Green Jobs are Booming in the US, Nearly Doubling So Far in 2014

140829-green-jobsWhen it comes to job creators of the future, the line starts at cleantech and ends…well, it doesn’t end.

According to the Ecotech Institute, job postings in the “clean jobs” sector skyrocketed almost 90 percent in the first half of 2014, bringing the grand total past the 2.5 million benchmark. Ecotech also found that over a million jobs had been created in the same period, led by the solar and utility sectors, which doubled year-over-year. Electrical engineering and wind weren’t far behind, with year-over-year job growth of 74 and 65 percent, respectively, with the most attractive states for all clean jobs being unsurprisingly led by left coasters like Oregon, Washington and California.

But there’s nowhere to go but up for all of America’s states, whose individual performance has been compiled by Ecotech in a handy interactive Clean Jobs index. “[It] really demonstrates the rapid growth of the sustainable energy industry,” Ecotech Institute dean Chris Gorrie explained in a press release. “Almost double the clean jobs were posted in the first half of 2014 compared to the first half of 2013.”

Drilling down, Ecotech pulls its data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ green jobs database — which splits its definition between an output approach identifying “establishments that produce green goods and services,” and a process approach identifying “establishments that use environmentally friendly production processes and practices and counts the associated jobs” — as well as “independent research entities” like American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, US Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy and more. These broad definitions gives the clean jobs data enough wiggle room to sneak in, say, the construction industry, which produces green jobs but also plenty of dirty ones.

But the zero-net writing is on the wall, especially when it comes to solar employment.

According to Solar Energies Industry Association’s sister organization The Solar Foundation, which annually conducts a solar jobs census, last year the sector added jobs at ten times the national average, a number which is sure to rise as adoption accelerates. And it is, according to CleanTechnica, whose infographics offer convincing support to the argument that solar is becoming the fastest-growing power sector in the nation, if not the world. As CleanTechnica notes, career paths in solar panel design, sales, installation and maintenance are blazing trails worldwide, which is helping pull us all out of a Great Recession bogged down by the 20th century’s unsustainable industries like oil, gas and coal.

The hits keep on coming. The Solar Permitting Efficiency Act in already sunny California could lower the cost of residential solar, which in turn would add even more jobs to the state, according to the Los Angeles Times. The bright idea is going viral in still-depressed regions like Michigan, where solar factories are sprouting up from the soil of desiccating carmakers. That photovoltaic momentum is hurtling around the planet: A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water found that India’s solar market has grown a hundredfold in four short years, creating over 70,000 jobs in the process.

But the process is just beginning. Just wail until the solar windows empowered by quantum dots arrive, or better. From Main Street to Wall Street, solar has gone supernova, emphatically incinerating excuses for coal, nukes or “natural gas” along with it. About time.

Green jobs photo CC-licensed by Rainforest Action Network on Flickr.

Solar Sister’s Katherine Lucey on Bringing Light to the Energy Poor

Ugandan tailor Teddy Namirembe used to walk at night from her home, which had no electricity, to a neighboring town to rent a room with light bright enough to work by. For Namirembe, that also meant leaving her children alone while they slept in their beds.

After buying a single solar lamp from Solar Sister, a nonprofit that trains local women to become entrepreneurs through selling solar products and efficient cookstoves, Namirembe’s life dramatically changed. She was able to work from home, pocket the money that had gone to paying for a workspace, and grow her business. With the extra cash, Namirembe could also send her children to school.

“Just giving someone access to light can change lives,” explained Katherine Lucey, founder and CEO of Solar Sister.

Lucey, a former investment banker with expertise in the energy sector, started the U.S.-based nonprofit in 2009 to help eradicate energy poverty. Twenty percent of world’s population lives without access to electricity, according to The World Bank.

Today, Solar Sister operates in three African countries: Uganda and Tanzania, where only 15 percent of people have access to electricity according to the latest data from The World Bank, and Nigeria, where 48 percent of the population has access to electricity.

Solar Sister has trained 850 women entrepreneurs who use an Avon-style distribution and sales model. Through solar sales, the entrepreneurs also help stop the use of kerosene lamps, which are a financial burden to refill and are known to cause fires.

Solar Sister claims that 180,000 people are benefiting from the affordable solar products sold by its entrepreneurs. spoke with Lucey about creating a market-based solution for ending energy poverty, and why women are key to boosting global access to electricity.

Why build a women’s entrepreneur network when targeting energy access for everyone?

140828-solar-sister-2Katherine Lucey: Energy is typically managed by women. Incorporating women as part of the solution is critical in achieving the goal of making sure everybody has access to energy.

Because we are coming in with technology, coming in with a homogenate solution, if you forget who your customer is, we’re not going to achieve our goal. It’s important to be really deliberate about reaching out to women as customers, and also as participants in the solution. Energy does have a gender component to it, and we have to remember that.

What’s it like for women managing household energy in the regions where Solar Sister serves?

KL:They’re the ones that walk to market, fill up a Coca-Cola bottle with kerosene, and pour it into the lamp. They’re the ones who walk for miles to collect wood, to cook, to fire up their dinner stove. If what we are trying to do is disrupt that, and replace it with better and more efficient energy solutions, we need to reach the women and get them to demand these products. You can’t develop a market-based system if you don’t have demand.

Why does Solar Sister use an Avon-style distribution network when selling solar lights and systems?

KL: The products were maybe available downtown in cities, but they weren’t available in the rural areas where they were most needed. There isn’t a sophisticated, already developed distribution system out there.

As well, there is a gap between the women and technology. We needed to introduce this technology in a way that the women were going to be comfortable with, and they would trust.

If their daughter introduces a solar light to them, and buys it for them, and says, “Mom, give this a try because I use it at home” — or their friend does, or their cousin, or their sister does — there is a higher likelihood they are going to try something new, because it’s coming to them from someone they trust.

Because one woman is selling to another woman, she can tell her, “Try this new lamp. I use it at home. It’s brighter. It doesn’t smoke. I’m not coughing so much. My baby doesn’t get burned, I don’t have to pay anything for it once I buy the lamp.”

Solar Sister sells a variety of products that range from a simple solar light for $10 to a full home system that can cost more than $300. What’s the most common item purchased?

KL: Mostly they come in for the smaller systems, from the single light to the light and phone-charging system, which is our biggest seller. We work in very rural places where people don’t have access to electricity, and don’t have the money to invest in a big system.

Solar lamps are something that people can afford. With solar lamps you can tap into the local market, tap into people’s own ability to solve their own problems. It’s a ground-up solution, a grass-roots solution, as opposed to a top-down solution of investing in infrastructure and grid networks and things like that. If you are going to wait for the government, or wait till large corporations get around to investing enough infrastructures to get energy access to everyone, it will be years and years. We have a solution. People can be in charge of solving their own problems right now.

How does the income earned by a Solar Sister entrepreneur impact her life?

KL: There aren’t many other cash-earning opportunities. Most of the women are living in very agricultural areas. Most of the income is made through farming, which means once or twice a year they have crops. They earn their entire year income off that one season, which means they can go months without any cash income. To have something that can earn some money every month, it provides them with stability. It provides them with income to address really important life-changing needs.

solar-sister-studyingWhat we hear from women is that the number one thing the income goes to is their children’s school education. Although schools are often free, you have to pay school fees. The school fees go to everything from uniforms, to books, to teacher fees. School tends to be the biggest cash expense in a family’s household.

Do you use a different leadership skill set when you are working in the U.S. than when you are working in Africa?

KL: It’s all the same. Before I was in Solar Sister I spent many years in banking, and even there it’s about focusing on starting with what you got, right where you are, and then building from there. It’s very problem-solving, very analytical, but tying that into action, or figuring out what the next best step is.

What’s next for Solar Sister?

KL: Our goal is to expand solar sister across sub-Saharan Africa. Every place where we can use this network of women entrepreneurs and provide opportunity to light up communities.

Verizon is Doubling Down on Solar as a Smart Business Investment

solar roofThe country’s largest wireless carrier is on a mission to also be its greenest. Verizon Wireless Inc. announced on Monday that it will invest $40 million into 10.2 megawatts (MW) of solar power in five states across the country.

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

The solar installations at eight Verizon network facilities in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York will nearly double the amount of power the company derives from solar energy systems, according to a press release.

Not only is the solar announcement a key component of the company’s sustainability plan, but the steadily declining cost of solar power made it a smart financial move, as well. “Solar is a proven technology,” James Gowen, Verizon’s chief sustainability officer, told Bloomberg. “It didn’t hurt that the technology is getting better and prices are coming down.”

Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), said the latest move by Verizon puts the company at the top of U.S. telecom companies investing in solar power. “In fact, we project that Verizon will be among the top 20 of all companies nationwide in terms of the number of solar installations it operates, and one of the top 10 companies in the U.S. based on solar generating capacity,” Resch said.

Last year, Verizon announced a $100 million investment in a combination of solar panels and fuel cell technology, a decision it predicted would not only lower utility bills and emissions but also improve the reliability of its operations.

In all, the company’s clean energy investments are expected to offset approximately 22,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year — equivalent to taking 5,000 cars off the road.

The Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector is responsible for about 2 to 2.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to figures from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). However, ICT usage is predicted to expand dramatically in the coming years, particularly in developing countries, cautions Green Touch, meaning “if nothing is done, the ICT contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is projected to nearly double — to about 4 percent — by 2020.”

Green Touch, a consortium of businesses, government agencies and academics that includes AT&T and Bell Labs, has set a goal of achieving a 1,000-fold reduction in energy use across the ICT sector through a dramatic improvement in network energy efficiency.

On the path toward its ultimate goal of a 50 percent reduction in carbon intensity metrics by 2020, Verizon touted its improved cooling efficiency and reduced energy consumption in its data centers. The company’s effort is part of a growing trend among major internet and telecom companies in the U.S., as Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others have made big moves to reduce emissions and improve reliability by deriving their power from clean energy sources and building their own renewable energy projects.

Solar roof photo CC-licensed by PSNH on Flickr.

Turning Car Batteries into Solar Cells is Promising, but May Bring Risks

solar cellsHow’s this for reincarnation? Scientists can take old batteries out of decrepit gas-guzzlers and transform them into a solar panel powerhouses.

It’s a “classic win-win solution,” explained MIT researchers in a recent paper for Energy and Environmental Science, which found that new perovskite-based photovoltaic solar cells can recycle poisonous lead from increasingly obsolete acid-based car batteries to create cleantech for everyone. Without sacrificing much in efficiency: MIT professors Angela M. Belcher and Paula T. Hammond and their graduate students achieved power conversion of 19 percent, which is competitive in today’s marketplace.

Their research and development, which leapt from scientific demonstration to benchmark efficiency in two short years, found that a thin film of perovskite tech derived from a single car battery could produce enough panels to empower 30 households. MIT’s promising recycling could provide solar power manufacturing with an innovative leap forward, transforming the 20th-century’s toxic leftovers into 21st-century must-haves.

Speaking of toxic, lead will be fully encapsulated by other materials in the final panel, the production of which is a comparatively “benign” affair with “the advantage of being a low-temperature process,” explained Belcher in a statement. “Once the battery technology evolves, over 200 million lead-acid batteries will potentially be retired in the United States, and that could cause a lot of environmental issues,” Belcher said.

“It is important that we consider the life cycles of the materials in large-scale energy systems,” Hammond added. “And here we believe the sheer simplicity of the approach bodes well for its commercial implementation.”

The good news come with some caveats. The study was supported by Italian oil and gas multinational Eni, which has had more than its share of hydrocarbon controversies. In addition, scaling perovskite panel production upward could provoke manufacturers to look for new sources of lead rather than recycle discarded material. That’s an aging extraction process that comes with a host of problems, especially for a global village looking to dramatically decrease its carbon footprint.

But as an experiment in taking something old and toxic and turning it into something new and clean, MIT’s breakthrough could prove useful. “I think the work demonstrated here … can resolve a major issue of industrial waste, and provide a solution for future renewable energy,” UCLA’s unaffiliated engineering professor Yang Yang testified in MIT’s press release. Let’s hope he’s right.

Photo courtesy of MIT

When the Electric Vehicle Boom Takes Off, Home Solar Will Too

electric vehiclesWe’re only at the beginning.

It seems like this is peak boom time, but we’ve only just started.

Ten years from now, the landscape will be nearly unrecognizable from today.

While I’ve made these statements about solar many, many times, the same statements are at least as true — if not more true — for electric vehicles.

Home solar has witnessed a well-documented and unprecedented boom over the last five years as creative financing and solar cost drops have made going solar a no-brainer around the U.S.

In that same time, we’ve seen the launch of the two most popular EVs — the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt — as well as the Tesla Model S, which launched EVs into the arena of status symbol and object of desire.

Two new reports from Navigant Research underscore what’s changing in the world of EVs, and gives us a sense of what the future will look like.

First, a new electric vehicle forecast report projects the growth of EV sales between now and 2023. In short, the growth is huge: In the U.S., which is far and away the biggest market for EVs (and will likely remain that way — we Americans sure love to drive…), Navigant expects the market to grow by 16.3 percent each year between now and 2023. Canada, which is a much smaller market, will grow even faster, at 25.4 percent per year through 2023.

That’s a huge rate of growth, although it’s still a relatively small slice of the overall sales: In 2023, Navigant says drivers in the U.S. will purchase about 514,000 EVs; in 2013, automakers 15.6 million cars in the U.S. alone.

More interesting is how the rise of EVs — as well as the slowing in overall sales of cars in North America — is bringing automakers into entirely new markets. A second report just out from Navigant looks at the ways automakers are exploring new revenue streams that are tied to the growth in the EV market.

A short list of some of these new markets:

  • Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) and vehicle-to-building (V2B)
  • Home energy management (HEM)
  • Solar energy
  • Electric vehicle (EV) charging equipment and networks

If you’re not familiar with the terms V2G and V2B, they have to do with how EVs can affect and even improve the electrical grid. As we get thousands of vehicles recharging at night, and moving electricity from suburbs to offices during the days, they have the potential to rewrite how we power our lives. For a sense of the possibilities — including how an EV can power your home during an emergency — see this post on V2G as a green holy grail.

The changes that EVs are bringing to automakers and utilities alike are not far off in the future, they’re happening already. Automakers are partnering with solar firms to bundle an EV sale with a home solar installation. Automakers are building net-zero energy smart homes to connect their EVs to.

[In the interest of full disclosure, Navigant last month wrote about how's parent company, Pure Energies, has partnered with BMW to create an EV-plus-home-solar incentive.]

And make no mistake: Home solar is a natural companion to electric vehicles. John Gartner, Research Director at Navigant, outlined the connection to me.

“There is a strong correlation between EV and residential solar ownership,” Gartner explained by email. “In many instances, consumers with solar at their home purchase an EV, while in fewer cases EV owners later or simultaneously purchase solar. This is an opportunity that has only been partially explored thus far through relationships between automotive OEMs and solar companies.”

Beyond the solar + EV connection, the next steps are a bit more tenuous. V2G technologies, which connect cars to the grid in ways that help share the energy load from simultaneous charging as well as giving EVs a chance to support the grid during peak demand times, are further off still.

Gartner recently wrote a blog post about V2G and the first trial of the technology, just announced last month in San Jose, Calif.

“The immediate opportunity is in partnering with solar companies on marketing strategies where they can share leads and develop a combined solution outlining the cost savings of EVs primarily powered by home solar,” Gartner explained by email. “The long run opportunity is for automakers to pursue participating in regulation services and demand response programs, a trial of which is already underway using a cloud based system that is agnostic to the energy company and vehicle participating. They still need to work out how EV owners will opt in and be compensated.”

Just as with home solar, the EV universe is at the beginning of a phase of rapid evolution and widespread adoption. Where the lingering questions for home solar include solar incentives like net metering in the U.S., as well as how energy storage will change the landscape, with electric vehicles the questions center around what will speed adoption and how the grid will accommodate the rise of EVs.

Stay tuned: There are plenty of big things ahead.

Tesla Roadster photo CC-licensed by Flickr user raneko.

Solar Homeowners are Fighting Back Against Anti-Solar HOA Rules

solar hoa“What if I want a solar panel shaped like the Starship Enterprise?” a Texas state senator asked during a 2011 legislative hearing about solar panel installation in property owning communities, where decisions are guided by strict rules and regulations that tend to put the homogeneity of the group ahead of homeowners’ desires. Another senator chimed in to bring the point home, saying “the problem is that if any of the public driving down the street in the neighborhood can see that stuff sticking up over the fence then all the sudden it affects the look of the neighborhood.”

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

Homeowners’ associations are naturally conservative, having to appeal to the masses, and many of them find themselves with outdated or unaccommodating solar laws right when residential solar is booming across the country. In the last several years solar installations in the U.S. have increased approximately six-fold from 2,000 megawatts to 12,000 megawatts as installation prices have dropped by more than half. Approximately 200,000 American homes have already gone solar and SolarCity, a top residential solar provider, estimates that another 30 million could benefit from installing a solar system.

If utilities represent the old guard of electricity distribution and view solar as an outside threat to business-as-usual, homeowners’ associations have a similarly unaccommodating perspective. But as momentum builds in favor of distributed renewable energy, both of these longstanding institutions are being forced to accommodate change and integrate residential solar. For much of the last century suburban tract houses with well-kept lawns and uniform fences represented a thriving community, but in a more eco-friendly, consumer conscious age — in which xeriscaping and triple-paned windows are sound economic and environmental investments — HOAs and similar groups are coming face to face with a new era of homeownership.

Stuck In The Past

“The world has changed greatly since the 1970s, but the position of many HOAs in regard to renewable energy has not changed, and individual homeowners pursuing any kind of environmentally responsible home improvements must run a formidable gauntlet thrown down by their neighbors and neighborhood,” writes Kristina Caffrey in her 2011 paper The House of the Rising Sun: Homeowners’ Associations, Restrictive Covenants, Solar Panels, and the Contract Clause.

“The idea of a neighborhood has disintegrated in the last few decades, but HOAs are one mechanism that still holds neighborhoods together,” Caffrey, an attorney in New Mexico, told ThinkProgress. “HOAs can help build community connections between neighbors.”

Caffrey said that the main challenge for aspiring solar installers is the same as it is with many other community issues: navigating a contentious matter with your neighbors.

“You have to drive by your neighbors’ houses every day and deal with other neighborly issues,” she said. “If you want to put in a solar installation that may affect your neighbor’s view, you have to walk on eggshells.” And when the situation devolves into litigation, Caffrey said it can create a neighborhood full of bad feelings where no one wants to live. She speaks from experience as well as from research.

“Here in Albuquerque, in my parents’ neighborhood, one of the main issues is view,” she said. “My parents’ neighborhood is in the foothills, and people build homes there so they can get spectacular views. Therefore, the HOA is very picky about anything that obstructs or affects view.”

In other neighborhoods the concern might be what is visible from the street or from other peoples’ backyards. Clotheslines hold a similarly aesthetically divisive role historically in homeowners’ associations. Even though they are far more environmentally friendly than dryers and save significant energy costs, certain associations are resistant to their strewn lines and dangling garments, which can be seen as a smudge on an otherwise serene scene.

Shining Down On All Of Us

The Texas state senators were skeptical of giving homeowners more leeway to install solar, but many state-level lawmakers are leading the way when it comes to aligning the often conservative and draconian covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) of homeowners’ associations with the progressive push for cleaner, more convenient, and even cheaper forms of distributed power. This issue is especially pertinent in Texas, along with California and Florida, as homeowners in those states are overwhelmingly governed by property owners’ associations.

At the end of that 2011 session, Texas actually passed a solar access law saying that property owners’ associations may not prohibit or restrict a property owner from installing a solar energy device. The law has certain caveats allowing HOAs to regulate height, slope, and color in some cases, but Evan J. Rosenthal, a Florida attorney with an expertise in residential solar installations, says the law is good in that it enumerates exactly the sort of restrictions and prohibitions are enforceable rather than setting out vaguer guidelines.

“Restrictive covenants can control anything from the color of your house to the length of your lawn to where you can park your car,” Rosenthal told ThinkProgress. “A number of HOAs also utilize restrictive covenants to restrict or even outlaw altogether residential solar units.”

He said that a number of homeowners have been at the losing end of lawsuits where they have been forced to remove solar units they installed because they conflicted with an HOA’s restrictive covenants.

After Tim Adams, an Omaha orthodontist, spent $40,000 to install solar panels on his Nebraska home, his HOA sued him, claiming Adams violated the decades-old covenants against “solar heating and cooling devices.” Adams argued that the HOAs covenants didn’t specify solar panels so the rules didn’t apply. The district judge refused to rule in favor of either side; however, he said that the association had been “consistently inconsistent in the manner in which ‘improvements’ have been reviewed and approved, which doesn’t allow for good direction to those homeowners desiring to improve their homes and/or property.”

Rosenthal’s research showed that, as of last summer, 40 states had passed some sort of solar access law designed to protect the right of homeowners to install solar units. Of these, 21 addressed this issue of restrictive covenants imposed by HOAs. However, he considers the vast majority of these, along with the number of other local government ordinances, to be flawed.

“State and local governments have certainly made progress just by recognizing this issue,” he said. “But these laws must be very carefully crafted in order to fully protect homeowners.”

This year Minnesota passed a bill designed to guide the permitting of rooftop solar projects by HOA boards, allowing HOAs to impose certain reasonable restrictions while at the same time removing barriers to solar energy.

“If you live on a farm, you can put a windmill on your land,” said Minnesota state representative Will Morgan, who introduced the bill. “Solar represents a chance for suburbanites to do something about greenhouse gas emissions. My motive is to make this available to as many people as possible in a reasonable manner.”

Even when solar-friendly laws have been put in place, associations and homeowners can have trouble interpreting them. Rosenthal said that in some states where solar access laws have been passed, it can be even harder for homeowners to install a solar system due to “vague and unclear” laws that leave too much wiggle room for HOAs.

Solar easements (yellow) ensure landowners adequate access to sunlight. Solar rights (red) , limit restrictions that neighborhood covenants and/or local ordinances may impose on the installation of solar equipment.

Solar easements (yellow) ensure landowners adequate access to solar resources. Solar rights (red) limit restrictions that neighborhood covenants and/or local ordinances may impose on the installation of solar equipment.

While the cost of solar installation can present barriers to industry growth at the consumer level, experts say legal constraints must not be overlooked. Complex laws and unclear regulations, plus the prospect of legal fees associated with any battle with a property association, can easily be enough to deter a homeowner already on the fence about whether they have the time and money to invest in rooftop solar.

Rosenthal believes HOAs have a proactive role to play in the realm of residential solar use — but only if they really want to — by introducing things like pro- rather than anti-solar covenants. New communities under development could do even more.

“Large scale communities currently being developed could be equipped with solar panels by developers who can make wholesale purchases for a better price,” said Rosenthal. Orienting homes so they have good southern exposure to the sun is another easy option, as is establishing a sort of “solar access zone” around buildings to prevent certain trees from growing too tall or leafy.

For example the aptly named Armory Park Del Sol, a ninety-plus home development in Tucson, Arizona, was built with solar water heaters and electrical systems. According to Rosenthal’s report, residents are paying just about $300 per year in electricity bills as a result, a feat no less impressive considering they are living in a hot desert region that almost necessitates lots of air conditioning.

“CCRs imposed by communities in times past were frequently intended to achieve a purpose most would consider insidious today,” Rosenthal wrote in his report. “Consider, for example, the restrictive covenants enacted by communities in the mid-20th century designed to prevent African Americans and other minority groups from owning property. Perhaps someday future generations will view the efforts of community associations to restrict renewable energy technology with similar disdain.”

Virginia Is For Solar Lovers

This year Virginia joined the list of states passing solar-friendly laws to prevent HOAs from obstructing residents’ view of the future. The “Solar Freedom” Act was ushered through by Virginia state senator Chap Peterson. On his blog Peterson writes that he worked for six years to get the law passed. In 2012 he carried a bill through the Legislature only to have it vetoed by the governor. Then this year he “got lucky” because “the community association lobbyists had bigger fish to fry.” According to Peterson, the new law essentially wipes out all HOA bylaws and regulations which had inhibited the use of solar panels.

Philip Haddix, program director at the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on solar energy education, said Virginia’s new solar law shows how legislation alone isn’t enough. “Based on that new law, associations will have very little idea of what the changes mean or how to incorporate solar into their guidelines,” he told ThinkProgress.

Haddix recommended that community associations go above and beyond the state-level guidelines in an effort to make CC&Rs that are easier to work with. Taking extra steps to clarify intentions beyond the basic solar laws signals to community members that solar is accepted and helps prevent timely and costly confusion. With solar technology moving so quickly, including installation techniques and panel appearance, even if property owners’ associations are conducive to solar it can be a challenge for them to keep their CC&Rs both up-to-date and easy to interpret.

“Solar moves very quickly,” said Haddix. “Some of these guidelines were written in the 70s and 80s when solar was actually less aesthetically pleasing in some ways. Now there’s tons of examples of how it can be done tastefully.”

A big part of Haddix’s job is to deal with members of HOA boards, architecture committees, or similar groups and help them understand what the solar laws they encounter actually mean. He said even the people designing the guidelines don’t necessarily understand the impact those restrictions might have. Restricting the location, tilt, and orientation of installations can have a bigger impact on the energy investment of a homeowner than anticipated. But removing all restrictions is not the way to go either.

“There are competing interests out there that need to be protected,” said Haddix. “As long as restrictions are designed in a good faith effort to balance interests, I think that’s all we can ask for.”

Going forward, if new communities and subdivisions do end up incorporating solar into their master plans, it will make it more likely that competing interests can find quick and reasonable compromises to legitimate community issues surrounding solar. For instance, if solar isn’t a feasible option, new communities could sign cooperative power purchasing agreements with nearby solar or wind farms to provide clean energy to the entire community at a locked-in rate. Or even just installing solar on community buildings that are part of the association would send a powerful message that solar is welcomed.

“It’s hard to go back and create these elements once the community plans are made,” said Haddix.


In the meantime, approximately half of the 25 million townhouses, subdivisions, and gated-community homes that are part of homeowners’ associations in the U.S. are suitable for residential solar installations, according to the Solar Foundation. If one-fifth of these homes, or five million, installed small, 1.5-kilowatt systems, they could create 7.5 gigawatts of electricity — which is more than half all of the solar power capacity currently available in the U.S. and more than double all of Australia’s current solar capacity. If five percent of these homes installed average-sized solar systems they could generate 3.3 gigawatts of solar capacity for the grid, about equal to what Australia currently has.

It has been shown that homeowners are more likely to install solar panels on their homes if others in their neighborhood are doing so as well. This effect could easily be amplified with a little help from HOAs.

Top photo CC-licensed by Frank Maurer on Flickr.

The Big US Banks See an Even Bigger Solar Boom Coming

solar boomThanks to steadily improving economics and widespread government support, global demand for solar power will continue to surge over the next three years, led by China, Japan, the United States and Europe, according to recently published reports from three large U.S. banks.

But while investment analysts from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Citi and Morgan Stanley identify many of the same trends – such as rising residential solar installations and a potentially disruptive storage-backed solar market – there is a wide difference in opinion over actual anticipated annual volumes, especially beyond 2016.

For example, Bank of America Merrill Lynch presents a considerably more bullish overall view of global solar demand than Morgan Stanley. In a monthly investment overview, released Aug. 12, Bank of America analyst Matthew Trapp forecasts robust double-digit annual global growth rates through 2016. Trapp projects overall demand to rise 21.3 percent to 46,200 MW this year, followed by nearly 16-percent growth next year to 53,550 MW and 12.4-percent growth to 60,200 MW in 2016.

“The majority of the demand for the next three years will be driven by the U.S., Japan and China, with over 50 percent of the total,” wrote Trapp.

Morgan Stanley, however, projects demand for solar power to grow just 5 percent to 41,900 MW this year, accelerating to nearly 9-percent growth next year and in 2016 – to 45,600 MW and 49,600 MW, respectively.

Despite its lower overall expectations through 2016, Morgan Stanley is more bullish on solar power’s growth prospects in the U.S. In its Solar Power and Energy Storage report, issued July 28, Morgan Stanley forecasts annual U.S. solar demand to more than double to 10,300 MW in 2016 from about 4,800 MW last year, while Bank of America projects U.S. annual solar demand to grow to 9,000 MW in 2016.

Both banks see a strong drop-off in global demand in 2017, triggered in part by an anticipated strong drop-off in U.S. growth resulting from the currently scheduled end-of-2016 expiration of the federal 30-percent investment tax credit (ITC), offered for solar equipment purchases. Bank of America projects annual global demand growth to fall to just 4.7 percent in 2017, while Morgan Stanley expects a 16-percent decline.

Morgan Stanley says its U.S. forecasts for 2017 and beyond depend both on an extension of the ITC and a continuation of net energy metering, which allows utility retail customers to receive compensation for on-site solar production in 43 states.

“If utilities succeed in altering the regulatory construct such that solar customers are required to pay for all or a large percentage of the fixed grid fees, the impacts to solar penetration would be significant,” wrote Morgan Stanley research analysts Stephen Byrd and Timothy Radcliff.

On the other hand, in such a scenario, there may be a “tipping point” that causes customers to explore off-grid options through battery-backed solar systems. “Higher fixed charges to distributed generation customers are likely to drive more battery purchases and exits from the grid,” they predicted. “Such an outcome would be bullish for Tesla, whose batteries we believe will be the most competitive energy storage solution,” added the analysts.

Both Morgan Stanley and Bank of America anticipate a return to stronger growth in 2018. But by that point, their average estimates differ widely – by approximately 22,700 MW of demand, with Morgan Stanley projecting 45,800 MW and Bank of America at 68,500 MW.

Citi, which did not include detailed, annual solar data in its July 28 investment research report – Energy 2020: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised as Disruptors Multiply – nevertheless assessed, “The outlook for global solar is increasingly bright.”

According to Citi research analyst Shahriar Pourreza, “We believe global solar growth will be driven by economics, fuel diversity and emerging financing vehicles as well as some country specific legislative overlay.”

All three of the reports identify an increasing number of regions around the world where both residential and utility-scale solar installations produce energy at or below the cost of retail and wholesale electricity. In other words, while there may be continued friction over some of the regulatory details, solar power should continue to become cheaper for both utilities and their customers in years to come, and all signs suggest the solar boom is only going to continue.

Home Solar is Even More Powerful with an Energy Efficiency Upgrade

energy efficiencyTaking care of energy efficiency upgrades before installing solar can be a money saver, since it gives you the chance to lower your energy use and cover more or all of your electric bill with solar panels. Yet a new study suggests that California’s requirement to have an energy efficiency audit performed before installing solar hasn’t been effective.

That’s the conclusion of the Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE), a California-based nonprofit research and education organization that surveyed over 2,300 San Diego-area residents who installed solar and received rebates through the California Solar Initiative, the state’s incentive program.

“Policymakers need to tie these two together in a better way,” said Ria Langheim, the lead author of the survey report and a CSE research analyst. “The majority of homeowners install solar systems larger than 80 percent [of their electricity needs], which implies that there’s much left for energy efficiency. Their systems are oversized.”

Part of the problem, Langheim says, is that solar and energy efficiency incentives are housed in separate programs.

So to help policymakers understand how to best redesign the programs — as well as gain greater insight on how California can meet its goal to reduce building energy use by 40 percent by 2020 — CSE’s survey aimed to understand why solar adopters in the San Diego Gas & Electric service territory embraced PV and energy efficiency upgrades. It also wanted to get a sense of how they viewed the relationship between energy efficiency and solar.

“The greatest motivations to install solar and energy efficiency [upgrades] are to save money,” Langheim said of survey respondents. “But there are further differences in motivation based on education,” she said. More highly educated people are motivated by conservation compared to those with less education, she added, and certain segments are interested in the property value benefits from solar more than others.

That’s an important takeaway for the future, she said, as future programs can design messages for different demographics tailored toward their reasons to participate in solar and energy efficiency incentive programs.

Though 87 percent of respondents participated in energy efficiency programs, the survey found that those most interested in solar tended to install the most basic upgrades, such as swapping out light bulbs or replacing refrigerators — compared to adopting higher-level upgrades such as windows and door replacements, solar water heaters, high-efficiency water heaters or high-efficiency furnaces.

CSE also conducted focus groups as a way to get more contextual information about their awareness and motivations. Participants in one 16-person group did not view the energy efficiency audit as a way to incorporate energy efficiency into the solar installation process, the report noted. And even though the group understood that energy efficiency upgrades could reduce the size of the solar system needed to offset electricity costs, only a few actually went ahead and completed an upgrade before installing PV.

These results, according to Langheim, indicate the importance for policymakers to design education and incentive programs around the core concept that there is a synergistic relationship between energy efficiency upgrades and solar systems.

“There needs to be a greater stress on educating customers about these two things together based on what they have in their home — and if they want to install solar in future,” she said.

House with lights on photo CC-licensed by Niels van Dijk on Flickr.

In 2025, the World Will Be Solar-Powered

2025 predictionsThat headline is the major energy takeaway of Thomson Reuters’ free new report The World in 2025: Predictions in Innovation, which cribbed patent and analytic data from Thomson Innovation, Derwents, InCities and Web of Science to create a vision of the future far more benevolent than our globally warmed present. “Solar is the Largest Source of Energy on the Planet” trumpets its photovoltaic complement, one of 10, which promises that within barely over a decade “the use of the sun as the world’s primary source of energy is no longer for the environmentally-conscious select; it is for the masses.”

This will occur thanks to tremendous leaps in innovation, especially at the quantum scale, where “cobalt-oxide and titanium-oxide nanostructures, photocatalysts and 3D nanoscale heterojunctions” will dramatically increase efficiency in photosynthetic chemical bonding. Solar thermal and photovoltaic power will get thinner than ever, enabling creative placement on pretty much everything one can think of, thereby energizing the phones, homes, cars and lives of 2025′s ubiquitously internetworked populations. Support for this argument, according to Thomson Reuters, is indicated by the fact that Fabrication of novel heterostructure of CO304-Modified TIO2 nanorod arrays and enhanced photoelectrochemical property is the most highly cited paper of the last two years.

Of course, it doesn’t take a bucketload of jargon to sustain that point. Exciting solar power innovations are the flip side of dystopian global warming discoveries: Both are exponentially occurring at light-speed, with more data being accrued by the day.

Less than a decade ago, the solar industry worldwide installed a paltry 1.5 gigawatts of capacity; next year, it could install over 60. Barely five years ago, anyone who wanted to go solar had to shell out thousands of dollars. Today, SunPower, SolarCity and many more PV players will do it for zero-down. You can thank the utter bust of the fossil fuel industry for that, of course, but not really, because its century-long boom and “natural gas” hangover have led us all to an existential precipice below which lies a sixth mass extinction and perhaps “game over” for us and our comfy climate.

Thomson Reuters optimistic vision looks little like that, thanks to a reliance upon scientific innovation that hopefully comes true. By 2025, it explains, we will be routinely testing teleportation, mapping DNA, detoxifying cancer treatment, using cellulose packaging, electrifying our fleets, downsizing Type 1 diabetes, ending food shortages, declining dementia and digitally connecting everyone everywhere to everything.

Fingers crossed. Hard.

One Australian State is Trying to Kill Solar Energy with a $500 Fee

solar installationThe government of Queensland, Australia is just beginning to implement a new energy policy that changes the way businesses are charged for electricity, a policy that the solar industry says is designed to make sure businesses have no reason to install commercial-scale rooftop solar panels.

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

According to a report in RenewEconomy, the policy reduces the price of actual energy consumption for businesses, but increases the price for energy service in general. That “service fee” has made it so businesses that were originally charged $42 dollars a day are now being charged $488 a day. With the area’s Goods and Services Tax, that amounts to a charge of $533 every day for electricity use. Prices on energy consumption have fallen to 10.4 cents per kilowatt hour from 11.6 center per kilowatt hour, the report said.

This fee is “horrifying” members of the solar industry, the report said, because now businesses have no monetary incentive to lower their electricity consumption by installing solar panels or investing in energy efficiency machinery and lighting.

“The changes are clever in their design,” Steve Madson, director of Country Solar, one of the country’s largest installers of commercial-scale solar, told RenewEconomy. “They do not actually result in an increase in total electricity costs, and in some cases they actually cause a fall. But they kill the possibility of reducing the bills by installing solar.”

What the fee really amounts to is a fixed-price system that makes it so even low-energy consumers now have to pay much more just for using electricity — the amount of electricity used is now less of a factor in the bill. The Queensland government has favored this approach, the report notes, because it protects grid operators by giving them a more stable income, and boosts the dividends paid to the government.

However, the Queensland government has been roundly criticized for trying to protect the grid operators by actively preventing the solar industry from making a mark in the region. In 2013, RenewEconomy reported that the Queensland Competition Authority — the same agency that implemented the $500 fee rule — supported putting extra fees on residential solar customers. They did so “even though it admitted that they would be more costly, ineffective, unfair and possibly illegal,” the report said.

The fixed-price system the Queensland government has favored, however, could have unintended consequences. As financial services company Morgan Stanley has noted, these types of policies could frustrate low-energy users to the point where they may try to remove themselves from the grid altogether.

“There may be a ‘tipping point’ that causes customers to seek an off-grid approach — higher fixed charges to distributed generation customers are likely to drive more battery purchases and exits from the grid,” Morgan Stanley researchers wrote last week.

While Queensland is just one small part of Australia, the country’s government as a whole has a storied history of actively preventing any measure that might promote clean energy or policies that would help fight climate change. Prime minister Tony Abbott, who in 2009 said the science behind climate change was “crap,” has employed an anti-climate agenda in the country that’s included angering world leaders by downplaying the issue, axing Australia’s climate commission, and abandoning greenhouse gas emissions targets. Recently, Australia became the first country in the world to get rid of its carbon tax, despite the fact that it was working.

Meanwhile, the last two years in Australia have been the hottest ever recorded. Those above-average temperatures are expected to continue rising in the coming years.

Solar installation photo CC-licensed by Wayne National Forest on Flickr.