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The War Over Rooftop Solar

Is Distributed Generation dead? Perhaps not, but some utility companies are trying hard to redefine DG and privately owned residential solar is not part of their plan. In 2014, distributed local solar power constituted over 25% of new power plant capacity, but that growth won’t continue if powerful utility lobbyists have their way.

Since the invention of the modern grid-tied inverter, U.S. advocates for solar have battled for the right to generate power with small-scale solar arrays. American homeowners and businesses wanting to install solar have had to deal with as many different policies as there are states in the union, some much more favorable to rooftop solar than others. States like Massachusetts and Maryland offer tax credits or other incentives, while states like Oklahoma and Arkansas are openly hostile toward solar development. Monopoly electrical utilities can pile fees and charges on owners of private solar generation that prevent projects from being economically feasible, and blocking all but committed (and wealthy) environmentalists from using solar.

  photo credit: NREL

photo credit: NREL

According to the Solar Energy Industry Association’s website, “Distributed generation (DG) refers to electricity that is produced at or near the point where it is used. Distributed solar energy can be located on rooftops or ground-mounted, and is typically connected to the local utility distribution grid. States, cities and towns are experimenting with policies to encourage distributed solar to offset peak electricity demand and stabilize the local grid.”

However, there is a good deal of disagreement about exactly what constitutes “distributed generation”, when to comes to solar photovoltaics (PV). In 1997, the federal government established the “Million Solar Roofs Initiative” (MSR). The goal of the MSR was to transform markets for distributed solar technologies by facilitating the installation of PV systems. Although the effectiveness of this program is debatable, it did illustrate the push to open up access to the grid to individuals who wished to install a grid-tied solar array, and it gave support to the small systems approach to Distributed Generation. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of solar photovoltaic installations in the US and the equally rapid decline in installed cost of solar has made solar more attractive to utility companies, who are now more interested in building their own “distributed” solar generation facilities than allowing their customers to install their own PV generation. Utilities are building large, multi megawatt solar plants in the same way they have developed small gas generating stations in the past. Utilities prefer a model where generation is distributed, but ownership is not.

In 2013, Arizona regulators voted 3-2 to set a fixed charge of 70 cents per kilowatt of system capacity on solar producers, to recoup their own capital costs. That’s roughly $5 a month for an average system that Arizona electric companies can now charge the people who are offsetting the utilities peak demand and covering their own maintenance costs. In April of 2014, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin followed suit and signed the “solar surcharge” bill into law, permitting utilities to charge an extra fee to any customer using distributed power generation, such as rooftop solar.

Net metering, the policy which allows small systems owners to use their solar energy to receive credit for the energy they produce at retail cost, is capped at a percentage of total generation in over half the states in the U.S. With small systems going in faster than ever, potential solar generators in many states will begin to come up against net metering caps, virtually freezing out new residential and business installations. These caps are so low in most states, that they make no practical sense at all. With solar at 1% of peak demand, the intermittent nature of solar poses no danger to grid stability. In fact, solar generation matches peak demand. Hot, sunny days when demand is greatest, solar is producing at its peak.

Why the hostility toward small systems? Up until recently, utility companies have seen rooftop solar as a novelty. Now, with the solar boom, the marginal threat of small solar is growing rapidly. They let the camel’s nose under the tent flap, and now the camel wants in. At the same time, the current low installed cost of solar is giving utilities solar ambitions of their own.

Utilities prefer to keep their eggs in as few baskets as possible. Losing control of their generating capacity is not something they want to do, because in their model, they make power and send it to customers on a one way street. They are far from ready to give up the early 20th century transmission model. Their solution? Solar farms.

Topaz  Image: First Solar

Topaz Image: First Solar

In November, Warren Buffet’s MidAmerican Solar flipped the switch on Topaz, the world’s largest solar farm, weighing in at a whopping 550 Megawatts, and located near San Luis Obispo County on California’s Carrizo Plain. Buffet’s company will top its own record next year, bringing the 579 Megawatt Solar Star online, also in California.

Just this month, First Solar, the same developer who built the Topaz plant, announced their entry into the “Residential” solar market. However, they are not going into the rooftop solar business. Instead, they are partnering with Clean Energy Collective to build “community” solar farms. This unique approach allows those who live in locations that are impractical for rooftop solar to buy into a larger solar farm.

image: Clean Energy Collective

“Distributed generation in the form of community solar expands the addressable market dramatically beyond the traditional residential or commercial sectors,” said Jim Hughes, First Solar’s CEO. “This innovative and cost-competitive approach will further establish solar, and specifically community solar, as a critical part of the global energy mix for all markets.”

The community solar approach is a huge step forward in allowing consumers access to solar technology, and it’s definitely a trend to watch. Large solar farms put huge amounts of clean energy onto the grid in a short amount of time. So why are lobbyist for companies like Buffet’s trying to shut out rooftop solar? Is it really a threat to their business model? After all, the more distributed the generation, the more resilient the grid. Also, with energy storage solutions on the horizon, residential customers may not need to beg for grid access much longer. At some time in the not-so-distant future, they may have the choice to cancel their electrical service and go completely off-grid.


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