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In Defense of Solar for Iowans

June 16, 2017

Utility companies are meant to serve their customers the same way politicians are meant to serve their constituents. Bill HF 652 and the recent adoption of new net-metering policies by the Iowa Utilities Board positions Iowa utilities and politicians firmly on one side of the line while a large number of Iowan residents stand on the other.

In 2016, Iowa had enough solar energy to power 2 million homes and enough wind production to power 20 million homes. In the last year alone, the solar industry employed 260,000 Americans nationwide, with 600 of those jobs located in our state scattered amongst 50 Iowa-based solar companies. In the last five years, the price of solar in Iowa declined 64%. The state is expected to install 223 megawatts of solar over the next five years, compared to just 39 megawatts installed since 2010.

Why has Iowa had such a productive past when it comes to renewable energy? In 1983, we became the first state to implement Renewable Portfolio Standards, which ensures that each year, the two investor-owned utility companies receive at least 105 MW of their electricity from renewable sources. Iowa’s reputation as a national leader of renewable energy policy and progress finds itself on shaky ground with the possible approval of HF 652 and the IUB’s adoption of a new net-metering policy.

Part of solar installation costs are defrayed by a tax credit received for investing in clean energy. HF 652 attempts to lower this solar investment tax credit. The state credit is meant to be a portion of the federal tax incentive for renewable energies. This proposed legislation would lower the annual cap from $5 million to $4 million, effectively reducing the applicable federal tax incentive from 50% to 40%. A 10% reduction in the tax credit cap will make it more difficult for homeowners to make solar power a financially viable, clean-energy option for their family.

Net-metering is one of the long-term benefits solar homeowners receive. When a home or business produces its own energy, the electricity is no longer pulled solely from the traditional energy grid, which effects what you pay to your local utility company. Net-metering allows customers to return some of the electricity they produce via renewable methods to the traditional grid, and receive a credit for doing so.

The Iowa Utilities Board recently approved a number of changes to Iowa’s net-metering policy as advocated for by Alliant Energy. One of the most concerning of these changes is that energy credits must now be cashed out at the end of the year. In the past, customers generating their own electricity could save those excess credits, which rolled over from year to year, and apply them to future bills. This credit rollover, put to rest by the new policy, is one of the most significant benefits to producing one’s own energy, and what makes residential solar a viable option for many families and business owners.

Iowans do not want solar energy to be priced out of their communities or state economy. These changes to Iowa’s policy and legislation will result in fewer families being able to afford solar, which will lead to fewer jobs for those Iowans employed by the solar industry. Bill HF 652 and the Iowa Utilities Board’s new net-metering policy must be respectfully reconsidered as they have destructive potential towards the many benefits Iowans receive as clean energy producers and consumers.

Advocate for Solar in Iowa

March 21, 2017

Bill HSB 187, introduced by Rep. Pat Grassley, has the potential to cap all tax credits on solar. To advocate solar, reach out to your legislators:  

- Call them at the Capitol. The Senate switchboard is 515-281-3371. The House switchboard is 515-281-3221.
- Email them. Senate email addresses are here: https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislators/senate and House email addresses are here: https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislators/house
- Attend a legislative forum. Check the following websites for forums near you:
o  http://www.iowahouserepublicans.com/forums
o  http://www.iowasenaterepublicans.com/events/
o  http://iowahouse.org/forums/
o  http://www.senate.iowa.gov/democrats/events/

The Iowa Environmental Council did this blog offering tips on how to be effective at a legislative forum. 

If you don’t know who your legislator (or your customer’s legislator) is, you can find that here: https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislators/find

Demystifying the EPA

March 3, 2017

EPA logoFederal agencies can be a confusing thing. Starting on the hill in Washington D.C. and working their way down to small towns across America, it can be difficult to understand exactly what those agencies do, and why they do it. How does the local business owner feel the effects of a national regulation sent down from thousands of miles away? Sometimes, the work of a federal agency can be obscured and misunderstood, and in some cases, unnecessarily vilified. The EPA is one of these agencies whose regulations are felt all across the country. So what exactly do they do?

The Environmental Protection Agency of today is a federal agency established to protect human health and the environment by writing rules and regulations based on the bills passed by Congress. The agency first appeared as a response to the feeling in the 1950s and 1960s that a federal policy was necessary to incentivize federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of their decisions. And so the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) was passed. This Act declared a national policy to protect the environment, as well as creating the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Only a year later, President Nixon signed an executive order changing the NEPA to the federal agency: the EPA.

The EPA is led by an Administrator, who’s appointed by the President and must be approved by Congress. Beneath the Administrator, the EPA runs through 10 regional offices and 27 laboratories who are responsible for:

 

  • keeping track of quality of air, water, land, and human health to set national standards and monitor the agency’s own progress
  • conducting environmental assessments, research, and education
  • maintaining and enforcing national standards
  • working with industries and all levels of government on voluntary pollution prevention programs and energy conservation efforts.

So who works for the EPA?

The EPA employs just over 15,000 employees across the nation. More than 50% of these employees are engineers, scientists, and environmental protection specialists. The other half of EPA employees include legal, financial, public affairs, and informational technologies positions.

The EPA manages more than 100 programs that uphold 12 major laws and statues including air, pollution prevention, wastes and recycling, toxics and chemicals, water, and pesticides.

The Chain of Command

How does the local business owner come to know the regulations of the EPA?

First, Congress must pass an environmental law. Then, the EPA writes a regulation responding to this law. Usually, the regulation will be written as a federal standard. States and tribes then enforce these standards through their own regulations.

How are EPA regulations enforced?

When it’s necessary, the EPA can and will take a number of actions against companies and individuals who don’t follow federal regulations. These actions are either civil administrative actions, civil judicial actions, or criminal actions. Civil administrative actions means there is no judicial court necessary, whereas the civil judicial actions means that a judge must be involved to establish the proper enforcement for the parties not following the federal regulations. In some cases, criminal action is taken, in which case the abusing parties are taken to court with criminal charges and will either be judged guilty or not guilty.

What kind of enforcement does the EPA use?

Typically, the EPA tries to enforce their regulations through one of two ways:

1) Federal Facilities Enforcement: This means that the EPA makes sure that federal facilities are complying with environmental regulations. If they are not, the EPA can take civil administrative, civil judicial, or criminal actions against the federal facility.

2) Clean up Enforcement: This is the more commonly known and used method of the EPA. Clean up enforcement means that the EPA will identify the person and/or company responsible for the pollution and/or contamination and they will negotiate for the party to clean up the area themselves; order the party to clean up themselves; or, ordering the person/company to pay for the clean up to be completed by a third party.

Where does the federal funding go?

The EPA functions on an $8 million budget. Nearly 50% of this funding is used in the form of grants that are given to state environmental programs, non-profits, educational institutions, and others working towards bettering the environment and standards of human health. Remaining funds are used for initiatives spanning scientific studies to community cleanups. The EPA also uses the federal funding to study environmental issues. EPA employees are responsible for identifying and attempting to provide solutions to environmental problems across the country. We can’t forget about environmental education and community action, either. The EPA takes advantage of sponsor partnerships with businesses, non-profit organizations, and state and local governments.

Perhaps you’re familiar with these EPA regulations:

Clean Air Act of 1970

This 1970 Act was one of the first major federal acts to change the government’s role in their ability to control air pollution. The central point of this act was to limit emissions from stationary and mobile sources. To regulate the act, four programs were instated: the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, State Implementation Plans, New Source Performance Standards, and the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants.

In 1990, certain amendments were made to the Act which included:

  • authorization of programs to control 189 additional toxic pollutants
  • established permit program regulations
  • expanded and modified enforcement authority
  • established a program to phase out the use of chemicals that deplete the ozone layer

Today, the Clean Air Act regulates carbon monoxide, ground level ozone, lead, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide.

Clean Water Act

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was amended in 1972 to become the Clean Water Act. The changes made in 1972 made it possible for the EPA to:

  • regulate pollutant discharges into US waters
  • allowed the EPA to implement pollution control programs like wastewater standards
  • made it unlawful for any person to discharge pollutants from a point source into navigable waters
  • funded construction of sewage treatment plants under construction grant programs

Food Quality Protection Act

This 1996 Act amended the previous Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The additions made in 1996 dramatically changed the EPA’s ability to regulate the use of pesticides.

Three main considerations were established with the 1996 Act:

  • special susceptibility of children to pesticides
  • aggregate risk from exposure to pesticides from multiple sources including food, water, and residential sources
  • cumulative exposure to pesticides that have common mechanisms of toxicity

This Act also required that the EPA expedited approval of pesticides meeting FQPA standards, provided lists of pests of significant public health importance, expedited review of applications to register antimicrobial pesticide products, and screen pesticides for disruption to the endocrine system.

The EPA’s New Administrator

Perhaps what has brought the EPA into the limelight most recently is the approval of their new administrator, Scott Pruitt. President Trump campaigned, in part, on dismantling the EPA and cutting down the numbers of employees working to ensure environmental and human health across the country.

In early February, Congress approved the nomination of previous Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruit, 52-46. Democrats in Congress advocated to hold the vote until the OK Attorney General’s Office released over 3,000 emails detailing the communication of Pruitt and fossil fuel industries.

What is most worrisome about the approval of Pruitt as EPA Administrator is his self described status as a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.” Coming in second, a number of lawsuits against the EPA in years past initiated by Pruitt himself, and often in conjunction with other fossil fuel companies. He is not entirely against the EPA and its regulations; however, he believes that environmental regulations are better served on a state-by-state basis, and many of his lawsuits dealt with what he felt was the EPA overreaching their federal bounds. Lastly, and just as worrisome as the previous two comments, is that Pruitt is quoted as questioning the scientific consensus of global warming.

After a largely successful 8 years with the Obama Administration (Clean Power Plan, signing of the Paris Agreement), American citizens must remain cautious and vigilant to see what will become of the EPA with its new leader, and speak out when the wellbeing of our environment and national health is at risk.

American-Made Partners: SolarWorld

February 19, 2017

SolarWorldGreen Light Renewable Services is happy to install exclusively SolarWorld solar modules on your roofs and ground mounts. SolarWorld’s solar panels have been manufactured and tested in America since 1975, and only those that meet the highest standards are sent out to be installed.

Most recently, SolarWorld extended their defect warranties from 10 to 20 years, and is the first solar panel manufacturer to offer a 25 year performance warranty, while SolarWorld’s Protect Series glass modules offer a 30 year warranty on glass. SolarWorld is known for quality manufacturing and quality warranties — one of the best solar panel companies in the United States. 

When investing in solar panels, you want to be sure the panels on your roof will last for years to come. SolarWorld solar panels are built to last for at least 25 years, even in the harshest of weather conditions. Every piece of equipment in a SolarWorld facility is inspected and must pass the incredibly high SolarWorld standards. What are these different pieces of equipment? Here are just a few of the elements that make your panels the best on the market:

Safety Glass
All thick, low-iron glass is inspected for any damage that could possibly affect your performance, like perpendicularity, dimensions, warping, crystalline inclusions, bubbles, and finish. SolarWorld’s safety glass also features an antireflection coating to maximize yield and finish.

Backsheet
Out of 80 backsheets and EVA tested in SolarWorld facilities, only 8 were approved. Backsheets and EVA are necessary for the long-term durability of your panels. Only backsheets meeting SolarWorld’s high criteria are included on panels.

Solar Cells
SolarWorld doesn’t trust anyone else to manufacture their high quality solar cells. One of the most overlooked steps of solar cells by other manufacturers is classification according to color and power level. This process not only improves the panels’ appearance, it also ensures the highest power delivery for your home or business.

Safety Testing

If your solar panels don’t meet SolarWorld’s high safety standards, they’re out. No exceptions. You can rely on your SolarWorld panels thanks to strongest safety standards that surpass even the most rigorous domestic and international standards like those of the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission). SolarWorld panels are given 10 different tests before being shipped out for installation on your home:

  • Hail impact
  • Panel breakage
  • Salt spray
  • Hemispheric lighting
  • Mechanical load
  • UV light aging
  • Climate chamber
  • Field installation and peel
  • Electrical and hotspot

Another reason SolarWorld is our favorite and most trusted solar module manufacturer? They’re invested in climate protection and energy conservation. Making smart, environmentally responsible decisions is integral to SolarWorld’s sustainable strategy. Along with many other forward-thinking American companies, SolarWorld has set impressive energy and climate goals to be met by 2020, including:

  • Reducing accumulated energy consumption by 15%
  • Reducing group wide energy consumption by 25%
  • Reducing group wide greenhouse gas emissions by 15%
  • Reducing emission intensity of SolarWorld products by 15%

SolarWorld Solar Modules

Sunmodule Plus Panel 

Sunmodule Plus Panel

These elegant panels with a modern design are easy to mount and ground, and feature high performance PERC cell structure, extended cable length for easier installation, 20 year warranty for product workmanship, and a 25 year guarantee for linear performance.

 

Sunmodule XL Panel Sunmodule XL Panel

These panels offer maximum energy density and maximum reliability while featuring high performance PERC cell structure, extended cable lengths, and a reduced balance of system cost. The Sunmodule XL modules are available in 1500V and can handle high mechanical loads up to 178 psf. Covered by a 20 year warranty for product workmanship and a 25 year guarantee for linear performance.

 

Sunmodule Bison Panel Sunmodule Bison Panel

These panels offer up to a 25% energy boost compared to standard panels, and feature a robust aluminum frame, as well as duo bifacial cells active on both front and back. Sunmodule Bison panels are available in 60 and 72-cell formats and come with a 20 year workmanship warranty and a 30 year guarantee for linear performance.

Renewable Energy in a Trumpian Age

January 4, 2017

With the inauguration of a new president days away, advocates of renewable energy must remain vigilant in speaking out against politicians and utility companies who work against one of our utmost priorities as a nation — protecting the environment.

President-elect Trump ran on a platform that advocated the renaissance of the coal industry. He made comments against wind power, saying it “kills the birds,” and campaigned that solar power has “many problems,” one of them being that it’s “so expensive.” Comments like these have led to a feeling of fear and unsureness concerning the future of renewable energies in the United States.

But renewable energy advocates should not be afraid. Despite the words of the incoming president, the progress seen from the renewable energy industry in the last decade alone should lead us all to believe that progress will continue despite impending actions and policies of a new government.

Solar has been on a steady incline over the last decade, and there’s little to no sign that the incoming presidency will halt that progress. Michael Wheeler of San Francisco Recurrent Energy says that “Anybody who thinks that solar is expensive at the utility scale right now hasn’t seen the latest. Solar’s price, because it’s a technology, will continue to go lower and lower.” 

A LOOK AT THE NUMBERS

In 2016, 6,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar was installed, growing from 4,000 megawatts the year previous. Compared to ten years ago, the power from big solar projects is roughly 70% cheaper. Between 2008 and 2015, utility scale solar farm installation costs dropped 64%, according to the Department of Energy. In the third quarter of 2016, the US installed a record 4.1 GW of solar power, up 191% from the same period last year. Much of this installation boom is due to the Investment Tax Credit that offers solar and wind farms a 30% tax rebate. 

THE POLITICS

One of the largest positive signs from Washington came in December of 2015, before Trump was elected to office. The Investment Tax Credit (ITC) was up for renewal from a Republican congress, and with bipartisan support, the ITC was extended so home and business owners will continue to receive a federal credit for their decision to install solar panels.

Despite a Republican controlled House and Senate, there are still elected officials who have seen the inarguable positivity of renewable energy and will continue to speak out on its behalf, like Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa. When asked what he would do if Trump were to repeal the wind power tax credit, Grassley responded, “He’ll have to do it over my dead body.” It is elected officials like these that renewable energy advocates must reach out to and support so they can continue fighting for solar and wind power in Washington.

On the state level, Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) will continue to benefit the progress of renewable energy industries. 29 states in addition to the District of Columbia partake in RPS which “requires electricity retailers to supply a rising percentage of power from renewable energy sources and accounts for about two-thirds of wind and solar installs in recent years." 

THE BUSINESS SIDE OF THE DEAL

More Americans are currently employed by “the solar industry than on oil rigs or gas fields,” and since 2009, the solar industry has provided one of every eighty jobs, which is expected to double by 2020, according to the National Solar Jobs Census. The marketplace’s demand for cleaner energy can be seen when looking at the recent trends of utility companies across the country. According to the MIT Tech Review, “even unsubsidized solar generation beats coal on price in sun-rich regions.” The utility sector will continue to move towards more use of renewable energy due to its favorable pricing and reduced carbon emissions.

Despite Trump’s claims that he will reinvigorate the coal industry and other fossil fuels, Mark Banteau, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Michigan at Ann-Arbor says that “coal is dying and renewables are surging, and that is not going to change. Once this bunch figures out where the dollars and jobs are, they will follow.” Between 2010 and 2015, the coal mining industry lost 25,000 jobs. “However, the decline of coal isn’t the result of environmental regulations, it’s the result of market forces. Namely, the fact that coal just can’t compete with cheap renewable energy and natural gas.” Even in more conservative states, like Georgia and Texas, electric utilities are choosing renewables on cost alone

REMAIN AWARE AND EDUCATE YOURSELF

Yuan-Sheng Yu, energy analyst with Lux Research says, “At the end of the day what Trump says and what is actually implemented are two completely different things.” Ultimately Yu is right, though the one aspect of Trump’s campaign platform that remains questionable is his vow to repeal the Clean Power Plan as well as pulling the US from the Paris Agreement.

His recent appointment of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the next EPA administrator is also worrisome. Pruitt has fought to overturn the Clean Power Plan and has been a vocal skeptic of manmade global warming. It’s characters like this landing influential positions in Washington that has many renewable energy supporters concerned. American citizens have the responsibility of remaining as aware and educated, and most importantly, as vocal as possible if the incoming administration tries to take any action that may reduce the already very fine impact the renewable energy industry has made in the last decade.

In spite of his plans to “kill the Clean Power Plan,” Trump also promised to invest $500 billion into American infrastructure. Like Banteau from University of Michigan Ann Arbor’s Energy Institute says, this bunch will also fall in line once they realize where the dollars and jobs are located. Ultimately, Trump ought to see the financial success of solar and wind power, and he “will seize the economic opportunity of renewables.

BACK TO THE COMMUNITY

No matter what happens in Washington, renewable energy has gained massive support at home and internationally. According to John Berger of the Houston Chronicle, “Solar energy in particular enjoys massive support, gives consumers energy options beyond just their monopoly utility and, in many places, is the lowest cost option.” Energy consumers must remember that utility companies are servants of the public — if enough energy consumers request alternative forms of energy rather than fossil fuels and other, dirtier energy sources, utilities will eventually have no choice but to listen to their constituents.

According to the Pew Research Center, solar energy support crosses party lines. 84% of Trump supports and 91% of Clinton supporters are in favor of installing more solar. This should give some peace to those concerned with the future of renewable energies given the claims of the incoming presidency. Energy professor Dan Kammen at UC Berkeley comments, “Sometimes a hostile White House can energize regional efforts.” If citizens rally together at the state level, those in Washington will have no choice but to listen, and act on behalf of those who put them there.

An Enphase Energy Update

November 22, 2016

Enphase has been on a long roller coaster this year, but they’ve overcome each obstacle with the strength of a company set for success as we near closer to 2017. They’ve made it through difficult decisions (11% company reductions) and vulnerable stock options. Those who keep a close on eye on Enphase’s development already know that the company is a leader in microinverter technology. A recent Pew Research Study shows that 89% of US adults favor the expansion of solar in their communities, and Enphase is poised to be a leader in these markets as the renewable energy movement continues to grow.  

How will Enphase lead?

Enphase recently introduced their new AC battery storage product. Extending their product line from cutting-edge microinverters to now include cutting-edge battery storage is bound to include an even more viable market moving forward. Their AC battery storage market has already sold 70,000 units to Australia, and controls 50% of the residential storage market on the down-under continent. 

This AC battery storage unit provides lower upfront costs, higher performance (96% round-trip efficiency, most usable capacity with >95% D.O.D., and 2 cycles per day for faster payback and twice the value), greater reliability (built with lithium iron phosphate chemistry, minimum of 10-year expected life, and no single point of failure), and safer performance (safety certified by TUV Rheinland and no high-voltage DC). 

The AC battery storage works seamlessly with other Enphase home energy solution products, but Enphase wants their product to be accessible to even more customers. In the last few months, Enphase has announced partnerships with LG, JinkoSolar, and SolarWorld. All of these partners say that the AC module will be available and compatible with their products in mid-2017. 

In addition to the AC battery unit, Enphase is also working on a new smart meter solution called the Envoy-S Metered, a product that could be considered a utility scale installation that could significantly affect utility companies and solar homeowners. 

Overall, it is Enphase’s superior technology that will help them prevail in a competitive market. The laws of capitalism work well for solar product companies, and Enphase has the low price advantage. Developers recognize that their next generation microinverter must be smaller, cheaper, and more profitable for their company to continue growing. One of the strongest features of the Enphase microinverter is its “no single point-of-failure” technology that outperforms many other competing microinverter systems and companies. If one point fails, it does not affect the system as a whole. In other systems, if one point fails, the entire system fails. 

Though product roll-out is an important component for Enphase as it looks toward the year ahead, education is equally important. Enphase recently announced a new education initiative with Generac Power to “educate homeowners and distribution partners on the benefits of outage protection and solar generation.” Generac, a leading generator manufacturer, and Enphase plan to work together to produce product integrations that provide secure and cost-effective energy solutions for homeowners. 

Being a solar user does not make you completely independent of the grid. In a power outage, solar doesn’t replace the grid; however, a generator can. In a study considering solar homeowners in CA, HI, MA, and NJ , 18% already own a generator, while 47% of generator owners in these states say they are or would consider solar for their home. Solar and generators are completely complementary systems, and by pairing together, both Enphase and Generac will access entirely new markets. In early 2017, Spruce Financial will begin to offer solar-plus-generator financing for homeowners interested in creating a home energy solution that encompasses both solar generation and outage protection. 

Let's talk numbers

You can look at the product roll-out of any given company to gauge their impending success or doom, but you can also look at stocks, though that might be a bit harder and a little more risky. Looking at Enphase’s numbers from the last year, you can tell they’ve had some trouble. So they made company cuts; they re-envisioned what their products needed to be in order to protect their bottom line. In fact, the entire solar industry had a slower year than past years. Some regions have been affected less than others; however, in previous years, the smallest year-to-year growth experienced by the residential solar was 59%. This year, the year-to-year growth will be between 20 and 23%. Smaller, right? 

But Enphase is on the up and up. The 2016 Q3 marked the largest quarter ever of megawatts shipped, and revenue was up 12% from previous quarters. Oppenheimer changed the Enphase stock rating from “perform” to “outperform,” and justified the change by saying, “We believe Enphase is the clear leader in microinverters and continues to grow with core markets while expanding its addressable market segments.” 

Cowen also rated Enphase at “outperform,” saying “We are optimistic about the company’s entrance into the storage segment in 2016 which should allow it to offer a holistic energy management solution.” 

Moving forward

PV solar combined with energy storage creates a real threat to utility monopolies. For nearly 100 years, utility companies have held an advantage over the citizens of their town, big or small. You need energy, so you go to the place that sells it. No more! As utilities continue to grow greedier, homeowners are actually encouraged to go solar. By going solar, homeowners are actively resisting the greed of utilities and the monopoly they hold over the energy industry. 

Residential PV solar has the power to mobilize communities insofar as they are no longer completely dependent on their local utility company. When citizens speak up and act, the utility monopolies will have no choice but to respond with a change in business structure. Alternative energy advocates must remain steadfast in their belief that renewable energy is a priority in our country, and we must now cower to the bullying utilities or governmental policies. 

 

The State of Solar in Iowa

September 13, 2016

Despite recent legislative decisions and policy approval, the citizens and politicians of Iowa must recognize that the issue of renewable energy is not a political party issue. Iowans must remain steadfast in their adamancy for leadership, funding, and appropriate legislation of renewable energy efforts.

Based on net-metering legislation passed in late July, the state of solar energy in Iowa should be scrutinized. For years, Iowa has led the nation in embracing renewable energies, like wind and solar power, with progressive policy making that made clean energy more accessible to more people.

So what happened?

Three events occurred over the summer that bring into question Iowa’s solar state of affairs:

  1. The Iowa Utilities Board passed new net-metering policies that may end up undermining much of the solar progress Iowa has made in the last 10 years.
  2. The State of Iowa rejected a $1 million grant for the Iowa Energy Center, and subsequently,
  3. Mark Petri resigned from his position as Director of the Iowa Energy Center.

New Net-Metering Policies

Earlier this year, two major utility companies, Alliant Energy and MidAmerican Energy, were asked to submit pilot projects that explored ways to expand rooftop solar. Utility companies across the country are re-envisioning their business model to better account for distributed generation. Companies like Green Mountain Power in Vermont are leaders of this new kind of utility company — one that customizes power offerings similar to a home energy management company.

Alliant and MidAmerican had plenty of innovative, clean energy focused business models to choose from. Instead, their pilot projects did mostly the opposite. Alliant suggested paying their solar customers less, while MidAmerican rallied behind imposing a new demand charge. The good news is that the Iowa Utilities Board rejected much of what the original pilot projects contained. The bad news?

The new policy may seem mostly unchanged. Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center said, “They’ve left the structure of net metering in place, and focused on how to expand that in a very narrow way that is on the whole positive.” Supporters of solar must pay attention to Mandelbaum’s last few words: “on the whole positive.”

The new net-metering policy includes three major changes:

  1. Increases net-metering cap from 500kW to 1mW
  2. When customers take energy back from the grid, they’ll be subject to service fees (administration and infrastructure costs)
  3. Energy credits must be cashed out at the end of the year

Let’s focus on the last change: energy credits must be cashed out. In the old net-metering policy, customers generating their own electricity could save those excess credits, which rolled over from year to year, and could be applied to future bills. This credit rollover is one of the biggest benefits of producing your own energy and what makes residential solar a financially viable option for so many families and business owners.

In the new policy, those credits essentially expire at the end of the year. Credits are cashed in to the utility company, who will compensate customers “at the avoided cost rate and the proceeds divided in two: half will go to a utility fund to aid low-income customers, and half will return to the customer.” Barry Shear, president of Eagle Point Solar in Dubuque, IA, says this new cash out of energy credits will “have an adverse effect on the solar development in the state.”

If you produce less than 20,000kWh of energy a month (the average solar customer), the ‘avoided cost’ “falls between one and three cents per kilowatt-hour.”  With the new mandatory cash-out clause, if you have one kWh left over at the end of the year, you’ll receive between one and three cents, divided by two.

This aspect of the new net-metering policy, though benefitting lower-income households, nearly defeats the financial purpose of residential solar. The silver lining is that current solar customers can choose to remain with the old net-metering arrangement. If a solar customer opts for the new net-metering tariff, they cannot switch back to the old. All new solar customers will be automatically enrolled in the new tariff. The policy will be re-evaluated after three years.

Alliant and MidAmerican may not have successfully implemented their pilot projects, but the Iowa Utilities Board’s decision did begin the process of reversing much of the growth and success residential solar has had in the state of Iowa.

With the State’s rejection of a $1 million grant and resignation of the Iowa Energy Center’s Director, there are still questions to be answered. But one thing remains certain: solar advocates in Iowa and across the country must remain diligent in their efforts to ensure fair access to clean energy opportunities, and we must seek to hold the public authorities, officials, and organizations – whom we elect and support to act in our best interests – accountable.

The Truth About String Inverters vs. Microinverters

July 7, 2016

When you choose a solar installer, you’re also choosing a specific type of inverter — string inverter or microinverter? Before we get into the differences between the two, let’s get down to basics. What exactly does an inverter do?

When you invest in a solar system, you’re purchasing two major components: the panels themselves and an inverter system. The panels absorb energy from the sun, but how does that energy turn into the electricity that keeps your home appliances running? That’s where inverters come in. Perhaps a better name would be “converters.”

The inverter is a critical part of your solar system that converts DC electricity into AC electricity. AC is what’s usable in your home and on the grid. Without an inverter, the panels on your roof or ground mount are just panels. So what’s the difference in inverters?

String Inverters

String inverters came first and are often cheaper when compared to a micro inverter system — at first. String inverters work for “perfectly installed panels” meaning they’re on a single plane and are never affected by shading or other inclement weather conditions. The older technology was introduced in 1991 by SMA Solar Tech and hasn’t changed much since.

These inverters work by “daisy chaining a ‘string’ of solar panels which produce DC electricity and wiring the final panel’s electrical leads to a device known as a central string inverter which converts DC to AC.” The reason many people choose string inverters is because they’re told it will be cheaper than a microinverter system. This is only partially true. The cost is lower (at first), but troubleshooting any problems is much more costly and time-consuming.

This chaining effect means that when one panel is producing poorly, all the panels’ production levels will drop to the lowest performing panel. The daisy chain also makes it more difficult to identify exactly where the problem is occurring. A good metaphor for understanding the ineffectiveness of string inverters is a strand of Christmas lights. When one little light goes out, so does the entire string. When the entire string is out, it’s even more difficult to find that one pesky light that’s causing the problem.

Microinverters

Enphase was the first manufacturer to introduce microinverters in 2008. Different than string inverters, a microinverter is a small, intelligent, waterproof inverter located beneath each panel. Each inverter is connected to the others by a main cable that’s wired to the customer’s home utility panel. Microinverters are engineered to be 100% “fault-tolerant” as there’s no single point of failure.

Though the microinverter technology is still at a higher price point (but not for the long…), the technology is far more sophisticated when considering your ability to monitor your solar system. When a string inverter fails, as discussed above, it’s incredibly difficult to locate exactly where the failure has occurred. The monitoring system for microinverters, and specifically Enphase microinverters, allows operators to monitor the power production of each individual panel, making it much easier to diagnose and fix a faulty panel if a failure was to occur.

What’s the biggest difference?

String Inverters

Pros:

Cons:

  • any problem with one panel is felt across the whole array’s production
  • large inverters take up space on the side of your house/garage

Microinverters

Pros:

  • utilizes ‘power point tracking’ so if one panel is shaded, the other panels are not affected at all
  • easier to troubleshoot since there’s only a single point-of-failure
  • performance issues con be identified through remote monitoring

Cons:

  • traditionally cost more per peak watt, but decreasingly so with improving technology
  • can prove more costly and complex to install because the inverters must be placed in tandem with the individual panels

String/central inverters and micro inverters are both equipped with “Maximum Power Point Tracking” (MPPT) algorithms that “calculate the optimal power output and make necessary adjustments to ensure the highest power production. Microinverters perform the task for each panel, a crucial difference that avoids the ‘Christmas lights effect’ of an array with a central inverter.” A central/string inverter is only capable of analyzing its MPPT at the system level, so your entire system production will be negatively affected if your installation is at all impacted by shading or debris. Microinverters can still operate optimally despite shading because they analyze its MPPT at the panel level. Since microinverters optimize the power output of each panel, manufacturers report a 15% increase of power per panel.

Debunking the myth: Microinverters are more expensive

Longevity is the name of the game. When a solar contractor sells you the inverter system, you’re bound to hear that string inverters are less expensive. This is true — to a point! What the installer is NOT telling you is that string inverters will likely need to be replaced twice more in their lifespan than microinverters, and the wiring must be redone once every 10-12 years. If you contractor sells you a string inverter system, he’s guaranteeing himself work in the future. A microinverter system can carry an average lifespan of 332 years.

The Ins and Outs of Net-Metering

May 20, 2016

One of the reasons homeowners decide to invest in rooftop solar comes down to one simple thing: money. Though a solar PV system might seem costly up front, it’s the longterm benefits consumers met pay attention to. When producing your own energy, your electricity is no longer pulled solely from the traditional energy grid — that’s the money you pay at the end of the month to your local utility company. In fact, depending on your system’s size and production, and your personal energy usage, you may end up returning excess energy to the traditional grid. Net-metering is a mechanism that allows residential solar consumers “who generate their own electricity from solar to feed electricity they don’t use back into the grid” and receive a credit for doing so. 

How does net-metering work? 

Net-metering is a billing mechanism that allows solar consumers to be financially independent of the grid by giving consumers control over their utility bills. A PV system might generate more energy than the home uses, in which case the excess electricity would be transported back to the nearest major transformer. 

Net-metering policies vary by state, but many utility companies will install a bidirectional meter once a solar user establishes their interconnection agreement with the utility. These meters can run both forwards and backwards. If your electricity is net-metered, your meter will run backwards “to provide a credit against what energy is used at night or other periods where the home’s electricity use exceeds the system’s output. Customers are only billed for their ‘net’ energy use.” 

You may be thinking: Why do I have to be a customer of the utility companies at all if I have solar panels? Using solar makes you financially independent from the grid, but not physically. There are times when your home’s electricity exceeds the ability of your PV system, and you’ll need to rely on the energy you receive from the grid. To be completely independent requires the use of a battery storage system, which we’ll talk more about next month. 

As of 2015, the solar industry employed 174,000 Americans. Net-metering continues to be a topic of interest because choosing the ways we produce and pay for power is one of the central benefits of going solar. In addition to lowering solar users’ utility bills, net-metering brings even more benefits in the form of increased jobs, income, and investment. Metering policies increase the demand for solar PV systems, and in doing so, also increases the demand for installers, electricians, and manufacturers. 

So what’s the problem?

If net-metering increases demand for alternative energy and increases jobs, who could find a problem with it? Well, it’s those pesky utility companies. Some utilities perceive net-metering policies as lost revenue opportunities. Instead of everyone consuming from and paying their local utility company, consumers now have enough control to lower their monthly bill. While some utilities have been able to modify their business plan to become more inclusive of and friendly towards solar users, there are still some others who have succeeded in actually increasing solar users’ utility bills by decreasing their net-metering rate while increasing fixed charge fees. 

Net-metering policies differ by state, and as of May 2016, only four states lacked any active legislation concerning net-metering. Some states have stood strong behind the solar industry by passing laws with progressive metering policies, while some others have fallen to the complaints of their local utilities. 

The Good 

Recently, many states have rallied behind the solar industry by passing favorable legislation in support of numerous solar policies. In 2015, Freeing the Grid gave 16 states an “A” rating regarding their net-metering policies, including Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, California, and Colorado. Each state differs in their specifics, but we’ll focus on the advances made in Colorado and California. 

Policies in Colorado

In Colorado, solar contributed $13.6 million in annual grid benefits and accounted for 3,600 jobs. In just 5 years, the industry has seen a 50% cost decrease, and 78% of Colorado voters now support net-metering. Colorado has had active net-metering and interconnection regulations since 2005. 

One of the biggest points of contingency for net-metering is how much a solar user should be compensated for the electricity they feed back into the grid. A solar user can be compensated in one of three ways: above retail rate per kwH, at retail rate, or below. 

In 2016, Colorado’s net-metering policies were up for a new vote, and legislators unanimously decided to keep the standard, saying that the solar crediting program was satisfactory and balanced as is. With the current Colorado policies, a homeowner who decides to go solar will receive a bidirectional meter free of charge from their utility company, and will continue to receive a “credit for every kwH an array puts on the grid at the same price residential customers are charged for electricity.” 

Policies in California 

Colorado’s policies are doing good work to support the solar industry, but California is said to be setting the national standard for net-metering. The state has a plan to be 50% reliant on renewable energies by 2030, and San Francisco is making further headway on this goal by requiring all newly-constructed buildings to have solar. California already represents nearly half of the country’s solar capacity with 450,000 solar arrays. 

California’s net-metering laws are very similar to those in Colorado, given that utilities credit solar customers at full retail rates, which in California chalks up to about 17-20 cents per kwH. 

All across the nation, utilities argue that the retail rates or “fees are overly generous and that solar owners are piggybacking on the electrical grid without paying a fair share of its cost.” However in California, the newest net-metering policies also offers “concessions to utilities, including additional minimum charges for solar customers and the establishment of time-of-use rates that raise the price of electricity consumed during hours of peak demand.” Time-of-use rates essentially changes the price of electricity during different times of the day to better match of real-time costs of generating and transmitting energy across the grid at large. 

Rather than utilities only seeing the negative of perceived revenue loss, officials should instead be more receptive to these time-of-use measures, and the words of Sacher Constantine, Director of Policy at the San Diego-based Center for Sustainability who says, “The California system will likely influence future net-metering battles across the country. It signals a future approach that can strike a balance between the interests of solar power owners and the legitimate costs to maintain the grid.” 

Utility companies’ central argument is that net-metering unfairly shifts costs to non-solar using customers. When you pay for your monthly electricity bill, you’re paying for the amount of energy used as well as general operating costs for maintaining the grid. If solar users are only receiving a credit for the energy they transmit back to the grid, then it may be fair to say those users are no longer contributing (money) to the grid’s maintenance; however, California’s inclusion of time-of-use rates helps to solve this conflict. 

Now, the bad: 

Even though many states have passed policy to encourage the solar movement, there are also those who have established regulations that prove incredibly regressive to the solar industry. Two of these regressive-policy states include Hawaii and Nevada, talked about in depth below. 

Policy in Hawaii

Just last fall, Hawaii was making front-page news for its solar efforts and how well the state was taking to the increase in solar panels. But as of October 2015, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) ruled to close all net-metering options to new solar users. Instead, solar users may choose from two new tariff options, which still allow for some credit to be given, but far less than those provided with net-metering. 

The newest policies in Hawaii jeopardizes the solar industry and negatively impacts middle and lower income consumers by taking away one of the central benefits to going solar, as you’ll see in the Nevada case study below. 

Policy in Nevada

Nevada made some of the most drastic and negative changes to their net-metering, despite being one of the states with the most exposure to sun in the nation. Net-metering was first introduced in 1997, and until this year, Nevada utilities paid retail rate to solar users, which came out to be about $623/year in the south, and $471/year in the north. 

In 2015, the Nevada PUC determined there needed to be a new study looking at the electric rate structure in hopes of discovering new ways to shift the costs. In December of 2015, the Nevada PUC decided that utility companies would change to paying wholesale rates to current net-metering users

In addition to the new wholesale rates, the PUC tripled the fixed charges solar customers will pay over the next four years, and reduced the solar credit customers receive for “net excess generation” by three quarters. Regulators said the new legislation worked to make solar customers pay their “fair share” of Nevada Energy’s grid. 

Almost immediately, solar industry folks spoke out about the new regulations. Solar companies warned that these changes would negatively affect the industry and make rooftop solar economics unworkable. After the new rates took effect on January 1, 2016, Solar City, SunRun, and Vivint all announced “they would have to cease operations in the state. Local installers have also been forced to cut staff.” 

What’s worse? The new regulations apply retroactively to the nearly 18,000 existing Nevada solar customers, which erases nearly all of the savings from going solar and actually increases monthly electricity bills thanks to the increased fixed charge. 

But the story doesn’t stop there. Nevada is now facing additional backlash from solar customers and industry people. After the new laws took place, a group of solar customers launched a class action lawsuit against Nevada Energy claiming the utility conspired to unlawfully reduce incentives. Those who criticize the 2016 regulations say that the new regulations might even violate the contracts clause of the constitution for “undermining an existing agreement” between solar companies and electricity customers. 

After these outcries, Nevada Energy conceded just a bit, and said it would file a proposal to grandfather in those existing solar customers. 

Remember this though: the blame is not being placed on the solar companies, but the utility companies lobbying for the regulation changes that benefit their companies, rather than the citizens and solar employees working towards renewable energy. 

So the question remains:

Is net-metering in the best interest of the solar industry as we continue to move forward? Compromises must be found, certainly, but the solar industry and utility companies must continue working towards a more inclusive solar culture that includes middle and lower-class families. This means working towards state-supported policies that continue to provide a financial incentive for going solar, rather than working backwards and making solar an all-expense, no pay-off renewable energy resource. Whether net-metering is the be-all-end-all solution has yet to be answered, but one thing is clear: states must continue to reward solar output, which means renewing solar tax credits at the end of 2016, rather than watching them expire. 

 

The Fate of Utilities

April 4, 2016

As energy consumers’ interest in renewable energy alternatives —like rooftop solar— increases, utility companies must respond. The old infrastructure of utilities cannot last much longer thanks to the increasing capacity of rooftop photovoltaic installations.

What happens when you go solar?

When you make the decision to install rooftop solar PV, the way you pay for electricity will change. That makes sense, right? You’re changing the way you obtain your electricity, so how much you should pay ought to change, too. 

When you produce solar energy, you use less of the power supplied from the traditional grid that’s operated, maintained, and sold by utility companies. Before solar, you paid a retail rate for your electricity to the utility company who provided you with the power. After solar, you use more of the energy from the panels on your roof, or “off-grid” energy. This means you inevitably pay less to the utility company. If you produce more energy than you would have consumed “on-the-grid,” the utility company essentially purchases that extra energy from you, and pays you retail rate for the overage produced. 

This all sounds great: homeowners produce cleaner energy, and fossil-fuel-using utility companies pay solar users for the energy produced. But, it’s not so cut and dry.

The truth is, despite the growing number of rooftop solar PV installations, a vast majority of Americans are financially unable or have not yet invested in solar power. We must continue to be interested in the health of American utility companies because utilities will provide power to Americans for many years to come. The health of utilities is, in fact, at stake. 

At the end of 2015, the US had 23 GW of installed solar capacity. That’s enough to power 5 million homes, and those numbers are expected to double by the end of 2016. As the solar industry continues to expand with more solar homeowners, utility companies are making less money. When a business’ revenue declines, changes must be made. Just this week, the Edison Electric Institute hired a new marketing official to rebrand the utilities industry. 

Two main conflicts face utilities and will help decide their fate: 

  1. How electricity rates are structured, and if solar users will be compensated for their solar use 
  2. Developing an entirely new business model for utilities that is more friendly to renewable energies

Utility executives even recognize this necessary change of infrastructure. In the 2015 Utility Dive survey, 31% of utility executives saw Distributed Energy Resources (DER) as the largest growth opportunity. 56% recognized that opportunity, but didn’t know how to proceed, while 33% are already building new infrastructure around DER. 

What is the fate of utilities? 

At first, utility companies tried to take shelter in competitive wholesale markets. States like Arizona, Wisconsin, and New Mexico, at one point, attempted new measures that would add new fees to solar homeowners. David Roberts, Energy and Politics writer for Grist, points out that solar supporters should be questioning regulatory agencies just as much, if not more than the utility companies themselves. For example, the Arizona Public Service has started asking regulatory agencies to take up the issue of “how to share costs across solar and non-solar customers in a future proceeding, meant to determine the true cost of serving the distribution grid.” 

For solar PV to work, the consumer interest must exist in addition to policy and regulatory compliance. Multiple states have taken measures towards making solar PV more accessible, including Arizona, Vermont, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Hawaii, California, Minnesota, and New York, among others. 

In addition to action on a state level, the federal Clean Power Plan has made great strides in providing regulatory measures as well as incentives for solar users. The latest draft of the Clean Power Plan calls on a need for technologies like energy storage and demand response. The plan also designates a role for grid technologies that can help reduce the net amount of power generated from carbon-emitting, fossil-fuel-fired power plants. 

These measures include options for reducing line losses (like Volt/VAR optimization —VVO), or reducing end-of-use demand, like conservation voltage reduction (CVR). In layman’s terms,VVO and CVR are technologies that fine-tune voltages to save energy and reduce peak-driven strains on the grid by using more advanced meters to measure the use of electricity.

Community Action

In addition to these policy and regulatory measures, there are also actions communities themselves can take to improve their access to solar and benefits as users of that energy. One of these measures includes something called a “Community Choice Aggregation,” or CCA. CCAs have supportive legislation from California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, and Rhode Island. CCAs bring together customers from participating cities, towns, and counties, and uses its collective purchasing power to get exactly the type of electricity it wants rather than the power provided by traditional grid utilities. In addition to purchasing the chosen power method, CCAs also have the ability to provide a platform for other programs like feed-in tariffs, efficiency programs, and net metering, which we’ll talk about in more depth next week. 

Another option, and one attractive to utility companies, is that of “community solar projects.” Community solar projects are installations paid for and benefitting multiple community members, and often times, are sponsored by utility companies. Many utility companies, like Greenmountain in Vermont, have seen the light of community solar projects, and have been able to customize their power offerings, similar to home energy management companies. 

These community solar projects are an exciting advancement in the world of solar PV installations, because they bring together neighborhoods in the hopes of providing greater access to solar energy while providing an opportunity for the already-established utility companies to change their infrastructure while still producing revenue. As of 2015, community solar projects accounted for 115 megawatts of the US’ solar installations.

Many writers have theorized on the fate of utilities. Some hypothesize that years from now, utilities will only exist as battery charge stations. Fewer writers stay on the side of utilities entirely, believe solar energy is just a passing phase and that utilities’ old infrastructure will prevail. The middle ground is found within the idea of community solar projects, which benefit both solar homeowners and utility companies. 

The bottom line is this: utility companies must respond to consumer desire for solar energy. Solar PV installations will continue to increase in capacity, and utilities have no choice but to restructure their infrastructure to become more friendly and capable of addressing their solar energy-using neighbors.

 

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