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    Solar News

    Solar Growth in the US Needs a Boost from Aussie-Style Efficiency

    solar installationAmerican solar installations may be up 40 percent year-over-year, but don’t get excited. That’s still too slow compared to some of its competitors, who are schooling the U.S. in efficiency and investment, mainly by taking a day, or less, to build a solar system.

    A recent joint report from Rocky Mountain Institute and Georgia Tech found America wasting more time and money than its more incentivized partners like Germany and Australia, and (predictably) getting less in return for its solar installation labors. And that’s not going to change unless America upgrades its operating system, cleans up its code and pays the necessary fees to set off the sunshine bomb.

    “German and Australian efficiency results from simple system designs and installation processes,” RMI senior associate and report co-author Koben Calhoun told me. “Each have specialized systems and techniques to the local market, including relevant electrical and building codes, as well as the building architecture, resulting in high-efficiency, low-cost solar PV installations. Significant incentives in both Germany and Australia resulted in high levels of solar adoption and market maturation, which increased the number of companies providing solar installation services.”

    The difference in the Efficiency War is made by what RMI called “non-production activities” and probably even more people would call “what you do when you’re not at your desk.” Everything from counterproductive commutes to worksite disarray to a disorganized employees can slow the installation process to a crawl. And in the case of the United States, it does, more than Germany and Australia.

    “Non-production activities consist of time spent onsite that doesn’t directly contribute to the value of the system, producing electricity, but are necessary components of the process, such as driving to the site, cleaning up supplies and breaks,” Calhoun added. “With Australia and Germany installing systems consistently in one day, or multiple systems in one day, non-production activities are a fraction of time and cost onsite. The U.S. takes more than two to four days to install. We believe we can quickly and effectively reduce the total number of days required to install a system, setting the market on course to having one-day installations be the norm.”

    Of course, lame blowback could throw that market off course, in underachieving America as well champion Germany and Australia.

    Disincentives in Australia’s renewable energy target has already incentivized, if you will, the defection of American solar power plant developer Recurrent Energy, with more promised from international developers if Oz can’t straighten out and fly right. Meanwhile, Germany and America’s solar war with China has destabilized the international market with steeper tariffs and sour business, threatening to “slow the adoption of solar within the United States,” according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

    For now, “we are beginning to see similar specialization and increased efficiency with the growth in the U.S. solar market,” Calhoun concluded, adding that “more recently the increased competition and plunging solar feed-in tariff rates in Germany and Australia has forced PV installers to find new, creative ways to install systems at a lower cost. One of the most straightforward ways to do this is to improve installation efficiency.”

    Photo courtesy of RMI and Georgia Tech.

    Solar in Alberta: CanSIA Calls on Province to Achieve its Solar Potential

    cansia report coverIt’s time to go solar in Alberta.

    That’s the thrust of a new policy paper just released from the Canadian Solar Industries Association, which urges Alberta’s provincial government to tap into its solar power potential.

    The CanSIA paper, “From Proven Reserve to Developed Resource: Realizing the True Value of Solar Energy in Alberta,” calls on the province to set a target of meeting 1.5 percent of its entire electricity demand with solar photovoltaics by 2022.

    The association predicts that achieving this target would result in solar playing a significant role in Alberta’s electricity sector by leading to the creation of more than 1 gigawatt of solar facilities, 1.25 terawatt-hours of solar electricity annually; 625,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions displaced annually and a deployment rate of 235.3 watts per capita. From an economic standpoint, it would generate more than 24,000 direct and 9,500 indirect jobs and more than $3.2 billion of private sector investment in project construction and installation, with approximately $1.8 billion spent locally.

    CanSIA cites several reasons as to why it is the perfect time for Alberta to migrate to renewable energy sources, particularly solar PV. For starters, demand for electricity is rapidly rising, while coal-fired plants are being mothballed, as has been done in Ontario in the wake of that province’s great solar success.

    And then there’s the cost of solar power itself: The report’s introduction, by CanSIA president John Gorman, noted that the viability and market penetration of solar PV for electricity generation has changed significantly since 2008 when Alberta’s Provincial Energy Strategy indicated that solar and renewable energy are “growing off a very small base, but their viability is improving and innovation is percolating. As such, they have the potential to become a significant part of the global energy mix this century, but based on demand here in Alberta and globally, they cannot entirely replace fossil fuels any time soon.”

    From 2005 to 2015, Gorman writes, the average installed system price in Canada is expected to have decreased six-fold from $15/W to less than $2.5/W. Between 2008 and 2013, a capacity equivalent to 6.5 times Alberta’s current total installed electricity generation capacity of 85 GW was installed globally.

    The Alberta government is slated to release its “Renewable and Alternative Energy Framework” later this year as part of its ongoing energy policy development and climate change policy renewal, and the CanSIA policy paper noted this comes at a time when the province will require 7,000 megawatts of new power generation by 2022, with 5,000 MW of that demand due to the retirement of coal-fueled power plants.

    electricity in albertaAccording to CanSIA, upping the amount of solar power in Alberta’s electricity mix would address three pressing issues for the province. First, it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, since Alberta’s electricity sector accounted for 21 percent of the province’s emissions in 2012. Second, it would diversify supply, as 85 percent of Alberta’s electricity was generated by coal (64 percent) and natural gas (21 percent), and given that the latter is anticipated to be the province’s fastest growing generation source, it would leave Alberta susceptible to the volatility of natural gas pricing. Finally, the policy paper cites the need to “maintain a social license” by demonstrating more visible leadership on improving the environmental performance of the Alberta’s energy production and consumption to maintain its position as a global energy superpower.

    The CanSIA paper recommends that in order for Alberta maximize success of any policy mechanism it needs to integrate within the existing policy and market framework, enable Albertans to realize a fair value for the solar electricity they generate, and use existing funding sources for electricity procurement and emissions reductions.

    The complete policy paper with CanSIA’s detailed recommendations can be downloaded from CanSIA’s website.

    The Good Bad News from Clean Edge’s Solar Leadership Rankings

    cleanedge coverThere’s good and bad news to deliver when it comes to the American solar leadership landscape. The good news is that solar has gone mainstream across the United States. The bad? More battles are brewing on the sunny horizon.

    The first is borne out nicely by research firm Clean Edge’s recently released 2014 Leadership Index (PDF), which found 11 states now generating “more than 10 percent of their electricity from non-hydro renewable energy sources.” California and its metros San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento convincingly led the way forward, shouldering a 40 percent year-over-year increase in solar installations as well as 100 percent increase in all-electric vehicle registrations.

    But California didn’t do it alone.

    “There are absolutely other states and metro regions aggressively pursuing and achieving results in the clean-energy marketplace,” Clean Edge founder Ron Pernick told me. “Other leading states that come to mind are Massachusetts, Oregon, New York and Colorado. And while California leads by a pretty wide margin in our overall rankings, compared with second-place Massachusetts, Massachusetts actually beats out California in both our Capital and Policy rankings, coming in at #1. Connecticut and Vermont both cracked the Top 10 for the first time; both states are actively pursuing clean-tech leadership and initiatives.”

     

    cleanedge table

    However, those achievers must make way for others falling back, which is where some of the bad news comes in. Vermont’s rise has partially come at Hawaii’s fall, a dispiriting affair that Greentech memorably called a “solar shipwreck.” According to Pernick, Oahu’s underachievement does have a silver lining.

    “Hawaii did drop out of our Top 10 this year, but they are still #3 in our Technology rankings,” he added. “In fact, they are #1 in installed solar PV capacity, with solar power now representing nearly 13 percent of installed peak capacity and are very strong in our Clean Transportation sub category. However, their low performance in the Capital section this year (#34), along with average Policy score (#13), put them lower in our Overall rankings.”

    Capital and policy are at the heart of the battles raging, and those to come. A subsequent Clean Edge report Benchmarking Utility Clean Energy (PDF) ranked the renewable energy and efficiency of American utilities, only to find that it took state policies to finally get them moving with a purpose. And even then, there was “variability in performance even among utilities operating in the same states.”

    Look back to Hawaii. In April, Governor Neil Abercrombie argued that “the time for talk has ended, and the time for action is upon us” — and yet his state’s utility Hawaiian Electric Company has slowed net metering permit approvals to a crawl while it figures out ways of securitizing the solar pie to its advantage. Similar maneuvers are underway in other states with little chance to crack Clean Edge’s Top 10, such as Utah, whose utility Rocky Mountain Power is leaning hard on legalese to pass what is basically a craven solar tax frivolously discriminating against net metering adopters who dare take the reins of their energy and emissions. Or Arizona, recently sued by SolarCity and Sunrun for the Department of Revenue’s decision to tax homeowners with leased solar panels while unfairly offering exemptions to those own them. All while utilities like Arizona Public Service suspiciously decide to jump into the solar game, instead of out of it.

    The annoying list goes on, all throughout a United States looking to solarize without being nickel-and-dimed by entrenched dinosaurs like ALEC and the Koch Brothers. But the overall renewable energy war has already been won, no matter the current battles or those to come. That’s the best news.

    “While there have been partisan attacks against clean-tech supportive policies like net metering and renewable portfolio standards in places like Ohio and Arizona, for the most part the clean-tech industry and its allies have successfully fought off such efforts,” said Pernick. “We expect the attacks to continue, but a number of trends and developments are on the side of clean energy. These include strong public support for clean-energy deployment, regional and state governments and corporations demanding ever increasing amounts of renewables, and the decreasing costs for clean energy. Add to all of this a utility industry in major upheaval and disruption, as well as growing carbon constraints, and you have the recipe for ongoing clean-energy expansion.”

    Utilities that Support Renewable Energy, Efficiency are Still a Rare Breed

    utility reportA handful of the largest holding companies of investor-owned utilities in the U.S., such as NV Energy, Xcel Energy, PG&E, Sempra Energy and Edison International, are deploying from 17 to 21 percent of their energy from renewable energy sources. Yet most of the rest lag behind at 5 percent or less, according to the first report ranking utilities’ performance in renewable energy deployment and energy efficiency.

    Energy efficiency programs are also starting to get traction nationwide, and utilities that have championed the effort — such as in California — are leading the way.

    That’s just two of the findings from the recent report issued by Clean Edge and Ceres, which teamed up to gather data from five sources before they could conduct their analysis. Because the data was neither readily available nor up-to-date, the report uses data from 2012 and took more than 18 months to produce.

    “Understanding how renewables and how efficiency access is coming online is really the key to understanding the future of the energy system,” said Bryce Yonker, the director of business development at Clean Edge. “The utilities that are positioned for success are those that understand the value that in these new energy resource areas in renewable and [energy] efficiencies and figure out how to deliver these solutions to the marketplace without letting someone else deliver it for them.”

    Although states with aggressive renewable portfolio standard goals tended to rank higher in deployment level and energy efficiency — such as in Minnesota and Colorado — that wasn’t a silver bullet. Not all utilities located in leading states had favorable performances in those areas, the report found.

    The third ranked area was cumulative annual energy efficiency savings — a measure that aggregates all the energy efficiency gains in programs of any single year. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) was the top-ranked utility by this measure, saving an amount that was equivalent to about 17 percent of its 2012 retail electricity sales.

    “Our customers want PG&E to provide solutions to the challenge of global warming, while at the same time helping them use less energy and save money,” said PG&E president Chris Johns in a statement. “As their local utility, we’re focused on partnering with our customers to develop innovative energy solutions and meeting their needs well into the future.”

    The report did not investigate whether there was a correlation between renewables and energy efficiency performance.

    Results aside, Yonker emphasized that a key takeaway from the report came from what Clean Edge and Ceres learned during its preparation — that renewables and energy efficiency data from U.S. utilities is not readily available.

    “On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being that the information is readily accessible in marketplace and you just need to know where to look, and 10 being near impossible to find it on your own, I’ll give some comparative analysis,” Yonker said. “State index data is like a 4 — it’s most out there, you just have to know where to look and do some research,” he said. “Metropolitan data is like a 7 — no one is really reporting it but you can piece together and get decent idea [of what’s happening]. But the utility version is like an 8 or a 9 — it’s not good or complete data out there and it takes a lot of work to put together.”

    As a result, Clean Edge recommends that the U.S. Energy Information Administration should take on collecting current and complete data on renewables and energy efficiency data for utilities.

    “It would be nice if states with renewable portfolio standards or energy efficiency resource standards could track the progress of utilities and see how they’re performing against these requirements,” Yonkers said. “A request to those 29-plus states is more complicated with the number of moving parts compared to just asking one source for the information.”

    15 Million Solar Homes Could Provide Half of Calif.’s Energy by 2050

    solar and windThe Golden State is by far the largest state in the U.S. – with an estimated population of 38.3 million as of July 2013, it’s nearly 50 percent larger than the second most populous state (everything else may be bigger in Texas, but it has a paltry 26 million residents…).

    At the same time, thanks in part to relatively mild weather in much of the state and some long-term, forward-thinking energy policies, California is also the most energy-efficient state by far. In 2010, Californians used just 6,721 kilowatt-hours (kWh) on average — 9 percent less than Hawaii, the next most efficient state, and just one quarter of what Wyoming, the least-efficient state, used that year.

    With that context in mind, perhaps it’s not as surprising to learn that a team of researchers at Stanford University have outlined what it will take to get California to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

    As part of the ongoing Solutions Project, which we covered earlier this year, Mark Jacobson — a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford — and his team are creating detailed reports analyzing the energy needs and renewable potential for each of the states.

    For California, the results are just published in the July 22 issue of the journal Energy, and show all of California’s 2050 power demands could be met with a mix of sources, including:

    • 25,000 onshore 5-megawatt wind turbines
    • 1,200 100-megawatt concentrated solar plants
    • 15 million 5-kilowatt residential rooftop photovoltaic systems
    • 72 100-megawatt geothermal plants
    • 5,000 0.75-megawatt wave devices
    • 3,400 1-megawatt tidal turbines

    Reaching that level of deployment will not be easy, of course, but there’s plenty of incentive.

    “If implemented, this plan will eliminate air pollution mortality and global warming emissions from California, stabilize prices and create jobs – there is little downside,” Jacobson explained to the Stanford News Service.

    And California of course has had plenty of rapid success with its own solar boom in the past few years — data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that California is home to 38 percent of solar installations in the U.S., and has been doubling its solar capacity every year for the past two years, almost entirely due to a rapid rise in solar homes.

    The Stanford study goes far beyond just solar, however: In addition to the laundry list of renewable energy sources above, Jacobson and his team lay out the need for universal electric vehicles, as well as switching homes, offices and industrial facilities to electric-powered heaters, air conditioners, cooking and water pumps.

    It’s a monumental task, but one that pays incredible dividends.

    “I believe that with these plans, the people and political leaders of California and New York can chart a new way forward for our country and for the world,” Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor and study co-author, said in a statement.

    Solar and wind photo courtesy of National Grid.

    The Price of Oil: Colorado Suffers Oil and Gas Spills Twice a Day

    colorado spillThe more they drill, the more they spill. And the part about telling residents about it, not so much.

    A Denver Post analysis of Colorado oil and gas spills so far in 2014 reveals that they are happening twice a day “and usually without anyone telling residents.”

    [Editor's note: This post, by Tom Kenworthy, originally appeared on ThinkProgress, and is reprinted with permission.]

    That rate, 467 spills for the first 7 months of this year, suggests that the state will surpass last year’s record of 575, the paper reported, due to a surge in oil and gas development and more stringent reporting rules. The state oil and gas commission said that tougher enforcement is also a factor.

    Colorado now has about 52,000 active oil and gas wells, with much of the recent growth occurring along the populous Front Range north and northeast of Denver. The rapid pace of drilling and its proximity to many communities has sparked a simmering revolt, with the prospect looming of an epic election season battle over ballot proposals to allow more local control of oil and gas development. A drive to obtain enough signatures to place those measures on the ballot will conclude on August 4.

    Since 2010, the paper reported, about 21 percent of the nearly 2,500 reported spills have contaminated either ground or surface water.

    New rules implemented this year by the oil and gas commission require operators to notify the agency whenever more than 210 gallons are released, a tougher requirement than the previous threshold of 840 gallons. Other parties that must be notified include the landowner where the spill takes place, state health officials if water is contaminated, and someone from local government.

    But as the paper reports, “government officials generally don’t announce spills or otherwise notify nearby residents.”

    That prompted a sharp response from Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado. “These oil and gas companies are engaging in a heavy industrial activity – right over the backyard fence in some instances. And with that comes the responsibility of telling people who could be affected when something goes wrong.”

    Graffiti photo CC-licensed by ctirpak on Flickr.

    How Minnesota’s e21 Initiative Bridges the Utility – Home Solar Divide

    e21The battle for America’s energy future has been showcased as a David-vs.-Goliath slugout between big investor-owned utilities and proponents for renewable energy. Yet in Minnesota, a statewide initiative is quietly bringing together utilities, regulators, policymakers, industry and clean energy advocates in a year-long process that will map the transition to a new utility business model and regulatory framework.

    As the only effort of its kind in the nation, the e21 Initiative aims to develop recommendations to achieve the systems-level change — as well as detail the incremental steps needed — to place renewable technology and distributed generation at the center of the state’s energy landscape, and to bridge the divide between utilities and their home solar customers.

    “The goal of this effort is to think about whether and how we might re-imagine the regulatory compact and the [energy sector] framework,” said Rolf Nordstrom, e21 Initiative co-founder and Great Plains Institute CEO, “[and explore] how the framework can allow utilities to make money…not just based on the volume of electricity or building large capital projects and recouping money from its rate base, but instead examining how else we might regulate utilities to better align to what society would like from the electric sector.”

    Launched in February, e21’s specific goals include developing a regulatory model that matches up utility and customer interest while reducing Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, transitioning to a carbon-neutral energy system, providing an economically viable business model for utilities that supports renewable energy and improving the alignment between state and federal authority under the new renewable energy paradigm.

    “I’d been having conversations about how it seems like it’s time to have some sort of concerted project around what utility business models might look like in the future,” said e21 Initiative co-founder and Great Plains Institute CEO Rolf Nordstrom. “And sometimes these projects are partly a matter of timing and personalities involved.”

    Indeed, the high-level influence of Nordstrom’s conversation-mates appears to be what enabled the initiative to get buy-in from the governor’s staff, legislators, regulators, prominent advocacy groups and the state’s two largest utilities, Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power. The first, Nancy Lange, who had worked at the Center for Energy and Environment, had just been appointed to the Minnesota’s Public Utility Commission, while the second, Mike Bull, was an executive at Xcel (and now works as communications director for the Center for Energy and Environment).

    Both Lange and Bull were able to get the ear of key players in government and utilities, Nordstrom said. The early series of stakeholder conversations enabled e21 to establish an agreed upon set of goals by the diverse group of almost two dozen participants [PDF] at the table.

    “One of the more remarkable features is that it’s being done in the absence of any particular crisis,” Nordstrom said.

    The group — which has met five times to date — is using a five-step process called transformative scenario planning as a way to navigate the task at hand. E21 got the inspiration to use this approach by participating in Rocky Mountain Institute’s eLab ACCELERATOR, a program that enables leaders and organizations to develop and test new innovations in U.S. electricity system models.

    “One of the steps [in transformative scenario planning] is to develop scenarios or stories about what could happen in the future based on the drivers you know about and the current state you’ve mapped,” Nordstrom said.

    Using three scenarios it developed about what could happen with the future of the U.S. energy system by 2035 — which the group titled Evolution, Revolution and Metamorphosis — it compared them to a list of 10 guiding principles the group had established as essential to any future regulatory framework.

    “The upshot is that none of the three scenarios really aligned well at all with the full set of guiding principles, which was a useful insight,” Nordstrom said.

    So what does that mean?

    “This whole effort is a funnel,” Nordstrom said. “We started at the wide part and we’re getting to the narrower part now — where we see none [of the scenarios] line up — so what strategies can the group come to consensus on to produce a regulatory framework that aligns with the guiding principles?”

    Nordstrom’s not clear on what shape those strategies might take. After all, the group is only about halfway through its yearlong effort. But he knows that the group is shooting for recommendations specific enough so that they’re actionable.

    “They’re things that we can take to the public utilities commission and the legislature,” he said of the recommendations. “This could be specific statutory changes in any Minnesota statutes and recommendations on how to evolve the regulatory framework as well as what might be done at federal level – we think it’s important to flag that,” he said.

    As a member of e21’s core participant team, George Washington University Law School is keeping an eye out for changes need to be made on the state and federal levels so that the process isn’t blocked by any current statutes that are counter to what the group is proposing.

    E21 plans to produce a report with recommendations for action at a number of levels at the conclusion of their yearlong project. They’ll also provide channels for the public to discuss it via community forums if they can secure funding for this effort.

    But it appears that there will be plenty of time for discussion. Nordstrom estimates that implementing systemwide changes could take five years or more.

    “We’ll also be sharing lessons learned,” he said. “Other states, utilities and specific interests can benefit from what we’ve learned along the way.”

    Solar image courtesy of the Great Plains Institute.

    The EU Plans To Get 30 Percent More Energy Efficient By 2030

    EU energy efficiencyThe European Union has introduced an energy savings goal of 30 percent by 2030, a goal that goes beyond the EU’s current energy efficiency target of 25 percent by 2030.

    [Editor's note: This article, by Katie Valentine, originally appeared on ThinkProgress, and is reprinted with permission.]

    Now, EU member countries will decide whether or not the goal will be implemented at a country-wide or EU-wide level. The EU’s new proposed goal of 30 percent energy efficiency by 2030 builds on the union’s current goal of 20 percent by 2020, a goal the EU says can be reached as long as all member countries fully implement agreed-upon climate legislation.

    A higher goal by 2030 will save EU consumers money and help wean member countries off fossil fuels, the Commission said in a release. For every 1 percent increase in energy savings, EU gas imports are predicted to fall by 2.6 percent, according to the commission, and energy efficiency policies are expected to create new jobs in construction and manufacturing.

    EU Energy Chief Günther Oettinger said in a statement that the 30 percent goal was ambitious but realistic.

    “Our aim is to give the right signal to the market and encourage further investments in energy saving technologies to the benefit of businesses, consumers and the environment,” he said.

    The goal falls short, however, of the 40 percent energy efficiency target that some environmental groups were pushing for, saying it would result in further reductions of gas imports. Oettinger ruled out the 40 percent goal earlier this month.

    The EU’s proposal to up its energy efficiency goal comes as a new report shows the group of nations are already leading the world in terms of energy savings. The report, released by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), ranked the world’s 16 largest economies and found that Germany ranked number one in energy efficiency, while Italy was number two and the rest of the EU came in at number three.

    The U.S., on the other hand, came in at number 13 on the list, ranking above just Russia, Brazil and Mexico. In 2012, ACEEE ranked the U.S. in ninth place, due largely to its focus on expanding car infrastructure rather than public transportation. Since then, the group says, the U.S. has made little progress in energy efficiency. However, the EPA’s proposed rule on curbing emissions from power plants could help the U.S. rise in rankings by spurring investment in energy efficiency, ACEEE says. Additionally, earlier this year the Obama administration announced that it would invest $2 billion into making federal buildings more energy efficient.

    And though the EU does lead the world in energy efficiency, its coal plants are still standing in the way of some of its goals on climate, according to a new report. The report looked at the most heavily-polluting coal plants in the EU and found that Germany and the U.K. each have nine of the dirtiest coal plants in Europe. Despite leading the world in energy efficiency, Germany uses more coal to generate electricity than any other EU country, according to the report.

    EU lights photo CC-licensed by Marc Imhoff of NASA on Wikipedia.

    Google’s Offering $1 Million to Improve Home Solar Inverter Technology

    solar farm“Smaller is baller,” “Min it to win it,” “Think shrink.”

    Those are the puns Google is using to promote its new competition: $1 million to whomever can invent a working power inverter for solar and other forms of renewable energy that’s roughly as small as a laptop. The company has teamed up with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers to launch the competition.

    [Editor's note: This post, by Emily Atkin, originally appeared on ThinkProgress, and is reprinted with permission.]

    For background, a power inverter is a box that takes alternating current (AC) out of a direct current (DC) — such as a solar array — and applies that AC to run things in our homes, offices, and businesses. In order to use the DC power generated from wind turbines and solar panels, it must be converted into alternating current, via a power inverter.

    “Much of our domestic world relies on AC,” the tech blog Venturebeat explains. “And AC needs robust power distribution grids, huge power plants and either fossil fuel, nuclear power, or falling water.”

    The premise of Google's Little Box Challenge.

    The premise of Google’s Little Box Challenge. (CREDIT: Littleboxchallenge.com)

    As they are currently, inverters for solar and wind are, according to Google, too big — “roughly the size of a picnic cooler,” the company said on its new website for the “Littlebox Challenge.” But if they can be shrunk down to the size of a tablet or laptop, the company says, it would “enable more solar-powered homes, more efficient distributed electrical grids, and could help bring electricity to the most remote parts of the planet.”

    “There will be obstacles to overcome; like the conventional wisdom of engineering”, Google Green’s Eric Raymond said in a statement announcing the competition. “But whoever gets it done will help change the future of electricity.”

    The challenge for engineers is to design and build a 1-kilowatt-minimum power inverter with a power density of at least 50 watts per cubic inch — not an insane amount of power, but enough to fuel some lights and a box fan. Applicants must register by September and submit their ideas by July 15 of next year. Eighteen finalists will be chosen, and a grand prize winner will be announced sometime in January 2016, the company said.

    Google has long-promoted increased use of renewable energy, but its relationship with it has been a bit of a puzzle. The company’s Google Green subsidiary has invested millions in clean energy projects throughout the last decade, with an eventual goal to power its data centers with 100 percent renewable energy. The company claims that, with purchased offsets, its carbon footprint is zero, meaning it does not contribute to climate change. So far, Google has sunk more than $1 billion into wind and solar projects that in total generate more than 2 gigawatts of power.

    At the same time, however, Google has hosted fundraisers to benefit one of the U.S. Senate’s most vehement climate deniers, and is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — a corporate lobbyist group that actively works to thwart statewide renewable energy programs.

    The two-way relationship has raised questions about the company’s intentions among some environmentalists, who are asking Google to cut ties with the anti-climate group. But one possible explanation for the company’s partnership with interests purportedly contrary to their own is that it’s necessary to help sway them to their side, as Tim Worstall in Forbes notes.

    “Sadly, the way that the modern economy works is that government, at all levels, has a great deal of influence over how business works,” he writes. “So, it is necessary for a large business to flash the cash around to both sides, to join lobby groups from all sides of the political compass.”

    Solar panels photo CC-licensed by Activ Solar on Flickr.

    The PACE Financing Tool that Puts Solar on Your Roof Can Also Save You Water

    water sprinklerWe’ve long been big fans of PACE financing as an easy way to motivate homeowners to put solar on their roofs. Property assessed clean energy, as we wrote last month, is a simple way to add the cost of a home solar system to a parcel’s property tax, with payments spread out over 20 years and none of the heartwrenching concern about what happens with your solar lease when you try to sell.

    PACE is great, simply put. And now, the most successful PACE financing outfit in the U.S. is pushing another, less well-known aspect of PACE financing: water efficiency.

    The HERO Program, which is already the biggest PACE financer in California with more than $250 million worth of projects financed, is reminding the world that you can also use HERO financing and PACE financing for water-efficiency projects.

    This is a critically important endeavor in California, which is in the midst of an unprecedented (literally) drought. HERO — which stands for Home Energy Renovation Opportunity — can help homeowners finance a number of water-efficiency projects, including high efficiency toilets, faucets and shower heads, drip irrigation systems, rainwater catchment systems, gray water systems and drought-tolerant landscaping.

    Already to date, HERO estimates that the $2.2 million in financing it has provided to water-efficiency projects has saved about 100 million gallons of water — and that number will only increase as the products are continually in use.

    “The HERO Program enables homeowners to replace products in the home that consume a high amount of water with products that consume significantly less water,” Sue Frost, the vice mayor of Citrus Heights, Calif., said in a statement. “By using less water, homeowners save money, which is then used to repay the investment they have made to their homes. In fact, with fines looming and water prices threatening to rise, investing in water-smart landscaping and water efficient products in the home will likely save our residents money in short order.”

    Because the HERO Program has been so successful in clean-energy financing — it is the financer for PACE programs in 169 California counties — its water-efficiency funding is available to 5 million households in the Golden State. And if just 1 percent of those homes signed on to cut their water use, HERO estimates it could save 2.5 billion gallons per year. Given that the average California home uses about 280,000 gallons of water per year, that is the equivalent of canceling out the water used by more than 8,900 households per year.

    So while our primary focus has always been on home solar installations, now there’s a reason — in California in particular but really everywhere with PACE financing — to tack on the cost of a couple of dual-flush toilets and drip irrigation systems to your PACE bill.

    Lawn sprinkler photo CC-licensed by echobase_2000 on Flickr.