The Challenges that California’s Solar Apartment Buildings May Face

When California upped its Title 24 energy efficiency standards this past July — which require both residential and commercial buildings to make significant gains in energy savings — architects, engineers, contractors and developers alike should have been on notice.

It’s especially true among those incorporating solar systems into new multiunit and affordable housing for a number of factors, say some industry professionals, as the Title 24 standards can be challenging to meet for these types of buildings.

“In the next 15 years every building in California will supply its own energy,” said Promise Energy executive Andy Mannle, referring to the state’s net-zero energy requirements for all new construction by 2030. “We’re looking at how to do it for multifamily housing.”

Mannle, whose Los Angeles-based company specializes in developing and installing solar on multifamily and affordable buildings, says that it’s particularly challenging for this category, compared to single-family residential homes. That’s because of a number of factors, he says, such as larger energy loads in proportion to the amount of available roof space, and requirements that affordable housing needs to exceed the state’s minimum energy efficiency standards, since it’s supposed to last for half a century.

“The minimum standard is LEED Gold,” Mannle said. “If you use better, higher-quality and long-lasting materials, over time the residents of this building will pay less and it’s a smart use of public policy to leverage the public dollars they hand out and ensure the housing is safe, healthy, affordable and long-lasting. In this rapidly changing environment, you have to be ahead of the curve — otherwise by the time the building is built you’ll be out of date. It’s good public policy to make sure the building will be cutting edge five to 10 years from now.”

Constantly changing building codes, solar equipment technology and pricing are part of the moving industry targets make the solar apartment building process more complicated — as well as necessary to be nimble and pivot quickly if needed.

And affordable-housing projects that install solar also have additional wrinkles that make complying with Title 24 more of a complex process, according to David Nahas, a Los Angeles-based developer who observed some challenges with the process when working on Knob Hill, an affordable-housing complex that completed construction in October.

Nahas says that zoning requirements don’t take into account some of the energy efficiency issues associated with solar, such as having the ability to add parapets to disguise rooftop panels, the need for the fire department to access the roof and have clear space, and competing demands on limited roof real estate (such as with HVAC and other building systems).

And with buildings that are designed with a parking garage below the units, there’s likely limited yard space or a surface parking lot area to house PV panels, he added.

That’s why firms such as Promise Energy or Everyday Energy are present from the beginning of the development process to keep an eye out on the unique requirements for solar on multifamily and affordable housing. This way, the architects, engineers, contractors and developers can focus on their specialties and still come away with a project that can meet the Title 24 requirements by installing solar despite the tight government deadlines associated with affordable housing construction projects.

Adding to the confusion, says Nehemiah Stone, an energy consultant with expertise in multifamily buildings, is that the state’s software used to calculate whether a building meets its Title 24 energy efficiency requirements has made it more difficult for energy consultants to maximize a building’s efficiency.

“In the past, [the energy consultant] used to be able to do 5 to 6 barometric runs in 15-20 minutes,” he said. “Now, one run takes 20 minutes to complete. As a result, you can’t give the architect and developer the same level of expert advice.”

Stone believes that the California Energy Commission is not looking at multifamily housing in a way that makes sense when it comes to solar.

“If you throw even a three-story multifamily building into that mix and you’re not thinking about anything else — but the ratio of roof area to living floor space that is one-third of a typical single family home — it will be much harder for multifamily housing to get to zero net energy,” he said.

And because Stone says that the software is not designed for high-rise nonresidential buildings, he believes it has created a lot of upset designers, architects, engineers and builders.

“There’s relatively standard equipment that the system won’t model at this point — this means there’s a lot of confusion out there and people aren’t sure what to do,” he said.

Amber Beck, a California Energy Commission spokesperson, says the state has updated its free Title 24 software periodically, as have vendors of the private version.

“All the most updated software are available on our website,” she said.

The Energy Commission has also made an effort to reach out to the public through in person training sessions on how to comply with the Title 24 energy efficiency standards, along with online training videos about the software, she adds. There’s also a hotline that users can call if they are running into problems.

On a social level, it’s extremely important that affordable housing incorporate sustainability, Mannle believes.

“Los Angeles is the least affordable city in the entire country, and affordable housing is in a huge crisis in state of California,” he said.

Some parts of the population who tend to live in multifamily housing — such as seniors, veterans and low-income communities — will have to pay more in energy costs as a percentage of their income compared to others without energy efficiency improvements, he pointed out. “They don’t have an option to move — so affordability and sustainability really go hand in hand. A lot of folks really don’t realize this.”

Solar apartment building photo CC-licensed by Downtowngal on Wikimedia.

Why Wind and Solar Power Will Continue to Transform the Grid

wind and solar powerDespite years of successful experience, dozens of studies, and increasing utility support for clean energy, urban myth holds that electricity from renewable energy is unreliable. Yet over 75,000 megawatts (MW) of wind and solar power have been integrated, reliably, into the nation’s electric grid to date. That’s enough electricity to supply 17.9 million homes.

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

And, as a new NRDC fact sheet published today illustrates, the electric grid can handle much higher levels of zero-carbon wind and solar power, far more than what’s necessary to achieve the relatively modest carbon emission reductions in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to limit pollution from existing power plants. But first, a little background on how our nation’s electric system works.

Grid basics

The nation’s high-power transmission system is made up of three largely separate grids: one on either side of the Continental Divide (roughly) and the third in Texas. The two largest grids are further subdivided into regions managed by different regional and local utility grid operators.

Grid Map.png

Source: MJ Bradley & Associates using Ventyx Velocity

Grid operators are the air traffic controllers of the power system, managing the flow of electrons from power plants to customers across thousands of miles of transmission lines. They operate the grid under extremely detailed procedures and standards.

Planning for the next 5 minutes and the next 10 years

To ensure a reliable transmission system, grid operators think in several time frames. In the immediate seconds to hours, they run the grid according to a detailed set of economic and electrical engineering rules embedded in sophisticated computer programs. These programs dispatch power plants with the lowest operating costs first, subject to important constraints to preserve the grid’s stability and avoid blackouts.

Grid operators also plan years into the future to ensure reliability. In the same way that one would not set out to drive across the desert on a half-tank of gas, they want to ensure enough power exists and can be delivered to meet consumer demand years ahead. To do so, they identify factors that could either increase or decrease the need for more power and power lines, and then plan accordingly.

Wind and solar power have hit the big leagues

There is more renewable energy flowing through the power grid than ever before. At times, wind has supplied more than 60 percent of the total demand on some utility systems, without reliability problems. And solar power now routinely contributes 10 to 15 percent of midday electricity demand in California, which has more solar panel installations than anywhere in the country.

Wind Across the US.jpg

Source: American Wind Energy Association independent analysis based on real time data publicly available by ISOs and utilities

Accurate forecasts and advanced technologies matter

Due to more precise weather forecasts and sophisticated technologies, grid operators increasingly can predict — and control — wind and solar generation levels. Accurate predictions of wind speed and solar conditions help grid operators efficiently schedule renewable energy into the system. Using advanced and often-automatic control systems, grid operators can both increase and decrease the power output into the grid, which helps to stabilize the grid’s electrical frequency and maintain reliability.

Wind and solar need less backup power than coal, gas, and nuclear 

Every power plant on the grid needs “backup” power in case something happens to prevent it from generating as much electricity as planned. PJM, in charge of most of the grid from New Jersey to Illinois, currently holds 3,350 MW of expensive, fast-acting contingency reserves 24/7 to ensure that it can keep the lights on in case a large fossil or nuclear power plant unexpectedly breaks down. In contrast, MISO – the grid operator for the middle part of the country with the most wind power in the nation – needs almost no additional fast-acting power reserves to back up its 10,000-plus MW of wind power on the system.

Why is so little backup power needed for wind and solar? In contrast to the large, abrupt, and often unpredictable changes in electricity output from coal and nuclear power plants, wind output changes tend to be gradual and predictable, especially when wind turbines are spread over larger areas. The fact that a wind farm is a collection of many smaller turbines also helps, since the failure of one has little impact on the farm’s total output.

Our grid is successfully integrating reliable, cleaner energy now and will continue to do

The power grid has always adapted to changing state and national energy trends and needs, thanks to regular operations and planning frameworks. Forty years ago grid operators learned to accommodate the sudden losses of generation that can come from integrating very large nuclear power plants into the system.

Now, as utility-scale wind and solar power rapidly expand, grid operators are successfully integrating these new resources into the grid while retiring many outdated, costly, and polluting coal plants. And they’re doing it without most Americans even noticing. Maybe that’s the best proof that wind and solar power are not just ready for the big leagues, they’re already there.

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

Visit NRDCs Switchboard Blog


Solar and wind photo CC-licensed by National Grid on Flickr.

Big Plans for Solar in Austin, Texas: Nearly a Gigawatt by 2025

solar in austin, texasPlenty of Texas’ politicians may be ignoring climate change, but individual cities and municipalities in the state are still making moves toward renewable energy. The latest gambit is coming out of Austin, where last week the city passed a new plan to get 55 percent of its power from clean energy by 2025.

The proposal lays out the future plans for the municipal utility, Austin Energy, and it passed the city council last Thursday with a six-to-one vote, according to Greentech Media. Under the topline goal for 2025, the plan includes 600 megawatts of utility-scale solar, plus another possible 150 megawatts once further cost-benefit analysis is concluded next year. A further 200 megawatts of locally sourced solar are called for, at least half of which must be customer-owned.

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

Energy efficiency and demand response improvements — provided by smart grids, smart meters, and the like — are to provide at least another 800 megawatts over the next ten years, and possibly up to 1,200 megawatts. Finally, the plan calls for 10 megawatts of storage technology from batteries to thermal storage, with studies to be done on the possibility of bringing yet another 200 megawatts online via that route.

“This is the start of a process to get us to a place where we’re not using coal anymore, where we’ve reduced gas and we’ve increased renewable and solar,” Cyrus Reed, the acting director of the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, told KXAN News. “This is a plan, it’s a road map, it’s going to take constant vigilance.”

Reed was part of the Austin Generation Resource Planning Task Force the city council appointed back in April to make recommendations for the city’s energy future. Austin Energy, the Electric Utility Commission, and local environmental groups were all part of the task force, which hashed the plan out over the last few months. That back-and-forth included an agreement to shutter Austin Energy’s coal-fired Fayette Power Plant by the end of 2022, and a plan to replace the older units at Austin Energy’s Decker natural gas plant with more efficient 500-megawatts combined cycle technology. That last bit, however, is contingent on “a third-party independent study before we spend any money on gas and before we move forward with any gas plant project” said Mike Martinez, a city council member and candidate for mayor.

“The gas plant is a component Austin Energy does feel strong about. I’m not convinced that we absolutely need it.”

An earlier version of the plan called for phasing Decker out completely as well, and many of the people who commented at the city council’s final meeting on Thursday also wanted the natural gas plant scrapped entirely. But even with that compromise, the plan is expected to cut carbon emissions from Austin’s electricity generation by 75 to 80 percent by 2025, according to PV Magazine.

Texas boasts some of the lowest prices for small-scale solar installation in the country, and Austin’s recent contract with Recurrent Energy for a 150-megawatt solar plant was hammered out for an astonishingly low five cents per kilowatt-hour. Similar deals for solar plants in other states, which lock buyers and providers into long-running agreements, are an indication that players in the market are increasingly confident solar’s low prices are here to stay, and likely to keep dropping.

Those trends also led Austin Energy to conclude that the new plan shouldn’t increase electricity rates more than two percent. But some of the people who spoke up at the city council meeting also pointed to those same falling solar costs as evidence the revamped natural gas plant at the Decker site was unnecessary.

Austin solar sunflowers photo CC-licensed by Betsian on Flickr.

10 Lessons from the World’s Top EV Cities

Colombia EVsThe second edition of the International Energy Agency’s electric-vehicle city casebook (PDF) is a pretty handy manual for how to chop down your unfriendly neighborhood transport emissions. Released in 2012, IEA’s first edition predated the reign of Tesla and the rise of its game-changing Gigafactory. But it still presciently promised that cities’ adoption and support of EV initiatives and infrastructure would decrease emissions, increase innovation and unlock a decarbonized transportation future.

The second edition builds on that foundation by spotlighting “50 big ideas shaping the future of electric mobility,” a selection of which I have paraphrased below as guidelines from the world’s top EV cities. From China’s EV vending machines to California’s autonomous EVs from Google, IEA’s casebook is an international sneak peek at the clean power revolution that should be mandatory reading for cities, and their people.

Tesla’s Green Pitch: Any talk of EVs should aptly start with Tesla. Although, the IEA notes, it is not just Elon Musk’s electrified cars and sprawling charging networks but also his stores that are changing the world. Like Apple, Tesla has transformed the automobile into a technological wonder that you can buy from any strip mall, rather than a bloated lot with space-hogging cars that might never sell anyway. This is why states dependent upon dirty fuels have been trying to stop Tesla’s stores from entering their malls, and losing. When last century’s unsustainable dealerships die out this century, you can thank Tesla for pushing them over the edge.

All-Weather Ready IEA recognizes Finland’s WintEVE consortium for developing and testing EVs in extreme weather, a challenging job given the nation is covered in snow half the year. But for an industry that still has to argue that EVs work just fine in wind, rain, slow and sleet, deeper research and innovation into electrified transportation in extreme weather will benefit all countries, no matter their microclimates. IEA’s casebook notes that simulations have shown that EV driving ranges decrease 60 percent in bitter cold and 33 percent in searing heat. Nations paying attention to how Finland weatherizes its EVs and charging stations will get an object lesson in climate change resiliency.

The Low Zone The challenge for EVs, as IEA currently sees it, is to navigate the chasm between niche market and mainstream acceptance. With this in mind, it begins its casebook with London’s “ultra low emission zone” (ULEZ), which Mayor Boris Johnson pitched as a ” vision that would deliver incredible benefits in air quality and stimulate the delivery and mass use of low emission technology.” Its an expanded standard congestion pricing mechanism for larger vehicles and is in effect 24/7, 365 days a year, rain or shine. Given that half of London’s emissions come from the transport sector, it’s a sobering tax on drivers still riding on last century’s polluted wheels. This low-emission zone on steroids is joined, IEA notes, by over 200 European cities implementing LEZ regulations. In turn, “this will require more cities around the world to implement such measures,” IEA argues, resulting in significant health impacts and greater promotion of EVs. Win-win.

Incentivize It! The other side of congestion pricing’s coin, if you will, are generous local incentives specifically designed to promote the EV future. IEA found that Norway’s package of incentives, from free electricity and parking to exemptions on a suite of transport charges and fees, has (predictably) led to greater EV popularity and high customer satisfaction. Funded by municipalities across party lines, Norway’s incentives are a no-brainer for any nation looking to wean itself off of dirty fuels, and reward its people for buying into EV infrastructure. This type of political and economic harmony is also likely why you repeatedly find Norway near the top of every list of the happiest countries on Earth.

Look Ma, No Wires! Wireless charging, of anything, is an industry game changer. Wireless charging of electric vehicles is a world-beater. South Korea’s city Gumi tricked out a seven-mile stretch of road with wireless charging system to empower an EV bus using magnetic fields emanating from buried electrical cables. That led to a smaller EV bus battery, which saved money and energy, which led to Gumi putting 10 more EV buses on the wirelessly charged road by 2014. The overall trajectory leads to wider innovations and ideas about how to power transport while it is in motion. Once the electromagnetic kinks are worked out, wirelessly charged EVs could be the last nail in the combustion engine’s quickly closing coffin.

141215-ev-tips-sumitomoReduce, Reuse, Recycle Once EVs go mainstream, there’s going to be a hoard of used batteries to deal with. For solutions, IEA points to Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation, which is building the “world’s first large-scale power storage system utilising used batteries collected from electric vehicles.” It’s a prototype system using 16 lithium-ion batteries to generate 600 kilowatts, but it’s a good start in a necessary direction. IEA notes that “what makes EV batteries an interesting value proposition is their large capacity and increasing availability,” given them many afterlife applications. They can be reused in another EV, reduced to component parts or recycled as stationary storage in homes and commercial buildings. The next step? Getting energy markets to incentivize participation.

Share Alike Being able to instantly find an EV for quick transport is an excellent perk of living in Paris, or any city. But especially dense and popular metropoles like Paris, whose “all-electric carsharing operation” Autolib launched as a public-private partnership in 2011 and has since logged over 6 million trips saving seven thousand tons of carbon dioxide. With global carsharing taking off, and ownership mostly a non-issue in cities with robust public transportation, communal EVs internetworked by mobile apps like Autolib’s are evolutionary steps forward. The rise of Uber has been instructive, and lucrative, but just wait until Uber clones go electric.

Self-Drivers Wanted Speaking of, Google made electric waves after announcing it had produced 100 self-driving electric vehicle prototypes that could be called into service via smartphone and drive for 160 kilometers without a charge. Using built-in sensors and no doubt its panoptic Google Earth global positioning, Google’s autonomous electric vehicles are tomorrow’s transportation synergy today, and have chagoogle EVnged the way people think about mobility. Noting that advanced driver-assistance features are for the first time being brought to market, the IEA argues that EVs provide “the ideal platform for these technologies, [which] may encourage an increasing number of motorists to choose to drive electric.” Don’t bet against Google.

EV Snack Time! Hungry for change? Try grabbing an EV from the vertical vending machines in Hangzhou, China. It’s easy: You ease on up to one of Kandi Technologies multistory carsharing garages, drop $3 and ride away in an ultracompact EV for around 75 miles, before dropping it off at another Kandi station. It’s such an obvious EV solution that Kandi is building 750 more EV vending machines to go along with the 50 that have already proven a local success. Kandi plans to expand into other regions of China, but can you imagine every city in the world having this type of transportation option. It’s such a no-brainer that it makes my head hurt.

Clear the Air The IEA concludes its international city casebook with a global call for dramatically increased air quality, which can be significantly accelerated with zero-emission transport. “Today, people around the world have the visceral experience of seeing, tasting, and feeling the negative effects of road transport pollution,” it notes. That is because recent research, and regulation, has decisively shown that risks from the transportation sector are far greater than imagined. Public and private knowledge of this disturbing health crisis has increased, which has made EV’s look like a go-to solution rather than a niche market. “Incremental efficiency improvements to internal combustion engines do not solve this problem,” the IEA argues. But electrification may, so let’s get motoring.

California’s Energy Efficiency Projects Saved People $600M in 2014

energy efficiencyThanks to new initiatives and tried and true approaches to help customers optimize their energy use, California’s energy efficiency programs saved customers more than $600 million on their energy bills over the last year and cut as much dangerous carbon pollution as comes from over 200,000 cars. While these 2014 successes helped utilities reduce their investments in power that pollutes our air and are cause for celebration, they’re only the beginning of what’s possible.

Looking forward, there are a number of areas where we can improve efficiency programs, expand our reliance on energy conservation in lieu of conventional power, and help Californians use energy smarter while building on the state’s 40-year record of energy efficiency success. Here’s a snapshot of 2014 and what’s needed in 2015:

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

1. Efficiency programs saved millions and helped low-income customers, but more is possible. In 2014, the state’s private and public utilities (with partners like trade allies, companies, non-profits, and local governments) deployed $1 billion in energy efficiency initiatives like weatherization and rebates for more efficient appliances. As shown in the graph, these programs helped customers save $12 billion (after accounting for the program costs) since 2006.

Efficiency Saves Utility Customers Money               

Efficiency Saves Utility Customers Money.png

  • Looking ahead, critical policy changes — some already in the works — are needed to ensure all implementers are allowed to design the types of programs that reach more customers and capture more energy savings. By improving policy rules – like how we determine saving estimates, count what savings occur from the programs, and measure the value of efficiency — California can capture substantial savings that are currently being left on the table.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) also adopted program enhancements for the state’s largest low-income efficiency program (the no-cost basic retrofit service for eligible customers served by the state’s privately owned utilities). These improvements will lead to more energy and bill savings for those customers who need it the most while improving the comfort and safety of their homes.

  • In 2015, the Commission plans to address a number of issues, which will help scale-up savings in the future. Increased investment — in particular in the multifamily sector — and process changes to the program would also make more savings available to hundreds of thousands of Californians.

2. California used more efficiency to avoid dirty power, but is still missing opportunities. The California Energy Commission made history this year when it included future energy efficiency savings in projecting California’s energy consumption over the next decade. The result? First, as illustrated in the graph, helping customers use energy smarter will reduce the amount of peak power required to meet customers’ needs, nearly flattening demand growth (which means lower pollution and cheaper electricity). Second, counting the full amount of energy savings helps get the forecast right, which means the utilities won’t be wasting their customers’ money on unnecessary pollution-emitting power plants.

Efficiency Lowers How Much Electricity California Needs

Efficiency Lowers How Much Electricity California Needs.png

The CPUC also made a historic decision to use clean energy resources to replace two-thirds of the power the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS) previously provided to southern California. The other third was to be filled through a competitive bid, which would have allowed any resource to compete. Instead, the commission staff decided to move forward with a plan to rely on a natural gas plant to fill most of this gap, which crowded out the meaningful opportunity for clean energy resources to compete for the remaining need. This likely means more gas plants that emit pollution harmful to our health.

Also in 2014, Southern California Edison had to look for alternate energy resources due to impending retirements of old gas plants and proposed to use 300 megawatts (MW) ofclean energy resources above what the CPUC required. Meanwhile the California Independent System Operator – which oversees electric service reliability – for the first time considered potential efficiency savings in its transmission infrastructure planning, noting these savings could avoid the need to build five San Diego area projects, saving utility customers money.

  • Next year, the state energy agencies need to continue pushing policies – like integrating efficiency into all levels of system planning and using preferred resources before approving conventional plants – to ensure clean energy is equally relied upon to provide service to Californians.

3. The public utilities’ overall efficiency record improved, but many utilities still need to scale up. NRDC’s assessment of California’s public power efficiency programs shows that collectively the nearly 40 publicly owned utilities (POUs) saved more energy through efficiency than the previous year, enough to reduce pollution equivalent to emissions from 50,000 cars. But the increase was largely carried by LADWP’s expansion of its efficiency initiatives. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District and a few of the mid-sized POUs, which together serve the vast majority of public power’s customers in California, are also reaching nationally competitive levels of energy savings but most smaller ones are lagging.

Efficiency Savings as a Percent of Electricity Sales 

Thumbnail image for Publicly Owned Utilities Savings as a Percent of Electricity Sales.png

  • In 2015, all public utilities should continue to ramp up investment and expand efficiency programs (like LADWP’s plan to reduce its customers’ energy use by 15% by 2020). Utilities should also partner with other utilities to reach more customers at a lower cost and explore the opportunity (as LADWP and Glendale did) to remove the link between electricity sales and revenues to ensure the utility is kept financially whole even when investing heavily in efficiency programs that lead to reduced electricity sales.

Without doubt, California in 2014 continued to cement its strong energy efficiency policy foundation. And there were many more positive steps toward capturing additional savings: like using the technical expertise of the California Technical Forum to build confidence in how new energy saving estimates are established, moving forward on appliance and electronics efficiency standards for 15 product categories, advancing the rolling portfolio idea to enable longer term and improved efficiency program approaches, ensuring ongoing investing in clean energy research, and beginning to tackle the challenging issue of data needs.  

Even so, there are additional opportunities for California to push forward much quicker. Leveraging the 2014 successful efforts and aligning key policies to enable even more effective programs is necessary to reach the magnitude of savings needed to meet our climate goals. To ensure the state continues to be an efficiency leader in 2015, policymakers, implementers, and stakeholders must work together to prioritize strategies that will advance efficiency efforts to the next level, which will also support a clean energy economy, lower energy bills, and protect our air and the planet.

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

Lightbulb photo CC-licensed by Otis Blank on Flickr.

When TUSK Comes to Town

In the last two years, the U.S. solar industry has faced a nearly endless series of attacks on the tools that have made the solar boom possible. Many utility companies (but not all of them, as our “Utility of the Future” series highlights), aided by state legislators, are attacking net metering structures that pay solar homeowners a fair price for the energy they generate and send back to the grid.

The response to these attacks has been consistent, if inconsistently successful. When utility company Arizona Public Service in 2013 tried to levy $50 to $100 per month in fees on solar homeowners, members at every level of the solar industry rose up in protest. From solar fans to solar homeowners to local solar installers to industry coalitions and advocacy groups, solar supporters spoke out against the attack.

The results were less than a complete win, but far from a significant loss, either: APS was allowed by the state’s public utilities commission to charge solar homeowners $5 per month for generating electricity on behalf of APS.

If Arizona was a big flash point in the current war for clean energy, it also marked the birth of a new player in the fight. TUSK, a conservative, pro-solar group with a great acronym (only somewhat burdened by an unwieldy full name: Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed), was launched in response to the APS fee campaign. Founded by Barry Goldwater, Jr., the son of the conservative icon, TUSK brings a conservative viewpoint to the pro-solar debate.

“Energy choice is just a logical extension of the conservative philosophy,” explained Michael Scerbo, a spokesperson for TUSK. “A free-market model [that comes out of] the energy generation model — that’s never been a debate up until now. Home solar is a new technology and the utilities aren’t exactly pleased.”

In the wake of the Arizona campaign, TUSK has since expanded its efforts to other states – mostly red states, with some purple states thrown in the mix – and I spoke with Scerbo to learn more about the group’s expansion and the conservative take on solar.

Most recently, TUSK has moved into Colorado, where Xcel Energy is trying gut net metering rates, even as it invests its own taxpayer funds in large-scale solar projects. TUSK has created a short video criticizing the utility’s efforts, and is working to rally Colorado residents to support solar. The group has also partnered with solar industry advocacy group The Alliance for Solar Choice in Colorado and elsewhere to pool resources and multiply their pro-solar impact.

“We were pleased to hear that TUSK wanted to enter Colorado,” Gracie Walovich, a spokesperson with The Alliance for Solar Choice, explained by email. “It’s clear that they recognize the strong conservative support for solar in the state. TUSK’s successes nationally show that rooftop solar is consistent with conservative principles.”

Scerbo himself offered plenty of examples of how well solar and conservative principles mesh. “Rooftop solar is where the conservative mindset comes in,” he said. “[Solar] does represent the first genuine free market competition that utilities face — one turns a home into a generating plant, and they reap the rewards.”

In addition to Arizona and Colorado, the group is also working in Utah, Idaho, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and North and South Carolina — all but Wisconsin were red states in the 2010 and 2012 elections, and all states where solar has great potential but is under attack by utilities and legislators alike.

In Mississippi, for instance, a report delivered to the state’s public utilities commission last year by research firm Synapse Energy Economics found that the benefits over the next 25 years from the state adopting net metering rules would average out to $170 per megawatt-hour of solar electricity used in the state.

“There is a troubling trend with respect to the utilities in red states,” Scerbo said. “They’re under the mistaken impression that there’s a conservative bias against solar power and they’ll try to challenge net metering.” However, he added, “there’s ample poll data that conservatives are supportive of rooftop solar.”

A key part of TUSK’s efforts involve letting regulators and lawmakers know that conservatives are also pro-solar, and that if they attack solar in the state, they’re going to alienate a conservative constituency as well as more left-leaning groups. That argument, Scerbo said, is especially powerful with lawmakers: “How often as a politician do you get to make the left and right happy?” he asked.

The central conservative argument in favor of solar, Scerbo explained is the idea of energy independence, which is coupled with an opposition to bullying from monopolies that are supported by Big Government. The other key factor spans the political spectrum: Conservatives, like every other group in America, like to save money.

“To dispel another myth,” Scerbo said, “the whole notion that those to the right of center are not concerned about the environment — they are. They like to go green and they like to save green, if they can do both, all the better.”

Elephant photo CC-licensed by Brittany Hock on Flickr.

SunEdison Brings Solar Savings to Affordable Housing Across Massachusetts

 solar farmDespite solar’s benefits, residents of multi-unit and affordable housing can’t take advantage of the sun so easily. The problem? Inadequate roof access and surrounding land for PV panels. And in some places, there’s a lack of net metering policies to boot.

But in Massachusetts — already a leader in community-shared solar policy — 16 affordable housing agencies are poised to save a cumulative total of $60 million in solar savings over the next 20 years, thanks to recent contracts signed with solar giant SunEdison.

“It gives them the ability to reap the economic benefits that solar represents without the need to install solar on their facility,” Steve Raeder, a SunEdison managing director, told “Housing authorities are physically constrained with roof space, parking lots and there’s not a lot of excess land to tie up for 15-20 years.”

The power purchase agreements allow the housing agencies — including those serving the towns of New Bedford, Brockton, Somerville, Barnstable, Fairhaven, Fall River, Gardner, Leominster, Northampton, Plymouth, Somerset and Winchendon — to receive net metering credits on their energy bills based on the amount of energy produced by the PV arrays.

Located up to 30 minutes away from the housing complexes, the community solar gardens will feed its power directly into the main power grid.

“They’re purchasing these net metering credits as a discount,” said Raeder. “For example, if they have $100 applied to their invoice, they might pay us $80 and that’s a $20 savings.”

Even though the housing authorities are the ones shaving down their utility bills, Raeder believes that the residents will also benefit, since the agencies can reallocate the saved money towards other needed supplies or services.

In order to produce the promised 39.5 MW of peak capacity, SunEdison will need to construct several community solar gardens.

“Several are already built, a couple are already construction and a couple are slated to be built in 2015,” Raeder said. None will include battery storage.

SunEdison estimates that the 39.5 MW produced at these gardens collectively are equivalent to eliminating 1 million tons of CO2 emissions, or taking 200,000 cars off the road.

The company’s contracts with the public housing agencies were through a competitive solicitation with PowerOptions, a consortium in Massachusetts that creates greater buying power for the public sector when its members purchase energy in bulk.

“These housing authorities, and other members of the PowerOptions energy buying consortium, can hedge against the rising cost of electricity by adopting solar power,” said Cynthia Arcate, PowerOptions president and chief executive officer, in a statement.

But SunEdison is not stopping at public housing. According to Raeder, the company is in active negotiations with a couple of schools, municipalities and commercial entities.

“We’re very invested in the state,” Raeder said, “and planning to do more in the public sector.”

Community solar farm photo CC-licensed by RTPeat on Flickr.

Solar Cells Keep Getting More Efficient with New 40% Record

solar panelsIn outdoor tests in Sydney and the U.S., University of New South Wales researchers achieved the record efficiency partially by splitting sunlight into four different cells. Traditionally, solar power works by using just one solar cell, a method that can convert up to 33 percent of sunlight into electricity.

“We used commercial solar cells, but in a new way, so these efficiency improvements are readily accessible to the solar industry,” Mark Keevers, a UNSW solar scientist who managed the research project, said in a statement.

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

RayGen Resources, which helped design the solar prototype and provided technical support to the UNSW researchers, is optimistic about the results. John Lasich, Director and CTO of RayGen, said the company could reach “close to 45 percent system efficiency in the next few years.”

The scientists were able to design the solar test prototype in a way that would capture the sunlight that’s typically wasted by solar cells. The test used concentrated solar photovoltaic technology, which has historically been risky in terms of price and reliability, making it difficult technology to scale up. The design used in the test is “particularly relevant” to solar power towers being designed in Australia right now by RayGen Resources, UNSW Professor Martin Green said.

Those involved with the project are hoping the researchers’ discovery will eventually help drive down the cost of solar, if the results are able to be replicated on a larger scale.

“We hope to see this home grown innovation take the next steps from prototyping to pilot scale demonstrations,” Ivor Frischknecht, CEO of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which provided funding to the project, said. “Ultimately, more efficient commercial solar plants will make renewable energy cheaper, increasing its competitiveness.”

Researchers continue to get better and better at turning sunlight into electricity. Last year, Silicon Valley solar manufacturer Alta Devices set what was then a record of 30.8 percent conversion efficiency, using an extremely thin solar cell that, though more expensive than a typical solar cell, ended up being able to create a large amount of electricity from just a small amount of surface area. That small size makes these cells useful for small devices such as cell phones, tablets, smoke detectors and watches.

Solar has also been a field of major innovation over the last several years, with researchers developing cells that can be stretched across parking lots and sprayed onto roofs. Researchers have also developed transparent solar modules that can be applied to windows, and last month, the Netherlands unveiled the world’s first solar bike lane.

Panasonic Plugs in Its Solar-Friendly Fujisawa Smart Town

fujisawa smart town

With the recent launch of the “nerve center” of Fujisawa’s Sustainable Smart Town — a new development located about 30 miles west of Tokyo — Panasonic is giving the phrase “company town” a whole new meaning.

The town was designed by the Japanese electronics company to encourage sustainable and environmentally conscious lifestyles. It boasts solar panels, storage batteries and LED lights in every home, along with streets lined with solar-powered streetlights. And thanks to a communal set of storage batteries, the town has three days of backup energy on hand — an emergency stash that can be used if a natural disaster hits.

“Town planning usually starts with infrastructure, but in order to allow people to enjoy a sustainable and ‘smart’ life we needed to begin imagining a new lifestyle,” said Tomohiko Miyahara, a Panasonic general manager and president of the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town Management Company, in a company-produced video. “Understanding that, we can incorporate functionality into houses, buildings and infrastructure, and that’s how we designed this town.”

Panasonic’s approach differs from other company-led “smart cities.” Projects run by IBM and Cisco are based around internet-connected systems and widely distributed sensors that use big data to create “smart” capabilities to predict potentially disruptive events such as extreme weather.

In contrast, Panasonic’s focus appears to be more on a straightforward approach to sustainability rather than on smart technology that enables sustainability gains. Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town has a goal to generate 70 percent less CO2 and reduce daily household water use by 30 percent over similar-sized towns, while generating 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources. And Fujisawa’s houses are configured in a design that is optimized for rooftop solar panels and to enable wind to reach every house to serve as a natural cooling agent.

But Panasonic also believes that strong community ties and safety are key elements of its Sustainable Smart Towns.

“Smart Cities and Smart Towns are thought of as having ‘smart’ technology, but the basic elements of living are eco-consciousness and above all, safety,” Miyahara said. “To maintain the ideals of ‘smart’ and ‘sustainable,’ we consider these services essential: energy, mobility, security, health care and community.”

town centerToward those ends, Panasonic late last month opened a nerve center, or central operating area for the town — called the Square (pictured at right) — where residents can gather for monthly planned activities, interact in an onsite café, or rent out a bicycle or electric vehicle. Surveillance cameras have been mounted on the street, and are monitored by service personnel.

Individual inspiration is also available. Residents can track their energy consumption of their refrigerator via online platforms.

“Being able to see the numbers motivates me to be eco-conscious,” said resident Tomoko Matsuba in the Panasonic video.

The company plans to replicate its brand of smart and sustainable smart towns in other parts of Japan.

“Panasonic used to propose new lifestyles through household electronics, but these are just tools,” said Miyahara in the video. “In the future, we want to suggest new lifestyles not just through household goods, but throughout the living spaces of homes and towns.”

Photos courtesy of Panasonic.

Community Colleges: The Gateway to Clean Energy & Climate Resiliency

community collegesWhen it comes to preparing for, fighting against and adapting to global warming, community colleges are resiliency no-brainers. So it makes sense to the American Association for Community Colleges, whose thousand-plus campuses serve over half of America’s undergraduates, that their students should be trained in job skills with a real future.

“Municipal leaders are charged with mobilizing the community and training workers in climate change-related disaster preparedness and recovery,” president Walter G. Bumphus prefaced AACC’s new report A Guide to Climate Resiliency and the Community College. “Two-year colleges are clear partners in setting and meeting local and regional resiliency goals. They have the expertise and community relationships to effectively deliver training and community programs that will help rebuild infrastructure, make advances in clean energy and rebound after natural disasters.”

AACC argues that sustainability programs promoting and training students in solar and wind, energy efficiency and much more already have a significant track record with the public and private sector. One can see it flowering today at California’s Skyline College, whose award-winning Energy Systems Technology Management department is catching fire. Meanwhile, the state’s southbound Cerritos College just launched a “first-of-its-kind” cleantech program to train veterans and civilians how to maintain and evolve California’s accelerating solar and EV infrastructure. And that’s just one state.

“What is new here is not the content but the context,” AACC’s report explains during a West Coast case study, encompassing not just cleantech-minded community colleges in California but also Oregon and Washington. “Energy efficiency in context of resiliency is a multilayered response to climate risk. And this broader view of the industry widens the field of EE-related jobs and training: beyond energy auditors and weatherization crews, we see outcome brokers, community health workers, manufacturing technicians, procurement specialists, and others come into focus.”

Further AACC case studies in the West Coast focus on post-disaster emergency response and healthcare, as well as urban planning and green infrastructure, while its lone East Coast case study on cross-sector resiliency (PDF) delves into information technology and coding skills that will come in might handy in an internetworked crisis dystopia.

Indeed, community colleges, and their millions of students, need to “integrate resiliency into every corner of the curricula,” the AACC concludes. In the last couple of years, the United States spent north of $130 billion responding to global warming’s ravages, a crippling cost that is surely to rise as exponential warming takes hold. By comparison, training tomorrow’s students in anything else but cleantech and resiliency looks like a loss leader.