Exploring the Next Generation of Solar Maps

While relying on a solar map certainly isn’t a prerequisite for installing an effective home system, they’re useful for a wide range of applications and contexts, including residential, commercial, government and utility-scale functions.

If you want to determine the best places to install solar, learn which rooftops to avoid, keep track of total installed capacity, or even hone in on the right piece of land to install a utility-scale solar project, referring to a solar map can be an efficient and effective first step.

One of the most common purposes for a solar map is to identify the rooftop solar potential at the city level. But while several cities — such as Minneapolis, San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston— have developed such interactive maps, perhaps the largest of this kind that’s been developed is by the state of Minnesota.

The First Statewide Solar Map

The Minnesota Solar Suitability Map, whose app won first place in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping company Esri’s Climate Resilience App Challenge earlier this year, enables anyone to type in (or click on) any location in Minnesota and see its solar photovoltaic (PV) potential.

It was developed by a group of GIS graduate students at the University of Minnesota. The group wanted to provide apply GIS to a real-world problem and use Lidar data, a type of remote sensing technology that generates a 3-D picture of the rooftop environment via lasers shot from airplanes.

“It’s one thing to tell a homeowner or business owner that they should consider solar energy, but it’s a whole other ballgame when you can show them on a map,” said Devon Piernot, one of the students who created the map.

According to Piernot, the map is unique in that as far as the students know, it’s the only statewide analysis of solar insolation created using Lidar data.

To create it, the students first took the Minnesota state Lidar data and then used LasTools triangulation to develop a Digital Surface Model, which captures ground elevation, buildings, trees and other structures in 3-D.

“We then used the ArcGIS Area Solar Radiation tool that uses the digital surface model and a complex algorithm to determine shading and calculate the amount of solar energy that reaches the surface,” Piernot said. “The output of this process is a map layer showing light areas (high solar radiation) and dark areas (low solar radiation).”

To finish it up, the students then built a web map viewer to zoom and pan around the map of Minnesota.

One of the biggest challenges was dealing with the sheer volume of data.

“Since the data analysis took so long, we wanted to run it simultaneously on as many computers as we could get our hands on, including time at the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute,” Piernot said. “We had to design a program that would divide the state into 1-square-kilometer tiles, compute each separately and simultaneously and stitch it all back together.”

This fall the students hope to develop additional capabilities, including the ability for a user to draw an area on the map and use a number of different variables to analyze a hypothetical PV solar installation. They’re also refining their model by collecting data on the ground and comparing it against their findings.

Such residential maps, according to Simon Thompson, the director of commercial solutions at Esri, could be expanded even further for utilities to monitor solar battery storage in their service areas.

“I was showing some non-traditional utilities some ideas on how to utilize our software for this,” he said. “You’d literally hang a battery in someone’s garage and it would generate energy during the day. [The utilities] would monitor it and when it’s full, you’d [use] and pay for it.”

A National Tool for Finding Utility-Scale Solar Sites

A new GIS mapping platform developed for Pristine Sun will enable the San Francisco-based solar company to identify land anywhere in the U.S. that’s suitable to install utility-scale solar in a fraction of the time it would normally take to complete such a task.

solar map

A screenshot from the Pristine Sun GIS solar mapping tool

The idea for such a platform was inspired by Dean Sinatra, whose Greenville, S.C.-based land brokerage firm National Land Realty had received a number of calls from real estate agents and solar companies inquiring about available parcels that met solar installation criteria.

“They were hunting and pecking and fishing like a needle in a haystack,” he said. “It was inefficient and seemed ridiculous on my end.”

So when Pristine Sun contacted National Land Realty with a request to look for land parcels that were suitable for utility-scale solar across the U.S., Sinatra knew the hunt-and-peck strategy wouldn’t cut it. He then called up David Beitz, whose company Beitz and Daigh Geographics had already been working with National Land Realty.

The platform is now being used in a handful of states, with additional state data uploaded as needed. Though the first lines of code were written just a few weeks ago, it was developed after a year and a half of careful planning and collaboration between Sinatra and Beitz, who respectively brought their expertise of land and GIS to the table.

By layering 10 to 15 sources of geographic data — such as the location of utility substations, electricity lines, soils, slope geology and wetlands — on top of each other in Esri’s ArcGIS software, National Land staff can bring their tablets into the field, load up the platform, and be able to quickly determine which parcels can fit the criteria for prequalification.

According to Beitz, the new platform consolidates six of the platforms Pristine Sun had been using into one.

“Since Pristine Sun is in San Francisco, it can only look at so many sites, so this process here speeds it up dramatically and puts all the data in one place to be tracked,” Beitz said. “You don’t have analysts looking over the same piece of land, which smoothes out the process.”

Sinatra says that over the next year, National Land Realty is aiming to help Pristine Sun sign over 1,000 leases and power purchase agreements throughout the U.S.

But National Land — which owns the platform — can use it to scout for land for other applications as well, such as when building homes or developing apartment buildings, Beitz adds.

One of the Oldest Solar Maps Gets Better With Age

Los Angeles County — which first developed its solar map and green planning tool back in 2009 — continues to update its system to meet more users’ needs.

“The solar map we provide is a massive visualization of one of the largest counties in the country,” said Mark Greninger, who spearheaded the map’s development as the county’s geographic information officer.

The map was the first to show solar potential on a property-by-property basis — a game-changer, Greninger said, because it enabled property managers to make their own decisions on solar PV by providing a much greater resolution compared to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s national PV map. When zooming in on each rooftop on the county’s map, viewers can distinguish which parts are good for solar vs. the areas that are not so good via color-coded dots.

Second and third iterations of the map — which added the color-coded dots, the payback time for a solar installation, and information on green planning — were funded by the county’s office of sustainability.

The map has also made it possible for solar installers to run efficient marketing campaigns. The installers purchase data from the county assessor’s office (information that includes the property address, mailing address, owner name and property value), match it to a building’s solar potential and then hone in on their target audience quickly.

Greninger says that installers tell him they like the report they can send out about rooftop solar potential, because the county is like a third party verification source regarding its suitability for solar.

Government agencies use the map to determine which of their properties they own will return the best investment in PV. It was also used by policy and advocacy groups, Greninger said, as a base source of data needed for policymakers to increase the amount of solar via a feed-in tariff incentive. (After the feed-in tariff was established, the Luskin Center at UCLA, Environmental Defense Fund and the LA Business Council took the county’s solar potential map one step further by using jump-off point to map additional data layers showing the potential for solar investment in more disadvantaged areas of the county — and the amount of local jobs that would be created with such investments).

More updates and increased functionality are on the way, says Greninger. Once the 2013 Lidar data becomes available next summer, the county will update the map (it currently uses 2006 data) for its fourth iteration. It’s also looking at the feasibility of expanding the solar potential map to Orange County.

And California’s net zero energy building policy, which requires that all new construction of residential buildings achieve this goal by 2020, commercial buildings by 2030, and a portion of every existing government agency building by 2025 — is also spurring another addition to the tool. Los Angeles County is adding an additional data layer to the map that shows, based on the age of the building, which buildings have the potential to achieve net zero, which can get there with a combination of energy efficiency upgrades and solar, and which are only restricted to energy efficiency upgrades.

“It looks at another missing component,” said Greninger about the updates in store. “We can’t publish how much energy each building actually uses on the map because the utilities don’t really release that, but we can do a whole new kind of analysis.”

Can Stem’s New Hawaii Energy Storage Project Boost the State’s Solar?

140930-hawaii-energy-storageUtilities seem worried that unpredictability is the fatal flaw of distributed generation. But solar storage can already soothe that unnecessary concern, as utilities are finding out themselves. Especially in solarized, polarized Hawaii, whose (mostly) lone utility Hawaiian Electric Industries has partnered with California-based Stem for 1 megawatt of behind-the-meter emergency backup.

“The success of the solar industry in Hawaii is a blessing and a curse,” Stem’s vice-president of Hawaiian operations Tad Glauthier told SolarEnergy. “Local grid operators have to deal with unpredictable generation and potentially reverse power flow at the substation level. These factors make it a natural fit for Stem’s advanced energy storage systems and predictive analytics. Given our focus on commercial and industrial customers, we have a unique opportunity to help the utility balance renewables on the electric grid, while also reducing energy costs for businesses on Oahu.”

Speaking of cost blessings and curses, renewable energy pledges from HEC have lately been accompanied by reminders that early rooftop solarizers will have to pay more. Hawaii has also lately lost thousands of solar jobs, as permitting has dried up in advance of HEC promises to boost its renewable portfolio by 2030. As hot as the Hawaii’s solar market has been, “interconnection continues to be an issue as Hawaiian utilities have imposed restrictions to avoid solar generators’ loads on their systems,” SEIA explains.

Perhaps HEC’s deal with Stem will settle accounts. It arose out of a $1 million grant from Energy Excelerator, a HEC collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy and Department of the Navy. Glauthier tells SolarEnergy Stem is optimistic about its plan to deploy systems at targeted Oahu commercial and industrial buildings by March 2015, then flip the switch and wait for unpredictability to strike.

“Hawaiian Electric will be working closely with Stem to identify specific customers, focusing on areas with major grid congestion,” he explained. “Many commercial and industrial facilities pay demand charges for setting a peak level each month, like being charged for miles driven in a car and also for the top speed you drive for the month. Flattening the peaks makes it easier and cheaper for utilities to respond rapidly to spikes in customers’ electricity demand — which is expensive, because a power plant has to be sitting there, waiting to serve the load. Stem batteries reduce demand charges without impacting operations.”

Stem is also storing and starring on the mainland. Earlier this year, the company became the first to participate in the aggregated, behind-the-meter energy storage market in Northern California after installing Stem systems in hotels and other facilities. By removing unpredictability from HEC’s list of things to worry about, perhaps Stem’s seamless solar power backup plan can help jumpstart the utility’s renewable energy agenda back to where it needs to be.

“This partnership helps ease the integration of more solar energy onto the grid by giving Hawaiian Electric additional tools to more effectively manage its assets,” Glauthier said. “This model can be applied in geographies across the U.S., especially in regions where legislation is encouraging wider use of storage. Participating customers can often receive financial incentives from their utility to join grid support programs.”

“Hawaiians know that diversifying energy sources and driving down costs is critical to a healthy economy and environment,” he concluded. “Aggregated distributed storage can go a long way toward helping Hawaiian Electric adapt to an evolving grid, and ultimately catalyze the spread of solar energy in Hawaii.”

ASES Solar Tour Shows the Many Ways Solar Powers Homes and Businesses

What do a sausage factory in Tennessee, a coffee roaster in Maine, and a maple syrup factory in the Pine Tree State have in common?

As producers who craft their offerings using off-grid energy, they’re all stops on this year’s American Solar Energy Society (ASES) tour, a weekend-long event where solar aficionados can get an up-close look at how home and business owners are using renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save energy.

In its 19th year, the ASES Solar Tour — which will take place on Oct. 4-5 across the U.S. — has grown to become the largest grassroots solar event in the country, with 150,000 participants visiting 5,000 sites in 49 states in previous years, according to ASES.

“As the industry has grown, the tour has grown,” said Carly Rixham, ASES executive director. “And it’s more than PV installations — the tour is really getting at renewable energy in general and how these upgrades to your home can drastically reduce your energy bill and reduce harmful carbon emissions. Our goal is to showcase any kind of renewable energy, from compost toilet to geothermal and wind turbines.”

Though most of the tours — which are happening in at least 19 regions — will visit either solar-powered businesses or tour solar homes, some are at utility-scale sites. Two of the most unique stops are Wampler’s Farm Sausage in Lenoir City, Tenn., and Wicked Coffee, a roaster in Topsham, Maine.

Mostly attended by solar rookies looking to get some ideas and leads, Rixham said, each has its own flavor. While some participants are led by a guide and include lunch, others are self-guided. Texas and Ohio’s tours are among the largest, she added. (Ironically, a new Ohio state law that went into effect on Sept. 12 put a two-year freeze on its renewables portfolio standard and on increasing energy efficiency benchmarks).

“The idea is to get [participants] talking about incentives and tax breaks and get their conversations going so people can see how much they can save,” Rixham said, who added that some even decide to make some solar installations within the same day. “It shows these people are ready.”

Solar Decathlon photo CC-licensed by the Department of Energy on Flickr.

LA’s New Solar Map Helps Bring Solar to Areas that Need it Most

los angeles neighborhoodBelieve it or not, Los Angeles County has tapped just 3 percent of its 19,000 megawatts of rooftop photovoltaic solar (PV) potential.

And with so much space available for solar, knowing how to prioritize its deployment is key.

Providing the right information to make those decisions is the focus of a new version of the Los Angeles Solar and Efficiency Report (LASER 2.0), an atlas that has mapped rooftop solar potential data together with the cumulative environmental health risk of local communities. The map reflects the latest data for environmental health risks identified by Cal EnviroScreen, a tool created by the California Environmental Protection Agency to identify which communities are most burdened by environmental pollution.

“LASER 2.0 maps the environmental health risks in L.A. county as a base layer, and then adds on information about solar in disadvantaged communities as well as power plants,” said Colleen Callahan, a researcher at UCLA’s Luskin Center who managed the project conducted in collaboration with the Environmental Defense Fund.

These maps also show the extent of a community’s ability to adapt to climate change as well a list of the projects with the largest solar potential. Under California law, policymakers must direct funds for climate adaptation projects to communities that are most vulnerable to climate change, and these maps highlights those communities. As many as 38 percent of Los Angeles residents — or 3.7 million people — live in such a community, according to the report.

More than $200 million is available in such funding for these communities this year alone. (And up to $550 million more should be available this fiscal year for generating clean energy in schools, thanks the approval of Prop 39 in 2012).

Callahan emphasizes that the report is not meant to be a policy prescription.

“It’s a conversation-starter,” she said, “that can get the conversation going about what is the potential [for solar investment] and other clean energy jobs, where are we realizing that potential and what are some opportunities and investment vehicles to help realize those investment opportunities … and what are the equity dimensions of it.”

The potential appears to be significant. According to the report, if Los Angeles County just increased its solar capacity by just 10 percent of its total solar potential, it would create 47,780 job years and eliminate the emissions of nearly 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of taking close to 500,000 cars off the road.

One effective way to increase solar capacity in a way that affects disadvantaged communities is through community solar projects for residents at affordable housing projects, the Environmental Defense Fund believes.

“One of the things we’re thinking about is if there’s a way to deploy community solar and power affordable housing — or making it available to renters,” said Jorge Madrid, EDF partnerships and alliances coordinator. “These are intriguing questions, and the LASER map has in some ways started these deeper policy conversations and brought really interesting partners together.”

Earlier this month, Madrid took part in a tour organized by solar company Promise Energy that showcased two LA housing projects recently equipped with solar PV and solar hot water heating.

The tour, which was attended mostly by local community, affordable housing and environmental advocates, was a good way to impress that solar and clean energy are accessible even for those who live in affordable housing, Madrid said.

And though policymakers in Sacramento are still determining just how to allocate these funds, he believes there’s no time to waste.

“With this last round of heat waves in LA, it’s really added a strong sense of urgency around deploying these funds — not just as an equity measure but as a resiliency measure,” Madrid said.

Los Angeles photo CC-licensed by Darkest tree on Wikimedia.

Black Hills Power Cancels Wyoming Solar Tax After Homeowners Protest

wyoming solarA South Dakota-based utility has decided to withdraw a proposed rate change that likely would have adversely impacted customers generating their own alternative energy. Black Hills Power, a subsidiary of Black Hills Corporation, serves nearly 70,000 customers throughout western South Dakota, northern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. After facing backlash to the proposed changes, the company withdrew the rate plan to allow for more time to discuss it with customers.

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

“We understand that it’s complicated,” Vance Crocker, Black Hills Power’s vice president of operations, told the Rapid City Journal. “We want to educate our customers about it and have a dialogue with our customers.”

Crocker did not rule out proposing the rate change again in the future, saying the company still thinks it’s fair. Part of a broader debate taking place at the local level throughout the country, Black Hills Power is one of many utilities seemingly stifling the proliferation of distributed solar power due to concerns over business-model disruption and long-term revenue impacts.

According to the Rapid City Journal, Black Hills Power argued that the proposal was necessary because company executives think independent power producers are not paying for their added use of the electrical grid.

Earlier this month Black Hills Power’s Jim Keck said the company is also concerned about covering their costs. “We don’t want to penalize our entire residential customer base to help pay for the fixed costs of these renewable systems,” he said.

Earlier this year Black Hills Power requested a rate increase between 10 and 13 percent for all electricity users. The company has stated that it needs to increase rates due to grid damage from weather as well as to address regulatory costs on coal-fired power plants. On October 1st, the new natural gas-fired Cheyenne Prairie Generating Station is slated to come online for Black Hills Power customers, replacing the company’s three oldest coal-fired power plants.

“Careful analysis of the long-term costs associated with retrofitting the three plants to comply with the new EPA standards make it clear that replacing them with a new, natural gas-fired generating station is less expensive for our customers,” said Crocker in a statement.

According to Dakota Rural Action, a conservation and agriculture group that opposed the rate change, in the rate increase request included a “Residential Demand Service” rate that would require those who install small solar or wind systems on their property to pay an additional $5 to $20 beyond what a non-generating customer pays.

“Putting in a Residential Demand Service charge is really a hidden fee or penalty charge on solar energy and is the wrong thing to do,” said Steve Hammond, Dakota Rural Action member and owner of a solar electric system.

Utilities involved in the distributed solar debate see solar customers as using less energy but paying the same rate as other customers per kilowatt-hour, meaning non-solar customers end up paying more of the fixed costs, such as maintenance. Alternatively, distributed solar advocates argue that solar can generate energy for the grid during peak demand hours when costs are highest, thus reducing strain on utilities. In the last year, this dynamic has made news in Arizona, where fixed fees were imposed on solar installers; Utah, where it led to customer outrage; and recently in Wisconsin, where a proposed fixed charge escalated the already heated debate.

Solar can also help reduce the amount that utilities rely on fossil fuel generation, thus helping them reduce emissions that may otherwise prove costly under new regulations. In either case, distributed solar is growing nationwide and utilities are being forced to slowly adapt to the reality that they can no longer bank on the simple business model of providing reliable electricity — they also now need to receive it. This is definitely true in Wyoming, where wind power is readily available and there are also superb solar resources waiting to be developed. However, the state still currently gets about 88 percent of its electricity generation from coal, according to [PDF] the EIA.

Black Hills Power and Dakota Rural Action did not respond immediately to request for comment.

Wyoming photo CC-licensed by Al_HikesAZ on Flickr.

Thin-Film Solar Could Keep Drones Flying High All Day Long

solar dronesDrones are controversial, proliferating and inevitable. So we might as well make them run on sunshine.

Alta Devices has lately been making the case for its flexible, thin-film AnyLight solar cells at energy summits and conferences, for the future of unmanned vehicles and smart buildings. The company claims that its gallium arsenide cells hold “the single-junction world record for light conversion efficiency at 28.8 percent” — but whoever ends up trying to break that record will nevertheless enter a growing solar drone market buzzing with opportunity. That’s because their applications to our globally warmed future seem proverbially endless.

“The use of solar on a fixed-wing, unmanned system significantly increases its endurance,” Alta VP Rich Kapusta told SolarEnergy. “This extra endurance comes in very useful in a precision agriculture, land surveying, search and rescue in remote areas, forest fire reconnaissance, animal rescue and research for migration patterns, anti-poaching, as well as infrastructure maintenance of pipelines, power lines, aqueducts and more.”

It’s a convincing sales pitch, but the current data is … complicated. When it comes to drones, solar or otherwise, the barriers to acceptance still remain a sticking point. Whether you’re talking alarmed privacy advocates or annoyed national parks, outright bans on police or public drones, for the sake of surveillance or science, are more the tenor of the time.

“The park has experienced an increase in visitors using drones within park boundaries over the last few years,” the U.S. National Park Service explained in a press release banning them in Yosemite and other natural sanctuaries within in its system. “Drones have been witnessed filming climbers ascending climbing routes, filming views above tree-tops, and filming aerial footage of the park…The use of drones also interferes with emergency rescue operations and can cause confusion and distraction for rescue personnel and other parties involved in the rescue operation.”

Of course, these reasonable objections haven’t really stopped anyone, public or private, from using them anyway. And the burgeoning possibilities of unmanned eyes in the sky, empowered by photovoltaics, promises only to speed up the mainstreaming process.

“Today most battery-powered systems can only fly for an hour or so; solar power enables these to fly all day long,” Kapusta said. “Solar power on unmanned aircraft allows the operator to be more efficient, and enable new use cases In these applications. Small solar powered UAVs will replace manned flights, which are much more expensive and much more dangerous.”

It may sound niche, but even the big money is paying big attention. Earlier this year, Google bought high-altitude solar drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace for a secret sum, with an eye on 2015 for the launch of commercial operations. “Atmospheric satellites could help bring internet access to millions of people, and help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation,” the company touted in a benevolent green statement that likely will do little to counter the more dystopian roles — and political and philosophical concerns — of combat drones that have captured broader international attention and imagination.

But if Alta, Google and other companies building today’s solar drone marketplace are to be believed, tomorrow should instead turn out to be a sunny utopia where unmanned technology happily helps out where earthbound humans simply cannot. If we can keep the pressure and most importantly our money, on the significant and rewarding green applications of solar drones, then we might just end up getting what we are all paying for.

Drone photo courtesy Alta Devices; sky photo CC-licensed by Mohammed Tawsif Salam on Wikimedia.

Solar-Powered EV Charging Stations Heading to San Francisco

ev chargingNeed to immediately quell the growing tension between your employees as they jockey with their electric vehicles throughout the day for a spot at the company’s one charging station?

Want to forgo the permitting process, trenching and electrical work needed to connect an EV charging station to the grid? Don’t even have a grid nearby to rig up a charging station?

A San Diego-based company has a solution to these modern-day dilemmas. Called the EV ARC, this 9-by-16-foot solar-powered EV charging station is made up of a ballast pad for cars to park on, and a 21.6 kilowatt-hour battery that stores electricity produced from a 2.3-kilowatt solar canopy.

This grid-free charging station can also be towed to a site like a boat on a boat trailer, and deployed in minutes into a standard parking lot space.

Envision Solar, which makes the technology, shared with SolarEnergy.net on Friday that the EV ARC will be participating in a micro-study of sorts to help San Francisco improve its knowledge on the best place to put a charging station within the city.

The study is being made possible by The 11th Hour Project; a program of The Schmidt Family Foundation, which works in part to boost electric vehicle adoption.

The foundation announced last week that eight projects, one of which includes Envision Solar, would share a $1 million grant.

Envision Solar’s cut of the grant will go toward getting San Francisco three EV ARCs, said Desmond Wheatley, president and CEO of the company.

The plan, according to Wheatley, is to drop the EV ARCs in selected parts of the city and move them about every three months, all the while tracking data, such as usage patterns, length of charging time per vehicle, et cetera.

This will give San Francisco the ability to test and study multiple locations using real data, as opposed to selecting charging station sites based on forecasted or modeled data, Wheatley said.

Enabling the EV ARC to charge electric vehicles completely off-grid is the company’s solar canopy.

Envision Solar isn’t the only one using solar for its charging stations. For example, the Tesla Supercharger network has looked to carport-mounted solar arrays to help feed its high-speed charging stations. BMW has been working on a ground-mounted, wing-like solar charging station. And of course there are those, such as the Ford motor company, who have been experimenting with putting solar on the roof of the car itself.

Historically, the size and number of solar panels have been the determining factor in getting solar-powered EV charging stations to perform relatively on par to grid-tied ones.

That’s why permanent structures supporting multiple solar arrays have been among the most cost-effective way to fill up a charging station with renewable energy.

To get enough renewable energy from an area the size of a single parking space, Envision Solar relies on its solar tracking system. Garnering more power from solar panels on movable mounts programmed to follow the sun is far from new.

But traditional tracking systems tend to follow what Wheatley describes as a swinging motion. “If you swing the solar array in a parking environment, you wind up swinging out to the street, or into the vehicles parked next to you. That’s a litigation [risk],” he said.

To avoid such damage, Wheatley said Envision Solar has designed a tracking system that bows. “It bows to the east, and then it bows south, and then it bows west,” he said, and it does it without leaving the linear alignment of the parking space.

Wheatley also said the EV ARC generates about 16 kilowatt-hours per day, which translates to being able to fully charge one standard electric car, or adding one-fourth charges to multiple electric cars in an urban environment where users tend to connect for shorter stints.

Like many emerging technologies, the EV ARC isn’t cheap. The ones San Francisco are getting cost around $45,000, Wheatley said.

“That’s the total cost,” Wheatley quickly points out, tacking on the fact that the price can drop substantially for customers who can partake in the federal government’s 30 percent solar Investment Tax Credit.

According to Wheatley, Envision Solar has had customers who spent five times the cost of an EV ARC to install grid-tied charging systems due to expenses, like digging up a parking lot, putting in new electric infrastructure, and managing the permitting process.

Despite Wheatley’s zeal for the EV ARC, it could take awhile to assess the market’s desire for the technology. The company is currently moving into its first real production cycle, according to Wheatley.

Whether electric cars get their energy from grid-tied charging stations or the EV ARC, many industry watchers expect the demand for more public charging locations to only grow.

In California, government agencies have been wrestling with getting the infrastructure in place to meet the governor’s executive order of getting 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on state’s roadways by 2025. And market research firm Navigant Research is projecting that there will be more than 35 million electric vehicles on roads worldwide by 2022.

EV ARC photo courtesy of Envision Solar.

How Local Solar Rules Can Save You Big Bucks

local solar rulesThe price of an average U.S. home solar power system is about $20,000. (That’s before a 30 percent federal tax credit and any state, local and/or utility incentives.) If the price were to drop to $17,000, or even $16,000, would you be buying?

A new report out last week from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL), called “How Much Do Local Regulations Matter?” demonstrates that such steep declines are possible in the near term, even without any technological advances. (The same day, LBL released two other studies on solar, one of which I blogged on here.)  In fact, good local solar policies that cover everything from permitting—that is, getting local building department sign-off to install a solar system — to inspections and interconnection (getting your system connected to the electric grid) — can make a difference in home solar costs of as much as 15 percent. In other words, they can save the average homeowner installing a 5-kilowatt system an average of $2,500 or more.

The LBL researchers and their colleagues at Yale, the University of Texas at Austin, and the U.S. Department of Energy have concluded all this by analyzing two sets of data. One, about local permitting procedures and costs, was collected by our friends at Vote Solar, through their Project Permit program. (More on that later.) The other comes from the DOE’s Rooftop Solar Challenge, which brings “together local officials, utilities, private industry, nonprofits, and other stakeholders to simplify the solar installation process.” Like Vote Solar, the RSC collects data on permitting costs. But it also examines interconnection fees and processes, the availability to net metering, which allows solar owners to sell excess power back to the grid at a fair price, and financing options, planning and zoning issues.

After grinding through the data, the researchers found that cities, towns and other authorities with pro-solar permitting procedures alone can save homeowners between $700 and $900 per home system. That makes sense: If installers can file their permit applications online, and get approval that way, too, that saves them money that they can pass along to consumers. (Compare it to sending an employee down to the local buildings department to wait in line and you understand the cost savings.) The same goes for the number of new system inspections required and the time window installers have to leave open for inspectors to visit.

When you factor in questions like whether homeowners can sell excess power back to the grid, and whether their state or county allows third-party developers to install and own systems on homes and then sell the electricity back to the homeowner at a discount, through a process called a power purchase agreement, or whether similar solar leases are allowed, the savings differences can grow significantly.

What does all that mean for us solar activists and/or would-be solar homeowners? It means there’s a lot we can do at the local and state level to keep solar prices falling into the very affordable range. (Think about it: A $16,000 home solar system, which lasts at least 25 years? That’s cheaper than many used cars.)  At the local level, we can work with our mayors, our city councils and our local buildings departments to help streamline solar permitting procedures. (Vote Solar’s Project Permit can help. It collects information about local solar permitting rules and offers advice and best practices for changing them.) New York, for instance, offers a unified solar permit that any Empire State village, town or city can adopt. Enough nudging from residents can make that happen. At the state level, there’s much to be done, whether it’s promoting legislation that will allow power purchase agreements and solar leasing in the states where they’re not currently allowed. Or, protecting or expanding net metering, which is a hot topic these days in many state legislatures and public utility commissions. Bringing all this to fruition is likely far easier than passing legislation in our gridlocked Congress.

So, got some energy? Get involved. Remember: The cheaper solar gets, the faster it’s deployed. And the faster it’s deployed, the better able we are to fight climate change, create good, local jobs in the rapidly growing solar industry, and clean the air our kids breathe.

“How much do local solar regulations matter?” LBL’s new report asks. The answer is: a whole heck of a lot.

This article originally appeared on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission. Visit NRDCs Switchboard Blog
Solar farm photo CC-licensed by Activ Solar on Flickr.

Paula Mints: Cutting Through Industry Hype Helps Speed Solar Growth

The solar industry is prone to ignore market and technological realities. At least that’s what market research analyst Paula Mints thinks. And when the industry goes too far astray, someone needs to wave a red flag of warning. Mints believes it’s her job to do so.

Mints, who is founder of the Silicon Valley-based firm SPV Market Research, has been a solar analyst for 17 years. She has a reputation for making bold observations: For instance, Mints will redirect the common industry conversation about the importance of lowering solar prices: “For heaven’s sake. If you are developing technology that is expected to work reliably for 25 to 30 years, it shouldn’t be cheap.”

She is also capable of making unsettling statements about the solar industry that can silence a room. Such as, in an article about the Don Quixote principle in solar, “The solar industry combines courage, willfulness, imagination and a determination to ignore or remain ignorant of market and sometimes technological realities.”

paula mintsEmbedded in the piercing delivery of her research findings is what Mints wants more than anything. She wants the solar industry to thrive.

“I will march through fear,” she said, to share information that will help the solar industry navigate challenging and potentially crushing market forces.

Mints’ intense approach to help the solar industry succeed stems from a tough childhood, as well as a tragedy that rocked her adult life.

Mints was raised by a schizophrenic mother. She grew up in Hayward, Calif., in a stressful and unstructured environment where she had to be creative and persistent to survive. By the time Mints was in her early 30s her mother was homeless and living on the streets. While on the streets, Mints’ mother was murdered.

With the help of Mints’ own investigative work, the man who killed her mother in 1990 was finally arrested four years after the murder. Mints wrote about her life and bringing her mother’s killer to justice in the book Legacy of Courage.

There are all sorts of ways in which experiences like the ones Mints has endured can impact a person. For Mints, her experiences heightened her need to give back, and to safeguard the things she loves. This has played out extensively in her professional life. Solar market research has become a means for Mints to help protect the environment, and the livelihoods of those who are working hard in the solar industry.

SolarEnergy.net spoke with Mints about her cutting and at times contrarian views on the solar industry, and how her life experiences have manifested into a work ethic driven to make good things happen.

The solar industry has been lauding the drop of solar system prices due to silicon and hardware costs going down. Do you agree with industry watchers that say soft-cost cutting measures need to be taken for the price of solar to continue to drop?

I think it’s the wrong question to ask. I’m not sure most end users are aware of what drove costs down, but the gist of it is aggressive pricing strategies are primarily responsible for driving down the perceived cost of solar. Lower raw material prices had less to do with it. Now, of course, polysilicon is quite affordable.

In any case, the cost of the panels did go down significantly, and encouraged new business models such as the solar lease model and the residential solar power-selling model. The success of these models relies on availability of low-cost hardware, among other things. At the same time it allowed for better margins with lower system prices for installers.

But now that prices for modules have gone up, that’s pressuring margins more than it is pressuring prices of systems.

What do you think is going to drive solar prices down?

I would like to get away from the conversation about everything getting cheaper, and get back to the conversation about the value of independence. I believe that the value of independence is really what we should be selling.

The solar lease and the residential PPA tends to replicate the utility renting electricity model paradigm, where along with paying your monthly bill, you also know that someone is going to repair the lines and provide maintenance, et cetera.

But the value of independence from utility rate volatility that’s very personal. Also, all of the solar leases have escalation charges of one degree to another. So that inserts variability in your lease payment right there. I don’t think that consumers have entirely understood that.

Essentially, independence from utility rate increases, or the volatility of electricity rates, is realized when you own the means of electricity production.

paula mints installationAre you concerned that the quality of solar installations is dropping as the industry looks to bring prices down?

Yes. I’m not speaking about any individual installer or group of installers, but when you push the cost of things down to the lowest common denominator, when you constrain margins to the degree we have done in this industry, essentially you force companies to consider cutting corners just so they can get these systems up on the roof, or in the ground. That is really dangerous. Focusing on quality installation, which the companies I survey are all focused on quality, should be number one. It should be about getting a quality system that actually works with the consumer’s economic and long-term goals.

I’ve heard you say that solar lease rates are nonstandard and correlate poorly with system sizes. What does this mean for consumers?

I found that in some cases, the monthly lease rate, or the price paid by the kilowatt-hour, and sometimes the escalation rate, seem to be more of a sales tool than anything else. Companies are highly competitive in terms of monthly lease prices and escalation rates.

I’m also concerned about the level of experience with solar of the sales personnel. Qualified sales should be the goal, not just a sale. In any case, I have found that there are differences in lease rates and power prices. I’ve seen very low lease rates for 5-kilowatt systems, and I’ve seen very high lease rates for 3- and 2-kilowatt systems.

In an era when businesses try to sanitize industry problems, how do you isolate yourself from the pressure to neutralize your research findings?

We need to change the way we source electricity. We need to be more efficient. I don’t think we can do it if we believe fantasies and ignore the risks. That’s the market researcher in me. It forces me to look at everything. You have to be honest with your clients and your industry, even through your clients and your industry may not like it or want to hear it.

You have endured incredible hardship and tragedy in your life. How has the experience of being raised by a schizophrenic mother and her subsequent murder impacted you?

It’s made me want to save people. I’m driven to do good and make change happen. Because of this, I have taken it upon my shoulders almost to save the solar industry. If I’m really going to do good for my industry, then I may make less money, but I will be a voice out there saying, “Look, here are the risks, here is how I arrived at it, here is what you need to be aware of.” It’s really important to me that industry, the people I have come to know in the industry, and the planet thrive and keep going.

Top photo CC-licensed by Kevin Baird on Flickr; story photos courtesy of Paula Mints.

Obama’s Solar Initiatives, Clean Energy Plans Aim to Slash Emissions

white house solarThe sunshine hits keep on coming for President Barack Obama’s administration. New executive actions and public-private solar commitments recently announced by the White House promise to save Americans $10 billion and haircut carbon emissions by 300 million metric tons. Obama’s solar initiatives — as well as the many other areas of clean and efficient energy he’s just announced — also seek to further evangelize and catalyze solar support and funding, through government agencies as well as corporations and cities who have committed money and promises of their own.

Given the exorbitant U.S. military budget, it’s no surprise that the White House is leading with a planned Department of Energy partnership with three military bases and several community colleges to pilot solar job training for veterans, in hopes of smartly transitioning 50,000 installers into the sector by 2020. Also on the docket is $68 billion for 540 efficiency projects (240 solar) from the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which looks to green American agriculture’s oversized carbon footprint.

But the White House’s new proposed efforts to increase appliance efficiency and building codes could pack more of a punch right away.

According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), the Obama administration’s proposal to adopt a new conservation standard for “commercial unitary air conditioners” could rank as the biggest energy saver in DOE history. Promising to eliminate 117 quads — that’s quadrillions of BTUs — of energy and chop carbon pollution by 60 million metric tons, the White House’s efficiency standard is a no-brainer whose time has come.

So too is the DOE’s final determination that the industry’s latest commercial building code overwrites previous, less efficient standards, a technicality that promises to slash another 230 million metric tons of CO2 and pile on the $44 billion already saved by previous code upgrades. Similarly, HUD is affirming that Section 108 funding can be funneled to clean energy and efficiency projects, which should pave the way for more solar installations, once its toolkit is up and running in early 2015.

Further executive actions are evangelical in their nature, from clean energy guidance for U.S. service projects like Americorps and promotion of positive agency reports to solar investment roundtables with corporations and other power players committed to make it easier for citizens to put their rooftops and portfolios to more productive work. For its part, DOE is streamlining access to federal resources with the launch of Solar Powering America, a “one-stop shop” for consumers and investors deploying and investing in photovoltaics. In October, the White House will gather banks, manufacturers, advisers and politicians to merge minds (and wallets) for the sake of accelerated solarization.

It’s almost too much good news to digest. The Obama administration’s announcement spends much of its time name-dropping public and private commitments to solar — $190 million from Goldman Sachs here, 2.7 clean megawatts committed by Cisco there — claiming that “since the President took office, America has increased its electricity generation from solar more than ten-fold.” This is a laudable achievement, but the counterposition is that in the last several years levels of greenhouse gases have skyrocketed, according to the United Nations.

It is true that present and past executive actions from the Obama administration have held back that fearful march, but (much) more ambition and money is needed. Let’s hope these executive actions are teasers for a more serious public-private fight.

Obama solar photo CC-licensed by 1010UK on Flickr.