Claudia Wentworth’s Personal Charge: Bring Down the Price of Solar

Claudia Wentworth has vivid memories of her three kids sitting in front of the television at home while they put metal nuts and bolts in small plastics bags. The image captures the self-funded beginnings of the solar mounting company Quick Mount PV.

Wentworth and her husband at the time, Stuart Wentworth, founded the Walnut Creek, Calif.-based company in 2006. The two worked to develop and manufacture Quick Mount PV’s primary patented technology, which is aimed at stopping the roof leaks that can happen over time as a result of drilling holes to attach the hardware needed to keep a solar system in place.

The innovation that the company developed was the ability to create a waterproofing barrier around an elevated bolt that helps lock down a solar system to a roof.

Although the Wentworths have gone separate ways in their personal lives, Claudia Wentworth remains CEO of Quick Mount PV. Under her leadership, the company has seen more than 20 percent growth year over year, and brought in more than $20 million in sales last year.

Today, Wentworth is looking to change the way solar installation is done. “I personally want to bring the price of solar down a minimum of $1 a watt,” she said.

To accomplish such a task, Wentworth has created a mounting system that does away with the traditional rail-based system that requires four layers – roof, mount, rail and panels. Instead, she has built a system where installers can attach solar panels directly to the base mounts using clamps. Wentworth says the approach increases the speed of solar installations and decreases the price of materials and shipping costs.

claudia wentworthWhile Wentworth has pushed Quick Mount PV forward, she has also spoken publicly about the experience of being a female leader working across two male-dominated industries, solar and manufacturing. In a candid moment, Wentworth spoke last month on a solar women’s leadership webinar about dealing with men who wouldn’t take her business negotiations seriously.

SolarEnergy.net spoke with Wentworth about her plans to bring the cost of solar down, and the challenges she has faced doing business when she is the only woman in the room. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the major stumbling block mounting and installation companies face in the race to make rooftop solar faster and cheaper?

There are so many repetitive points throughout the entire process. To get an installation done you start with the acquisition of the customer and you move it silo by silo, through design and engineering, the permitting processes, procurement and delivery, and installation. And then you have the long-term maintenance cycle to maintain. As well, there is financing that might get tied into all that. Where companies waste time and money is they keep repeating the exact same process again, and again and again.

What’s your approach for changing the solar installation paradigm?

As a businessperson, I realize that historically we have put all these things in different silos, and we have this department and that department, this process and that process, much of it repetitive within each silo. How we commonly approach business efficiencies is we keep trying to drill down the cost within each silo.

I’ve taken a look at it from a broad perspective to see how we can refine the system of all processes of an installation. What a company would typically have to touch three, four or five times, we have refined the process down to being able to touch that portion of the project just once.

What have you and your company been working on to streamline solar installation?

One of the things that I’ve been really taking seriously is how can we make things happen live, in real time, utilizing technology, allowing the solar project to live in the cloud so it can be updated and changed at any time when necessary.

For example, our newest solar roof mounting hardware product that we just released is for rail-free mounting, called Quick Rack. It has a design and engineering software tool that we are just releasing online. You log in, and you design and engineer your system to an actual rooftop. You can design on a dimensional diagram or via satellite image. It then downloads all the building codes and fire codes for that area. So via ZIP code, it will define what is the egress needed for fire, what is the wind zone, what is the snow load, and bring all of that information into the variables used to engineer the system. Then it will spit out a bill of materials and all the line drawings. And when you are at the site, if you find there is an obstacle in the way on the rooftop, you can actually redesign on the fly.

150304-wentworth-2You have talked openly about being the only woman in the room at business meetings. What’s been the most difficult aspect of working at the top of two industries where few women hold high-level executive positions?

Feeling intimidated. That’s been the biggest challenge for me. You get into meetings where literally there is a sense of being pushed and intimidated into making a decision. It’s interesting. There are points in time when I choose not to react. I have to go home and sleep on it, and wake up the next day and reassess. Often it ends in, “Nope, nope. It’s not going to go that way.” Sometimes men are just big and full of bravado, and a woman has to stand strong and face it while thinking through all the variables to make a win-win situation.

Where have you sought professional support and feedback?

I’m in the Women Presidents’ Organization and I am lucky enough to sit around a table with about 15 incredibly brilliant, strong women running mid-sized companies. And that’s a huge support for me. It’s candid. It can be tough. But these women are all in similar situations having to make difficult decisions that affect people’s lives.

As CEO you may have to do things that aren’t always liked, understood or appreciated. You have to make hard decisions and be aware of consequences and the potential of collateral damage. It’s all part of being a leader. And that’s where professional support really comes in handy, in making those hard decisions that you can’t really discuss with anybody else. You can discuss long-term or difficult strategic issues with this group of women, all who are having to face, or have had to face these same hard decisions and then work through the outcomes. And their experiences are something really wonderful to learn from.

What advice do you have for women who are experiencing feelings of intimidation as they work to break into an executive level boys’ club?

Do your job and do it well. Believe in your vision. Listen to others. Delegate. At times, you just need to support yourself, trust your own judgment, and make hard decisions and don’t expect to be liked for those decisions. Growth adds a lot of process and structure that needs solid support. Be that solid support. And when you feel intimidated or pushed, strive for clarity, look for the “win-win,” ask plenty of questions and push back. Always check in and find what is genuine in yourself, your belief and truth, and move with that while continuing to keep an open mind and acceptance toward change.

Photos courtesy of Quick Mount PV.

What Does It Take to Get Utility Customers to Be More Efficient?

energy efficiencyWe probably don’t need another white paper to tell us that utilities are more likely to get their customers to use energy-efficient options if they mail them out directly. But the more the merrier.

“Contrary to popular belief, utilities don’t want consumers to use large amounts of energy, because that leads to a need for expensive additional infrastructures to support the use,” explained CEO Todd Recknagel of AM Conservation Group, reportedly the largest provider of conservation kits to the industry, in a press release for his company’s new study. “Utility companies will do whatever it takes, including distribution of efficiency kits and educational tools to help lower energy and water use.”

Doing whatever it takes is exactly what it’s going to take, if utilities are to survive the changing demographics of the energy industry, according to The Shelton Group. “Consumers in the U.S. are not satisfied with their electrical utilities,” vice-president of research Lee Ann Head told SolarEnergy last month. “Alternative energy and the connected home are going to change things quite rapidly. So utilities really need to be focusing on adopting new technology, improving customer engagement, communication channels and interaction options — or they could lose customers.”

In terms of communications, AM Conservation Group and Illume Advising’s overview of energy savings kit programs found that direct outreach and mail of weatherization evolutions — from LEDs and CFLs to water-conscious shower heads, faucet aerators and more — could operate as gateways to increased customer participation and energy efficiency. SolarEnergy‘s Matthew Wheeland found Alameda Municipal Power’s free LEDs-by-mail program to be an exciting but still-rare innovation. On the digital communication front, analytics software company Simple Energy teamed up with San Diego Gas & Electric and other utilities to create an online efficiency and rebate marketplace that disseminates information and savings at the point of sale.

But the point of energy generation is becoming as important to the next generation of consumers, who want utilities to clean up their own acts. “Minnesota still loses roughly two-thirds of its energy potential from generation to the point it’s used in your home,” Citizens League executive director Sean Kershaw explained in a PostBulletin analysis of outdated utility business and energy models. “The vast majority of electricity is lost as heat before it gets to your light bulb.”

Of course, we live in a multitasking world which can manage energy-efficiency at multiple points of generation and consumption. We just have to do it. Studies and sense show that if utilities offer their increasingly savvy and demanding customers cleaner energy and efficiency alternatives, they’re likely to forge lasting loyalties. We can all write the white paper together.

Energy-efficient home photo CC-licensed by BASF on Flickr.

All 6,000 Mosques in Jordan Will Soon Go Solar

solar mosqueUnlike many of its Middle Eastern neighbors, Jordan is not blessed with copious oil and gas resources. In an already fragile region, subject to the whims of the international oil market and regional unrest, Jordan relies on fossil fuel imports to meet around 95 percent of its energy demand. Not only is this geopolitically ill-advised, it is also economically detrimental: these imports account for 40 percent of the country’s budget. For instance, the Arab Gas Pipeline, which runs through Jordan from Egypt and is a principal source of Jordanian natural gas, has suffered severely from uprisings in the Sinai Peninsula and Syria over the last couple years.

Insert renewables. Late last year Jordan’s energy minister announced that several renewable energy projects with a total capacity of 1,800 megawatts will be connected to the national power grid by the end of 2018. Made up of large-scale wind and solar projects — including 12 power purchase agreements to develop solar projects with a total capacity of 200 megawatts — the country is now turning to distributed solar. And its first targets are the thousands of mosques scattered across the sun-drenched landscape.

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

Ahmad Abu Saa, a representative of the renewable energy department at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources in Jordan, told the Jordan Times this week that a new project to be implemented this year aims to install photovoltaic solar systems on all of the country’s 6,000 mosques. The project will start by covering 120 mosques.

“Mosques use large amounts of electricity and the project will help to significantly reduce their electricity bills as around 300 days in the year are sunny,” Abu Saa said. Jordan spends about $70 million annually constructing some 150 mosques, maintaining the existing ones, paying the salaries of imams and preachers, and covering water and electricity bills. Mosques will also be able to sell surplus power back to the country’s main grid after solar-friendly net metering laws were introduced in Jordan in 2012.

Jordan’s National Electric Power Company has sustained major financial losses of late and these renewable projects are meant to reduce the financial burden on the struggling utility. Jordan has a target of getting at least 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

With a population growth rate of nearly eight percent, this country of six million is in need of more reliable and affordable energy sources for every sector of the economy, not just mosques. The electricity sector in Jordan is expected to need an additional 1,500 megawatts of capacity by 2020, or 40 percent of the currently available power supply of about 3.4 gigawatts.

Whether 1,800 or 1,500 megawatts by 2020, the growth rate of renewables in Jordan depends in large part on the available financing. As New York-based international law firm Chadbourne reports, “for the time being, the main sources of financing for Jordanian renewable energy projects will probably be multilaterals, export credit agencies and other agency lenders. Financings led by international commercial lenders without any form of government credit support would seem challenging, and capacity constraints on long-term debt financings restrict reliance on local commercial lenders.”

For instance, the 117-megawatt Tafila wind farm in Jordan, the first of its kind for the country, received around $221 million in loans from the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s investment institution in the private sector. The European Investment Bank, the Eksport Kredit Fonden, the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID), the Europe Arab Bank and the Capital Bank of Jordan also helped finance the project.

Abu Darweesh Mosque photo CC-licensed by David Bjorgen on Wikimedia.

Another Way Solar Can Change the World: Solar-Powered Cell Phone Towers

cell towerEvery day we see new ways that solar is changing the world, particularly in powering homes and electric vehicles while overhauling how people get their energy and what they expect from their utilities.

But there are many other uses for solar panels, of course, and we were just reminded of one of the more promising ones with a press release from Panasonic. The 2015 Mobile World Congress takes place next week in Barcelona, and Panasonic will be demonstrating a new “Green Tower” set of products that set mobile phone and wi-fi access free from the grid.

The Green Tower offers telecom companies large and small a solar-powered system that comes with energy storage, giving the service a new level of flexibility and reliability. Depending where you are in the world, Panasonic says that the energy needed to run your cell towers makes up 15 to 50 percent of total operating costs — the costs are higher when you’re in remote areas and the developing world, since you need to rely on gas-powered generators to keep the towers running.

Panasonic’s is offering the technology “as a service,” meaning they’ll install, manage and maintain the towers for the telecom company — and the telecom will continue paying for it for the life of the contract. While that’s becoming the norm in some business circles, it’s not the only way to go.

For the past five years, India has been slowly installing and converting its vast array of cell phone towers to renewable energy. The project started in 2010, with a goal of having 50 percent of rural towers running on renewable energy by 2015, then going up to 75 percent of rural towers and 33 percent of urban towers green-powered by 2020.

Writing about the shift in early 2013, Katherine Tweed at Scientific American explained: “[S]olar installations with battery backups are more expensive to install upfront, but the yearly operational expenditure is far lower, recouping the investment in about two to four years. The current annual cost to run a diesel generator for a base station is about $14,510 in India, compared with $8,215 for solar with battery backup. By 2020 the annual cost of using diesel is expected to be more than $20,000 whereas the cost of solar and batteries will likely fall to less than $5,500.”

As the cost of solar and storage both continue to plummet, expect to see a lot more of these types of solutions springing up. Not only will it end up lowering the cost of maintaining a communications network, but it will continue to extend the reach of information technology in underdeveloped areas (and giving already-developed areas more reliability). Another reason to be thankful for the many ways that solar can change the world!

India cell phone tower photo CC-licensed by रामा on Wikimedia.

Another Ariz. Utility Tries to Kill Home Solar with $50 Monthly Fee

solar neighborhoodStarting in April, solar users across Arizona will be subject to additional rate charges of about $50 per month. This new “demand charge” will be based on a solar users’ peak power demand during the month and will be levied regardless of how much electricity is offset by their residential solar units.

The Salt River Project (SRP), one of the nation’s largest public power utilities, has been fighting for this and other renewable energy fees because of what the company argues is needed to cover grid infrastructure and maintenance costs. This final approval of the plan by the elected board, which also includes a 3.9 percent rate increase for all customers, actually dropped proposals to raise existing solar customers’ charges in ten years as well as a new charge on buyers of solar homes.

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

“Reliability is our most important product,” said Chief Financial Executive Aidan McSheffrey. “To retain the level of service our customers have come to expect from SRP, we must continue to invest in modernizing our energy grid to adapt to new technologies and that will improve reliability and allow for more customer choice.”

A crowd of around 500 gathered in and around a SRP meeting earlier this week in Tempe, AZ, most of them in protest of the new solar charges. In the end, 12 of the 14 directors voted for the rate increase and the new solar charges.

SolarCity, the largest rooftop solar installer in Arizona, has threatened to sue SRP over the charges, a scenario that is now all the more likely. Last week, SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive sent a letter to SRP’s board stating that the company “has made all necessary preparations to file suit.”

In the letter, Rive says the new price plan is “unsupportable by any economic analysis” and that the “fundamental purpose of the plan is to undermine solar leasing companies in SPR territory.”

SRP is one of many utilities seemingly stifling the proliferation of distributed solar power due to concerns over business-model disruption and long-term revenue. 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 greenhouse gas pollution. A recent study found that rooftop solar systems can add add $15,000 to the value of a home, as well.

In 2013, Arizona installed 701 megawatts of solar electric capacity, placing it second in the country. With solar installation prices rapidly dropping and new finance mechanisms coming online regularly, SRP and the Arizona Public Service Co. have ended incentives for solar installers that were meant to encourage the switch. SRP currently gets about 500 applicants a month requesting solar hookups.

SRP’s new rate plan is 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.

As the Arizona Republic reports, SPR did make a number of small concessions to solar advocates in the final reworking of the plan. The utility originally proposed that the 15,000 current solar users be “grandfathered,” or keep their current rates, for a decade, before being transferred to the new rates. SRP extended that timeline to 20 years after major pushback from users who had calculated their savings on a longer timeline. In an even bigger retreat, SRP also decided to allow customers who signed solar contracts before December 8th of last year to keep their current rate plan without the new demand charge for up to 20 years.

SRP will also use a 30-minute period of peak power demand to determine the new demand charge rather than a 15-minute period, which would have been higher and harder to manage, according to advocates of the change.

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.

Photo courtesy of SolarCity.

Google Invests Another $300M to Help SolarCity Spread the Solar Boom

solar installerIf you to want to install solar panels on your roof but haven’t yet because it’s too expensive, Google really wants to help.

The search giant, valued at $370 billion, is once again boosting its investment in SolarCity’s residential solar power model by $300 million, both companies announced Thursday. Combined with a new financing structure from SolarCity, the companies say this will result in a new fund worth $750 million to help install distributed rooftop solar on homes across the country.

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

That’s the largest investment in such a fund ever, according to SolarCity. It means “roughly 25,000″ new solar households and about 500 megawatts of new capacity, SolarCity spokesperson Jonathan Bass said in an interview.

“Whenever you have a company of Google’s stature get involved it’s significant,” Bass said.

At the end of 2014, SolarCity had 190,000 customers and one gigawatt of deployed production, according to its letter to shareholders, so this fund means a significant bump.

Here’s how it will work for the average person. The first step is you need to own a home. Then you work with SolarCity to design a customized system for your particular roof. They look at past electric bills and the rate charged by the utility, and guarantee a lower rate that locks in a lower monthly payment. For instance, if your normal monthly bill is $200, it could drop to $60 after the installation, plus $100 in the monthly solar rental, yielding a new average monthly bill of $160. Google’s initial investment pays for the system outright through a lease or power purchase agreement. You do not have to pay for the design or placement of the panels SolarCity installs and then maintains throughout the life of the lease.

Once installed, the panels generate renewable, clean electricity, feeding the grid mostly during times of the day where demand is high. The homeowner pays the lower monthly electricity rate, not worrying about rising utility bills or extra carbon pollution. Google and SolarCity pay to maintain the panels because they own them. Both companies pocket the income brought by sale of the power to the utility through net metering, as well as federal and state renewable energy tax benefits. At the end of the lease or rental term (usually 20 years), much like an automobile, you have the option to buy the system back, set it up as a loan, or let SolarCity take it back, no charge.

So while it is likely a better deal to pay for your own solar installation, earn the tax credits yourself, and begin saving money on electricity and try to make some selling extra back to the utility, not everyone can afford the initial price tag, which typically runs north of of $10,000.

“Investment in this model allows us to offer solar to a lot more customers,” Bass said. “We continually raise these funds, and the symbolism here is the fact that we can raise $750 million shows the demand for this service.”

In fact, he deemed it “the democratization of electricity.”

Making solar energy an option for a much broader consumer base is great for companies like Google and SolarCity who will earn a tidy profit through more billpayers offering up their roofs. But it can also be great for consumers who can get clean solar energy, for cheaper than traditional sources, without paying for or installing anything. And it can even work out well for utilities, who start to see their demand curves drop during times of the day when the grid all the power it can get.

This is SolarCity’s model, and Google has joined up before. In 2011, Google made its first foray into the residential solar market with a $280 million investment in a fund with SolarCity. It generated such a return on investment that they’re more than doubling down.

Thursday’s announcement, however, signaled the largest investment in a fund like this Google or any other company has ever made. The first $300 million comes from Google, and unlike the structure the two companies set up in 2011, SolarCity will contribute $450 million in debt financing (one of many funding structures the company uses to lower the cost of capital), leaving the total boost at $750 million. Banks are the typical investor in SolarCity’s model (such as a recent $200 million investment by CreditSuisse), so Google’s first step into this partnership was fairly revolutionary. Thursday’s announcement further cements Google as a major player in the renewable energy business.

Google may have stopped its renewable energy research efforts, but recently it has upped its already significant investment in the industry with moves like powering its headquarters with wind energy from NextEra.

“We’re happy to support SolarCity’s mission to help families reduce their carbon footprint and energy costs,” Sidd Mundra, Renewable Energy Principal at Google, said in a statement. “It’s good for the environment, good for families and also makes good business sense.”

SolarCity operates in 14 states and D.C. as of now, each of which is friendly to net metering — the utility option that allows homes and businesses with solar energy to sell excess power back onto the grid. Bass said they employ around 9,500 people, and have been adding 300-400 jobs per month. SolarCity has been installing one out of every three solar power system in the United States.

Tesla began working with SolarCity on a solar energy storage system called DemandLogic in 2013, which moved from beta to full production, per SolarCity’s latest shareholder letter.

SolarCity installers photo CC-licensed by Flickr user orngejuglr.

RE-volv Continues to Grow its Solar Seed Fund

solar installationLast month, we profiled RE-volv, an innovative solar funding platform that had just launched a crowdfunding campaign to bring solar to a worker-owned cooperative grocery store in outer San Francisco.

RE-volv’s mission brings a twist on both solar financing and crowdfunding: As I wrote last month, the non-profit purpose is:

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.

And so the good news is that the Solar Seed Fund successfully raised $50,002 for the Other Avenues solar installation, surpassing its goal of $48,000 raised. While the installation was always going to proceeded no matter how much money the community raised, the success means that the fund can continue to grow and finance new systems.

solar seed fund“People are sick of waiting for leaders to take action on climate change. They want to lead the way in their own communities and RE-volv is giving them a tool to do that.” Andreas Karelas, Executive Director of RE-volv, said in a statement. “Having completed three successful campaigns, we see that this model is replicable and poised to grow rapidly.”

The group has also gained some impressive attention in recent days — which both helped them reach their crowdfunding goal and also bodes well for their future growth. In the run-up to Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Day last week, the climate change leader Bill McKibben gave a plug to RE-volv on Twitter, noting, “As everyone’s divesting, might be worth donating a little money to this Solar Seed Fund.”

RE-volv has also earned a place in the winner’s circle of the OpenIDEO Renewable Energy Challenge launched by innovative design firm IDEO. By being selected as one of the top ideas in that competition, RE-volv will get support in spreading its message from IDEO and the 11th Hour Project, an environmental foundation that’s funded by Google co-founder Eric Schmidt.

As I noted in the profile last month, RE-volv has big plans for the future of the Solar Seed Fund, including already-launched efforts to expand outreach (and solar panel installations) to members and chapters of the Audubon Society and to train “solar ambassadors” on college campuses. The group also hopes to create its own custom-built crowdfunding platform to help further its reach, which the additional support from IDEO and the Schmidt Family Foundation will no doubt help achieve.

In the meantime, there’s still the matter of installing those 36 kilowatts of solar panels on Other Avenues’ rooftop. RE-volv relies in part on volunteer efforts to install their systems (and to get even more people excited about going solar). If you’re in the Bay Area and want to pitch in during the installation, from 2/28 to 3/8 — or to get involved in future solar installations — check out the RE-volv website for more information, or visit the website of their installer partner, Sunwork.

Solar installation photo courtesy of Grid Alternatives.

Going Solar is the 21st Century Family Home Project

going solar at home300 pounds: That’s how much coal was not burned in a distant power plant in December as a result of the solar panels we installed on our house in Wyoming this fall.

Being December, it was our lowest monthly generation period, with low sun angles and periodic snow covering our panels.

An astonishing 1000 pounds of coal is burned to provide electricity for a typical US household per month.

[Editor’s note: This post, by Holly Copeland of The Nature Conservancy, originally appeared on the group’s Cool Green Science blog, and is reprinted with permission.]

Research shows that people most often take action on the environment based on a direct experience (Kollmuss and Agyeman 2002). In the case of climate change, ocean water isn’t lapping at our front door, nor did a hurricane recently flood our house.

Nor will we ever face these threats on the wind-swept plains of Wyoming.

But the health of the environment and our love of wildlife and open spaces is something that we care deeply about and also what drew us to settle here many years ago.

Home Solar Amidst an Energy Boom

Living in one of the epicenters fueling America’s energy boom has been a wake-up call. For the past 15 years, we’ve watched the slow unraveling of the sagebrush ecosystem: natural gas and oil extraction causing declines in species like sage-grouse and mule deer that depend on these systems (Naugle et al. 2011, Sawyer et al. 2013).

Google Earth image of part of the Jonah natural gas field. HT Ralph Maughan.
Google Earth image of part of the Jonah natural gas field. HT Ralph Maughan.
Even seemingly protected Yellowstone National Park, which sits nearly in our backyard, is warming at unprecedented rates. Recent temperatures have become as high as those experienced from 11,000 to 6,000 years ago (Shuman 2011) at a time when the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million (ppm), levels not seen since the Pleistocene (Pagani et al. 2010).

Wanting to join others as a part of the solution in reducing dependence on fossil fuels led us to consider installing solar panels on our home.

We studied the economics of the newest panels available and calculated that with the 30 percent federal tax incentive it would take 5 years to pay off the loan and 13 years to break even (Wyoming doesn’t have additional state tax incentives, but many states do). After that, all electricity we generated would be “free”.

Initially, I was pretty hesitant. Did it really make sense to take out a loan for solar panels or to take any “extra” money that we have for family vacations or college and put it into investing in solar?

The winning argument was to think of it like a bond fund, only we are the investors, and the project is solar on our house. When completed, our investment will result in nearly free electricity and the satisfaction of knowing that our electricity came from clean sources. Plus there’s the incalculable value of what it teaches our children. Even if we only break even financially, isn’t that still worth it?

A Family Project

Once the decision was made, I didn’t anticipate was how much it would become a family project, generating lots of discussion and interest from our 10-year old girls. They wanted to understand the technology and where our energy comes from.

A simple question from one daughter — “Will our solar panels generate any electricity on a clear full moon night?” — became her 5th grade science fair project.

The physical proximity of the panels on our roof has changed our awareness of energy consumption and production. We are closer to it—so we think about it.

A sage grouse lek at Twin Creek. Photo © Scott Copeland.
A sage grouse lek at Twin Creek. Photo © Scott Copeland.
One result is that we have become more serious about energy conservation. Ultimately, we would like to get our home to net zero—meaning that we generate as much electricity as we use–by switching to LED bulbs and cutting other unnecessary uses.

With the panels installed, we can go online and track our electricity generation and progress towards net zero. It’s fascinating and fun!

The benefits of home solar are popping up daily. A study released this week by North Carolina State University determined that home solar is a better investment than the stock market in many large cities and it increases home values.

At the same time, power companies are questioning how these investments should fit in to the existing grid and states need to begin to address these issues in a way that doesn’t stifle the solar revolution, but still addresses the basic need for infrastructure to support it.

The 30% federal tax credit is also set to expire in about 2 years. Passing legislation that will renew this tax credit is incredibly important in ensuring that solar continues to be an attractive investment as our nation shifts its dependence on fossil fuels.

Thirty years ago, when I was about my kids’ age, awareness about the growing trash problem and a recycling solution was just emerging. Many families, including my own, started to recycle newspaper and aluminum cans for the first time. I believe it’s entirely possible solar generation could be the recycling of the 21st century. If true, then one tangible solution to the climate problem seems well within our grasp.

There is no doubt now that the changes in climate predicted within the next century offer a real and present danger to humanity. Today, when our politicians are failing to lead on this issue, we can as CEO’s of our own households, choose to lead them by making decisions to reducing our family’s impact on the climate. Science clearly demonstrates that reducing CO2 emissions will lessen its effects.

Still, we have a long way to go.

Like most Americans, we drive to work and school, and have far too many impacts through our high consumer lifestyles. Clearly though, shifting daily electricity consumption to renewable sources is an important part of the equation. Arriving home from work each day, I am reminded by our roof, that we are at least starting our family on that path, and it feels pretty good.

References

Kollmuss, A., and J. Agyeman. 2002. Mind the Gap: Why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior? Environmental Education Research 8:239-260.

Naugle, D. E., K. E. Doherty, B. L. Walker, M. J. Holloran, and H. E. Copeland. 2011. Energy development and Greater Sage-Grouse. Pages 489-503 in S. Knick and Connelly JW, editors. Greater Sage-Grouse: ecology and conservation of a landscape species and its habitats. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Pagani, M., Z. Liu, J. LaRiviere, and A. C. Ravelo. 2010. High Earth-system climate sensitivity determined from Pliocene carbon dioxide concentrations. Nature Geosci 3:27-30.

Sawyer, H., M. J. Kauffman, A. D. Middleton, T. A. Morrison, R. M. Nielson, and T. B. Wyckoff. 2013. A framework for understanding semi-permeable barrier effects on migratory ungulates. Journal of Applied Ecology 50:68-78.

Shuman, B. 2011. Recent Wyoming temperature trends, their drivers, and impacts in a 14,000-year context. Climatic Change 112:429-447.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Top photo courtesy of Holly Copeland/TNC.

Now You Can Check Your Solar Panels’ Performance on Your Phone

solar neighborhoodA new mobile app might just help residential solar systems squeeze the maximum amount of electricity from the sun — and give more insight into the behavior of homeowners when it comes to maintaining these systems.

As the equivalent of an auto “check engine light,” the free Pecan Street Sol app will notify homeowners on their mobile devices when it detects a problem that’s reducing the amount of electricity the solar system could generate under normal operating conditions.

Pecan Street, a water and energy research institute based at the University of Texas at Austin, developed the app when it discovered that even the most engaged solar system owners — that is, those who had access to real-time data for their systems’ electricity generation — had no idea when their PV panels suffered subpar performance for months at a time.

“We saw that the sample had some outages of their solar panels with diminished production that went on for months at a time,” said Pecan Street CEO Brewster McCracken, referring to over 250 solar-equipped homes the research institute studied [PDF] for insight into PV panel maintenance issues.

When Pecan Street’s researchers dug a little deeper, McCracken said, they found that five common maintenance issues were culprits: 1) a ground fault interruption, 2) a blown AC fuse, 3) a blown DC fuse, 4) a failing inverter, or 5) underproduction of electricity related usually to one part of the system being disconnected — or having never been connected altogether.

“The good news is that almost all of solar panels are very maintenance free — when they do [need maintenance], less than 1 percent have an issue,” McCracken said. “We’d all kill for a car like that. But all these maintenance issues are less expensive to fix than an oil change in a car, and they’re not acted on by owners, so the value of the system was being lost.”

According to McCracken, the nature of the problems could not be detectable under the existing protocols used by installation crews. But because Pecan Street’s data showed a signature pattern for each of the five maintenance problems, the institute realized it could develop an app to help homeowners recognize the problem and get it fixed.

“The data is critical to find a lot of these issues,” McCracken said. “When the algorithm [in the Pecan Street Sol app] runs across that pattern in the data, it will send alert to that solar system owner’s mobile.”

Though Pecan Street Sol is available for both Android and iOS operating systems, it will currently only work with home solar systems that use eGauge, LightGauge (Lighthouse Solar), Hot Purple Energy, Revolve Solar and other eGauge-compatible monitoring devices.

sol app

The institute is currently working to make the app compatible with Green Button Data and data collected by utilities.

Since the app is so new, McCracken says Pecan Street doesn’t know just how much of an impact it has had on the total amount of electricity produced by solar systems.

Yet he says that the institute is interested in these questions, and it will continue to collect behavioral research data from app users to determine its effect.

“We’re intrigued to know what are the friction points that get people in way of getting [maintenance problems] fixed and what are the other issues for them,” McCracken said. “This app is a tool that extends the capability of our behavioral research … We develop the app to provide value to them — and when you do behavioral research, a mobile app is the best entry point to that communication.”

Solar neighborhood photo courtesy of SMUD.

Can Utilities Evolve to Meet Customers’ Demand for Greener, Smarter Energy?

A new world is coming into focus, as the connected home arises from the ashes of utilities who once just had to keep the lights on. Millennials and minorities, soon to become the American majority, want to lead zero-net lives in solar homes — and they want utilities to work it all out before they move in. And if the utilities don’t get on board, then consumers will find someone who will. Because it is inevitable: someone else will.

That about sums up the well-connected Shelton Group‘s annual Energy Pulse study, its 10th. By the time its 20th comes in, consumers will likely have all of the aforementioned amenities — and utilities will have learned to live and perhaps even capitalize upon it.

leann headI spoke with the Shelton Group’s vice-president of research Lee Ann Head about how both producers and consumers of this solarized, internetworked future can work together to make it happen even faster, as uncertain elections and regulated emissions draw near. It’s all good news — unless you’re a utility circling the wagons.

What do you think is the greatest takeaway from this year’s Energy Pulse study?

The greatest takeaway is that consumers in the U.S. are not satisfied with their electrical utilities. The energy industry is in a state of flux. There are pretty dramatic changes coming down the pike in, at minimum, the next five to 10 years. Alternative energy and the connected home are going to change things quite rapidly. So utilities really need to be focusing on adopting new technology, improving customer engagement, communication channels and interaction options — or they could lose customers.

How has the solar industry changed the utilities in the last few years, and how do you see that evolving in the years to come?

Well, consumers love renewable energy. We ask the question every year in our Energy Pulse study: If you were President of the United States, and you could provide financial support for the exploration and development of one form of energy, which would you choose? And 40 percent chose solar, out of all of the varieties of energy generation, so Americans love the concept. Solar significantly beat coal and natural gas even when we asked people to name a form of energy they favored off the top of their heads: 54 percent of Americans, unaided, think of solar when they think of energy generation. But the reality is, as a percentage of their overall portfolio, most American utilities aren’t producing solar energy, even though it is Americans’ preferred form of generation. So if their utilities aren’t providing it, and new methods of solar ownership or leasing become available to bring its price point down, consumers are going to find someone else who can provide it for them.

Do you see utilities moving quickly enough into the solar space to address this disconnect, or remaining intransigent until they can’t any more?

I think there is intransigence on the part of utilities. But from a regulatory policy standpoint, there is also discomfort with the idea of electrical utilities installing solar panels on roofs and then owning, leasing, managing or renting them. There is interesting pushback from a lot of states, which hasn’t been doing anyone any good. Obviously, there are a lot of utilities out there that have investment in coal-power generation and nuclear power plants, and are reluctant to shift them.

But I think some are definitely interested in adding solar to the mix, because they are seeing a huge consumer demand for it. As solar costs come down for consumers, they come down for the utilities as well. It has become a more cost-effective alternative, especially over the last few years. And who knows what is going to happen now with a Republican Congress, but the Environmental Protection Agency’s new carbon dioxide emissions regulations are definitely changing things. As utilities begin to comply with the EPA’s new rules, solar and other renewable energy generation will begin to look even more cost-effective.

150224-utilities-fig2It seems pretty clear from your study that consumers want change. Did you get a sense that their pressure is working?

Consumer pressure is certainly influencing the speed at which utilities adopt renewable energy. Sixty percent of consumers feel it is important for their utilities pursue renewables. Yet when we ask if their utilities are doing this, only 30 percent say it is happening. On a related note, less than half of U.S. residents feel their utilities are environmentally responsible. I think those two things together are driving actions on the part of utilities. Certainly, there is growing demand for change on the part of consumers.

Let’s fast forward to 2016. Do you see this growing demand for solar and renewable energy playing a part in the presidential election?

Well, we don’t know if the Investment Tax Credit will be renewed, which would certainly help the solar industry. But with the Republican Congress, we don’t know if that will happen. If it doesn’t, I’ve read pundits on both sides of the issue wonder if renewable energy will be able to maintain its growth without incentives. That’s definitely an electoral unknown. From a regulatory perspective, what happens with carbon dioxide emissions and the utilities is also an unknown, and could swing momentum either way. And I also think there are environmental issues in play.

Is there a sense that the American majority has turned the corner on solar? That even if Congress kills off popular tax credits, private players will step up?

Maybe, and while I don’t have the answer to that, a lot of people are wondering about it. I think a case can be made that growth in the solar industry will happen even if the tax incentives aren’t in place. I will say this: I think utilities are beginning to see the business case for getting more directly involved with distributed generation. We’ve done recent work for a couple utilities and what we’ve seen is that consumers have given them permission to play in that space. I think there is a lot of money being left on the table. In the end, what I think a lot of state public utility commissions need to understand is that renewable energy is what consumers want. There is a protectionist mentality among the utilities that is holding back a lot of market activity in the industry.

This was your 10th Energy Pulse study, so let’s timewarp to your 20th. What does 2025 look like?

I think what is happening in the connected home is a game-changer. Technology-assisted energy efficiency and consumption reduction, distributed generation and battery storage: It’s going to be a whole new game, in a decade. I think an awful lot of the effort that the energy industry has traditionally put toward consumption reduction — trying to get consumers to adopt conservation behaviors and invest in energy-efficient home improvements — is going to be unnecessary, as new high-performance, zero-energy homes are built and become a much larger percentage of the housing stock. What we’re hearing now over and over from Americans is that they already want energy-efficient homes powered by renewable energy — but they don’t want to work hard for it and spend a ton out of pocket. They really have a strong do-it-for-me attitude — and in 10 more years, much of it is going to be done for them.

As your study said, millennials and others becoming the majority expect innovation and efficiency as a first principle.

That’s right. If the utility industry does not offer the technologically advanced renewable energy products and services these consumers are looking for, then they will find competition from other players in the market who will give it to them. Comcast already has a pilot program selling energy to consumers as a third-party retailer, in markets where that is allowed, and also provides demand response services in partnership with a utility in Texas. They’re getting into this pocket right now because they’ve got the platform. If they can lock consumers into connected home and energy management services, it creates more stickiness for them. Adding a Nest thermostat to their package means they’re able to sign contracts with customers who are less likely to switch to, say, Netflix. The business proposition for them is to get a bigger piece of the whole pie.

Feature photo CC-licensed by the Seattle Municipal Archives on Flickr.