NREL Says Solar Had Boom Year in 2014, but We Still Need More Growth

nrel data bookThe National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s comprehensive 2013 Renewable Energy Data Book is out, and its major takeaway seems quite shiny: Solar is leading the renewable energy race, and that’s probably not going to change.

“In 2013 in the United States, solar electricity was the fastest growing electricity generation technology, with cumulative installed capacity increasing 66 percent from the previous year,” NREL’s global energy statistics resource explained. “Between 2000 and 2013,” it added, “solar electricity generation worldwide increased by a factor of nearly 68.”

That’s the good news, but there is still plenty of bad news to go around.

Despite these solar advances, to say nothing of global warming’s existential threat, America’s overall energy consumption still increased nearly 2.5 percent — thanks to not just more use of renewables but also coal, which really should be on life support by now. (Petroleum and natural gas consumption slightly decreased.) It gets worse as NREL’s Data Book — a handy, infographics-heavy guide for policymakers, analysts and investors — goes on: Despite another boom year, solar still only “accounts for 0.5 percent of annual U.S. electricity generation,” even though “PV cumulative capacity increased 65 percent in 2013 alone.”

Meanwhile, American manufacturers like SunPower, First Solar and others can still only claim a measly 2 percent of the worldwide photovoltaics market. Asian manufacturers — “particularly Chinese,” NREL’s Data Book reminded — are dusting the U.S. with 86 percent of global PV production. China, the report noted as well, also leads the world in installed wind capacity, with 91 gigawatts installed by the end of 2013. It might be fair to argue that the unnecessary time and lethal emissions it takes Asia to mail solar panels and wind turbines to the U.S., at least philosophically speaking, more than offset any renewable energy gains America enjoys once it finally unwraps its cleantech solutions and plugs them in.

But this is what happens when you get to play with percentages, and when a nation’s renewable energy infrastructure goes from nothing to something more than nothing after the turn of a century anchored in dirty fuels.

There is a bit more good solar news to be had in NREL’s informative handbook, although much of it is unsurprising. California, of course, is the undisputed leader in PV and CSP cumulative and annual capacity, with Arizona owning second place outright. And there is more positive tidings to be had when it comes to renewable energy overall, which “grew to nearly 15 percent of total installed capacity and 13 percent of total electricity generation in the United States in 2013.”

But when comparatively tiny nations like Italy (17.6 gigawatts) and Japan (13.6 gigawatts) are simply clowning mammoth America (12.9 gigawatts) in installed solar electricity capacity, we have a serious problem, Houston. One can easily blink at the Data Book’s 2013 worldwide PV manufacturing pie chart and entirely miss America’s sad, little sliver. These are not good looks for a superpower wishing to be taken seriously on the solar revolution.

Which is, of course, why the major takeaway from NREL’s annual report is that solar is racing ahead of its renewable energy counterparts like wind, geothermal and biofuels. Because that’s what you have to do when you are so far behind, and the clock is ticking.

How Cuba is Going Solar in One of Its Most Rural Provinces

granma cubaPresident Obama’s recent announcement that he wants to begin normalizing relations with Cuba generated news around the world. But the Cuban province of Granma may soon be making headlines for another reason: its embrace of renewable energy.

While Cuba is an island full of sun, rivers, and windy coasts, only 4 percent of the island’s electricity is generated from renewable energy. The island hopes to soon change that, with a goal of generating 24 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030, and Granma is leading the way.

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

Granma province (pop. 836,000), located in the eastern part of the island, is home to the Sierra Maestra Mountains, and is named after the boat from which Fidel Castro and his rebel soldiers disembarked to begin the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban government wants to make Granma province 100-percent renewably powered, a project the Cubans call “The Solarization of Granma Province,” as a model the rest of the island can follow. They are well on their way. In 2013, renewables supplied 37 percent of all the energy consumed in Granma province, and the province currently has 3,664 renewable energy systems in operation. These include everything from solar PV systems to biogas digesters to solar food dryers.
Energy from the Sun
Granma province, being in the most mountainous part of Cuba, has many isolated rural towns. At last count the province had 1,628 small off-grid PV systems powering medical clinics, hospitals, schools, social centers, museums, and homes located in remote areas without access to grid power. The Cuban government funded most of these systems, supplied with PV panels fabricated in Cuba out of imported cells. Cubans take education so seriously that across the island all 2,364 schools in rural areas without grid power are powered with solar panels and/or wind turbines—including the 51 schools with only one student. Many of these fall in the mountainous regions of Granma province.

Taking advantage of the huge amount of sun that falls on the province, there are also 426 solar hot water heaters, three solar distillers to produce water for PV system batteries, and a solar dryer that dries medicinal plants for the Natural Medicine Center.
Energy from Water and Wind
Granma province is also blessed with many small rivers. Thirty-six mini- and micro-hydropower plants produce over 7 MW of electricity for homes, hospitals, and schools not connected to the grid. Five of these, with a capacity of 1,740 kW, feed electricity into the grid. However, many even more remote homes in the area were left without electricity until a young campesino named Miguel Gonzalez figured he could develop a cheap way to electrify the homes with running water. Using car alternators and bicycle dynamos he created a small nano-hydro generator with a capacity of less than 1 kW that is now used in 172 homes throughout Granma province, allowing people access to electric light, radio, and/or television.

Although most of the wind potential on the island is found along the coast, there are 938 windmills that pump water in Granma. And wind-measuring stations have shown that there is a potential of more than 800 MW wind capacity in the province (and far more across the entire island), so they hope to put up more wind turbines, adding to the five wind farms across the island that currently account for 11 MW of installed capacity.
Energy from Waste
Sugar is one of Cuba’s largest export crops. Granma province is home to 11 of the 56 sugar mills in the country, all of which employ generators that turn the bagasse—the waste material that remains after sugarcane is crushed to extract the juice—into electricity. The Granma sugar mills produce 29 MW of electricity that power the processing plants and that occasionally gets fed back into the grid. The province also has abundant biomass in the forms of sawdust, coffee husks, rice hulls, and marabú, an invasive plant that seems to be everywhere and that you will hear Cubans across the island grumbling about over their coffee. Granma has 14 commercial dryers to dry coffee, rice, and wood; 135 brick kilns; and 632 domestic kitchens that use these sources of biomass.

There are also 127 biodigestors throughout the province that use animal waste from cows and pigs to produce methane. The methane is used to run lights or for cooking. Animals are not only being utilized for their waste, but also for transport. The 4,000 animal drawn carts transporting passengers, solid waste, and cargo throughout Granma save an estimated 5,900 metric tons of diesel per year.

Cuban environmental engineers are also experimenting with making biodiesel out of Jatropha curcas, a non-edible plant that grows in difficult terrain. There is currently a 20-acre Jatropha farm in Granma making biodiesel for the province’s tractors.
Educating the Future Generations
Granma province is home to the Camilo Cienfuegos School Complex (CECC), the first educational project built by the Cuban Revolution in 1962. The school complex, covering over 1,000 acres in the largest city of Granma province, was built for illiterate children of the Sierra Maestra Mountains, and currently has 5,000 students from preschool to pre-university, and even a pedagogical institution for those learning to be teachers. The campus showcases bioclimatic architecture, and one of the main focuses of the school is environmental education.

Schoolchildren throughout the island belong to school clubs, and many of the clubs at CECC are related to environmental issues and renewable energy. So many so that in 2003 the Center for Solar Studies was added to the school complex, which showcases solar photovoltaic panels, solar hot water systems, wind turbines, hydraulic ram pumps, biogas systems, and solar distillers, dryers, and cookers.

“We aspire to convert Granma into a province that is a model in everything related to solar energy, as an example that the rest of the country can follow,” according to the president of the provincial assembly of people’s power in Granma province (equivalent to a city council). “We are required to create active environmentalists,” he wrote in Cuba’s renewable energy magazine, “citizens who are not only concerned but who also address environmental problems closely related to energy use and who contribute to their solution—from children in small, rural schools, to residents of a neighborhood affected by pollution, to workers demanding the elimination of violations of environmental regulations.”

Granma province is well on its way to achieving its goal and becoming a 100-percent renewable province. For the entire island to reach its goal of 24 percent renewable by 2030, it plans to add 640 MW of wind, 700 MW of PV, and 750 MW of biomass to its mix. While some of these projects will by 100-percent Cuban owned, the island will be looking for over $9 billion in foreign investment for over 200 new renewable energy projects. Time will tell if President Obama’s historic phone call with Raul Castro opened new doors to help make that renewable energy transition happen.

Cuba photo CC-licensed by Martin Cathrae on Flickr.

How Solar Power Can Also Help Solve the World’s Food and Water Crises

irena reportWhen it comes to life on Earth’s essential needs, fossil fuels are an absolute waste.

“We need to fundamentally rethink how we produce and consume energy in relation to the water and food sectors,” director Adnan Amin explains in the foreword of the International Renewable Energy Agency’s new report, Renewable Energy in the Water, Energy and Food Nexus (PDF). “Renewable energy technologies provide access to a cost-effective, secure
and environmentally sustainable supply of energy.”

By 2050, the report notes, global demand for energy will double while demand for water and food will increase 50 percent — and there is simply no way that the traditional energy industry as we know it can help, given global warming’s megadroughts and superstorms. Policymakers and others looking for security in these sectors will find none, unless renewable energy is significantly mobilized. Keeping the lights on these days requires 15 percent of global freshwater withdrawals, while 70 percent of freshwater use comes from the “agri-food supply chain,” which also consumes 30 percent of the world’s energy. This is the definition of an industry way out of whack.

Meanwhile, renewable energies like solar and wind are much less resource-intensive. “Solar PV or wind could withdraw up to 200 times less water than a coal power plant to produce the same amount of electricity,” IRENA explains. In addition, innovations like “large-scale deployment of solar pumps can support the expansion of irrigation, reduce dependence on grid electricity or fossil fuel supply, mitigate local environmental impacts and reduce government subsidy burdens.”

This is why many have already begun to decouple fossil fuels from business as usual. Water utilities are building solar power systems to empower pumping stations, whose costs comprise the majority of their operational budget. The agricultural supply chain is decoupling from fossil fuels using everything from solar farms, onsite anaerobic digesters and geothermal energy. Switching to renewables could reduce water withdrawals for power generation by 20 percent for Gulf nations, 50 percent for the U.K., 10 percent for India, and 25 percent for America, Germany and Australia by 2030.

Given that humanity currently wastes about a third of its food, this is nothing but good news for Earth — and bad news for fossil fuels.

IRENA’s wide-ranging report expands upon all of these existentially interlinked imbalances in its 100-plus page report, which consolidates existing literature into a pretty dense analysis, capped with a nation-by-nation annex of electricity mix composition. The latter is rather disheartening reminder to readers that, even at this late stage of global warming’s catastrophic game, the U.S., U.K., Australia, India and more are still primarily empowered by dirty fuels like oil, coal, nukes and so-called natural gas. This cannot last.

Despite this, “renewable energy technologies now represent a mainstream energy source,” IRENA’s report concludes. All that’s needed now is to push its unclean competitors off a cliff.

The Super Bowl’s Green Energy Comes from a Utility Fighting Home Solar

super bowl stadiumOne final outcome of Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona is for certain: it will be powered by renewable energy. This week the Salt River Project, one of the nation’s largest public power utilities, announced that it would provide 100 percent renewable energy to power the February 1st game at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

“Providing green energy to the game is the perfect opportunity to showcase SRP’s commitment to renewable energy,” Patty Garcia-Likens, an SRP Spokesperson, told ThinkProgress. “It also helps raise awareness of the role renewable energy plays in a balanced portfolio designed to deliver affordable, reliable power to our customers.”

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

However, a utility’s idea of commitment to renewable energy often differs from a consumer’s. The case with SRP is no different. The company, which provides electricity to nearly one million customers, is currently trying to raise solar customers’ rates $50 or more a month. The SPR rationale for this additional fixed charge to solar installers is similar to justifications by other large utilities trying to convert their old business models to the new energy paradigm: that solar users aren’t paying their fair share to maintain the grid.

Next door in New Mexico, PNM, the state’s largest utility, is pursuing a similar track. The company recently proposed a distributed solar generation fee that could cost new solar installers $30 a month to connect to the grid.

SRP and PNM are two of many utilities seemingly stifling the proliferation of distributed solar power due to concerns over business-model disruption and long-term revenue impacts. 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 and conventional power sources like coal, gas, and nuclear. In helping reduce the amount utilities rely on fossil fuel generation, renewables likes solar and wind also reduce emissions that may otherwise prove costly under new regulations such as the Clean Power Plan that aims to cut back on GHG pollution. A recent study found that rooftop solar systems can add add $15,000 to the value of a home, as well.

Both SPR and PNM are eager to promote their large-scale renewable projects that allow them to maintain the traditional relationship as power providers, not receivers, to consumers. SPR staff have argued that it is more cost effective to build large solar plants from which customers can purchase blocks of power.

SRP is not proposing the changes for its existing 15,000 solar customers, who will keep the same structure for the next decade. But they will apply to the 500 or so contingent“> monthly applicants for solar hookups — a rate that is likely to increase as solar becomes more convenient and affordable in sun-drenched Arizona. In 2013, Arizona installed 701 megawatts of solar electric capacity, placing it second in the country.

On top of the fixed fee, these new residential solar customers would also face a mandatory demand charge, a tactic more commonly instituted for commercial and industrial clients. SRP is also proposing to reduce the cost solar users pay for feeding into the grid, from about 10 cents to about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour.

“When customers generate some of their own power, they don’t pay an appropriate share of the fixed costs of enhancing and maintaining the grid, even though they use the grid to both buy and sell electricity,” said Garcia-Likens. “Because of when solar production peaks around noon and when the power system peaks in the late afternoon or evening, on average, solar customers are still using significant power from SRP during peak times, even if they end up having low net usage.”

Garcia-Likens said that because of this discrepancy solar customers are not paying the full amount of the fixed costs that the utility incurs.

“This issue needs to be addressed at this time because of the rapid growth in residential solar installations and the fact that solar customers are making a long-term commitment based on assumptions related to current utility price structures,” she said. “Delaying action on this issue will ultimately result in greater expenses for all customers.”

SRP’s proposal is also only the latest setback for solar users in Arizona. In 2013, Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest utility, proposed a similar fee that was cut back drastically by state regulators. The utility wanted to charge customers between $50 and $100 per month to use solar, but the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) voted to charge a far-reduced 70 cents per kilowatt, meaning homeowners will pay about $5 a month. The SRP proposal will not be subject to such oversight.

APS has since decided to get into the residential solar business itself, having recently received approval from the ACC to own 10 megawatts of residential solar systems that customers can rent for their rooftops and receive a $30 credit monthly for up to twenty years.

The SRP Board has set a goal to meet 20 percent of SRP’s retail electricity demands with sustainable resources by 2020. The additional electricity demand over Super Bowl weekend in Arizona is expected to increase electricity sales for SRP by about $300,000, offsetting much of the sponsorship costs SRP has agreed to pay. SRP previously provided green energy to Super Bowl XLII in Glendale in 2008.

Phoenix stadium photo CC-licensed by McPHX on Flickr.

Energy Storage Systems Will Grow Exponentially in the Next 10 Years

energy storageAfter a few years of lurking in the shadows, energy storage is getting closer towards its center-stage moment.

That time will come over the next decade, according to a new report from analyst firm Navigant Research, which predicts that global annual revenue from energy storage will jump from $452 million in 2004 to more than $16.5 billion by 2024.

It’s no secret that the installed capacity of residential storage systems lag behind that of their commercial and utility-scale counterparts. Yet homeowners should catch price breaks through economies of scale from increased activity in the commercial and utility segments, according to Anissa Dehamna, a senior research analyst at Navigant Research.

“The growth between commercial and utility-scale [storage systems] is a tie right now,” she said. “Residential is growing quickly, but in terms of volume and MW [installed capacity] it’s still growing.”

The most market activity now for energy systems tied to home solar is in Japan, Germany, Austria and Italy, Dehamna said. In Germany and Japan, that’s been due to government subsidies put in effect in 2013 in Germany and after the Fukushima disaster, when Japan wanted to decrease its overall energy load. Despite progress in California after the state’s Public Utilities Commission passed a significant energy storage mandate requiring its major utilities to install 1.3 GW of energy storage by 2024, homeowners are still facing holdups due to high interconnection fees and reported utility stalls.

But aside from all that, just what are these growth factors for the installation of battery storage tied to home solar? According to Dehamna, it all hinges on the financial incentives, since consumers typically look for a payback period between five to seven years.

“The market signals you need for PV plus storage are really high energy costs for residential customers and some sort of incentive to make the whole system a little bit cheaper,” she said.

Not only would that give homeowners a better return on their investment, but a desire to be more independent and consume the solar they produce at home, Dehamna added. For example, this could be the case in an area without a feed-in tariff that pays residents for the energy they contribute to the grid.

But even in without such conditions in place, increased market activity in California (such as the recent move by Southern California Edison to procure 250 MW of storage for the grid) will ultimately trickle down to homeowners’ benefit.

“There is some overlap in how home storage is produced, and if there’s large volume orders from the utilities, that will help manufacturers lower their pricing for basic components — it will carry through for the residential customer,” Dehamna said. “So that’s another way that the two pieces of the market are connected.”

Low Oil Prices Won’t Hurt Clean Energy Investments

irenaA new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has found that the cost of generating renewable energy is now equal to or below the cost of fossil fuels in many parts of the world. Released on Saturday, the major report also asserts that renewables should remain financially competitive even if oil prices remain low for a while. Oil prices have fallen some 60 percent since last summer.

The report states that “history has shown that periods of low oil prices tend to be transitory as long as the world’s thirst for these finite resources rises,” and that for investments with a lifetime of 25 years or so, investments decisions in electricity generation should not be made using current oil prices. The report found that, even without financial support and despite falling oil prices, biomass, hydropower, geothermal, and onshore wind are all competitive with or cheaper than oil, natural gas, and coal-fired power stations.

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

Titled Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2014, the report also found that the cost of solar power is falling faster than any other technology. Large-scale solar PV costs have halved in the last four years and the cost of installing residential solar has fallen around 70 percent since 2008. The cost of utility-sized solar projects to produce power is about $0.08/kWh without financial support, with prices as low as $0.06/kWh in some places, such as the Middle East. IRENA puts the cost of fossil fuel power as being between $0.07 and $0.19/kWh when environmental and health costs are factored in.

The report, which was launched during IRENA’s fifth Assembly in Abu Dhabi, places a special emphasis on bringing power to the 1.3 billion people worldwide without it. For them, renewables are the cheapest source of potential energy. This also applies to islands and other isolated regions that rely on diesel for power. To coincide with the report, IRENA and the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development announced $57 million in loans to five renewable energy projects in developing countries.

“Renewable energy projects across the globe are now matching or outperforming fossil fuels, particularly when accounting for externalities like local pollution, environmental damage and ill health,” said Adnan Z. Amin, Director-General of IRENA. “The game has changed; the plummeting price of renewables is creating a historic opportunity to build a clean, sustainable energy system and avert catastrophic climate change in an affordable way.”

According to Amin, this report shows that the challenge for renewable energy is no longer primarily cost or technology.

“The discussion is really about what happens in the next phase, when renewable-energy penetration starts to go to higher levels that imply a change in systems and in costs,” he said.

Clean energy costs are predicted to continue to decline, according to the report. Equipment prices may no longer be the main source of these cost reductions going forward, as the technology has matured quite rapidly, especially in the case of solar PV. According to IRENA analyst Michael Taylor, the emphasis will fall more on reducing “balance-of-project” and financing costs. Also known as balance-of-system costs, balance-of-project costs include a number of structural and electrical elements as well as labor and other soft costs.

“There are a lot of policy levers in place that (our member states) can use to relatively easily unlock these,” Taylor told Recharge News.

IRENA, which is headquartered in Abu Dhabi, has 139 member countries and the European Union. Formed in 2009, the organization works with governments to help encourage renewable energy investment. The group also focuses on facilitating knowledge sharing, and recently launched REsource, a tool intended to simplify searching for and understanding clean energy information.

Photo CC-licensed by National Grid on Flickr.

Other Avenues and RE-Volv Take Solar Financing to the Next Level

If you know San Francisco, you know that the Outer Sunset district is one of the foggier zones of the City by the Bay. So when the Other Avenues food cooperative — a 40-year anchor in the Sunset — launched a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for a 36-kilowatt rooftop solar array, it was eye-catching.

A closer look at the project further, however, reveals a number of interesting aspects that could impact much more than just the co-op and its customers. Other Avenues is working with RE-Volv, a San Francisco-based solar financing nonprofit, to both secure financing for Other Avenues’ solar system as well as to raise funds to further RE-Volv’s mission of expanding the solar boom. To find out more, I spoke with Andreas Karelas, RE-Volv’s executive director, and Darryl Dea, the current president of Other Avenues.

other avenuesThe evolution of solar financing

Dea explained that he and his colleagues at Other Avenues had been looking to go solar for about eight years without finding the right solution. Early on, the store looked at signing a solar lease, but Other Avenues decided it wasn’t on the best terms. But because the co-op didn’t own their building at that time, buying a system outright didn’t make sense either.

Dea explored PACE financing, which spreads the cost of renewable energy investments (and other improvements, like energy or water efficiency projects) over 20 years of your property tax payments — but PACE financing stumbled in the wake of the housing market collapse right around that same time.

In the intervening years, Other Avenues ended up purchasing their building, and PACE financing has come back from the dead, but it wasn’t until Dea and one of his co-owners were approached by Karelas about RE-Volv’s unique financing setup that solar at Other Avenues started to become a reality.

RE-Volv, which was launched in 2011, has a grand vision: To create a self-sustaining solar investment fund that supports solar installations for nonprofits and cooperatives that otherwise have a difficult time securing solar financing. The group, which has completed two projects and has Other Avenues’ system underway as its third – offers solar leases and puts the funds generated by that lease, as well as the donations from community members, into a revolving fund that generates interest to support future solar installations.

“Andreas came and talked to the worker-owners, they were all on board with starting a revolving fund that then goes to fund other nonprofits,” Dea said. “The group was really into the fact that not only are we saving electricity for our store, we’re also contributing to this revolving fund that will further down the line create more funding for other nonprofits, and we’re really into that mission.”

karelas-deaAnd so began the process to launch Other Avenues’ solar crowdfunding campaign, which has already reached almost $12,000 of its $48,000 target, with 30 days remaining.

Spreading the word about solar

Putting a big solar array on top of a community focal point like a grocery store is cool for a lot of reasons. Not only does it help reduce the emissions and grid load from the store’s refrigeration and lighting, but it also helps spread the word about solar.

Research published late last year found that the single biggest factor that determines if a household will install solar panels is whether neighbors had already gone solar.

Other Avenues and RE-Volv are counting on the store’s community to both support the project and to spread the word about solar, and so far it seems to be working.

“[Of the $10,711 donated as of January 17], one individual who works at Yahoo got a matching grant from Yahoo, but that’s the only non-individual giving,” Karelas explained when I asked about who has been donating to the fund so far. “Our tagline is ‘people-funded renewable energy,’ and I’m happy to say that that is what is happening.”

Dea added that several of Other Avenues’ long-term supporters have also gone solar, so the solar contagion factor could well come into play with this new installation.

RE-Volv and Other Avenues are spreading the word through in-store events, and they’re also working with SunWork, a solar installer that helps provide solar to low-energy-using households as well as nonprofits, and which encourages and trains volunteers to help install solar panels as a way to keep costs down for nonprofits that want to go solar. When the Other Avenues solar system is ready to go up, SunWork will put out a call for volunteers to help install the panels.

Taking solar crowdfunding to the next level

To recap, we’ve got a worker-owned cooperative funding a significant solar array with the help of donations from community members and a solar-crowdfunding organization and installing panels with the help of volunteers from the community. But it’s what RE-Volv has in mind for the next stage that’s even more exciting.

“Rather than being a typical solar company [that's trying] to make money, we’re using solar to fund our climate mission,” Karelas explained, “which is putting up solar in more and more places, and to take advantage of the contagious nature of solar. We are working specifically with nonprofits and co-ops that are serving their community because we want those community members to say, ‘Oh wow, if Other Avenues has solar in the Sunset, I wanna go solar too.’”

Imagine, if you will, the 400,000 or so people that took part in last fall’s Climate March in New York City — Karelas certainly has. “To me, the way I see this growing is, what if those 400,000 people each donated $10 to this revolving fund; we’d have a $4 million fund, and we could build 100 or 200 solar projects, and then that fund would pump out a new solar project every 1 to 2 weeks. It would then be self-sustaining and grow on its own.”

While that kind of far-flung support may sound like a dream, Karelas said that RE-Volv’s past projects — both of which were based in the Bay Area — received $70,000 in donations from more than 500 people in 32 U.S. states and 17 countries around the world.

Time will tell how far RE-Volv’s reach will get, but the group has already secured a partnership with the Audubon Society to install solar panels on some of the wildlife organization’s chapter offices — as well as to get access to Audubon’s membership base for crowdfunding purposes. And RE-Volv is also training “solar ambassadors” at colleges across the country to help plant the seeds of solar in their communities as well.

For now, getting the Other Avenues solar installation off the ground, and building a revolving solar installation fund, seem like strong goals on their own – but as with the exponential growth of the solar industry in the U.S. and abroad, it can’t hurt to aim high and defy expectations.

Photos courtesy of RE-Volv.

In 2015, the Smart Grid Will Face New Threats and Make More Progress

smart grid reportTwo reports published last week detailed anticipated advances in smart grids in 2015, while also pointing to major challenges that threaten to keep our power system stuck on stupid.

In a white paper, Navigant Research explores a host of smart-grid trends to watch in 2015 and beyond, highlighting both positive and negative signals – though mostly the former.

“Indeed, it is a fast-moving industry in many respects – technological breakthroughs and innovations emerge almost daily – and yet, the utilities expected to implement these new systems and build ever more intelligent (reliable and efficient) grids move at a relatively slow pace,” noted the report.

“This is not to say that utilities are dragging their feet when it comes to upgrading their systems,” it added. “The harsh truth of the matter is that most utilities worldwide are saddled with 100 years of embedded regulatory schemes, infrastructure designs, and industry culture. It just does not change overnight – and yet, looking ahead, it must.”

The first major trend Navigant forecasts is that utility customers will continue to break their chains as utilities’ “captive customers” in the still-prevailing, one-way, centralized power-supply system.

“Once-passive electric utility consumers are becoming proactive consumers” – which the report calls “prosumers” – primarily by generating their own electricity with rooftop solar electric systems. “With federal tax credits for solar panels set to expire at the end of 2016, growth in the number of prosumers will likely accelerate through 2015 and 2016,” projected the report.

However, this “prosumer trend” threatens to become very disruptive, “as utilities must adapt their grids for the two-way flow of energy” and must provide compensation through net energy metering.

On the other hand, according to the report, utilities will increasingly leverage advanced metering infrastructure networks “for a whole host of new applications – including greater customer engagement, data analytics, demand response and time-of-use pricing. “ This, in turn, will increase utilities’ need for “increasingly complex and interoperable IT systems, the need for more robust communications networks, and greater collaboration between formerly siloed teams.”

But evidence that the advent of smart grids is causing immense friction in the marketplace between insurgent and incumbent players can be seen at the highest levels of government.

For example, the Navigant report points to the immediate threat to still-infant demand response markets after the U.S. Court of Appeals stuck down federal regulation – FERC Order 745 – last May. The regulation helped to foster market by requiring wholesale energy markets to pay the same for demand response as for electricity generation.

“Should the worst-case scenario play out, and DR is disallowed from all wholesale markets, ramification would be notable. States and utilities would have to fill the void, which could take months or even years to enact, and DR providers would have to drastically alter their business models.”

The saga could crescendo this year, since the Obama administration just last week asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the district court’s decision.

Meanwhile, the non-profit Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative is evidence that utilities, smart-grid technology vendors, regulators and advocates at least are coming together to discuss the most critical issues and common goals outside the courtroom and other litigated proceedings.

The organization, with its diverse membership representing a broad spectrum of smart-grid stakeholders, in its inaugural annual report outlined a new three-year strategic plan starting in 2015.

In addition to collecting information about consumer attitudes, behavior and experiences with smart grids, the group aspires to provide “thought leadership” to the nascent industry. The strategic plan foresees “connecting with smart-grid industry stakeholders and facilitating dialogue to identify shared objective, shared experience and overcome obstacles to consumer engagement.”

2015 is UN’s ‘Year of Light’ — What Role Will Solar Play?

solar rainbowExtra sparks of light will shine on the importance of solar this year, thanks to the United Nations and international photonics society SPIE.

As part of its 2015 International Year of Light, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and dozens of partners worldwide will be hosting a series of events to illuminate the pivotal role that access to light has to off-grid communities in the developing world.

In the U.S., the importance of solar energy will be given special attention by SPIE, which is working with a number of scientific organizations (such as the National Science Foundation) to hold educational events at meetings in the U.S. and Europe. It’s also collaborating with NASA and the Smithsonian to develop an educational exhibit and information campaign to be shown in Washington D.C. and airports throughout the United States.

“SPIE will be really trying to promote solar,” explained Eugene Arthurs, the CEO of SPIE. “We are strong believers that solar is the future and we want people to realize that the sooner we can move to solar, the better the world will be.”

In a few weeks, SPIE will hold an International Year of Light event at Photonics West, its annual meeting in San Francisco.

The organization is also hoping to educate members of Congress at a forthcoming event in Washington D.C.

“It’s more than just an awareness of solar light and the role of light in medicine,” Arthurs said. “We want to get the attention of the general public with banners to convey a sense of awe about light and how important it is.”

And today, UNESCO is wrapping up its two-day opening ceremony for the International Year of Light in Paris, featuring addresses from several notable speakers, including U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Harry Verhaar of the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association and Linda Wamune of African solar lighting distributor SunnyMoney will be specifically talking about what their organizations are doing to boost global development via solar energy, Arthurs said.

“Light is life — light connects us with others near and far,” says the narrator in a SPIE-produced video about the International Year of Light. “Light will be key in discovering solutions to society’s most pressing problems … Our future will continue to be enabled by light.”

Solar panel rainbow photo CC-licensed by Steve Jurvetson on Flickr.

This Friday, Take a Moment to Shout Out for Solar!

shout out for solarOn Friday, set the weekend table for an in-depth conversation about solar power. The good news is it is all (mostly) good news.

On January 16, Solar Energy Industry Association’s celebrates its 41st birthday with its second annual “Shout Out For Solar Day.” The goal is to light up Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets with potent doses of photovoltaic truth. Which are, in short, quite simple: As global warming worsens and fossil fuels falter, solar energy is our cleanest, cheapest power play. And this is why it is taking over.

With 20 gigawatts of solar capacity installed and 20 more coming online by 2016, solar can power millions of homes without choking the atmosphere or its children. The costs of solar systems have more or less been cut in half. Currently adding jobs to the U.S. economy at 20 times the national average (according to news out today from The Solar Foundation), the photovoltaic industry is clowning controversial tar sands pipelines like Keystone XL, whose ability to make a few companies rich while creating a few jobs has ended in a standoff between Congress and President Barack Obama.

The Solar Foundation’s “National Solar Jobs Census” arrives the day before SEIA’s shout-out, and if you think it won’t show improvement on the industry’s already impressive stats — over 140,000 jobs created, $15 billion annually for the U.S. economy — then I’ve got a seaside resort in Tuvalu to sell you.

“In a short period of time, solar has become a true American success story, benefitting both the U.S. economy and our environment, and we need to be shouting that news from every rooftop,” SEIA president Rhone Resch said in the shout-out’s press release. “Yet despite all of the progress we’ve made, solar faces an uncertain future in Washington and in some state capitals. It’s more important than ever for the voices of our supporters to be heard.”

Ergo, a pervasive social media awareness campaign anchored by SEIA’s interactive explainer “America Supports Solar.” In reality, the shout-out is a campaign that should happen every day, but of course, every day isn’t your birthday. So here’s hoping that, as the SEIA blows out its hard-earned 41 candles, thousands if not millions of Americans who once avoided solar, for whatever reason, change their minds — and our lives.