The 12 states in the western United States are the nation’s goldmine for green energy, creating two-thirds of the country’s solar power, according to the latest regional report from ACORE.
Those 12 states are not created equal, of course — not from an economic, demographic or environmental standpoint. Ranging from Alaska to Wyoming and Utah, and including the green leaders of Washington, Oregon and California, the ACORE Western Region serves as an illustration of how the clean energy economy can evolve from nonexistent to the backbone of the nation.
Two technologies offer the bulk of renewable energy: solar PV and hydroelectric. Hydroelectric, generated by damming rivers, is the old-school renewable energy source, whereas solar is the future.
Across the West, hydroelectric power generates 25 percent of the region’s electricity, compared to 7 percent in the rest of the country. “Other renewables” — which for ACORE include solar, wind, biomass, biofuels and so on — make up 9 percent in the West and 6 percent in the rest of the country.
But as the ACORE report notes, solar is going to take up an ever-bigger share of the electricity pie in the West: “The region benefits from some of the best solar resources in the world, responsible for roughly 68 percent of that nation’s solar photovoltaic capacity and 91 percent of the nation’s solar thermal electric capacity.” That shows continuing growth on both counts over the 2013 report from ACORE.
This growth is not just because of the sun-drenched Southwestern states — ACORE notes that “well-designed state policies have been instrumental in attracting renewable energy companies from around the world to deploy renewable energy in the region for power, heating, and transportation.”
And the results are showing: Six states in the region can now claim 20 percent of their electricity is generated by renewables, and in 2013 alone the region added 4 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable capacity.
Unfortunately, that growth is in question as a result of political wrangling and efforts by utilities to rein in solar incentives. As we’ve seen throughout the past two years, across the U.S. at the state and regional level, utilities are trying to pass fees that slow or kill the solar boom. ACORE notes that this has had the desired effect: “Arizona’s recently imposed charge to net-metered systems has already resulted in a decline of new residential solar in 2014.”
Leaving aside the question about how long utilities will get to play politics with renewable energy, the ACORE report shows the wide distance between states in the West. California, which boasts almost 5.2 GW of solar capacity (and 10 GW of hydroelectric), and Idaho, Oregon and Washington — which rely on hydroelectric for 73 percent, 65 percent and 77 percent of their power respectively — mark the leading edge of energy evolution in the West. On the other end of the spectrum are the states that have done little to harness their solar potential. The sunny states of New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have only dabbled in solar power — or any other renewable, for that matter.
Of these three latecoming states, New Mexico is the only one to have passed a renewable portfolio standard (RPS), which requires utilities in the state to get 20 percent of their energy from renewables by 2020. The state’s leaders have also passed incentives for homeowners and businesses to adopt renewables, though with just 1.1 GW of renewable capacity, the state is far behind even its politically challenged neighbor to the west, Arizona.
Despite the lack of an RPS, Wyoming has taken advantage of its wind potential to some extent, exporting some of its 1.6 GW of wind capacity to neighboring states. Utah, on the other hand, despite a broad menu of renewable options — the state has high potential for solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower — the state has only created 691 megawatts of renewable capacity to date.
This report is the latest in ACORE’s ongoing Renewable Energy in the 50 States series; which is continually updated. You can read our coverage of past reports at the following links: Northeast US, 2014; Southeast US, 2014; and Midwest US, 2013; and Western U.S., 2013.
A major report by the global body responsible for energy analysis finds the total benefits from energy efficiency upgrades equals — and often exceeds — the energy savings. The 232-page International Energy Agency report upends decades of conventional thinking about efficiency, and should lead governments and corporations to sharply increase their efficiency budget.
The most noteworthy conclusion of “Capturing the Multiple Benefits of Energy Efficiency” may be that “the uptake of economically viable energy efficiency investments has the potential to boost cumulative economic output through 2035 by USD 18 trillion,” which is larger than the current size of the U.S. economy!
Specifically, the report finds that green building design can achieve health benefits — including reduced medical costs and higher worker productivity — “representing up to 75% of overall benefits.” That is, the non-energy benefits of energy efficiency upgrades can be three times the size of the energy savings.
This study also finds that when the value of productivity and operational benefits of industrial efficiency measures were factored into “traditional internal rate of return calculations, the payback period for energy efficiency measures dropped from 4.2 to 1.9 years.” Payback time was cut in half.
It’s true that the report “challenges the assumption that the broader benefits of energy efficiency cannot be quantified.” But those assumptions have been challenged for over two decades years.
Fifteen years ago this summer I published the first collection of detailed case studies, some one hundred in all, of how businesses were cutting energy use and boosting productivity while reducing pollution — Cool Companies: How the Best Businesses Boost Profits and Productivity by Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Walter Cronkite called that book a “an invaluable guide to a more hopeful future.”
And five years before that, green design guru Bill Browning and I published, “Greening the Building and the Bottom Line: Increasing Productivity Through Energy-Efficient Design,” which was peer-reviewed by U.S. Green Building Council.
But those case studies were often dismissed as mere anecdotes. And even though subsequent reports by energy efficiency and design experts like Greg Kats extended the documentation, this new report is a groundbreaking both because of the breadth of the analysis and the credibility of the IEA.
The report’s core finding on buildings is something every developer, every architect, and every building owner needs to understand:
Energy efficiency retrofits in buildings (e.g. insulation retrofits and weatherisation programmes) create conditions that support improved occupant health and well-being, particularly among vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly and those with pre-existing illnesses. The potential benefits include improved physical health such as reduced symptoms of respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, rheumatism, arthritis and allergies, as well as fewer injuries. Several studies that quantified total outcomes found benefit-cost ratios as high as 4:1 when health and well-being impacts were included, with health benefits representing up to 75% of overall benefits. Improved mental health (reduced chronic stress and depression) has, in some cases, been seen to represent as much as half of total health benefits.
The IEA reports that if you include lower total public health spending, then “Addressing indoor air quality through energy efficiency measures could, in a high energy efficiency scenario, save the European Union’s economy as much as $259 billion annually.”
On the industrial side, the IEA concludes, “The value of the productivity and operational benefits derived can be up to 2.5 times (250%) the value of energy savings (depending on the value and context of the investment).”
Energy efficiency remains the core climate solution and the biggest low-carbon resource by far.
[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on ThinkProgress, and is reprinted with permission.]
London-based Institute for Public Policy and Research (IPPR) was reportedly the first to influentially call for limiting greenhouse gases to two degrees Celsius. Now it’s calling for the immediate replacement of obsolete utilities with distributed energy.
“The U.K.’s current policy framework is faltering because it is propping up the large-scale, centralised utility business model, which is dying,” IPPR’s new report A New Approach to Electricity Markets (PDF) explains. “Now a range of distributed electricity technologies exist that hold the key to a cheaper, cleaner, more competitive and secure electricity system, that works better for consumers.”
In order for these innovations to achieve their full potential — specifically solar, which IPPR correctly calls “the most disruptive distributed generation technology” — the U.K. needs to reroute its aggressive policy and subsidy support for dirty fuels (including nuclear) to the emergent cleantech that institutional investors like Citibank, Sanford Bernstein and more are already pricing into the future. IPPR’s study notes that Citibank has already predicted that the “rationale of the prevailing utility business model [is coming] under severe pressure and [could] potentially, ultimately, crumble,” and that distributed energy technologies will cut the utilities market share in half within 20 years. It also explains that last year the value of Europe’s top 20 utilities was also slashed in half, and that this year Barclays downgraded the bonds for America’s entire utility sector. The writing is on the wall.
Meanwhile, U.K. solar is growing, fast. Solar could hit grid parity in the U.K. by 2020, leading IPPR to emphatically suggest the U.K. step up its efforts to prioritize and subisidize cleantech over dinosaurs. It’s not for nothing that U.K. farmers are solarizing, while the “Green Agenda” is becoming a major political talking point of the 2015 elections. Wake up and smell the Earl Grey, people.
“The government must immediately begin work on a strategy for accommodating large-scale deployment of solar power into the electricity system so that Britain is not prevented from capturing the benefits this technology has to offer,” IPPR recommends. The capacity market should be “scrapped,” feed-in-tariffs should be implemented and the government regulations should quickly be reformed to “unlock barriers to deployment of distributed electricity technologies and accelerate the development of the smart grid.” This means covering the costs of rebalancing an obsolete grid, without passing unfair taxes onto those looking to run on sunshine.
“A new technological paradigm in electricity has emerged,” IPPR concluded, ” and yet the U.K.’s electricity system remains wedded to the large-scale, centralised utility business model, which is rapidly being made redundant.”
If the U.K. has to fine or even revoke the licenses of its Big Six utilities for arbitrary prices, overcharging customers, stifling competition and blocking what are obvious evolutionary changes to the national, if not international, energy infrastructure … well, that’s just how the scone crumbles, isn’t it?
UK utilities photo CC-licensed by Nick Page on Flickr.
Tesla, the electric car manufacturer, announced this month that it plans to open a $5 billion factory in Nevada. The giant facility — they’re calling it a “gigafactory” — will employ 6,500 people to manufacture batteries for Tesla’s much-anticipated low-cost Model 3 sedan.
Tesla’s move comes on top of a spate of green job announcements this year, demonstrating that clean energy is surviving despite systematic attacks from the fossil fuel industry and its backers in Congress. The broadsides keep coming, however, and the clock is ticking on key policies — namely, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan and a suite of clean energy tax incentives — that will shape the fate of clean energy in this country.
According to E2, a business group affiliated with NRDC, clean energy and clean transportation job announcements in the 2nd quarter of 2014 doubled the first quarter tally, with more than 12,500 new jobs announced in 29 states from April to June, and more than 18,000 already this year.
Fortune, which cited the E2 report, said, “The growth spurt in green energy projects is partly a reaction to the [EPA’s] Clean Power Plan.” The new federal carbon pollution standards, proposed in June, are expected to create hundreds of thousands of jobs in a variety of fields as states broaden their efforts to cut pollution. Wind technicians, solar installers, factory workers, roofers, HVAC technicians and thousands of others will all be needed to expand clean energy and make homes and buildings more efficient.
Many of the jobs created stemmed from remnants of projects which had qualified for a wind energy tax incentive, which expired at the end of 2013. Clean energy tax incentives, unlike many permanent oil and gas subsidies, have to be actively renewed by Congress — in some cases, every year. The last time these credits expired, thousands of jobs were lost and many clean energy projects sacrificed.
Solar job growth, according to E2’s analysis, has been spurred in part by a rising number of homeowners choosing to install solar panels on their roofs. Some states make solar installations even more attractive by allowing consumers to sell extra energy back to the grid. At my home in New York, my solar panels help make my meter run backward. Residents of Arizona, California, and Massachusetts can do the same, making solar a smart business decision for many consumers in these states.
In New York, solar will get another big boost thanks to K-Solar, a program that offers free solar assessments to all public schools in the state. If a school decides solar is a good fit, it will get help with the process and discounts on system costs through a collective purchasing plan. And students will get a chance to see clean energy at work first-hand. Some schools even find they can expand or reinstate programs that were cut for budgetary reasons, thanks to the energy savings from solar.
While state incentives like these can help accelerate the shift to clean energy, entrepreneurs play an important role too. In St. Louis, Missouri, an orthopedic surgeon launched his own solar company, StraightUp Solar, after discovering there were no licensed solar installers in the state. The company’s business has grown by word-of-mouth, and StraightUp Solar now counts a retired Air Force commander and an erstwhile coal miner among its team.
In short, clean energy is putting America to work: yet threats to that success continue to mount.
Big Oil’s Congressional allies continue to block renewal of expired clean energy policies, taking away incentives for wind, solar power, and energy efficiency — while allowing the oil industry to continue enjoying a century of subsidies.
Taxpayers fork over roughly $8 billion each year to subsidize dirty fossil fuels — and those are just the costs we can see in the budget. A report from the National Academy of Science estimates that the additional, hidden costs of burning fossil fuels totals $120 billion each year. That figure is considered conservative, as it’s based solely on death and illness due to air pollution and damage to agriculture and forestry; it does NOT include billions of dollars in climate damages, national security costs, or other ecosystem damage.
Continuing to subsidize dirty fossil fuels while pulling the rug out from under clean, renewable energy simply makes no sense. Clean energy can drive job growth, revitalize communities, and help stabilize the climate, provided we keep moving forward with a framework that supports its success — smart policies that allow this industry to continue to grow and create jobs, that help consumers save money, and cut the harmful pollution that threatens our health and economy.
Dirty energy is yesterday’s news. Don’t let polluters turn back the clock. Tell Congress to restore clean energy incentives.
This article originally appeared on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission.
Solar installation photo CC-licensed by Oncor on Flickr.
How do we revolutionize the global power system? Follow, then transform, the money.
That’s the thrust of the first edition of the International Renewable Energy Agency’s new series REThinking Energy (PDF). It follows hot on the globally warmed heels of IRENA’s recently released REMap 2030, a roadmap to double renewables by 2030 — but it can’t follow fast enough.
That’s because “the power sector,” the first to attract the analytic scope of IRENA’s first report in its flagship series, “is changing so fast that policy makers are finding it hard to keep up,” according to director-general Adnan Z. Amin. In order to achieve renewable energy’s “full potential with sufficient speed to stave off climate change,” IRENA’s report eventually concludes, “governments need to embrace a new way of thinking, and to do so immediately.”
How to execute that existential mandate is a matter of 100 pages of commentary, graphics and much common sense: Governments, corporations, utilities and consumers must submit to their exponentially increasing demand for electricity by choosing renewable energy, then put their money where their mouths are. As IRENA’s report notes, demand is the prime driver of both the transformation and type of power needed to run an internetworked planet bulging with 7 billion (and rising) people, all of whom face dystopian disasters if we keep using dirty fuels.
Change is coming, but it needs to hit overdrive, like yesterday. Private financing for solar and other clean technologies — from institutional investors to corporations looking to green their energy-intensive operations and products — is quickening the global power evolution. Champion solar crowdfunders like Mosaic are also getting involved, accelerating and evangelizing solarization even further. And of course consumers, many of whom have children that will inherit “irreversible” climate change, are increasingly asking for it, should they be given the choice.
But the responsibility and bucks mostly stop at policymakers and utilities, IRENA notes. “If they make it clear that renewable energy will be a larger part of their national energy mix, and commit to long-term, non-financial support mechanisms, they could reduce uncertainty and attract more investors,” the report argues. “There is also an opportunity for traditional power utilities to do more.”
Apart from mandating renewables at the local and national level, politicians should get behind international efforts like the United Nations’ Sustainable Energy For All Initiative (SE4ALL) and more. With electricity demand projected to increase by 60 percent by 2030, politicians need to adopt “a truly holistic approach” to renewable energy that “not only takes into account the interests of short-term growth, but provides the opportunity of sustainable prosperity for all,” IRENA advises.
At stake, is nothing less than “a new industrial revolution,” IRENA promised. “Policy makers can do much to either promote or hinder this vision.”
All of us have to do much more than simply hope they choose wisely.
As divestment from dirty fuels take hold, cleantech financial instruments are ramping up. An intriguing entrant is San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s Clean Energy Victory Bonds Act of 2014 (PDF), modeled after World War II’s Series E Bonds, which raised over $185 billion in eight years. (For the record, that’s $2 trillion in today’s numbers.)
Proposed in April, America’s Clean Energy Victory Bonds cost $25 and are expected to raise about $50 billion, thereby encouraging another $100 billion in private investment off the sidelines. That funding will be directed toward tax credits for renewable energy research and manufacturing, specifically for solar, wind, geothermal, electric vehicles and what Green America calls “second generation biofuels” like switchgrass and agricultural waste. (No one’s perfect.)
With nearly 40 Democratic sponsors, but more needed, CEVBs are parked in the form of H.R. 4426 at the House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee. But don’t get too excited: It has lately, sadly, been fielding arguments of Environmental Protection Agency overreach from coal and gas defenders from Texas, Montana, Indiana and other Republican strongholds.
The road ahead for CEVBs would appear quite steep. With Energy and Power subcommittee chairman Congressman Ed (“I believe any energy strategy should include Kentucky coal“) Whitfield and full Energy and Commerce committee chairman Fred (“I am a major proponent of the Keystone XL pipeline“) Upton holding powerful influence over H.R. 4426, progressive CEVBs are going to have to fight hard for breathing room among the dirty fuels that are dooming us all to irreversible global warming, much less a competent hearing. Given that it is forward-thinking investment, production, property and other tax credits that are responsible for cratering solar panel costs and accelerated international solarization, super-cheap CEVBs look like a no-brainer for anyone looking to save the 21st century from the 20th century.
Let’s hope the House of Representatives has brains.
Because any local effort aiming to boost home solar installations through bulk purchase discounts can call itself a Solarize campaign, it’s hard to determine just exactly what combination of elements makes this model a success. After all, the structure, style and tone of a campaign can vary depending if it’s run by a group of neighbors, installers, a nonprofit organization or a government agency.
What is clear, though, is that state-government backed campaigns have shown strong results — particularly in Massachusetts and Connecticut, where agencies took the lead on a series of successful Solarize campaigns over the last few years.
So as a way to inspire other states to build upon that success at home, a new guide has been released by the Clean Energy States Alliance to share the specific successes and challenges of Solarize Massachusetts and Solarize Connecticut.
There’s a strong financial case to take this route as well, says the guide, “Planning and Implementing a Solarize Initiative: A Guide for State Program Managers.” Using a Solarize model can cost less than other methods used by governments to stimulate solar adoption, since direct rebates or other solar incentives aren’t always involved.
Just how successful were these programs? In Massachusetts, 46 campaigns held between 2011 and 2013 yielded nearly 2,500 projects and a capacity of 15,044 kW. Starting in 2012, Connecticut held its own by running 34 campaigns, initiating 1,167 projects and deploying 8,200 kW of solar capacity. Participants in both states received a 20 percent discount on installations through the campaigns.
While a key partner in Connecticut’s state-backed campaign was SmartPower, a nonprofit marketing agency specializing in clean energy, a quasi-public agency (MassClean Energy Center) teamed up with the Department of Energy Resources to run the program in Massachusetts.
Many common elements of these Solarize campaigns came together to make them a hit, according to Nate Hausman and Nellie Condee, guide authors, in terms of the communities targeted, the number of contractors used and approach to data management.
Both states set up their first campaigns in communities that had already participated in government environmental programs. Massachusetts also chose to limit the number of towns that could take part in Solarize, so that installers weren’t stretched too thin. In turn, to ensure that there was enough work to go around, installers were allowed only to bid on becoming a contractor of choice for just three Solarize communities.
Simply being affiliated with government agencies lent legitimacy to the campaigns in campaign promotional materials and perceptions by potential participants, according to the guide. It also resulted in netting similar levels of solar contracts across all participating communities, the guide said.
Monitoring progress and performance weekly via a data tracking system helped MassCEC keep a handle on whether each Solarize community was on schedule to meet its goals by the end of the signup period (usually six to seven months in length).
Yet all wasn’t rosy, of course. Small installers had problems dealing with the “boom and bust” dynamics caused by the Solarize campaigns. As a result, Connecticut launched Solarize Choice, an alternative model that utilized three installers instead of one. The state also experimented with another variation called Solarize Express, which trimmed the marketing period down by as much as seven months to see if this was a cost effective strategy.
And Connecticut hasn’t stopped there. This fall, it’s also testing two more variations: While the Solarize Prime model gets rid of the tiered price model in favor of one contractor and one discount price, the Solarize Online model will utilize an online platform to comparison shop installer quotes.
“Using Solarize Connecticut and Solar Mass as model programs, other states can structure and launch Solarize programs of their own to help build robust rooftop solar markets in their states,” the guide concluded.
Saturday’s early morning fog had already burned off as a group of construction workers hoisted heavy panels to the top of eight roofs inside a complex of 28 single-family homes being constructed in San Francisco’s Oceanview neighborhood.
Those walking by might think the sleek and modern terraced dwellings are destined for those benefiting from the city’s booming economy. But that’s not the case. This construction site is different. The workers are volunteers. They have come to install solar panels on low-income homes being built by Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco.
Each homeowner is expected to save about $570 in energy expenses annually, and $17,000 over the solar system’s lifespan.
Such savings play right into Habitat for Humanity’s mission. “Our key thing is being able to bring an affordable homeowner experience to as many families as possible,” said R. Derrick Morris, director of construction technology for Habitat for Humanity International. The almost four-decade-old organization builds and repairs homes for low-income families using volunteer labor and donations. Low-income families are also able to purchase homes through zero-percent interest loans.
To help low-income families maintain homeownership, Habitat for Humanity is increasingly looking to solar as a way to lower and stabilize energy bills. But while solar solves the big problem of high energy costs for these families, some challenges remain.
The largest program for putting solar on Habitat homes is in California. Since 2005, utility giant PG&E has partnered with the organization to fund the cost of putting solar on new Habitat-built homes in the utility’s service territory, which spans much of Northern and Central California.
The program has brought solar to more than 500 Habitat homes, according to PG&E spokesperson Nicole Liebelt. Liebelt also said 94 Habitat homes will receive solar this year, which is up from 80 homes in 2013, and 61 homes in 2012.
Partnerships, such as the one with PG&E, are key to getting large numbers of Habitat homes outfitted with solar, Morris said.
So how many Habitat for Humanity homes already have solar? The organization isn’t sure. Habitat for Humanity has only recently started tracking the number of solar installs and expects to report its findings next year.
The organization hadn’t been tracking the stat as installs appeared small, and the installs that were happening were under very specific programs, explained Morris.
Habitat for Humanity also didn’t have the infrastructure in place to gather the data, he said. All the planning, building and funding of Habitat homes happens at the local level through organization affiliates. There are 1,457 affiliates in the United States and 63 in Canada. The two countries combined have built a total of 3,598 new homes and rehabilitated 1,547 homes according to Habitat’s latest data, which captures work done between July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013
“It’s part of the challenge of being a grassroots organization,” Morris summarized about getting specific and granular data from so many different affiliates.
That said, Habitat for Humanity has been working to incorporate greener materials and new technologies to help lower the long-term cost of operating a home. As the price of solar continues to drop, rooftop panels are becoming a more common option for Habitat homes, Morris said.
Hurdles to Overcome
The biggest challenges for getting solar on Habitat homes remains the initial cost and the universal accessibility to the technology, he said.
This becomes apparent when reviewing a fundraising tactic taken by Habitat for Humanity of Omaha. In April, the Nebraskan affiliate launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $32,500 to support a low-income, solar-power housing program. The money was earmarked for putting solar on five demonstration homes.
The campaign fell short of its goal, bringing in $10,885. Another shortcoming is that demonstration projects usually benefit just a few families. “Being able to provide a system for one home is good, but being able to provide a system for all is very important,” Morris said.
There are other stumbling blocks to confront before putting solar on a Habitat home. Each affiliate has to go through a learning curve, Morris explained. They have to figure out how to make solar an economically savvy option for the families they serve.
For example, if there are no donations to cover the upfront cost of a solar system, affiliates need to decide if third-party financing, such as solar leases or power purchase agreements (PPA), is a financially sound option for each family. Through third-party financing homeowners pay a monthly amount to have solar panels installed and use the electricity they generate. Maintenance is usually included in the agreements, since the homeowner doesn’t actually own the solar system.
There are also design considerations, and decisions to be made regarding how to effectively size a solar system to address each family’s needs, Morris said.
If affiliates can figure out a way to bring down a low-income family’s energy bill, it can be life-changing, said Erica Mackie, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit solar installer Grid Alternatives (pictured at right). Mackie’s organization led the volunteer solar installation in Oceanview.
While squinting her eyes from the bright sun at the construction zone, Mackie explained utility costs are often the biggest home expenditure for low-income families after their mortgage.
Through solar savings, “some families won’t have to worry about things like choosing between food on the table, or clothes for their kid, or sending their kid to college, and paying electricity bills,” she said.
Grid Alternatives has helped install nationwide 1.6 megawatts of solar for Habitat for Humanity through more than 680 systems.
On September 17, Grid Alternatives will open a Washington D.C.-based regional office, and celebrate by installing solar systems on 10 Habitat homes in the area.
Currently, there is no national plan in place to expand the number of Habitat homes that receive solar. The decision to add solar will continue to be made at a local level, Morris said.
But Morris hopes tracking the number of solar installs on Habitat homes will shed greater light on how the technology impacts a low-income family’s life and their ability to maintain homeownership.
The Southeast might be the last place you’d think would spawn a new model designed to spur higher solar adoption rates. After all, the region falls way behind other parts of the U.S.
It may be time to think again.
Clean Energy for U.S., a new program developed by a former Solarize campaign organizer in North Carolina, is an expanded bulk purchasing model that includes energy efficiency audits and enables businesses and nonprofits to participate, not just homeowners — and the idea is spreading. After one successful campaign in Buncombe County, the model is running programs in Raleigh and Western North Carolina this fall.
“I realized there were missed opportunities [with Solarize],” said Katie Bray, the creator of Clean Energy for U.S. (CEFU) and the former director of the Asheville, North Carolina Solarize campaign, the first in the Southeast. “It didn’t include energy efficiency and was only open to homeowners.”
Working with just one approved contractor was also a shortcoming, since North Carolina has a lot of smaller independent solar installers. This made it hard to keep up with the amount of interest that Solarize generated, Bray said.
So despite the Solarize campaign’s solid showing in parts of North Carolina — 52 homeowners in Asheville installed solar, while Solarize efforts in Charlotte, Durham and Carrboro added to the state’s total — Bray decided to try something different after a Solarize campaign failed to take off in Raleigh due to the decision to use just one approved contractor.
What makes Bray’s model different from Solarize, and could it be a timely shot in the arm for the rest of North Carolina and the Southeast? After all, the state’s solar and renewable energy tax credit expires at the end of 2015, and local utility Duke Energy has expressed interest in cutting net metering payment rates. And according to a report by the American Council for Renewable Energy, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, the region has untapped potential for solar. Several states in the region — such as Georgia, Texas and Florida — are also experiencing a solar upswing, ACORE reported.
After taking four months to interview 15 other Solarize campaign organizers around the country about what worked and what didn’t work so well, environmental nonprofit veteran Bray came up with the Clean Energy for U.S. model. It keeps Solarize’s bulk purchasing incentive strategy intact, yet includes businesses and nonprofits as eligible participants.
CEFU also incorporates a self-sustaining revenue stream from fees paid by the contractor for every installation (which will either be 25 cents per installed watt or a 5 percent flat rate of a project’s costs, according to Bray). And CEFU uses multiple contractors for each campaign, a strategy that has been used for other Solarize efforts in other parts of the U.S.
“What I was trying to do was create a sustainable and scalable model that’s not reliant [on] new funding every six months,” Bray said, noting that she plans to take proceeds from each Clean Energy for U.S. campaign and apply them toward funding the next one.
But she also decided that since the area lacked a successful energy efficiency audit program, Clean Energy for U.S. should also provide the a path for participants to make the upgrades — whether they decide to install solar or not. And if they decide to go solar as well, installing energy efficiency upgrades beforehand will prevent the purchase of an unnecessarily large system, Bray added.
Bray also had the smarts to put out a request for proposals for an organization to partner and help run the campaign in Raleigh. The North Carolina Sierra Club Capital Group, a local chapter of the national environmental organization, will rally its members and volunteers to get the word out about the campaign via events. The chapter will receive payment in exchange for its efforts, Bray said. Five solar and energy efficiency companies, along with two installers, have been selected to participate as well.
If all goes well, Bray says she’d like to launch Solar Energy for U.S. campaigns in the North Carolina cities of Wilmington and Winston-Salem, and take on South Carolina and Georgia next. But due to the looming expiration of the solar tax credit, her immediate priority is to get many efforts started in North Carolina as possible.
Yet despite all the additional features to her model, she says regional expansion all depends on having the right organizer and partners on the ground.
“It’s really contingent on someone who has the desire, willingness and capacity to step up,” Bray said.
Rooftop solar may be drawing fire in the U.S., but China is cool with it. In fact, its National Energy Administration has asked local authorities to increase the amount and funding of small-scale solar users in hopes of hitting this year a national target of 8 gigawatts. In China, that’s a mandate for the masses.
In this case, the mandate “should encourage the development of distributed generation,” a Credit Suisse analyst told Bloomberg last week, decreasing stresses on Chinese solar companies losing sales abroad, thanks to a silly trade war with America and Germany. (Check my solar war explainer for more on that tragicomedy.)
Sure enough, this week Chinese solar companies saw their stock prices appreciably rise, because that’s what happens when a nation decides that funding the solarization of more or less everything in sight is good for both its people and business. Throw in another 6-gigawatt target China has set for larger projects, and you have the planet’s largest photovoltaic market, Bloomberg added.
Meanwhile, in the United States, reactionaries note, net metering “sleight of hand” is reportedly costing politicians their jobs and the poor even more, setting the stage for a class war over renewable energy. The truth is, of course, nowhere near as dire: According to SEIA and GTM Research’s latest U.S. Solar Market Insight report, residential solar has lately been the most consistent growth sector of the overall American solar market, which has passed a cumulative 16 gigawatts.
And it wouldn’t have happened without generous government investment and incentivization.
“This remarkable growth is due, in large part, to smart and effective public policies, such as the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), net energy metering (NEM) and renewable portfolio standards (RPS),” SEIA CEO Rhone Resch explained in a statement. “By any measurement, these policies are paying huge dividends for both the U.S. economy and our environment – and should be maintained, if not expanded, given their tremendous success, as well as their importance to America’s future.”
Although America is waking up and catching up, it still lags behind China, which is reportedly on pace to install 100 gigawatts by 2018. This will happen because China will make it happen, by investing heavily in solar, at home and abroad, with its money and its mouth. If America does not do the same if not more, choosing instead to implement backwards policies like net metering taxes and other solar tariffs, China will laugh into its rearview mirror all the way to the future.
China solar home photo CC-licensed by Remko Tanis on Flickr.