How the Federal Government is Trying to Spur Solar on Multifamily Homes

mulitfamily homesWith the exception of bright spots such as California’s Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing program — which has installed close to 2,300 MW of solar across 243,500 projects to date — solar’s growth among multi-family residential buildings has been slower to take off compared to single-family residential housing.

Though it’s a small-scale effort, The White House is trying to even out the score somewhat across the rest of the country. In April, Pres. Obama challenged the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to install 100 MW of solar on affordable housing buildings by 2020. How is this program coming along, and what will be the impact for residents and housing developers? Who’s working to make it happen, and where will the projects be installed?

With 33 MW of installed capacity on HUD properties to date, the White House’s 100 MW goal would effectively quadruple the amount of solar in HUD’s portfolio. Yet 150 MW has already been committed by housing developers and nonprofit solar installers to date, according to Crystal Bergemann, HUD senior energy analyst.

“We see this as a local issue,” Bergemann said. “State and local areas are doing a lot to move forward renewable energy — specifically solar, and we’re trying to highlight where are there good policies in the region.”

In addition to California’s MASH program, notable areas of activity include Chicago’s Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, the District of Columbia’s National Housing Trust and the Denver Housing Authority.

In September, NHT Renewable, an affiliate of the National Housing Trust, launched a new model to finance solar for affordable multifamily housing. The company plans to install solar in 20 buildings over the next two years.

And over 600 buildings in the Denver Housing Authority system will be receiving 10,000 solar panels as part of a 2.5 MW project, according to Bergemann. Rates have been locked in through a power purchase agreement, which gets rid of a lot of the upfront costs.

Many of the groups that are installing solar on multifamily residential housing are doing it through the federal government’s Better Buildings Challenge, thanks to a partnership forged in 2013 with the Department of Energy as part of Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

In the last year, 82 multifamily building owners, representing 400 million square feet and 365,000 housing units joined the program, according to Bergemann. Many plan to install solar, she added.

But a common problem among multifamily buildings is the advanced age of the housing stock. This is a factor that can create barriers to installing solar.

By extending its energy efficiency efforts to these types of buildings, DOE has brought together a broad coalition of partners (such as companies, cities, state government, and public school systems) who have pledged to improve the energy intensity of its building portfolios by 20 percent minimum over the course of a decade.

In this program, the DOE will provide technical support, connect participants in a peer support network and provide national recognition for success stories.

HUD has also started a new workforce-training program aimed at increasing energy literacy and connecting public housing residents with solar job opportunities.

And on the back end, it’s developing a suite of tools (along with additional guidance and standards) for municipalities and building owners to finance solar installations through public-private partnerships.

“A lot of the challenges we see are finding the right capital sources [to finance solar] given the specific rules around multifamily buildings,” Bergemann said. “So we’re working with partners in the financial sector to match capital with projects in the pipeline.”

In the end, Bergemann emphasizes that it’s the variety of benefits — for affordable housing residents as well as HUD — that make the push for greater solar on U.S. multifamily building stock notable.

“We pay for over $6 billion for energy bills every year, and HUD is working to reduce those bills for low-income housing tenants through a variety of energy efficiency programs,” she said. “But it’s also benefiting national security, the environment … and you can’t outsource a job when you put a solar panel on the roof.”

Solar townhomes photo by Brandi Easter, courtesy of the U.S. Green Building Council.

Floridians Step Up to Fight for Smart Solar Policies

florida solarFlorida residents rallied outside Duke Energy’s St. Petersburg office Wednesday, calling on the utility and Florida lawmakers to embrace solar energy.

The rally was organized by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and drew an estimated 150 to 200 people — a number which, according to the Tampa Bay Times, made the protest one of the largest to date against Duke Energy and its failure to support solar power while charging its customers for new nuclear plants. The rally was part of a larger push by environmental, conservative, and other pro-renewable energy groups to get Florida to adopt policies that will make it easier for Florida residents and businesses to take advantage of Florida’s ample sun.

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

Stephen Smith, Executive Director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told ThinkProgress that though the rally was partially aimed at elevating the role solar is playing in the governor’s election — something the group has been working to do since the race started — it was also aimed at getting the word out to Duke and lawmakers across the state that residents want more choices in where their energy comes from.

“I think across the political spectrum, people are taking notice, that there’s something wrong in Florida,” he said. “Why are we the Sunshine State and we’re falling behind in solar? Why are other states giving customers options for energy efficiency and Florida proposing is rolling them back?”

photo 3

Florida ranks third in the nation for solar potential but 18th for total installed solar power capacity. Smith — along with many other renewable energy advocates — says that’s partly because the state hasn’t adopted policies that are conducive to solar. Florida has no renewable portfolio standard, a policy that would require a certain amount of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources, and it also doesn’t allow solar leasing or power purchase agreements, which would allow a third party to sell solar systems to residents and businesses.

Those policies are frustrating for Smith, who said that, in the last quarter of last year, Georgia installed more solar than Florida installed in the last three years of Gov. Rick Scott’s administration. But he said this year’s governor’s race, which could, depending on the outcome, spell change for Florida’s solar industry, is pretty cut and dry. The fact that both Scott and his Democratic opponent in the governor’s race have both been governor of Florida before — Crist served as a Republican governor from 2007 — 2011 before switching parties — makes it easy to see where each candidate stands on the issue, even though Scott has mostly stayed quiet about his plans for solar during the race so far.

“We’ve seen that [Rick Scott's] administration has done nothing to support solar power,” he said. “The public service commission under his watch has been very hostile and critical of solar power.”

Crist, on the other hand, has released a plan for what he plans to do for solar power in Florida if he’s elected governor, steps that include working to allow power purchase agreements in the state. Smith said that, despite the “stark differences” between the two candidates, he thinks solar power in Florida can appeal to both liberals and conservatives, and hopes that the issue can become more non-partisan in the state. Debbie Dooley, a tea party activist who has campaigned to get more solar access in Georgia and other states, is also starting to target Florida, a state that she calls “ground zero” for solar.

“Florida is known as the Sunshine State, but with their policies, they’re effectively blocking the sun,” she said. She travelled to Florida to attend the rally and also to meet with local and state lawmakers to talk to them about the need to enact policies to encourage solar production in the state.

Lynn Timberlake, who owns the Cay Point Villa resort in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, traveled to the rally because she said she wishes she were able to install solar at her resort. She said she looked into the possibility of a solar system on her business recently, but ultimately decided it was too expensive.

“There are no incentives, no discounts,” she said. “It ends up coming out of my pocket, and that’s draining.”

Political pressure for more solar- and climate-friendly policies has been ramping up as this year’s gubernatorial election draws closer. Earlier this month, Florida residents delivered a 92,000-signature petition to Gov. Rick Scott’s office, urging the governor to make a plan to cut emissions in the state. And in August, Mitch Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, delivered a 60,000-signature petition that urged the governor to take climate change seriously.

Photos courtesy of the author.

State-by-State Solar Rankings Show the Power of Smart Solar Incentives

solar rankingsThe hearty policy analysts of Solar Power Rocks have once again compiled their annual state-by-state solar rankings. And while there is much good news to be had, there is little in the way of surprise. That’s because financial incentives and investment returns on residential solar panel installations remain strong in traditionally progressive states — and top performers — like New York, Massachusetts, California and Oregon.

Meanwhile, states dominated by the coal, oil and gas industries like Alabama, Idaho, Georgia and Kentucky are predictably bringing up the rear. The reason continues to be that they, along with other renewable energy laggards like Arkansas and Oklahoma, have few to no policies and paybacks in place to reward conscientious solar adopters, dependent as they are on last century’s obsolete infrastructures and dirty fuels. “Lawmakers in the Cowboy State have really dropped the lasso on this one,” Solar Power Rocks wisecracks about Wyoming, although it might as well be speaking of all of the losers on its informative list.

Solar Power Rocks based its rankings on 12 criteria, with two particular aggregates — state solar policy and solar incentives — comprising 65 percent of its grand total. So if a state doesn’t have a robust Renewable Power Portfolio or tax credits, rebates and property tax exemptions to offers their citizens, they have no chance of digging their way out of the basement.

Like, for example, tiny Rhode Island, which nevertheless is “teetering on the edge of being a great state for solar,” Solar Power Rocks explains, “or a failure.” Like other vacillating states, including Ohio, Illinois and North Carolina — “perhaps no other state at such a critical juncture,” the rankings assert — that make up the middling middle, Rhode Island and other underachievers really need to step their rebates, credits and standards. Some states are kept from being outright duds simply because they have modest interconnection successes.

As usual in these types of rankings, Florida is particularly egregious in its lack of ambition, given that it likes to bill itself as the “Sunshine State.” Unsurprisingly, it is mostly Florida’s South and Southeastern neighbors that make up the states who need to go back to solar class. Not that the West Coast is error-free: Washington is ranked behind Florida, thanks to lazy lawmakers, although “a simple property tax exemption would really do a lot” to change that, according to Solar Power Rocks. After all, Washington’s next-door neighbor Oregon is the fourth-best state in the rankings, and it gets just as much rain. Same goes for snowy Connecticut, which is Solar Power Rocks’ choice for third best in the U.S.

In the end, there is an important takeaway from this fun, interactive state-by-state report card: Everyone, even the winners, need to up their game. There are no excuses, given that the explosive solar industry is supercharging portfolios on Wall Street and annihilating bills on Main Street. States need only activate no-brainer incentives to help America solarize on par with international heavyweights like Germany and China. Now’s the time.

Report card photo courtesy of SolarPowerRocks.com

Four Charts that Show How Solar Can Power a Clean-Energy Revolution

solar installationCan we build enough carbon-free energy fast enough to avert catastrophic climate change without having to power this energy transition with fossil fuels that would undermine the whole transition? The answer is “yes,” and here’s why.

The “global solar photovoltaic industry is likely now a net energy producer,” concluded a Stanford study released last year. That was followed by a very detailed analysis, Energy Balance of the Global Photovoltaic (PV) Industry, by post-doc Michael Dale and Global Climate & Energy Project director Sally Benson. They examined how much energy is consumed during the entire lifecycle of the production process for every major kind of PV system.

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

Perhaps their most important conclusion was this:

If current rapid growth rates persist, by 2020 about 10 percent of the world’s electricity could be produced by PV systems … if the energy intensity of PV systems continues to drop at its current learning rate, then by 2020 less than 2 percent of global electricity will be needed to sustain growth of the industry.

As we’ll see below, the energy intensity of solar PV systems has continued to drop in recent years — and is all but certain to continue doing so. That means the solar industry will be generating a vast surplus of carbon free power in the coming years and decades.

Dale and Benson found that the electricity generated by all of the world’s installed solar PV panels in the year 2012 “probably surpassed the amount of energy going into fabricating more modules.” In the figure below, that means 2012 was the “breakeven” year.

Energy inputs and outputs

Energy inputs and outputs for an energy production industry growing asymptotically to some upper limit. Gross output is shown as a bold line; net output is shown with the dashed line.

They projected that “the payback year has a 50 percent likelihood of occurring between 2012 and 2015.” In other words, there’s a good chance the cumulative solar energy generated by every PV system in use as of today equals the cumulative electricity consumed in producing those system to date.

This is “largely due to steadily declining energy inputs required to manufacture and install PV systems.” That is, just as the PV industry has seen a stunning drop in total cost of production — 99 percent in the last quarter century — it has also seen the stunning drop in “energy pay back time” (EPBT) for PV systems. The EPBT is the “time necessary for an energy technology to generate the equivalent amount of primary energy used to produce it.”

This Stanford chart shows that, as of 2010, the energy payback time for PV systems as a whole had dropped to under two years.

Energy Payback

For reasons that are discussed below, the EPBT for PV systems in regions with high amounts of sunlight (high solar insolation), such as the U.S. Southwest, is now under one year.

This year, Dale was lead author on a study that extended the analysis of PV out to 2012 and also examined the wind industry.

Dale et al. note that global wind and PV “installed capacities are growing at very high rates (20 percent per year and 60 percent per year, respectively).” Therefore, they “require large, ‘up-front’ energetic investments. Conceptually, as these industries grow, some proportion of their electrical output is ‘re-invested’ to support manufacture and deployment of new generation capacity.”

Here is their chart for the wind industry:

wind payback

Net energy trajectory for the wind industry. The red region represents a net energy deficit and the green region a net energy surplus. Diagonal sloping lines represent the fractional re-investment, i.e. how much of the gross output from the industry is consumed by the growth of the industry.

The red region (a fractional re-investment of greater than 100 percent) “means that the industry consumes more electricity than it produces on an annual basis, i.e. running an energy deficit. The green region represents an energy surplus.”

The wind industry has been in energy surplus for decades. That’s because, relative to PV, wind has had a slower growth rate and a faster energy payback time. Onshore wind has a a fractional re-investment of under 10 percent, which means that over 90 percent of the electrical output of the onshore wind industry is available to society.

The capacity factor is “the average power output [in Watts] of a technology relative to its nameplate capacity [Wavg/Wp].” The wind doesn’t blow all the time, and when it does, it doesn’t always blow as strongly as a turbine is capable of handling. So, the average capacity factor across all wind turbines installed globally is roughly 25 percent. That means each 1 Wp capacity of wind will generate 2.2 kWhe per year. (8760 hours in a year times 0.25 capacity factor = 2200 hours. So 1 Wp capacity generations 2200 W-hours = 2.2 Kwh)

Here is the chart for the solar industry:

Solar chart

Cumulative electricity demand (CEeD) trajectory for the solar PV industry. The red region represents a net electricity deficit and the green region a net electricity surplus. Diagonal sloping lines represent the fractional re-investment. Solar PV has been disaggregated by the major technologies: single crystal silicon (sc-Si), multicrystalline silicon (mc-Si), amorphous silicon (a-Si), ribbon silicon, cadmium telluride (CdTe), and copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS).

This graph shows that all of the major solar PV technology were in electricity surplus by 2012, except copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) and single crystal silicon (sc-Si), which were getting close.

But here is a crucial point about this PV chart and the earlier one. They assume an average capacity factor for solar PV of about 11.5 percent — where 1 Wp of installed capacity will generate 1 kWh per year.

In many parts of the world, such as the U.S. Southwest and Mideast, the actual capacity factor for PV is double that average, over 20 percent. Why do the authors use such a low capacity factor then? They are taking the global average of what is installed. As Dale explains in the news release:

“At the moment, Germany makes up about 40 percent of the installed market, but sunshine in Germany isn’t that great. So from a system perspective, it may be better to deploy PV systems where there is more sunshine.”

The energy payback time of solar systems can be reduced in two ways. First, the world can continue improving the technology and cutting costs as it has for decades. Second, the world can install a larger fraction of PV panels “in locations with high quality solar resources, like the desert Southwest in the United States and the Middle East.

In fact, as Climate Progress reported last week, the price of utility-scale solar power is 59 percent lower than analysts projected it would be just four years ago, according to a report from two U.S. national labs. Indeed, the price of a roof-top solar system dropped 12 to 15 percent between 2012 and 2013 alone.

This means the astonishing growth in solar capacity in the United States since 2010 is very likely occurring with systems that have an energy payback of under one year.

Bottom Line: We can certainly build enough carbon-free power systems fast enough to avert catastrophic warming without having to power that energy transition with fossil fuels that would undermine the transition.

Solar installer photo CC-licensed by Lauren Wellicome on Flickr.

Solar Firms Get a Crack at the $4M Zayed Future Energy Prize

zayed energy prizeGrowing the solar sector on fossil fuel’s traditional turf is a productive way of mainstreaming renewable energy. The United Arab Emirates’ notable participant is the Zayed Future Energy Prize, named in honor of past president Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who received the World Wildlife Federation’s Golden Panda in 1995; Zayed passed on in 2004 as an esteemed conservationist invested in protecting local species and the environment-at-large.

The Zayed Prize’s selection committee is similarly local and global, comprised of UAE power players, executives from multinationals like General Electric, directors of institutions like the United Nations Foundation and the International Renewable Energy Association, as well as academics from Columbia University to Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics. In other words, today’s seasoned energy industry pros on the lookout for tomorrow’s sustainable energy solutions.

The committee’s finalists this year for Zayed’s $4 million Prize thankfully contains a few solar energy standouts, the United States’ panel manufacturing heavyweight First Solar in the Large Corporation category. The international solar light charity SolarAid, founded by Jeremy Leggett, is in good shape in the Non-Profit Organizations category, where it is joined by solar bottle pioneer Liter of Light, which has turned recycled plastic soda containers into DIY lightbulbs from Argentina to Zambia.

Meanwhile, the Small and Medium Enterpise category includes M-Kopa, Africa’s pay-as-you-go solar servicer for off-grid customers. All told, from well-funded corporations to modest innovators, it’s a solid swath of a solar sector gaining strength as the century proceeds.

Winners in these and other categories, including Global High Schools and Zayed’s Lifetime Achievement award, will be announced at a January 19 ceremony during Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week. Last year’s winners include non-profit Frauenhofer ISE, Europe’s largest solar energy research institute, and Malawi’s Nkhata Bay School Authority, a solar technology and installation learning center.

Let’s hope this year’s photovoltaic competitors for the Zayed Prize have their day.

How TechWomen Builds a New Generation of International Greentech Leaders

Asal Ibrahim isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She has flown from Jordan to the heart of Silicon Valley to work with commercial solar installer Vista Solar for the month of October to evaluate the impact of dust and other environmental grime that can muck up a solar panel’s ability to reach its full capacity.

Ibrahim is also working with the company to digest as much as she can about the entire process of large-scale solar installation, from designing a system to its operation and maintenance.

For Ibrahim, traveling halfway around the world to work with people who make multi-million dollar companies like Vista Solar possible is all part of her greater plan.

141024-techwomen-1“You need to be mentored by international mentors, and have an international view of energy in order to be a change-maker in your country,” she said.

That’s because “energy is an international problem,” Ibrahim said. Ibrahim believes it’s imperative to have a worldwide perspective when looking for transformative energy solutions.

When Ibrahim returns home she will continue her ambitious pursuits. The 24-year-old will finish her master’s in renewable energy and sustainable development at the University of Jordan in May. She also wants to start an NGO to bring more women into Jordan’s traditional and renewable energy industry.

This kind of big dreaming backed with skills and experience is exactly what the U.S. Department of State wanted to cultivate when Ibrahim was selected and brought to California to participate in an exchange program called TechWomen.

Now in its third year, TechWomen was launched by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to bring emerging women leaders in the sciences from Africa and the Middle East together with their professional female counterparts in the United States to receive mentoring and hands-on experience.

“The whole idea of women helping other women is incredibly powerful,” said Heather Ramsey, director of TechWomen (pictured at top).

Seventy-eight women from Africa and the Middle East have been selected to participate in the program this year. For the first time, TechWomen has broken up the program by science tracks, giving particular emphasis to greentech — in industries ranging from solar to sustainable agriculture, Ramsey said.

TechWomen’s inclusion of more participants from greentech industries is a reflection of Secretary of State John Kerry’s commitment to combatting climate change, Ramsey said. Nineteen of the participants this year will be working in greentech, which is up from the six participants working in the space last year.

141024-techwomen-2

From left: Sneha Sriwastava, a solar designer at Vista Solar and TechWomen mentor, Asal Ibrahim, and Vista Solar’s Christie McCarthy, Ibrahim’s cultural mentor through TechWomen.

The core of the TechWomen program is the four weeks participants spend at a company where they are paired with female mentors, work on a project and absorb as much as they can about the industry in which they are working. In total, 42 companies and organizations have opened their doors to the women this year. SolarCity and SunEdison are among the solar companies taking part.

The experience is powerful on many fronts for the women selected from abroad to participate in the program, according to Ramsey. A lot of the countries where participants come from have a much more hierarchical work environment than in the U.S., she said.

When TechWomen participants start working with their U.S. host companies, “they see women in mid-management and senior management levels in meetings with CEOs and funders. They see women speaking up, taking the lead, negotiating,” Ramsey said.

Exposure to different work cultures and seeing women in leadership roles has proven valuable and inspirational for the participants according to program feedback, Ramsey said.

Ramsey also noted that the relationship between participants and the companies they work for are not one-sided. Companies can learn about the culture of the participant’s home country, which is valuable knowledge as U.S. tech companies continue to broaden their international presence.

For solar firms in particular, a deeper understanding of other cultures could be particularly useful. Market research group Solarbuzz expects to see strong solar growth in the Middle East and Africa, with about 11 gigawatts of solar projects in the pipeline in Africa and another 1.3 gigawatts in the works in the Middle East. For comparison, the U.S. has 15.9 gigawatts of installed capacity as of September 2014.

As well, companies can benefit from a TechWomen participant’s unique technological insight, as some of the women come from countries that may be ahead in terms of innovation. This can be especially true with solar, Ramsey said.

There is a lot of innovation happening around solar in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to Ramsey. That’s because there are many regions with little to no electric power. For example, in Uganda and Tanzania only 15 percent of people have access to electricity, according to the latest data from the World Bank.

In response to a lack of electricity access, people in countries like Uganda and Tanzania are increasingly turning to creative means to light their homes and businesses with solar.

For Ibrahim, she looks at solar as a burgeoning industry in her home country of Jordan.

As of late, Jordan has been taking meaningful steps to adopt renewable energy. The country’s energy minister announced in September that Jordan will bring grid-tied, renewable energy projects with a total capacity of 1.8 gigawatts on-line by the end of 2018, according to the majority government-owned media outlet The Jordan Times. This effort includes 200 megawatts of solar power projects mainly in the Ma’an Governorate, which is south of the country’s capital city of Amman.

“I’m very proud to be part of the development of the solar industry in Jordan,” Ibrahim said. Despite her young age, Ibrahim has already been internationally recognized for her work to advance solar: In 2013 she was a winner of Germany’s Green Talents, an international competition that recognizes high-potential sustainable development researchers. Ibrahim received the award for her work that in part looks to improve concentrating solar efficiency.

Because the solar industry is relatively new in Jordan, Ibrahim said she feels there is a lot to be done, which includes increasing the number of skilled solar professionals.

For Ibrahim, programs like TechWomen are crucial to getting the necessary experience to help her country succeed.

For Ramsey, the international aspect of the TechWomen experience is key to the program’s lasting impact. Participants can find they have gained higher visibility in their industry upon returning to their home country. “They are seen as people who know about the global environment,” Ramsey said. “They are seen as leaders with international skills.

It is this type of visibility that helps participants start their own companies, and climb to high levels in their industry, said Ramsey. Ramsey also hopes TechWomen participants will pay forward their experience with the program by mentoring other women and young girls in science and technology.

Solar Heating and Cooling, Mostly Overlooked, Could be Ready to Take Off

solar heating and coolingWith all the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding home solar systems, solar heating and cooling (SHC) might look like its invisible stepsibling.

Compared to other countries, the U.S. has deployed SHC at a much more conservative pace. With 9 gigawatt-hours of installed capacity, the U.S. ranks 36th worldwide. The residential, commercial and industrial sectors together spend $270 billion annually on heating and cooling in the U.S. — on tasks such as residential water heating, air conditioning, air heating and space heating.

Yet if a recent technology roadmap report by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) trade group is any indication, SHC could have a promising future ahead if a number of key barriers to market can be removed.

“The use of SHC in commercial applications is growing fast, and there is potential to provide 8 percent of U.S. heating and cooling needs by 2050, and even more, sooner if there is proper policy in place,” wrote Ken Johnson, SEIA spokesperson, in an email.

But what about natural gas? After all, it’s currently the belle of the ball due to low costs, as the report mentioned.

Yet that’s not universally true, according to Johnson. “In some markets and for some consumers, SHC is already the least-cost option,” he wrote. Public policy can have influence on that price, he added. And Massachusetts, California and New York are currently looking at ways to encourage the development of SHC.

But if SEIA’s vision for SHC to capture 8 percent of domestic heating and cooling by 2050 can be achieved, 100 million SHC panels will need to be installed. The roadmap says this can be achieved through national policies, such as renewable portfolio standards carve-outs, renewable thermal standards, or building mandates. Financial incentives will also need to be in place in the form of tax credits, rebate or grant programs, and Renewable Energy Credits.

And how about those market barriers? Well, they appear realistic enough: lack of consumer awareness, high costs with lower volume, unclear permitting and building code guidelines and under-developed industry channels.

If no supportive policies are put in place, SHC growth should be expected to hit 75 gigawatt-hours by 2050, the report said.

Some of the businesses and buildings that have already adopted the technology have reported seeing return on their investments in a year.

One business that has installed SHC — a Whole Foods in Kailua on Oahu, Hawaii — has avoided creating emissions of 3.4 million BTUs/day. That’s the equivalent of taking 2,384 cars off the road each year, according to Johnson.

“In the simplest terms, the advantage of SHC is that it saves money. That’s a no-brainer for businesses and building owners,” Johnson wrote.

Sunshot Initiative Brings $53 Million in Funds to Speed the Solar Boom

141024-sunshotSouped-up solar cells, speedier PV system installations and U.S.-manufactured solar at globally competitive prices are just a few of the end goals for projects recently awarded a total of $53 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The grants — provided by the SunShot Initiative, which prioritizes projects that trim down the costs of solar, demonstrate innovation and increase U.S. solar manufacturing — recognized 40 efforts in the areas of research & development, small business incubator projects and initiatives aimed at developing cost-effective approaches to the domestic production of solar equipment.

“The projects announced today will help the U.S. solar energy industry continue to grow, ensuring America can capitalize on its vast renewable energy sources, cut carbon pollution and continue to lead in the world in clean energy innovation,” Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said earlier this week in a statement.

R&D

Through the Next Generation Photovoltaic Technology program, $14 million was given to 10 research institutions aiming to improve solar’s efficiency, reliability, price point and sustainability of the supply chain.

“The Next Generation Photovoltaic Technologies projects will conduct research on photovoltaic device designs that will help lay the foundation for the future of solar cells,” said Department of Energy spokesperson Eric Barendsen. “The 10 projects announced yesterday will help our SunShot Initiative and industry achieve the goal of making solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources by the end of the decade.”

One project at DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory will develop a low-cost, faster method for growing high efficiency single-crystal solar cells.  The team plans to stack these cells with silicon solar cells to create a device with a power conversion efficiency of over 30 percent, a big boost from the roughly 21 percent efficiency rate that the best modules have today.

Another team at Stanford University will be studying perovskite-based solar cells, a type of cell described as a “game changer” that can output high efficiencies, yet has stability issues.  This project aims to increase the stability of perovskite-based devices and to develop a perovskite solar cell to be used with a silicon solar cell in a single device together — a combo that projects a power conversion efficiency of 25 percent.

Incubator Projects

Small businesses that are revving up new ventures are eligible for the SunShot Incubator program. Its ninth round of funding gave out a total of $20 million across 14 projects.

A wide range of categories was represented in the awards, from financing and photovoltaic cell production to new inverters and customer acquisition methods.

One grantee is Oakland, Calif.’s kWH Analytics, which is developing a scoring system by using data from thousands of solar systems. These scores that can help financial institutions better understand the risk associated with PV and price their capital accordingly.

This increase in data will make PV more accessible for a wider range of capital providers, increasing competition and driving down financing costs, according to the DOE.

Domestic Manufacturing

Each project receiving a grant will have a domestic manufacturing commitment developed in support with the DOE. It’s part of the agency’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative.

“The manufacturing projects announced yesterday aim to develop manufacturing technologies to further drive down the cost of solar technology and increase domestic manufacturing,” Barendsen said. “The PV-related awards span the supply chain from innovative methods for making silicon wafers and thin-film absorbers, to advanced cell and metallization processes, to innovative module packaging and processing.”

Ten U.S. solar manufacturers received a total of $24 million in this week’s funding round. One highlight is a product developed by Silevo, a Fremont, Calif.-based company. Silevo won close to $5 million to develop a next-generation deposition tool that leverages equipment from the LCD industry to manufacture their high-performance solar cells.

The DOE says that project success will lead to a significant reduction in capital costs for domestic high-volume manufacturing, reduced wafer-to-cell conversion costs and a domestically manufactured product line at a globally competitive cost.

Why the North Carolina Solar Industry is Set to Take Off

141023-north-carolinaThanks to a surefire mix of supportive renewable policies, research innovation and strong investments, North Carolina’s solar industry has led the southeastern U.S. — and is a national frontrunner in installed capacity.

That’s the conclusion of a report [PDF] recently issued by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which singled out the Tar Heel State for one in a collection of policy briefs it’s developing about the clean energy economy of eight states.

“Policy matters. It’s especially powerful when coupled with an innovative private sector and prime renewable resources,” said Tom Swanson, Pew Charitable Trusts clean energy futures manager, when asked about the components behind the state’s success. “North Carolina has all of these factors working in its favor.”

The state’s decision to adopt a renewable portfolio standard in 2007 — the first in the Southeast — was significant in helping to grow its clean energy economy, Swanson continued. State and federal tax incentives have also boosted its presence.

As a result of this climate, the sector brought in $2.6 billion in private investment during the past 5 years and is projected to generate an additional $8.1 billion over the next decade.

But the state’s Research Triangle — an area comprised of 12 universities and Research Triangle Park (home to 170 companies) — has played a key role in innovation due to a flurry of public-private partnerships funded by federal, state and private contributors.

“These policies have allowed North Carolina to harness its superb solar resources and creative research and business environment to generate new industries,” Swanson said.  “The Research Triangle has the second-largest cluster of smart grid firms in the nation, the eastern counties are seeing tremendous solar development, and there are a myriad of clean energy businesses cropping up around the state.”

And though it ranked third-place nationwide for both the amount (342 MW) of installed capacity and private investment ($1.2 billion) for 2013 — changes for continued growth isn’t completely out of the woods. Though its legislature turned down an effort to weaken the RPS last year, Duke Energy’s expressed interest in throwing up net metering roadblocks for state residents continues to linger in the air.

It’s an instance that indicates the importance of federal and state policies working together.

“A patchwork of state policies isn’t enough to fully capitalize on the United States’ potential for clean energy,” Swanson said. “To strengthen U.S. competitiveness in this sector—which is predicted to attract $7 trillion in investment globally by 2030— we need long-term federal policy. Establishing more certainty would send a strong market signal to businesses and investors that the U.S. is a good place to do business.”

North Carolina solar farm photo courtesy of Apple.

Employees at 3 Big Companies Now Have Cheap Home Solar as a Job Perk

solar homesIf free donuts, gym memberships, or flex pay programs aren’t your preferred employee benefit, cheap solar systems could soon be an option. On Wednesday, three major companies — Cisco Systems, 3M, and Kimberly-Clark — announced they will now give employees a deeply discounted way of buying or leasing solar panels for their homes.

Called the Solar Community Initiative, the program promises a flat rate that is on average 35 percent lower than the national average and roughly 50 percent less expensive than average electric utility rates. According to the announcement, the offer will start as a benefit to more than 100,000 employees. If one percent choose to power their homes with solar, more than 74,500 metric tons of carbon emissions would be avoided each year.

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

Offered through Geostellar, a cost comparison site for solar panels, the program will also include options for employees’ friends and families in the United States and parts of Canada. The initiative was conceived and facilitated by the World Wildlife Fund.

“This takes the bulk purchase model from individual neighborhoods and organizations to a national scale,” Keya Chatterjee, senior director of renewable energy at WWF, said in a statement. “A coast-to-coast, low, flat rate helps mitigate two major barriers of solar adoption — complexity and price.”

The companies will offer a human resources intranet site that will provide a solar discount code and link them to Geostellar where online tools will help the employees determine their property’s solar potential.

“I get the emails: ‘Why aren’t we recycling this, or why don’t we have 45,000 more electric vehicle charging stations,’” Ali Ahmed, who manages energy and sustainability at Cisco, told the New York Times. “So we had a really good feeling that our employees would engage and latch onto this kind of discount.”

David Levine, chief executive of Geostellar, told the New York Times that homeowners paying an average of $147 a month for electricity would instead pay an average of $97 a month over 12 years if they financed the entire system, after which the payments would go to zero. The average base cost of a system will be $3 per watt, which is around 17 percent lower than Geostellar’s regular price and almost 34 percent lower than the average cost in the United States last year of $4.53, according to the New York Times.

New organizations — including companies, municipalities, schools, and clubs — can join the Solar Community initiative to increase their bulk purchasing power and utilize Geostellar’s platform to expand access to cheapsolar for employees, residents or members.

Solar home photo CC-licensed by JT on Flickr.