Electric Vehicles Get a Roadmap to the Mainstream

ev chargingOur country faces the important challenges of overcoming our oil dependency and cutting carbon pollution. Fortunately, as confirmed by a new National Research Council (of the National Academies of Science) study which I was a committee member, electric cars can be a key part of moving America forward. The study concludes that the Federal Government can and should do more to accelerate the market.

Specifically, the committee recommends extending the current purchase tax credits beyond the current production volume limits and to launch a new public education campaign through its Ad Council program. Perhaps the single most important finding is that electric utilities have a compelling business model to support public charging infrastructure.

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission.]

Adoption of these recommendations would help spur the mainstream adoption of electric vehicles by overcoming the known barriers of cost, lack of information and so-called range anxiety.

KEY RECOMMENDATION: Extend federal tax credits beyond current production volume limits

A key challenge to plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) adoption is that consumers must pay a higher purchase cost but save money over time. As with any new technology, this barrier is particularly acute because the technology has not had a chance to take advantage of the massive economies of scale necessary to compete with gasoline cars. In addition, many of the benefits of PEVs accrue to the public good, rather than just the private good.

Perhaps the single most important recommendation of the study is for the federal government to extend the tax credits (worth up to $7500 to PEV purchasers) beyond the current volume limits. Since the current tax credits are limited to 200,000 total per manufacturer, they could expire as early as 2017 or 2018 for the EV market leaders, potentially stalling the market just as it is poised to hit its tipping point. The committee recommends:

Federal financial incentives to purchase PEVs should continue to be provided beyond the current production volume limit as manufacturers and consumers experiment with and learn about the new technology. (pages 9 and 169)

There is strong, bipartisan support for tax incentives for clean energy. For example, a recent national poll found 80% of Americans support tax incentives for producers of clean electricity, including 74 percent of Republicans.

KEY FINDING: Electric utilities have strong business case for investing in public charging to address the “infrastructure gap”

Lack of publically available charging infrastructure is another key barrier to deployment. The committee’s finding supports the notion that the infrastructure gap is in large part a “financing gap”. Unfortunately, the committee found, besides automakers and utilities, it “has not been able to identify any private sector entities that have an attractive business case for absorbing the full capital costs of investments in public charging infrastructure.” (page 130)

The most promising source of investments the committee identified are electric utilities. The committee found that “utilities that can capture the entire residential electricity consumption of PEV owners appear to have a viable business model for investing in public charging infrastructure.” A very important finding of the committee is:

If public charging infrastructure drives greater eVMT and greater deployment of vehicles, capital and variable costs for public infrastructure might be covered by the incremental revenue from additional electricity that PEV drivers consumer at home, where roughly 80 percent of the charging takes place. (page 127)

This finding is supported by a recent decision at the California Public Utilities Commission where PEV charging companies, utilities, auto, and NGOs all supported an expanded role for utility investment in publically available infrastructure.

This creates a rare “win-win-win” situation where PEV drivers, utilities and all utility customers can benefit from increased investments in electrification. In fact, a recent California study estimated that large-scale commercialization of PEVs could yield $2.26 to $8.11 billion in net revenues, sufficient to allow utilities invest both in infrastructure and returning benefits to customers in the form of lower rates. In California, the three largest utilities have applied to invest $1.1 billion in infrastructure deployment to support 60,000 publically available charging ports. Other utilities across the country are also moving forward with investments, including Southern Company and Kansas City Power and Light.

Regarding the role of the federal government specifically, the committee concluded that since other entities – vehicle manufacturers, utilities, and private companies – are actively deploying or planning to deploy infrastructure, there currently is not a strong need for direct federal investments in infrastructure. The committee suggested a better role for the federal government is to assess the “relationship between infrastructure availability and PEV adoption.” (pages 10 and 130) The committee found that “Given the strain on federal resources, the suggested research should help to ensure that limited federal funds are spent so that they will have the greatest impact.” (page 10)

KEY RECOMMENDATION: Federal government should assist in targeted education of consumers to address “information gap”

Another important barrier to greater PEV adoption is simply lack of consumer awareness and knowledge. The committee found that “Lack of consumer awareness and knowledge about PEV offerings, incentives, and features is a barrier to mainstream adoption of PEVs.” (page 69) To address this gap, the committee recommends:

To provide accurate consumer information and awareness, the federal government should make the use of its Ad Council program, particularly in key geographic markets, to provide accurate information about federal tax credits and other incentives, the value proposition for PEV ownership, and who could usefully own a PEV. (pages 4 and 74)

KEY FINDING: Electric Cars are the cleaner than cleanest gasoline cars (and getting cleaner over time)

Despite numerous studies, there remains confusion over whether PEVs are actually good for energy security and carbon pollution. Though hardly a man-bites-dog story, after weighing the evidence, the study concludes that EVs are indeed good for the country:

The committee concludes that the premise for the statement of task – that there is an advantage to the United State if a higher fraction of the miles driven here is fueled from the U.S. electric grid – is valid now. The advantage becomes even greater each year that the United States continues to reduce the GHGs that it produces in generating electricity. [page 22]

In fact, not only are EVs the cleanest cars out there, the study makes the important point that EVs are actually get cleaner over time as the grid transitions to cleaner sources of generation:

The average GHG emissions for which PEVs are responsible are currently lower than the emissions from even the cleanest gasoline vehicles and will be further reduced as the electricity for the U.S. grid is produced from the lower carbon sources. (page 22)

NRC Study a Roadmap to Move America Forward

Reducing our nation’s dependency on oil is critical to our energy and climate security. With oil prices in a temporary down cycle, consistent, sustained public policy support is more critical than ever. Fortunately, the new National Research Council study provides such a roadmap for moving electric cars into the mainstream.

This article originally appeared on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission. Visit NRDCs Switchboard Blog

EV charging photo CC-licensed by Wikimedia user Sass Peress.

Looking to Go Green? New Energy Concierge Service Wants to Help

150723-dominoOn Earth Day, SunPower co-founder Tom Dinwoodie unveiled a personal energy concierge startup — for those who want to unplug from dirty business as usual with the experienced help of a live human.

“in most parts of the country, people can get entirely free of fossil fuels – coal, gas, and oil – and save money in the process,” the Berkeley-based CEO explained in a press release for his free service, Domino. “Modern consumers want to vote with their pocketbooks. Domino will make it possible for everyone to know their options and to make that change, pocketing the savings along the way.”

With an overall mission to get a billion people to go green, Domino launched its service in partnership with like-minded greens like UC Berkeley, Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund and the Rocky Mountain Institute, whose analytics serve as its backbone. Dinwoodie’s new venture offers live chat sessions with independent concierges who customize green solutions for their callers’ various lifestyles, compare free quotes from contractors, recommend financing like rebates and incentives, and then help push everything forward.

They are reportedly paid no commission to offer these deals, especially for cash-sensitive big-ticket renewable energy items like solar panels and batteries, hybrid and electric cars, and cooling and heating systems. Domino executives promise that concierges won’t push sales that don’t make any sense; its revenue “comes from referral fees paid by vendors,” which cost them “less than acquiring customers in traditional ways,” according to the press release. One expects that the personal concierge service’s high-profile partners wouldn’t sign on for anything less. But until the performance reviews arrive, Domino’s energy concierge service sounds like another promising avenue for homeowners and others transitioning to our renewable energy new normal.

It already has an informative blog up and running, offering advice and explainers on topics as diverse as clean energy tax breaks, California’s megadrought, heat pumps and electric cars. With Dinwoodie’s good name in the balance and RMI’s impressive analytics, Domino’s human touch could help ring up the big changes we need to beat back the mounting ravages of global warming. Fingers crossed.

Dominoes photo CC-licensed by Flickr user koocbor.

Infographic: This Earth Day, Go Solar to Save Water

earth day and solarHappy Earth Day! This day has always been full of complicated feelings for me: On the one hand, it’s great that everyone’s talking about our many environmental challenges today (and this month), but on the other — why can’t we always be talking about these challenges? Rather than a flood of attention in April, I’d much prefer a steady trickle throughout the year (or better yet, a steady, sturdy flow).

That said, it is April 22, so let’s talk some more about the planet. Across the US today, people are taking actions large and small to highlight the environmental issues we face: climate change, pollution, toxic chemicals in our products, and on and on.

Here in California, we’re pretty much consumed with our massive, terrifying drought. We’re in the fourth year of a historic drought, with very little rain and even less snow, and the state is gearing up for a long, hot and dry spring, summer and fall.

There are a million things anyone can do to save water — buy more water-efficient toilets and showerheads; take fewer, shorter showers; stop watering your lawn if you have one. But one big thing that you can do that benefits so much more than just the water your home uses is to go solar.

When people think about going solar, they’re usually thinking about their pocketbooks, not the planet. That’s reasonable, of course, since homeowners save an average of $84 a month with solar.

And when people do think about saving the planet with their solar panels, they’re probably thinking more often about the incredible amounts of carbon pollution they’ll be avoiding by switching to clean energy.

But a lesser-known fact about solar is that it also saves lots of water, and on this Earth Day, that is an important fact to highlight.

The infographic below shows how our four of the most-common energy sources use water at every stage. In a nutshell, solar wins across the board.

go solar to save water
Solar panel photo CC-licensed by Chandra Marsono on Flickr.

What It Takes to Go Solar on Earth Day

lovaas solarThanks to Maryland’s energy policies, Vivint Solar is installing 17 panels on my roof that will provide most of our power from now on. This is a quick job, already well on its way to completion as you can see below (the firecracker-red-painted highlights are my daughter’s idea, btw).

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission.]

The job is relative quick and painless in part because of the exposure to goodly amounts of sunlight. The house faces east, illumination thereby pleasantly floods several rooms every morning. I’m also happy to report that its easy because we’ve made a lot of improvements since we bought the place a decade ago. Better insulation, energy-efficient lightbulbs, new doors and windows, and other incremental changes mean fewer panels needed. Thanks to OPower’s partnership with our utility (Pepco) we can tell how much less energy we use than comparable homes. Below is a recent grade we got from this partnership. Strangely — but predictably according to the behavioral science research — my family finds the double-smiley-faces gratifying.


Getting our power from sunlight is also exciting because a few years ago we upgraded to a pluggable car that’s part of Toyota’s Prius lineup. We were able to swing this thanks to financial tools provided by our state and federal governments (see more on the facts about and NRDC’s advocacy for such incentives in this handy fact sheet). While it doesn’t have the range of an increasing number of snazzy EVs in the market now, our location-efficient suburban location, just blocks away from the last stop on D.C.’s Metro subway system, means most of our daily driving fits into that envelope. So most of our household’s vehicle-miles-of-travel will also be covered by the sun.

And of course, it’s also nice that we only have to own one vehicle, since I use the rail system that’s just a stone’s throw away from our house. This is true both for environmental and financial reasons. Even a pluggable car is an asset which, unlike a home, relentlessly depreciates in value the minute you drive it off the sales lot (pretty smart of my colleague Amanda to one-up be by going entirely car-free recently).

It’s taken a decade to locate to a transit-oriented neighborhood, improve our home to be more energy-efficient, switch to a pluggable car, and go solar. Incrementally, step-by-step, we’ve reduced our footprint. And we’ve done it thanks to good government programs and the entrepreneurial companies that have capitalized on that policy context to develop and deliver better products and business models. I urge everyone to support such public policies and private practices in your neck of the woods.

Happy Earth Day!

This article originally appeared on NRDC’s Switchboard blog, and is reprinted with permission. Visit NRDCs Switchboard Blog

The Home Solar plus Energy Storage Revolution Is About to Begin

solarcity homesHome solar batteries from Tesla Motors, which could upset utilities as we know them. Billion dollar solar bonds from SolarCity, backstopped by banking bigshots.

Happy Earth Day!

After being artificially suppressed for decades, renewable energy developments have accelerated, with excellent timing. Earth Day brought mounting news via Bloomberg that Tesla’s anticipated home solar batteries, hinted at in March by an Elon Musk tweet, will be announced at the end of the month. But the truth is really that they have already arrived, beneath our noses, in about 300 California homes solarized by SolarCity, as well as 11 smart Wal-Marts.

On April 30, Tesla will unveil further details on its forthcoming line of residential and utility scale solar batteries, to the delight of greens looking to pile up cash while downsizing their carbon footprints. Utilities, whose electricity generation is America’s top source of greenhouse gas emissions, are certainly going to be watching — and counting too. They know, like Tesla and other cleantech titans on the come-up, that energy storage is going to be a billion dollar market, thanks to demand, incentives and inevitable climate changes. Simply wading into the home solar market has given Tesla access to $65 million in incentives, reportedly boosting its stock price, which has lately been on $200 autopilot, by another $70 per share.

Tesla’s partnership with SolarCity has proven as green: In honor of Earth Day, America’s panel installation leader activated a billion dollar solar fund, in partnership with Credit Suisse, to finance 300 megawatts of commercial projects over the next few years. Add that to the hundreds of millions that SolarCity has pulled in, from Goldman Sachs to Google, to accelerate its industry-beating residential and commercial installation pipeline, and you have two renewable energy titans that are taking Earth Day quite seriously.

But it’s not just them, and it’s not just beginning. As I wrote above (and elsewhere, everywhere), these exponential solarizations have been held back by an energy industry simply too used to doing the same dirty business for too long.

If Tesla’s home solar batteries — predicted by Thomas Edison way back in 1931 — are as user-friendly as its electric vehicles, then they could prove epochally influential. A more recent pre-Earth Day study from Rocky Mountain Institute prophesied that utilities could be up next for extinction, thanks to home solar plus energy storage. It’s going to be a bright, hot summer.

Photo courtesy of SolarCity.

Luminalt’s Jeanine Cotter: How Solar Loses Without a Diverse Workforce

Jeanine Cotter, CEO of solar installation company Luminalt, has witnessed profound resiliency. She watched her mother transform her life from divorcée, single teenage mother of two children, and public-assistance recipient to college graduate with a degree in urban planning, and then co-founder of a nonprofit that provides renewable energy and water systems to alleviate poverty in the developing world.

“Being in poverty does not define what your capabilities are. It does not define your ability to perform or your ability succeed,” Cotter said.

What poverty does do, she said, is limit access to opportunities. That’s why Cotter has made it part of her professional work to open up doors for people who might not have thought of solar as source of livelihood, and a way to help their families and communities rise.

Cotter co-founded San Francisco-based Luminalt with her husband Noel Cotter in 2004, making the company the city’s first and still only woman-owned solar company. Before starting Luminalt, she practiced law at Fenwick and West and was an attorney for financial software maker Intuit.

woman of the yearIn 2008, Cotter helped lead Luminalt to become the city’s first workforce-development certified solar company, which commits the business to hiring in part from communities that have high levels of unemployment. For Cotter, this means when Luminalt has an entry-level position to fill, she first goes looking for new hires at community-based organizations, like Asian Neighborhood Design, an architecture and planning nonprofit that provides work training to help disadvantaged individuals become self-sufficient.

Although Luminalt has helped charter new hiring efforts in San Francisco, the company is small, at least when compared to industry giants such as SolarCity, which is one of the country’s largest solar installers and has more than 6,000 employees. Luminalt has 23 employees.

Cotter doesn’t let the sheer size of companies like SolarCity shake her. She believes that solar customers need a diverse array of solar installers — both large and small — to choose from in order to keep the industry healthy, which might help explain why Luminalt has continued to see a rise in revenues. Last year Luminalt pulled in $5.5 million, up $1.2 million from the year before.

She also believes the solar industry needs to increase its efforts to diversify the gender and ethnic makeup of its workforce. Women accounted for almost 22 percent of the 2014 workforce, according to the latest research by The Solar Foundation. The foundation also found that Latinos comprised 16.3 percent, Asians or Pacific Islanders represented 7 percent, and African-Americans made up 6 percent of last year’s solar workforce.

In March, the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA) announced that Cotter would co-chair the association’s initiative to help diversify the state’s growing solar workforce and access to the energy-making technology.

When you tap into gender, ethnic and economic diversity, “you are able to access folks that are not necessarily in the competitive workforce. And that means you can access talent that currently isn’t within any solar organization,” according to Cotter.

SolarEnergy.net spoke with Cotter about her drive to find new talent among underrepresented groups, why some companies find it hard to diversify their workforce, and how she is looking to change Luminalt to make sure the company provides stable work for families, which she says is key to diversifying solar.

jeanine cotterWhy is it important to hire employees from workforce-development programs?

The only way that you can transform the life of a family and of a community is to ensure that there are good jobs. I know from my own life that the only way that you get stability in your household is for the parents in that household to have the skill set necessary to command a wage that enables them to provide for a stable home for their children.

Working families are the backbone of a functioning society. The stronger and more resilient those families are — the less stressed out they are about money, and the more choices those families have about jobs and security — the better we are as a society.

Your mother has been an important figure in your life. How has her experience as a young struggling mother who rose above the odds influenced the way you run your business?

If it wasn’t for programs that extended opportunities to me, I would not be sitting where I am. It’s not that I didn’t work hard. I worked hard. It’s just that if predictive demographics determined my mother’s and my life I would be a single mother on public assistance.

Now my mother is remarried to a very wonderful man, and they have gone on and done amazing things. One of those amazing things is that they started the nonprofit Green Empowerment, which has a mission of social justice, environmental justice and economic justice. It is the same mission that has inspired aspects of my company except in an urban environment.

Are there challenges that come with hiring from workforce-development programs?

Yes. We have underinvested in the inner city and in rural America. We have underinvested in the education of communities of color and poor white communities, and that carries through in terms of some of the skill sets that folks bring to the workplace. But that doesn’t mean that given the opportunity to build those skill sets and perform that you aren’t going to have an amazing performer.

Some solar companies have been vocal about wanting to diversify their workforce but have struggled to do so. Why do you think that is?

It is a struggle for all of us in part because we’re not always getting resumes that reflect the depth and the diversity of our communities. We’re often getting resumes from folks interested in solar that are very similar to the existing workforce.

How do you think your work with CALSEIA to diversify the solar industry will help companies tap into new talent pools?

One of the reasons why I’m super excited by CALSEIA, as well as why I’m super excited about organizations like Women in Solar Energy and Grid Alternatives that push for women and also for disadvantaged communities to get into solar, is that it gives a platform and a megaphone to say, “People hey, look at solar. Apply for these jobs.” That helps expand the pool of individuals who are working in solar.

What’s CALSEIA’s plan to further diversify the solar workforce and marketplace?

We know where we want to go, which is a more diverse workforce and a more diverse market, but we do not have a specific launch plan that is detailed and ready to go.

We are still working on expanding the table right now so that we have who we need to build inclusion of different viewpoints so we can drive both of those objectives, both being the workforce objective and the market aspect.

luminaltProviding stable work for families is a theme that underlies much of your work to diversify the solar industry. With so much uncertainty surrounding whether the federal solar tax credit — which is a huge driver of solar sales — will expire at the end of 2016, how are you preparing Luminalt for a future that could mean industry retraction and layoffs?

I see us getting more involved in the operations and maintenance of existing systems. A lot of folks moved into the solar industry and then hopped out over the course of the last several years. So we get a lot of calls for troubleshooting systems that were installed by folks who aren’t around anymore. This is good work and it requires an incredibly talented workforce of people that really need to understand how solar works and how it is installed, because troubleshooting requires a different skill set. Also, it’s critical to keep all of the systems that the solar industry has installed up and running and doing what they were intended to do.

Ensuring that Luminalt is relevant, that we are doing really good work, and that we are expanding in a responsible way to ensure that my colleagues and I continue to have our weekly paychecks beginning in 2017 is something I am working hard on. We never had layoffs, and it’s important to me that we don’t.

Apple Pushes Hard on Solar in China with 40 MW of New Solar Farms

150420-china-solarApple continues to walk the walk when it comes to solarization. Now it’s making a big splash on solar in China in partnership with SunPower.

Both are teaming up to build two 20-megawatt solar projects in China’s Sichuan province — which is a first, although together they’ve built six in America totaling 90 megawatts. Construction is already underway and feeding 2 megawatts back to the grid, but should be finished by the end of 2015.

It’s the latest in a line of joint ventures and manufacturing facilities SunPower has set for China, which itself happens to Earth’s largest renewable energy investor. Did I mention that Apple is also Earth’s largest company by market value? Bloomberg certainly did, when reporting the promising deal. So should we all.

In my corporate solar report card and analysis, Apple emerged a clear leader among the mammoth multinationals walking (or merely talking) the solarization walk. And that was after it gave First Solar $850 million to build solar farms in the so-called homeland. The international dimension of this subsequent team-up with America’s second-largest solar manufacturer makes Apple an international solarizer worth taking as seriously as China itself, which last year led the world in solar installations.

“This is a tremendous groundbreaking collaboration, bringing together a diverse group of experienced partners from different parts of the globe to build renewable solar energy ventures that contribute to the local economy and the environment,” SunPower CEO Tom Werner said in SunPower’s announcement. “These projects will provide clean, renewable energy, help address climate change, and continue to provide agricultural benefits to the local farmers, while protecting the area’s precious land. We continue to value our partnership with Apple and commend them for their global environmental commitment.”

It’s a commitment to solarization that should be emulated by everyone, unlike the polarization that characterizes America’s sad solar war with China. As oil continues to decouple from the U.S. economy, which is adding solar jobs at 10 times the national average, these international agreements for the future good should become less rare. Evidently, we can all just get along.

Solar farm construction photo CC-licensed by Brookhaven National Laboratory on Flickr.

Solar Permits Data Paint a Clearer Picture of the Solar Boom

150416-solar-boomWe talk all the time about the solar boom, that amazing — and ongoing — rocket-fueled growth of home solar that is taking place at the city, state, regional, national and global levels. And while it’s great to hear that 2014 was a great year for solar and that 2015 promises to be a transformative year for renewables of all kinds, sometimes seeing a different perspective of this solar boom we’re in illustrates the point even better.

Over on reddit’s /r/solar channel, user sometimestraveled posted a link to BuildZoom’s database of solar permits, which charts the growth in number and approximate value of solar permits issued between 2000 and 2014 in 467 U.S. cities, counties and states.

I will admit to being an /r/solar lurker, and otherwise a total reddit rookie, so I don’t have much more information than what is readily apparent on the original post and the BuildZoom site. But here are the results in a nutshell:

Between 2000 and 2014, these municipalities issued 505,936 permits to install solar panels at a home or business. And the 222,241 permits in the BuildZoom database that include the values of the systems have brought a whopping $6.97 billion in economic activity through solar installations in those 15 years.

Here’s what that looks like in handy graphical format:

solar boom 1
That’s a steady and nearly dizzying rise in solar — and one that’s likely to continue at least through this year and into next (and hopefully much further if Congress can get it together to extend the solar investment tax credit).

BuildZoom — whose primary mission is to connect homeowners with the best contractors, but has happened to amass a wealth of data in the process — also breaks out the list of cities and counties with the most permits issued during the 15 years between 2000 and 2014.

Here they are, with very few surprises:

  1. County of Honolulu, Hawaii: 132,117
  2. County of Maui, Hawaii: 34,030
  3. City of Los Angeles: 22,147
  4. City of San Diego, California: 20,261
  5. San Diego County: 18,388
  6. City of San Jose, California: 10,218
  7. Maricopa County, Arizona: 9,955
  8. City of Riverside, CA: 7,378
  9. City of Austin, Texas: 7,225
  10. County of Orange County, Florida: 6,215

On the other end of the spectrum, there are a bunch of regions that have zero installations during that time, but only a dozen that have just one permitted installation:

  • City of Morristown, Tennessee
  • City of Dixon, Illinois
  • City of Mill Creek, Washington
  • County of Baldwin, Alabama
  • Town of Bennett, Colorado
  • City of Canton, Georgia
  • City of Powell, Ohio
  • City of Pierre, South Dakota
  • City of Waukesha, Wisconsin
  • City of Destin, Florida
  • City of Kenton, Kentucky
  • City of North Little Rock, Arkansas

First of all, kudos to you solar pioneers in those cities, towns and counties! Second of all, following on the “solar is contagious” theory of solar installations, hopefully these lone solar wolves will just be the tip of the iceberg and in a few years Waukesha, Wisconsin will be overrun by solar panels.

I could spend a long time digging through all this data — and I encourage you to do so — but I’ll just point out one last item before I wrap this up. That is the effect that policy and certainty can play in driving this solar boom. I’ll take Arizona Public Service and the city of Tucson as examples, because APS was the early leader in trying to kill home solar by imposing a monthly fee for solar homeowners.

This chart shows the number of solar permits issued in Tucson between 2000 and 2014 — check out that big dip in 2013, as there was great uncertainty about whether or note Arizona’s utility regulators would let APS levy a $50 a month fee for home solar. When the final verdict came in, bringing a 70-cents-per-kilowatt monthly fee for home solar, it was bad news but far from the worst-case scenario. Just look at how many people were still willing to pay $5 or so per month for clean, cheap energy.

tucson solar boom
And look at that skyrocketing rise in 2014! That’s a post for another day, but that day is coming soon.

In the interim, go check out the BuildZoom database for yourself and let us know what you find there by posting a comment below. (And thanks again to reddit for being a surprising source of solar gold!)

Solar neighborhood photo courtesy of Panasonic.

Solar Installations Are Performing Even Better than Promised

solar roofsSolar is looking pretty resilient, according to research from the National Renewable Energy Lab. Now it’s time for international standardization to accelerate and protect investment and performance.

Crunching data from almost 50,000 PV systems pumping out 1.7 gigawatts from 2009 to 2012 — the infamous year of Hurricane Sandy — NREL’s report Reliability and Geographic Trends of 50,000 Photovoltaic Systems in the USA found that 85 percent of them performed 10 percent better than expected. The briefer version? Not even extreme weather events from America’s fearsomely changing climates can make solar panels seem like a dumb investment.

“Worldwide, trillions of dollars of capital are available for investing in photovoltaic systems, but technological and performance risks, among other barriers, remain limiting factors to investment in the PV asset class,” NREL’s study explained — during a market noticeably decoupling from fossil fuels. “Bankable PV that inspires investors’ confidence,” it added (using a three-legged stool as a symbol), requires internationally “consistent manufacturing, durable design, and system verification,” as well trackable durability and reliability in the field. No matter the superstorm.

In that respect, solar is a top performer in the field and the portfolio. NREL’s study found 90 percent of “normal” solar installations unaffected by lightning strikes, hail and wind storms, and even globally warmed events like Hurricane Sandy, still managed to outperform expectation. Divided by regional climates, solar systems in the desert Southwest and hot and humid Southeast United States slightly degraded over time, but of course that’s what usual happens to anything, like inverters, that soak up sun all day in the hottest parts of the nation. Similarly, so-called snowpocalypses like Sandy, blamed for a slim margin of underperforming systems studied by the NREL, can chill solar power down for a spell. But barely, and since underperforming modules comprised about 0.1 percent of all data, maybe not really.

“Considerable uncertainty exists due to the nature of the data,” the NREL concluded. “However, the loss in production is more likely to be associated with subsequent grid outages than with PV system damage.”

What needs to come next for solar to grow even more powerful are international standards and agreements.

“With manufacturers feeling pressure to lower prices, it is essential that quality be maintained and assured,” explained research fellow Sarah Kurtz, co-author of NREL’s Updated Proposal for a Guide for Quality Management Systems for PV Manufacturing (PDF). “The[se] new guidelines help to ensure that quality is not compromised for lower priced modules and make it easier for PV customers to assess the expected quality.”

With about $100 billion annual investment in solar on the table, NREL worked with American and international solar manufacturers to arrive at a global quality standard for PV module production for science and profit. The task force’s supplemental requirements for technical specification of testing, manufacturing and mounting — with respect to regional climate (change) — mandate that warranties for solar panels conform to their expected lifetimes, and that manufacturers are able to trace their products through their entire supply chains. The design product and process must consider potential failure modes, while product certification and reliability testing from China’s International Electrotechnical Commission is also a must.

Getting technical about it, these international standards are doubtlessly deemed important by Kurtz’s co-authors, some of whom hail from industry heavyweights like SunPower, Trina and First Solar. But more broadly speaking, streamlining global solar’s technical specifications will nevertheless greatly accelerate what is already a scorching market for Earth’s most resilient form of renewable energy. The more players we get to agree on the rules of the game, the greater the victories over 20th century energy system that is way past due for an upgrade.

Solar neighborhood photo courtesy of the Department of Energy.

Why Does the Gov’t Lowball Renewable Energy Potential Every Year?

outlookEvery year, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) releases a report on the future of energy in America. And every year, renewable energy advocates say the report is a bust.

The Annual Energy Outlook routinely overestimates the cost of wind and solar energy and underestimates the future price of fossil fuel costs, experts say, which can lead to less renewable energy development — which means greater focus on developing conventional energy sources, such as natural gas.

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

In the 2015 report, released Tuesday, the EIA predicted that the United States would only increase its use of renewable energy consumption from 8 percent to 10 percent by 2040. Coal will continue to account for 18-19 percent of U.S. energy consumption over the next 25 years, while natural gas’s slice of the pie will grow 2 percent, the group predicted. Other analysts, including Bloomberg New Energy Finance, expect the U.S. coal fleet to continue to diminish.

But lowballing renewables can have major impacts on our energy future, some experts say.

“Real policies are being designed around these assumptions,” Jeff Deyette, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ThinkProgress. For example, predictions that natural gas prices will be low can skew power plant developers away from choosing renewable resources.

Deyette blamed the low renewable projections on inertia at the government agency. Costs for solar, wind, and other renewables have dropped significantly over the past few years, and the rate of installation has greatly increased. These rapid changes can be hard to include in modeling that includes years of data, but in any case, there is a pattern in the EIA’s estimates. The EIA itself has reported that it was overly optimistic on natural gas prices for the past several years.

Meanwhile, estimates for wind capital costs have been high, said Michael Goggin, an analyst at the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). Capital costs used for this year’s report have not been released, he said, but the pattern of underestimating fuel costs is a problem.

“It’s not just that they are wrong — any projection is going to be wrong — it’s that there is consistent bias” in the case of natural gas, Goggin said.

The discrepancies in predictions can be striking. The report this year predicts that by 2040, the U. S. will have added only 48 gigawatts of solar generating capacity. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) expects that the industry will add half of that by the end of 2016.

This difference is partly because the agency predicts that when the solar investment tax credit (ITC) expires in 2016, the utility sector of the industry will plummet.

“It’s going to be very hard for these plants to be competitive in a post-ITC world,” Gwen Bredehoeft, an EIA analyst, told ThinkProgress.

But Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the SEIA, said that the report is “based on some flawed assumptions.” In an email to ThinkProgress, Johnson acknowledged the failure to extend the ITC would be a huge economic blow for the industry, costing tens of thousands of jobs, but said SEIA was optimistic that the tax credit could be extended.

“Even if the ITC is not extended, the solar industry isn’t going to whither on the vine, as this report seems to indicate,” he wrote. “Advancements in technology, lower prices, consumer demand and climate change will help our industry to eventually bounce back and resume its growth.”

The Union of Concerned Scientist’s Deyette agreed that EIA’s projections were overly pessimistic for solar. “I think it’s really underestimating the growth potential and cost decline potential beyond [the expiration of the ITC],” he said.

According to data from the industry group, utility-scale prices have dropped 62 percent since 2010 — four years after the ITC went into effect. That price drop indicates that the scaling up of the industry the ITC was meant to foster has been responsible for more cost reduction that the 30 percent tax credit itself.

Indeed, one of the biggest problems with drawing conclusions from the EIA projections is that the agency does not factor in policy changes. If the ITC is extended, solar’s forecast could dramatically change. If more states and cities enact fracking bans, the outlook for natural gas could change.

Even the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan, a rule that will limit the carbon emissions from power plants and is expected to dramatically reduce U.S. dependence on high-emission coal generation, is not accounted for in the EIA report — because the rule hasn’t been finalized yet.

Deyette said failure to accurately capture pricing data and more general changes in the direction of energy production makes the EIA’s report out of touch.

“It just doesn’t really pass the test of sensibilities in terms of where we’re going,” he said.

Giant photovoltaic array” by U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Nadine Y. Barclay – NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE website – Solar panels connect to base electric gridorignial image. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.