The State of the Solar Industry: Page 9 of 9

Vote Solar (votesolar.org)
Adam Browning, executive director

Since 2002, the nonprofit organization Vote Solar has worked to remove regulatory barriers and implement key policies needed to bring solar to scale. It works at the state level across the country, with staff in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maryland and Washington, DC. Adam Browning co-founded Vote Solar in 2002 and serves as its executive director. He previously worked for the EPA.

Were there any big wins for team solar in 2016?

There are now more than a million solar installations in the US. The fact that we will double the number of installations over the next 2 years is a bellwether of where we are going. Reaching 1 million solar installations this year was largely thanks to market-building policies at state levels in addition to declining costs and solar’s broad, bipartisan support.

We made major strides in market-building policies this year, helping drive solar progress in more than a dozen state legislatures and regulatory forums nationwide. In California, we defended and won fair net metering credit for solar customers, and we carried the torch forward for net metering across the country, including notable wins in Arizona, Colorado and Massachusetts.

2016 saw more support for expanding access to solar in low-income communities than ever before, with dedicated programs and policies taking shape in California, Colorado, Maryland, New York and elsewhere. We partnered with GRID Alternatives and the Center for Social Inclusion to launch the Low-Income Solar Policies Guide and our own low-income solar access program aimed at growing this critical market segment for the industry.

Community-shared solar made headway all year, with dedicated programs from coast to coast and nearly 100 MW in installed capacity. We worked toward building community solar policies in half a dozen states this year, including Colorado, Georgia and Maryland.

Finally, we’re neck-deep in utility reform, both in New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision proceeding and in California in multiple regulatory proceedings to craft modern grid policies. Transitioning away from the fossil-based infrastructure we rely on today will require intentional planning and investment, and it’s a tremendous opportunity to optimize solar, storage and other distributed energy resources integration onto the grid.

What about the challenges facing the US solar industry?

There were more utility-led attacks on solar in 2016 than ever before. In Nevada, NV Energy took aim and fired on solar last year by implementing punitive fees and curtailing net metering, which eliminated thousands of local jobs overnight and undermined customers’ rights to energy choices and clean generation. Our coalition successfully reinstated net metering for 30,000 existing customers, but we’re still working through the legislative, regulatory and legal avenues to bring solar back to future customers and rebuild Nevada’s once thriving clean energy industry.

Another emerging trend this year was the rise in the number of utilities that sought to penalize ratepayers—and especially solar customers—with demand charges and other unjust rate hikes. We’ve defeated demand charge proposals in Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico and elsewhere, and we will continue to fight unfair rate increases in 2017.

Utilities across the country also launched attacks on the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), a 1978 federal law that requires utilities to purchase renewables when they’re available at cost-competitive rates. PURPA is more relevant than ever for community and utility-scale development in both mature markets such as North Carolina and emerging markets in the Northwest. We petitioned the Montana Public Service Commission and FERC to protect PURPA in Montana and to seek to prevent future utility attempts to undermine this important market-building policy.

As we move into 2017, what initiatives will Vote Solar be prioritizing?

In 2017, we’ll tackle net metering and fair rate design, low-income solar access policies, community-shared solar programs, solar market drivers and building a modern grid. We’ll also ramp up our geographical reach in 2017, expanding into the Midwest in addition to our ongoing campaigns in the Northeast, Southeast, Intermountain West and Coastal West. We also plan to double down in the Southeast with a dedicated rates expert to support our legislative advocate.

Are there specific states or utilities that you think have implemented model or equitable rate designs for distributed solar?

Regulators and lawmakers in both California and New York have launched initiatives to establish equitable rate design for distributed energy resources, including solar. Importantly, both states have taken steps to ensure broad stakeholder participation and availability of the full suite of facts and data. In a recent report, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners validated this approach to rate design, acknowledging the value of distributing energy on the grid.

Vote Solar is a vocal advocate in favor of net metering. As distributed generation scales, are there structural limitations to net metering? Are there other rate design structures that might better serve stakeholders in high-penetration scenarios?

Net metering remains the gold standard policy as a fair and simple way to credit solar customers for the clean, homegrown power that they send back to the grid. The fact is, study after study in nearly a dozen states has found that net metering provides a net benefit to the grid and customers.

While net metering is a simple and straightforward compensation mechanism, like most residential rates, it doesn’t account for the time value of electricity on the grid. Thus, regulators and stakeholders are investigating how the industry can move beyond net metering to a rate design that better ties the value of excess generation to the value of electricity to the utility at any given time. The goal is to structure a far more sophisticated—and complicated—rate design. California, New York and a handful of other states have undertaken the ambitious task of utility business model reform.

Solar consistently performs well in public opinion polls, with roughly 90% of respondents indicating that they are in favor of expanding solar generation capacity. What can we do as an industry to leverage this broad support?

Get engaged in policy, especially in states where your company operates. Democracy is a contact sport, and representatives need to hear from local businesses. Businesses and individuals should proactively develop relationships with their state and federal representatives. Companies should also join national and state industry associations that are dedicated to protecting and opening solar markets.

On an individual level, becoming a free member of Vote Solar is the lowest barrier to entry to engaging in solar advocacy. We simply let you know when you can participate in campaigns or policy actions—such as signing a letter, sending your legislator an email or joining a rally—in your state. We especially rely on solar workers to speak out about threats to solar markets and opportunities to make them even stronger.

We’re up against industries and business models with powerful lobbies—not to mention deep pockets—that a 21st-century clean energy economy threatens. Now more than ever, the solar industry needs all hands on deck to build and protect markets and defend against charges, fees and other attacks that undermine the competitiveness of solar. Unlike sunshine, solar policies don’t fall from the sky.

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