The Top 10 Solar Utilities Ranking Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

sepa rankingsThe Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) yesterday released its 2014 Utility Solar Rankings, an annual look at the growth of solar and the utilities that have installed the most megawatts of clean solar energy.

The results of the SEPA study are mostly good — actually, they’re mostly astoundingly great, and further confirmation of the reality, and real-world impact of this amazing solar boom we’re living in. To wit:

  • Approximately 5.3 GW of new solar was added in 2014, bringing U.S. solar capacity to 16.3 GW. This included more than 182,000 new systems, bringing the national total to more than 675,500.
  • U.S. solar capacity has increased at an average annual growth rate of 35% over the past four years.
  • Declining technology costs combined with federal and state incentives have made residential solar installations an attractive investment for homeowners and continue to spur sector growth.
  • Utility-scale projects — those of 5 MW or more — continue to deliver the majority of new solar capacity with 3,311 MW in 2014.

And Julia Hamm, SEPA’s CEO — who we profiled last summer, spells out the significance of this year’s report.

“Our Top 10 survey results confirm the unstoppable momentum now propelling solar market expansion in the United States and the active role many utilities are playing in it,” Hamm said in a statement. “Consumers across the country want solar, and their utilities are responding, with streamlined interconnection procedures as well as new and innovative projects and business models. And we’re seeing this growth not only in well-established markets, such as in California or Hawaii, but in unexpected pockets of solar activity, including Tennessee, Utah and Montana.”

This all sounds well and good, and it mostly is, but there’s a bit of a contradiction lurking under the findings of this year’s report, one that complicates the self-back-patting from some of these utilities.

Let’s look at this list of the top solar utilities, ranked by megawatts installed in 2014:

  1. Pacific Gas and Electric (CA) 4,604
  2. Southern California
    Edison (CA) 2,320
  3. San Diego Gas & Electric (CA) 1,239
  4. Arizona Public Service (AZ) 805
  5. Public Service
    Electric & Gas Company (NJ) 607
  6. Duke Energy Progress (NC, SC)
    382
  7. NV Energy (NV) 364
  8. Jersey Central Power & Light
    (NJ) 331
  9. National Grid (MA) 314
  10. Xcel CO – Public
    Service Company of Colorado (CO) 275

Many of these utilities are sincere and earnest in their support for solar, particularly home solar — PG&E for example recently celebrated the interconnection of its 150,000th home solar system. But what’s troubling is the continued presence of Arizona Public Service, Duke Energy and Xcel on this list. Sure, they’re installing lots of solar — particularly utility-scale systems that make them a lot of money — but at the same time, they’re each engaged in a vicious fight to slow or kill the home solar boom in their respective territories through attacks on net metering and the levying of monthly fees for solar homeowners.

When SEPA published its 2013 ranking around this time last year, our reporter Garrett Hering looked in-depth at the home solar vs. solar farm divide:

In a seemingly coordinated, multi-front strategy, utilities are arguing their case to ratepayers, policymakers, regulators and investors that the costs of net metering at the full retail rate of electricity are far greater than the benefits and are unfair to non-solar-powered ratepayers. They are reinforcing this position though a PR blitz – including TV commercials by APS, Xcel and investor-owned utility trade group Edison Electric Institute – as well as in arguments to state regulators, and in statements to investment analysts.

In some ways, it’s clear why utility-scale solar is a better bet for these utilities: It’s significantly more cost-effective per kilowatt-hour generated, and you can pack a lot more solar capacity into a single project than you could into even a decent-sized town. This chart from the SEPA report spells it out starkly:

solar boom
Utility-scale solar produces 62 percent of the nation’s solar capacity with just .005 percent of the total number of installations. So that the 182,262 solar installations last year, 911 of them generated almost 3,300 megawatts of the 5,314 megawatts of new solar capacity installed in 2014.The other benefit of utility-scale solar projects is that it generates big bucks for the utilities themselves — there’s no net metering payback to customers, this is all going back to the utilities’ coffers.

And although the future is almost certainly going to rely on small-scale distributed generation — something made even more certain by the growing boom in energy storage heralded by the forthcoming Tesla home battery announcement — utilities continue to fight this future. Even the forward-looking utilities continue to hope that’s not the case. From Hering’s 2014 article again:

As Mark Ferron, a former commissioner at the California Public Utilities Commission, wrote in a farewell letter upon vacating his post in January due to health issues: “We are fortunate to have utilities in California that are orders of magnitude more enlightened than their brethren in the coal-loving states, although I suspect that they would still dearly like to strangle rooftop solar if they could.”

Matthew Wheeland
Author: Matthew Wheeland

Matthew Wheeland is the editor of SolarEnergy.net. He has been an environmental journalist for nearly 15 years, covering everything from farming to green chemistry to corporate sustainability. Follow him on Twitter @MattWheeland.

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