would shine. 37% would provide financial support to solar if they were in charge of the state’s energy policy and could choose one technology to support. No other form of energy came close – natural gas (14%) and wind power (13%) were the only other energy sources with double-digit support.

64% of voters also say it’s important for Maryland to be a solar leader – a concerning result considering Maryland is outside the top ten in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s cumulative installed solar capacity ranking and the Solar Energy Industries Association’s state ranking for solar installed in 2014. Indeed, 43% of voters say state government is not involved enough in solar power promotion.

While voters also support natural gas (69% favorable, 9% unfavorable), a majority of voters are against coal (37% favorable, 41% unfavorable), and oil is supported by less than half of all voters (44% favorable, 29% unfavorable). Nuclear power is also supported by less than half of all voters (43% favorable, 31% unfavorable), highlighting a clear trend against energy technologies that create large amounts of carbon pollution or pose major environmental threats.

Solar support is consistent across party lines. 63% of Democrats, 59% of Republicans, and 62% of Independents view it favorably.

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    “Solar PV is mostly a threat to utility investors and shareholders, not ratepayers”

    Posted By Lowell F. on October 22nd, 2014

    The headline of this post is quite possibly the energy-related quote of the day, maybe the week or even month. It’s courtesy of David Roberts of Grist, back to providing us with consistently incisive analysis after a year-long sabbatical. Today, Roberts has a must-read post (in his case, maybe we should call it an “even-more-must-read-than-usual-for-David-Roberts” post) entitled, “Rooftop solar is just the beginning; utilities must innovate or go extinct.” It’s really worth your time to read the whole thing, and we strongly recommend you do that if you’re interested in the future evolution of clean energy (which of course you are if you’re reading this blog!). For now, here are the key points, including Roberts’ awesome quote.

    • Distributed solar power poses a serious threat to power utilities, and “utilities are fighting back, attempting to impose additional fees and restrictions on solar customers.”
    • The problem is, the way the utilities are fighting back – “cling[ing] to their familiar business model” while trying to recoup lost revenues through “rate-tweaking” – is not going to save them. Instead, they need to undertake “a wholesale rethinking of the utility business model” — “sooner” rather than later if they’re smart.
    • Two new analyses — “Financial Impacts of Net-Metered PV on Utilities and Ratepayers” by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and “Does Disruptive Competition Mean a Death Spiral for Electric Utilities?” by Elisabeth Graffy and Steven Kihm — zero in on the core problem(s) facing utilities faced with the “disruptive threat” of rapidly growing distributed solar power. For instance, what happens “if solar PV penetration rose to between 2.5 and 10 percent of total retail sales by 2022?” The answer: utilities equity and earnings fall a lot, while rates go up only a little.  Which leads us right to Roberts’ superb quote: “Solar PV is mostly a threat to utility investors and shareholders, not ratepayers.”
    • The problem for utilities is that their whole business model is based on building “more power plants and power lines,” which as Roberts points out is both “insane” (in that it’s not just diametrically opposed to “our social and environmental goals”), but also the polar opposite of where power markets are headed — towards more distributed power and more consumer autonomy.
    • Does all this mean an inevitable “death spiral” for investor-owned utilities?  Not necessarily, according to the Graffy and Kihm analysis, as long as utilities are willing and able to muster “the organizational foresight and habits needed to respond proactively to disruptive threats.” The problem, in Roberts’ view, is that after “a century of enjoying regulated-monopoly status, with returns guaranteed by law and expansion as far as the eye could see, utilities have virtually none of [that].”
    • Another, short-term option for utilities is to try to recover their costs by raising rates, fees, etc. to consumers. The problem with this approach, of course, is that it only leads to “a bunch of dissatisfied customers seeking non-grid alternatives,” and “a growing market that will attract more and more entrepreneurial attention, thus accelerating customer defections.” In short, “The longer utilities try to hold back the wave with legal or regulatory roadblocks, the harder it will hit them when it finally comes.”
    • The bottom line is that utilities need to adapt to the distributed solar power revolution, and fast. If they try to resist this revolution, their demise – the “death spiral” – will only be more assured (and probably more sudden). The alternative: “Instead of viewing ratepayers as passive sources of cost recovery, utilities ought to view them as, y’know, customers. Offer them products and services that satisfy their evolving preferences.” We’ll see if they’re smart enough to do that, but as Roberts points out, “regulated-monopoly” utilities are simply “not prepared for this sh*t.”  In other words, the next few years will be crucial – not to mention fascinating to observe as this process plays out.
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    GTM Research Explains “The Complex, Evolving Solar-Utility Nexus”

    Posted By MarkS on October 21st, 2014

    by Mark Sokolove, Executive Vice President of Tigercomm

    As you may have seen, GTM Research has been doing superb work covering the intersection of growing distributed, residential solar on the one hand, and the evolving utility business model on the other (what it calls the “Grid Edge”).  Their work is extremely valuable, as this is a critical, rapidly changing and complex space. Which is why we always look forward to webinars like the one presented by GTM Research Senior Vice President Shayle Kann on September 25, covering “The Complex, Evolving Solar-Utility Nexus.”  The entire webinar is well worth listening to, but for now, here are a few key points to highlight.

    THE LAY OF THE LAND

    • It makes little sense to “silo” coverage of distributed solar PV on the one hand, and the future of the utility business model (including the smart grid, demand response, energy storage, etc.) on the other, as these two areas increasingly are increasingly converging.
    • The U.S. solar market is growing, but not uniformly across the country or in terms of the specific sub-segment (residential, non-residential, utility) of that market.
    • Growth was down a bit in the first two quarters of 2014 compared to the final quarter of 2013, but Shayle Kann advises that we not draw too much from that, as the U.S. solar market – particularly utility – is “lumpy.” If you take out the variability of the utility projects, trend lines for distributed solar are steadily increasing, with around 6.5 GW expected to be installed in the US in 2014, up about 35% from 2013, and about 17 times what it was 5 years ago.
    • Why are utilities so worried about solar now, even though solar generally doesn’t comprises a huge portion of their energy mix as of now? In short, it has to do with the impact of distributed solar installations on utility demand growth.  With US electric demand growth having slowed sharply, from about 10% per year back in the 1950s to just 1% per year now, large proportions of increased load growth could easily be taken up by distributed, solar PV (GTM estimates 50% or more of load growth could get eaten up by solar installations in the top 5 states).

    POLICY BATTLES:  THE SOLAR INDUSTRY SHOULDN’T LET DOWN ITS GUARD

    • The result has been net energy metering (NEM) battles — some legislative, some regulatory, some both — in more than 20 states.  What’s fascinating, and also encouraging, is that so far at least, the solar industry has been faring impressively well in these battles, especially for being a relatively small industry going up powerful, incumbent industry. Part of the reason for this success has been that rooftop solar has strong public appeal. Of course, this could change, as solar penetration increases and has more meaningful ratepayer impacts, so the solar industry should certainly not let its guard down.
    • A likely outcome to utilities’ concerns about the economics of increased distributed solar penetration could very well include imposing a minimum monthly bill on consumers for use of the grid. The impact of this could be substantially less than imposing a fixed charge, which the solar industry has been fighting against, and could be part of a NEM compromise in numerous states.
    • One option for utilities might be to “steer into the skid,” so to speak, by getting into the distributed solar game themselves. The question is whether regulated utilities will ultimately play a significant role in the distributed solar market, or remain outside it as grid operators?

    DISTRIBUTED ENERGY MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS (DERMS) ARE A MAJOR GROWTH AREA

    • There are also questions about utility interaction with distributed PV from a technical perspective, which is why every utility will need some version of capabilities that Distributed Energy Management Resource Systems (DERMS) provides. That includes reconfiguration of grid equipment, consumer-sited solutions such as smart inverters), network management such as market-based demand response, etc.  This will undoubtedly be a major growth area in coming years, and something we all will be paying a great deal of attention to.

    All in all, it’s a fascinating, dynamic time to be a participant in the evolving U.S. solar-utility nexus. With the help of analysts like the ones at GTM (and also smart grid experts like Paul De Martini, who I interviewed last spring), we look forward to continuing to track it, and also to help our clients navigate their way through it effectively, in years to come.

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