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Solar Installations Performing Better than Promised

Solar is looking pretty resilient, according to research from the National Renewable Energy Lab. Now it’s time for international standardization to accelerate and protect investment and performance.

Crunching data from almost 50,000 PV systems pumping out 1.7 gigawatts from 2009 to 2012 — the infamous year of Hurricane Sandy — NREL’s report Reliability and Geographic Trends of 50,000 Photovoltaic Systems in the USA found that 85 percent of them performed 10 percent better than expected. The briefer version? Not even extreme weather events from America’s fearsomely changing climates can make solar panels seem like a dumb investment.

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California Solar Incentives Could Make a Bigger Impact

Despite being America’s clear solar leader, over the last several years California could have paid the same $2.2 billion to install way more than its 245,000 systems pumping out 2,365 megawatts — if it had simply given them away to the less well off.

Well, maybe San Diego County, whose rooftop solar installation data from 2007-2013 was crunched in Vanderbilt University and Sandia National Labs’ new study, partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and to be published in May’s Proceedings of the 14th International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems. Employing a “data-driven agent-based modeling method” (jargon alert!) to analyze 8,500 solar projects in San Diego, the scientists extrapolated that the incentivized California Solar Initiative rebate program could have more significantly increased adoption if it had instead deployed “a carefully optimized program to provide systems to low-income households at little or no cost.”

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Goodbye Utilities, Hello Home Solar Batteries

The utilities are at an existential crossroads. Let’s hope they pick the road leading to grid-connected systems of solar plus batteries, before they lose thousands of customers and billions of dollars.

Unlike their larger off-grid counterparts, leaner and meaner grid-connected battery systems could check electricity costs and increase savings no matter what peak retail prices may be, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute and HOMER Energy’s new report, The Economics of Load Defection. Better yet, they could supplant the traditional grid by supplying the majority of utility customers with power, rewriting what the general public believes a utility to be in the process. Even if a fraction of customers independently go solar using grid-connected battery systems, the utilities stand to lose millions of kilowatts and billions of dollars in central generation.

The utilities now must decide whether they want to part of the energy problem, or part of its solution.

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Here Are America’s Best Solar Cities

America’s cities are taking solar power more seriously, according to Environment America. Everyone wins, except some utilities who won’t play ball.

With three out of America’s top five cities in total installed solar capacity, California is running away with the national title, according to EA’s Shining Cities report. Clear leader Los Angeles (170 MW) and second-place San Diego (149 MW) nicely represent Southern California, while San Jose (105 MW) lights up Northern California’s reputation.

But when filtered by per capita solar capacity, as of 2014, other solar cities begin working their way up the ranks of municipalities looking to be taken (more) seriously. Indianapolis is a particularly electrifying “Solar Star,” said EA’s report. (We have previously covered Indianapolis’s solar boom.) By claiming fourth place with 107 MW of total installed capacity, the city also stakes its claim as America’s second best in per capita solar, with 127 watts per person.

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Bringing Los Angeles Solar Into the Mainstream

Los Angeles can solarize without sacrificing its balance sheet. Also, its jobs market could catch on fire.

That’s the crystal ball, if you’re UCLA’s Luskin Center and USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity’s collaborative report Los Angeles Solar: Now and Into the Future. It was commissioned by the Los Angeles Business Council Institute, who wants the City of Angels to juice up “solar equity hotspots” in Downtown L.A., Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley and the port by 1,500 megawatts annually.

Doing so would render meaningless the 42 percent of L.A.’s energy portfolio that leans on coal-fired power, the report explained. Reroute that investment toward improved feed-in-tariffs (FiT), community jobs initiatives and net metering, and the metropolis could explode in value.

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Will Apple’s Massive Buy Grow Corporate Solar?

According to CEO Tim Cook, Apple’s “biggest, boldest and most ambitious project ever” is not the iWatch or the iCar, but a power-purchase agreement with First Solar worth a scorching $850 million. But is it a “market-making type of transaction,” as SunPower CEO Tom Werner predicted, shortly after the blockbuster deal was announced? Or is it simply more of the same investment in solar that has characterized corporate interest in renewable energy for years, which for all its forward-looking statements is still disproportionately small in the realm of solar commitments compared to the funding spent on increasing emissions?

“Corporate interest in solar and wind was already hot,” explained CleanTechnica director Zachary Shahan. “IKEA, Google, Facebook and many others have been putting a ton of money into clean energy projects in the past few years. I think most everyone knows that it’s about the financial rewards now, not so much about corporate solar responsibility.”

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Corporate Solar Report Card!


“This is a market-making type of transaction,” prophesied SunPower CEO Tom Werner, after Apple recently awarded $850 million to First Solar for a 130-megawatt PV plant to green its world-beating empire. Let us pray, said the solarizers.

We’ll pray with data, of course, in this handy report card on corporate solar progress so far. Apple’s blockbuster deal with First Solar certainly sets both apart as a PV paragons although, as CEO Tim Cook will probably tell you himself, it was something of a renewable energy no-brainer. In the final analysis, the question is never really whether or not other titans will follow Apple’s example, but when? Are these corporations truly committing to solar, or are they focused on stalling innovations like net metering and distributed generation? Queries abound.

“Given the profile of Apple and their reputation, we think it’s going to stimulate a lot of other companies that may not have programs as active as Apple’s to ask questions,” First Solar CEO Jim Hughes said after the deal was announced. “Is there a smarter, better way we can procure our energy?”

Citizens spending hard-earned dollars to go solar also want to know who’s on their side. The goods news is that all of the following corporations are, after a fashion, throwing their political and economic clout into solar energy. The bad news is that some of them, even the best, have much more act to clean up.

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PG&E: Top of California Solar Utility Heap

With its 150,000th solar installation and many more to come, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas & Electric is cleaning up and shaping up to become America’s largest solar utility. It added 45,000 customers last year alone, and connects on average 4,000 new solar systems a month, reportedly more than “any other energy company in the nation,” PG&E’s milestone press release explained.

“Every month, thousands of PG&E customers are choosing to go solar to help them save on their bill and to reduce their carbon footprint,” said PG&E VP Laurie Giammona. “Solar power is critical to California’s clean energy future.”

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Arizona's Solar Taxes Are a Bad Idea

Solar taxes are taking off, especially in states whose fading utilities are afraid of losing their political and economic stranglehold on the energy industry. The latest disgrace is Arizona’s Tucson Electric Power, which is following in Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project’s clumsy footprint by complicating net metering progress with inequitable fees.

“At first glance, it looks extremely unfair,” said Solar Energy Industries Association spokesman Ken Johnson. “What Tucson Electric Power is proposing is that customers are able to offset their energy’s full retail credit, and the exports would be valued at what Renewable Portfolio Standard projects are being paid. No other state does that.”

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Why Does Louisiana Solar Suck?

Since the Obama administration took office, solar net energy metering in Louisiana has grown 180 percent on an average annual basis. So what’s the problem?

The answer is that Louisiana solar incentives are welfare for the state’s wealthy, according to a Louisiana Public Services Commission report (PDF). It was drafted by Louisiana State University professor David Dismukes, an economist with “extensive experience in all aspects of the natural gas industry.” Dismukes admits in its early pages that net metering’s exponential growth ballooned state tax incentives to an average of $23 million a year since 2009, which led to “concerns raised by utilities” about breached capacity limits while filing complaints with the LPSC, who in turn decided to revisit its NEM policy.

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SolarCity Moves Into Microgrids

The sun keeps shining on U.S solar panel installation leader SolarCity, which is now adding microgrids to its expanding slate of worldwide services.

SolarCity’s GridLogic microgrid service “combines distributed solar, batteries and controllable loads” to give communities an emergency power supply during one of global warming’s proliferating disruptions. Company heads Elon Musk and the Peter and Lyndon Rive believe the service will come in handy for campuses, hospitals, military bases and remote islands, but who doesn’t want a resilient alternative to the utilities when things get rough?

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