A clean energy report looks at the tension between utilities and consumers, and we take a look at political crossover: how distributed energy and local control is becoming more of a bipartisan issue.
Chris Mooney with the Washington Post leads the roundup with two articles on how solar energy plays in conservative parts of the nation.
It doesn’t hurt that there’s something about solar that appeals to a libertarian style of thinking — you generate your own power, rather than being dependent upon some utility somewhere. It increases your independence, your economic liberty. No wonder that in Florida right now, political conservatives are among those clamoring for more “solar choice.”
Ultimately it should come as no surprise that this coalition exists, it’s all about local ownership. Mooney writes that it comes down to economics for conservatives, not “environmentalist preaching.” Mooney took a look at study after study on ideology and consumer choice and found that once environmentalist changed their message, conservative leaning participants changed their practices.
When liberals and conservatives were given a choice about whether to buy a CFL over an incandescent lightbulb – after being informed about how much money and power CFLs save over time – something interesting happened. If the two products were the same price, conservatives and liberals both picked the CFL, no matter how it was marketed. But if the CFL cost more and was labeled with “Protect the Environment,” then conservatives balked.
That does not mean conservatives oppose energy efficiency – or saving money. Rather, it means they don’t like having environmentalist ideological messages rubbed in their noses.
“Some wrong messages that could be taken from it are, conservatives don’t like energy efficient products,” says Richard Larrick of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, one of the study’s authors. “That’s not true. If the savings are there and there’s no environmental statement attached to it, they look just like the liberals.”
How regulators and legislators make it harder for you to use solar power by Lucas Mearian, Computer World
As Americans have warmed to solar power and its ability to reduce electricity bills, utilities are suffering revenue losses and have been seeking ways to recoup that money. Over the past several years, state utility commissions and legislatures have pursued policies that reduce the benefits of adopting distributed solar power systems for homeowners and businesses.
Solar energy’s unexpected conservative backers by Reem Nasr, CNBC
“Conservative support for green energy has always been there, but the Democrats capitalized on it more than the Republicans,” the former Republican congressman and Arizona legend told CNBC. “The Democrats did a better job of promoting it.”
As a conservative, Goldwater has become a vocal advocate for solar energy in recent years. He currently serves as the chairman of “Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed” (TUSK), a solar advocacy group that is pushing for energy independence across the country.
Let’s Get Real: The Energy Efficiency Industry Can Do Better by Matt Golden, GreenTech Media
The frequently used analogy of energy efficiency being “low-hanging fruit” is misleading. If energy efficiency were in fact easy to pick like a ripe apple on a low branch, after 40 years of programs, more of it would have been picked. Instead, it is much more like wild strawberries — it takes lots of people on their hands and knees a long time to fill a basket…
… Rather than basing the value on an artificially low number created by regulators, the value should be based on the utility’s avoided costs, also known as the program administrators cost (file is in PDF format), and at the price the market will bear. Utilities should be buying all energy efficiency that costs less to procure than the marginal cost of the next alternative.
If markets were allowed to properly value energy efficiency, investment could increase to levels that would drive growth, and the cost of savings to public programs would still be cheaper than the levelized avoided cost (PDF) of generating energy. With money to be made selling efficiency, market forces and competition would drive increasingly efficient business models and reward solutions that deliver cost-effective results.
By Edward Dodge, Breaking Energy
More utilities are responding to the threat of distributed energy by trying to expand their holdings. Coley Girouard with the Energy Collective talks about how recent mergers and acquisitions could signal the return of the mega-utility:
Only time will tell if this recent M&A activity represents an overall trend toward consolidation in response to the drivers of utility industry change. One thing we know for sure is that utilities are growing bigger. Since 1995, the number of electric utility holding companies has been cut approximately in half.
Taking out a loan to buy rooftop solar panels can save customers up to 29% over lease agreements. Morgan Lee with San Diego Union-Tribune covered a recent study:
Feldman and colleague Travis Lowder translated rooftop solar costs under various financing arrangements into an average electricity price for 20 years.
They found that solar loans typically save between 19 percent and 29 percent on energy costs compared with lease agreements.
Put another way, the cost of energy dropped to about 14 cents per kilowatt-hour under a typical five-year loan. Under a lease, energy would cost about 20 cents a kilowatt-hour.
Our Ultimate Solar Calculator App helps customers all over the United States calculate their own savings.
And speaking of our Solar Calculator, you might have heard John’s voice on NPR’s Morning Edition.
John was interviewed by Jeff Brady about the cost-savings of buying solar panels.
“I favor ownership, simply because it means keeping more of the dollars — over the lifetime of that solar panel — in the pocket of the owner,” Farrell says.
He points to a resident of Chicago, for example. “You could save, over the 30-year life of a solar panel, about $6,200 were you to own that system outright,” he says. Someone who leases panels would save about $4,000 off the cost of getting power from the local utility during that period.
“So both are a good deal from the standpoint of saving money, but ownership is about a 50 percent better deal,” says Farrell.
Travis Hoium with Motley Fool writes about the Love-Hate Relationship between Utilities and Solar Energy. He says solar storage could hold a key for consumers cutting their ties with utilities.
Keep in mind, though, that the solar industry is innovating much faster than the electrical utility, and soon it may be able to offer ways to store energy on a local level or even in a micro-grid in the near future. Utilities are fighting a difficult battle, but with public sentiment, economics, and innovation on the side of the solar industry. When the old world of energy faces off against the new, it’s the disruptive force of solar energy that I think will win — and it’s certainly who I’m putting my money on as an investor.
Democratic Energy Across the Nation
Arizona is the perfect example where elected Republican regulators are taking the side of monopoly utilities instead of ratepayers.
Arizona’s New Solar Charge Is ‘Unsupportable By Any Economic Analysis by Ari Phillips, Think Progress
SRP’s new rate plan is only the latest setback for solar users in Arizona. In 2013, Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest utility, proposed a similar fee that was cut back drastically by state regulators. The utility wanted to charge customers between $50 and $100 per month to use solar, but the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) voted to charge a far-reduced 70 cents per kilowatt, meaning homeowners will pay about $5 a month. The SRP proposal was not be subject to such oversight.
SolarCity sues SRP for antitrust violations by Ryan Randazzo, The Republic | azcentral.com
Tam Hunt argues in favor of revamping LA’s feed-in tariff for solar PV, GreenTech Media
Mark Chediak with Bloomberg Business shows that if Florida policy makers don’t change course, the Sunshine State’s solar future looks bleak.
Despite proof to the contrary, utility lobbyists in Florida have convinced some minority organizations that renewable energy hurts lower income consumers. Evan Helper with the LA Times reported on why the state’s chapter of the NAACP, which receives contributions from utility groups, is backing utility efforts to slow the spread of solar energy installations.
“In October, Gibbons traveled to Capitol Hill to enlist black members of Congress into his campaign. At a briefing for staff, he was joined by a representative of the Edison Electric Institute, an influential energy industry group.
Tax records show the institute gave $10,000 to the National Black Caucus of State Legislators in 2013, the most recent year for which records are available. In the two previous years, the institute gave $17,500 to the National Policy Alliance. It contributed $120,000 to organizations run by the Congressional Black Caucus between 2008 and 2013.
The Florida chapter of the NAACP acknowledges utilities are among its donors, but does not disclose how much they give.
Unlike most monopoly utilities, solar advocates are working to close the gap in solar ownership, and keep energy dollars local. George Washington University Solar Institute’s newest paper, Bridging the Solar Income Gap:
This segment of the population could benefit very much from solar power, because they would pay less for electricity. In fact, solar power systems in community gardens could provide free electricity for some small neighborhoods. If one megawatt of solar power can provide electricity for about 164 homes when there is adequate sunlight, investing in such a system could provide energy for 25 years or even longer. Government support would be necessary for the construction, but solar power has never been more affordable, so the payback time for it is now very reasonable.
Solar Coalition In Florida Opposes Solar Bill Proposed By Republican Senator Cynthia Shahan, Clean Technica
“Brandes’ bill, which is similar to a ballot petition being circulated by a pro-solar coalition, also would allow utility companies to install rooftop solar panels on businesses and sell that electricity to those customers without regulators’ approval.”
The response by the organizers of the solar petition is not one of appreciation. They oppose Brandes’ bill, saying it is “an attempt by the utilities to undermine their ballot initiative. They argue that the bill could force those who use solar and want to remain connected to the grid to pay exorbitant fees that could make solar unaffordable.”
Solar Energy Advocates Find Unexpected Ally In Tea Party by Greg Allen, NPR
Currently in Florida, only utilities are allowed to sell power – solar or otherwise. The initiative the groups want to put before the voters would allow people and businesses to sell power from small rooftop solar systems. Property owners would be able to make deals with companies to install systems and sell them the power generated over the long-term at a fixed rate. It’s a model used in other states. Environmentalists and the solar industry are on board of course, as is the Florida Retail Federation. Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy calls it an unusual coalition but one with a common goal.
Hawaii continues to be a battleground for net metering practices, and could serve as a model for other states as they see solar ownership increase.
Friction at the Grid Edge: Hawaii’s PUC Orders HECO to Approve Solar Rooftops: How much solar can distribution feeders handle? That experiment plays out every day in the Hawaiian islands.
by Eric Wesoff, GreenTech Media
PUC orders HECO to approve solar systems by Kathryn Mykleseth, Hawaii Star Advertiser
“Future letters … relating to the denial or delay of interconnection of residential rooftop photovoltaic systems to the grid, shall first be submitted to the Public Utilities Commission … ten business days prior to the proposed issuance date with full documentation in support of their reasons for proposing to issue the letter.
Erica Gies with The Guardian lays out the challenges and why Hawaii utilities are pushing back as more consumers produce their own energy.
“In Hawaii and worldwide, rooftop solar poses a challenge for utilities because they don’t control it. Such “distributed generation” — electricity generated on existing buildings, rather than at a central power plant — has environmental benefits over utility-scale solar farms because it doesn’t take over agricultural land or wildlife habitat.”
Rockfordian harnesses solar energy for use by himself and others by Georgette Braun, Rockford Register Star
Residents Speak Out Against Solar Energy Project by Matthew Searcy, WSIL-TV
Regulators: HECO must continue to interconnect rooftop solar systems by Robert Walton, Utility Dive
Customers waiting to connect their rooftop solar systems to the grid got some good news last week when HECO signed an agreement ceding that state regulators and not the utility are in charge.
The agreement, signed by both head of the PUC Randy Iwase and HECO CEO Alan Oshima, said: “Stated simply, the policy is that the HECO Companies have an affirmative duty to interconnect a potential customer.”
Conservatives are taking Chairman of the House Utilities and Energy Committee, Eric Koch, to task this week for “one of the most egregious instances [of corruption, manipulation and a whole host of unethical behaviors”] to cross my radar in recent memory:
Conservative groups oppose Indiana net metering bill by Indiana Business Journal
Rally brings attention to energy choice and savings by Sara Wagner, WANE
One town in Maine is looking to reduce solar costs for residents through bulk pricing. Kate Gardner with the Freeport Forecaster reports that Solarize Freeport could kickstart the first bulk purchase of solar equipment by a Maine municipality.
“By having the community come together and buy in bulk, homeowners can reduce the cost of the system quite significantly,” Insource Renewables owner Vaughan Woodruff said.
According to a press release from Larson, the town has the names of almost 200 Freeport residents who have said they are interested in joining the program. These names were collected on Election Day as people were leaving the polls.
Meantime, Maine legislators are moving forward with rebate and incentive bills for solar power. Despite its cold climate, Tux Turkel with the Portland Press Herald reports, “Despite its cold climate, Maine has enough sunshine to make solar power viable. What it lacks is the policies and rebates available in many states that supplement federal incentives.”
Xcel Energy is buying up land for its next solar project. While landowners might think it’s a great investment, owning their own panels would help them to keep their energy dollars local. Carolyn Lange with the West Central Tribune is covering the Xcel Energy land grab.
On the flipside, one cooperative is hoping its newest project will help its members invest in a community solar garden. Frank Jossi reports that Steele-Waseca Cooperative Electric out of Owatonna says that if a member buys a photovoltaic panel and a new electric water heater, they can get both for a fraction of the price. The co-op began accepting applications the Sunna Project in January.
Study finds net metering to be a net benefit in Missouri by Karen Uhlenhuth, Midwest Energy News
Even accounting for increased utility administrative costs and the shifting of some fixed expenses, the MEI study found that in each year from 2008 through 2013, customers overall came out ahead.
The study “was meant for policymakers and rate-makers to dive into with an open mind and open eyes, and to know what key questions to ask,” said MEI’s executive director, Josh Campbell.
by Katherine Tweed, GreenTech Media
BY GABE PONCE DE LEÓN, City and State NY
The governor’s REV plan calls for reconfiguring the state’s aging electric infrastructure and overhauling the regulatory framework. In pushing for decentralization of power distribution, the governor is banking on major efficiency, reliability and resiliency gains from consumer-sited generation and smart demand management. These technologies could also facilitate a transition to a cleaner energy portfolio.
Solar power advocates say some recent decisions by the state have hurt the economics of solar in New York and are taking their case to the governor.
by Dany Heyman, Public News Service
Texas’ publicly owned CPS Energy is negotiating what is touted to be the largest development agreement between a municipal utility and a private company in the US.
Taken together, the solar energy advances in San Antonio are part of CPS Energy’s Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan, which aims to reduce growth in the community’s electricity needs by 770 megawatts by 2020, or the equivalent of a large power plant.
Now, CPS Energy is experimenting with a new pilot program that it says will make rooftop solar available to more San Antonio residents, including low-income households where PV panels are noticeably absent.
“We’ve tried diligently for a couple of years now to satisfy some of the needs of our solar stakeholders,” Beneby says. “But we’ve also tried very hard to make solar available to every part of our community. For the first few years or so, the solar installations have been collected around some of the higher-income ZIP codes. We’ve thought about that for a while now. We want something for the masses.”
Solar energy increasingly popular in San Antonio by Jeremy Baker, KENS 5
2 Lynchburg colleges join others in Va. in exploring solar-power options by Jessie Pounds, News Advance
Ben WIllis, of PV Tech writes this week about why solar advocates are breathing easier after the Governor vetoed a controversial net metering bill. Advocates have reason to worry though, the bill is going back for a re-drafting, and could still hurt the state’s solar future.
But while the bill was vetoed on this occasion by Tomblin, he left the door open to its backers having another try. “I encourage the Legislature to re-examine this piece of legislation and correct the technical issues outlined in my veto message. I look forward to reviewing its changes in final form,” he said.
A further attempt, if successful, would leave West Virginia’s renewable energy policies in tatters. The retention of a net metering policy when the repeal of West Virginia’s 25% RPS was enacted was seen as a victory for clean energy campaigners, but that too now seems to be under threat.
Despite Net Metering Veto, West Virginia’s Solar Industry Close to Collapse by Leon Kaye, GreenTech Media
“how can proponents of solar breathe life into an industry on life support in one of the poorest US states? Gaining the support of churches and community groups is one way to appeal to residents of a state who feel their most lucrative export, coal, is under siege (which it is, but largely thanks to the natural gas boom).”
By Herman K. Trabish, Utility Dive
This legislation would have had the practical effect of stymying – if not killing – the growth of rooftop solar in West Virginia. “We applaud Gov. Tomblin for doing the right thing,” said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), which strongly opposed the legislation. “This bill was fatally flawed. Was it for political reasons? Or was it a case of sloppy drafting? Whichever the case, Gov. Tomblin did the right thing by vetoing the bill and sending it back to the drawing board.”
Restrictive net metering policies are getting a second look! This week a Dane County judge ruled in favor of solar advocates, saying that the Wisconsin Public Service net metering program should be clarified.
The ruling comes weeks after Renew Wisconsin and the Alliance for Solar Choice filed suit to challenge the PSC’s December decision that backed new solar fees for We Energies solar customers.
“To put forth these changes to net metering the utilities need to supply the data and the evidence that bolsters their proposal for why they want to change it,” said Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin. “We didn’t think there was evidence, and the judge agreed with us in the WPS case, and that’s what we’re contending again.”
Md. needs more clean energy Baltimore Sun: Kelsey Erickson, Takoma Park
If Governor Hogan continues to support the bottom line of fossil fuel companies, then strong grass roots efforts will be critical to protect the health, safety and financial security of the public. We need constituents to show their support for the Clean Energy Advancement Act that would double Maryland’s wind and solar production by implementing a 40 percent renewable portfolio standard by 2025.
A Vermont legislator is pushing for her state to develop renewable portfolio standards. Rep. Rebecca Ellis (D) says if the state doesn’t set up its own standards, it may be at the mercy of neighboring states.
In aggressively promoting distributed renewable generation, Vermont is following both national and global trends. On the electric grid, distributed generation looks a lot like efficiency. Because demand is met locally, utilities do not need to reach out to the grid for supply.
Like efficiency, distributed power minimizes the need for expensive transmission lines, promotes reliability and reduces line losses. This lowers the cost of electricity for all Vermont consumers.
And through distributed renewable generation, Vermonters can become their own power suppliers, keeping some of the $830 million spent annually by Vermonters on electricity here at home.
Ben Otto is asking Idaho’s PUC to protect his state’s solar future. Idaho Power utility wants to change the current 20-year contract for clean energy to a 2-year plan. The Idaho Conservation League is opposed.
Imagine if you wanted to buy a house and had to renegotiate the mortgage every two years. Would any bank give you a loan? Of course not. They think 15 and 30 years down the road.
That’s why when Idaho Power builds a power plant or transmission line, they get a long-term deal making us customers repay them for as long as the project operates. Idaho solar should get the same deal. That’s only fair.