Clean energy advocates should cast aside their worries about increasing Republican scrutiny of energy subsidies. The clean energy industry’s foolish reliance on tax incentives has already handcuffed its expansion. Unlike the leading nations in the clean energy race, the United States has no coherent energy policy. Rather, its energy market is balkanized by 50 distinct… Continue reading
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About John Farrell
John Farrell directs the Energy Self-Reliant States and Communities program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. More
Germany is the unquestioned world leader in renewable energy. By mid-2011, the European nation generated over 20 percent of its electricity from wind and solar power alone, and had created over 400,000 jobs in the industry. The sweet German success is no accident, however, and the following pie chart illustrates the results of a carefully… Continue reading
You don’t have to be big to go big on solar power. That’s the lesson from the Gainesville Regional Utilities, the electric utility whose feed-in tariff solar policy has brought over 7 megawatts (MW) of solar to the city’s 125,000 residents. The raw number isn’t much, but it puts Gainesville among the world leaders in solar installed per capita, beating out Japan, France, and China (and besting California, with 32 kilowatts -kW- per 1000 residents).
The basic premise behind the feed-in tariff program is that anyone who wants to be a solar power generator can connect to the grid and get a 20-year contract for their power from the municipal utility. The long-term contract makes getting financing for solar projects easier and the prices are attractive. The utility pays 24 cents per kilowatt-hour generated for large-scale ground-mounted systems and up to 32 cents for small, rooftop systems.
The price differentiation helps accommodate solar arrays of various sizes, from residential to larger commercial installations, spreading the economic opportunity. The differentiation may also help small-scale residential projects that can’t use federal tax incentives for businesses (depreciation).
Thus far, approximately one-third of the city’s 7.3 MW of solar power is in relatively small systems, 100 kW and smaller. About half the installed capacity is in projects 500 kW and larger.
The solar feed-in tariff program also brings value to the local community and electricity system. A report released earlier this year found that the grid benefits and social benefits of solar power far outweigh the typical valuation of solar power by utilities. These benefits include reduced stress on the utility distribution system and reduced transmission losses.
The feed-in tariff program also means local economic development. With a rule of thumb of 8 jobs per MW, according to a University of California, Berkeley, study of the jobs created from renewable energy development, Gainesville has already generated 56 jobs. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has estimated that each megawatt of solar adds $240,000 to the local economy, and if Gainesville’s solar projects are locally owned, the value could be much higher.
More than anything, Gainesville provides an important lesson in local energy self-reliance. While many communities must await action by a state legislature or investor-owned utility, the municipal utility has the authority to act quickly in support of the community. And when the utility is locally controlled, it can mean big things for local solar power.
For more information on feed-in tariffs and their success in supporting solar power, see CLEAN v. SREC: Finding the More Cost-Effective Solar Policy.
This is a presentation by John Farrell to the MDV-SEIA Solar Energy Focus conference in Washington, DC. In it, I discuss the transformation in the electricity system being wrought by clean energy sources, the winning economies of local solar power, how the drawbacks of solar are technically surmountable, and how public policy must change to… Continue reading
Americans seem unable to resist big things, and solar power plants are no exception. There may be no reasoning with an affinity for all things “super sized,” but the economics of large scale solar projects (and the unwelcome public scrutiny) should bury the notion that bigger is better for solar. In fact, smaller scale solar… Continue reading
While large-scale solar creates contention between environmental advocates and renewable energy proponents, the truth is that there are thousands of acres in already developed land where solar can easily fit. This infographic explains.
The use of the tax code has long made the federal wind power incentives something of a bane for community wind power. Finding strategies to use the passive-income-only Production Tax Credit has made community wind developers do legal acrobatics to structure deals with tax equity partners that can use the credits.
Senators Al Franken (D-MN) and Jon Tester (D-MT) hope to make community wind easier with the Community Wind Act.
The bill, introduced in late October 2011, would extend an existing 30% investment tax credit (ITC) for very small wind (100 kilowatts and smaller) to wind projects up to 20 megawatts in size. Since the ITC doesn’t require passive income, it may be easier for community wind developers to use the credit internally or to find tax equity partners closer to home.
Brian Minish, whose company Val-Add Services helped develop the innovative South Dakota Wind Partners community wind project, believes that the Community Wind Act could make a big difference:
We strongly support the Franken-Tester Community wind bill so other groups like ours have the opportunity to build competitive wind farm projects. Not needing to have investors with passive income to be able to utilize the production tax credits to take advantage of the federal incentive helped our project be successful.
The Wind Partners project brought together over 600 local farmers and South Dakota residents to own seven utility-scale wind turbines in a 10.5 megawatt wind project and utilized the short-lived cash grant in lieu of the Production Tax Credit. With the Community Wind Act, Wind Partners could more easily be replicated.
In the 20th century electric grid, adding a variable source of power generation like wind or solar upset the paradigm: big coal and nuclear plants run constantly, efficient natural gas plants meet intermediate demand, and fast gas, hydro or diesel peakers fill the peaks.
But the 21st century grid is different and the best strategy for utilties may be to flip their outmoded paradigm on its head.
The Nippon Paper Industries mill in Port Angeles, Wash., which makes paper for telephone books, has an average load of 53 megawatts, which is roughly 1,000 times the peak load of a typical house. But the mill’s load can run up to 73 megawatts.
One of the big electricity consumers at the plant is the pulping operation, which turns wood chips into an intermediate product on its way to becoming paper.
While the mill pulps the paper at the rate at which its machines are the most efficient, it could pulp faster, turning pulp into a kind of battery. “What we’ve looked at is the possibility of more storage capacity,’’ said Harold S. Norlund, the mill manager. “A phone call could come and say, ‘We have a problem for 24 hours — can you use more energy?’“ he said…[the mill] would switch to electricity from wind at certain hours and save the wood pulp for burning as needed later.
The adjacent graphic illustrates the reversed paradigm. By planning on variable sources first (wind, solar, etc) – as in the bottom frame – utilities can think creatively about how to match supply and demand. In some cases, it means finding flexible generation sources to fill the gap. In this case from Wald, it means moving the black demand line.
None of these options is limitless (or always cost-effective), but each is key to making a renewable-first grid work. These example are also instructive in questioning the old grid paradigm’s role in a renewable energy world: should the electricity system limit new wind and solar power just because we’re used to running a lot of big power plants 24-7?
No. And with simple solutions like demand-shifting, we shouldn’t have to.
Nobel economist Paul Krugman made waves today when his column “Here Comes the Sun” noted that the rapidly falling cost of solar electricity – “prices adjusted for inflation falling around 7 percent a year” – meant that “solar is now cost-effective.”
It’s close. But it depends on what’s meant by “cost-effective.”
The first step is translating solar prices into electricity prices. Installed costs for solar have dropped dramatically, from $8 to $10 per Watt just a few years ago to as low as $3.50 per Watt for utility-scale systems as just over $4 per Watt for residential systems. But electricity isn’t sold in Watts, but in kilowatt-hours (kWh). So, solar installed at $3.50 per Watt in Minneapolis, MN, will produce electricity for about 23 cents per kWh. In sunny Los Angeles, the same solar PV array would produce power at 19 cents per kWh, because the more abundant and direct sunshine would make 20% more solar electricity over the same time period.
In either place, such prices don’t compare favorably to average residential retail electricity prices of 8 and 12 cents, respectively. In fact, none of the top 40 metropolitan areas in the country have average prices for electricity as high as 19 cents.
But there are several caveats:
- Grid electricity prices are not fixed, but changing. Over the past decade, electricity prices have risen, on average across the United States, 3 percent per year. The solar electricity price is locked in once the panels are operating.
- Some utilities have time-of-use rates that charge more for electricity during peak times (hot, summer afternoons) that rise as high as 30 cents per kWh. Solar competes favorably against these rates.
- There are federal, state and utility incentives for solar that reduce the cost. The 30% federal tax credit, for example, is in statute until the end of 2016.
How much do these issues matter?
Electricity Price Inflation Makes Solar Competitive Now
If electricity price inflation continues apace, by the time their solar PV systems are halfway to their expected life of 25 years, 45 million Americans (roughly 1 in 6) would have cheaper electricity from solar if they installed right now at $3.50 per Watt.
Time-of-Use Pricing Makes Solar Competitive Now
Time-of-use pricing lets utilities charge different prices for electricity at different times of day, based on the actual cost of delivering power at those times. In many places, the higher prices coincide with hot, sunny summer afternoons and effectively increase the cost of electricity by 30% during the time a solar panel produces power. Already 22 million Americans in Southern California can install solar at $3.50 per Watt and beat time-of-use pricing for grid electricity.
Incentives for Solar Accelerate Cost-Effectiveness
Solar power is crossing a cost-effectiveness threshold against grid prices that are rising and reflect the true cost of electricity. But incentives that capture the environmental and economic benefits of solar help finance projects outside of the sunny Southwest.
While only 3 million Americans can beat grid prices with $3.50 per Watt solar and no incentives, 41 million Americans can beat grid prices using the 30% federal tax credit. And the market expansion enabled by tax incentives is driving down the cost to install solar (labor and materials) as well as the cost of modules.
Time Makes Solar a Winner
As Krugman notes, the falling costs of solar make time its greatest ally. The following chart illustrates the number of Americans in the top 40 metropolitan areas for whom solar (at $3.50 per Watt in 2011) beats grid electricity prices (average residential retail rates) over the next 10 years. The base assumptions are that the price of solar declines by 7% per year and grid electricity prices rise by 3% per year. The chart examines solar with no incentives and with the 30% tax credit, and with and without utility time-of-use pricing (expected to boost the retail rate during solar producing hours by 30%). The no incentive and tax credit lines merge after the 2016 expiration of the 30% tax credit.
Even without the federal tax incentives or favorable time-of-use pricing, nearly 50 million Americans can beat their utility’s electricity price with solar by 2016. With time-of-use prices, it’s over 90 million by 2016. And with the tax credit factored in, it’s nearly half the country. Of course, the chart will tend to underestimate over time, as the greatest population growth tends to be in the largest metropolitan areas (with the highest electricity prices).
Here comes the sun, indeed.
Property-assessed clean energy (PACE) financing launched three years ago with great promise. The premise was simple: pay for building energy efficiency and on-site renewable energy with long-term property tax assessments, aligning payback periods and financing terms. The residential program’s rapid expansion came to a screeching halt in mid-2010 when the Federal Housing Finance Agency told lenders that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would not buy mortgages with PACE assessments on them.
Commercial PACE was left alive, and programs for business and industry are finally getting scale.
In September, the Carbon War Room announced a business consortium would provide $650 million in financing for commercial energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements for two regions: Sacramento, CA, and Miami, FL. San Francisco announced a similar program in October, with $100 million in private funding. For comparison, the largest operational PACE program to date in Sonoma County, CA, has completed $50 million in retrofits.
An interesting difference in the new programs is that they inject private capital into PACE programs that were often envisioned as publicly financed (e.g. using municipal revenue bonds). It’s a welcome development, however, since public sector programs had grown slowly – if at all – since the FHFA decision to curtail residential financing.
The opportunity in commercial PACE alone is enormous. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates that building energy consumption could be cut by 15-20% in the United States with the right technologies and tools. Since buildings represent 40% of energy use, beefed up commercial PACE activity could be a big step in the right direction.
For more on the residential program and attempts to revive it, visit PACENOW.org.