The State of the Solar Industry

Though life is never boring on the Solarcoaster, the start of SolarPro’s tenth calendar year seems especially eventful. It is the start of a new year, of course, as well as the start of a new administration in Washington, DC. Adding to the excitement, the 4-year presidential term just happens to coincide with the 3-year National Electrical Code development cycle. This means California has finally adopted NEC 2014, and Massachusetts and others have leapt boldly into NEC 2017.

To celebrate and reflect upon the confluence of all of these milestones and transitions, we decided to reach out to some of the solar industry’s best advocates and brightest stars to get their take on the current state of the solar industry. Against a backdrop of what at times may feel like an ever-revolving series of new challenges, many of these experts project that the US solar industry will continue to make big gains. As a Nobel Laureate in literature once said: “For the loser now will be later to win, for the times they are a-changin’.”

Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA at seia.org)
Dan Whitten, vice president of communications

As the national trade association in the US, SEIA represents all organizations that promote, manufacture, install and support the development of solar energy. SEIA works with its 1,000 member companies to expand markets, remove market barriers, strengthen the industry and educate the public on the benefits of solar energy. Dan Whitten was previously an energy reporter for Bloomberg News and Platts, and is now SEIA’s vice president of communications, overseeing all of its internal and external communication efforts.

Which developments or events in 2016 had noteworthy positive impacts on the US solar industry?

This was a landmark year for the solar industry on a number of fronts. We celebrated policy successes in several states, from Massachusetts in the north to Colorado in the west and Florida in the south. In each of those states, voters or policy makers took action to expand potential markets for the solar industry. We also marked an incredible milestone—1 million solar systems installed in the US—and we’re already rapidly accelerating toward 2 million. In 2016, prices continued to decline, making solar a cost-effective option for a growing number of Americans. We also saw solar jobs grow to an impressive 209,000 strong.

What event stands out as having had a negative impact on the industry?

The Nevada Public Utilities Commission’s decision in early 2016, which changed the state’s net-metering rules and rates, was a tough pill to swallow. We saw thousands of people lose their jobs and rooftop solar applications plummet due to a dismal policy decision. In September, the commission reversed its initial stance on grandfathering and adopted regulations that protect the investments of NV Energy customers who installed a solar system or submitted an interconnection request prior to December 31, 2015

What are SEIA’s priorities as we move into the new year?

It’s vital that we continue our education efforts so those in office fully understand the benefits—both economic and environmental—that solar energy provides our nation. You will see us continue to push for pro-solar policies in a number of states. We expect to work in close collaboration with state affiliates and other interested groups toward priorities that make a difference to all of our members.

In Washington, DC, there will be a large number of new policy makers in the executive and legislative branches. It’s going to be increasingly important that we expand our education efforts and demonstrate that communities all over America are seeing increased jobs and more economic activity, thanks to the burgeoning solar industry.

We also will continue to advance and expand our efforts in codes and standards, PV recycling, consumer protection and solar energy finance. We are aiming these particular efforts at establishing a strong base on which to grow the solar industry.

What is SEIA’s current membership profile? Has it changed notably in recent years?

As the industry has matured, our membership has grown increasingly diverse. Our member companies consist of installers, project developers, manufacturers, contractors, financiers and nonprofits. Going forward, lines are going to start to blur, especially as community solar and commercial projects expand.

How does SEIA balance initiatives to support what may be competing interests among its various member groups?

SEIA represents all sectors of the solar industry, whether they be utility scale or distributed generation, and those lines are starting to blur. It’s true that there is intense competition in our industry among companies.

However, we are stronger together than apart, and we will continue to fight vigorously for policies that advance the entire solar industry, to the benefit of all of our members.

What recent state-level solar policy efforts have been particularly effective or notable?

California’s January 2016 decision extending net-energy metering (NEM) through at least 2019 was a big step for us, and we were proud of the role we played in providing expert witness testimony and advocacy. In New York, we have worked with a coalition to maintain net metering for rooftop customers until 2020; establish fair, value-based compensation for larger solar projects; and establish a community solar market in the state.

The defeat of the deceptive utility-backed Amendment 1 in Florida was also extremely notable. It let our detractors across the country know that while we might not have their bottomless bank accounts, public support is on our side. The resounding rejection of Amendment 1 should send a message across all states that you cannot curtail solar choice.

Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA at sepapower.org)
Julia Hamm, president and CEO

Created in 1992, SEPA is an educational nonprofit founded to help utilities deploy and integrate solar, storage, demand response and other distributed energy resources. Its current 1,000 members include utilities, independent system operators, large energy users, corporations and nonprofits. As the president and CEO of SEPA since 2004, Julia Hamm has 15 years’ experience advising and collaborating with utilities, manufacturers and government agencies on renewable energy and energy efficiency strategies and programs.

What recent developments have had positive or negative impacts on the US solar industry?

Certainly, a core issue that has dominated the news and minds of many in our industry has been the ongoing state-level discussions about rate reform and net metering. On the negative side, some of these discussions continue to be framed as a basic conflict between the solar industry and utilities, and some utilities continue to be viewed as anti-solar, even as they interconnect thousands of new solar rooftops and add new utility-scale or community-shared solar projects to the grid. On the plus side, we are also seeing more negotiated settlements in these cases—for example, in Colorado, Minnesota and Montana—as a result of active efforts to engage all industry stakeholders in the process. And in some instances—most notably in Hawaii—we are seeing that, given specific market economics, a change from retail rate net metering does not automatically mean that the solar market nosedives. The fact is, solar has become a mainstream source of power generation that when smartly deployed will increasingly offer benefits to customers, utilities and the grid; prices will continue to drop; and rate reform will be part of that evolution.

As we enter 2017, what initiatives is SEPA prioritizing?

In the past year, SEPA has rebranded from the Solar Electric Power Association to the Smart Electric Power Alliance. This reflects our expanded mission to echo the evolution of the solar industry itself, from its initial focus on solar deployment and market growth, to a wider view encompassing a range of distributed energy technologies, such as storage, demand response and electric vehicles. We have also stepped up our research with our Beyond the Meter series, which focuses on the grid integration of distributed technologies. In the coming months, we will release reports on microgrids, distributed resource planning and electric vehicle charging. Our 51st State Initiative has produced strategies and a recognized, effective process for market transformation. In the coming year, we hope to see one or more states adopt this model as the foundation for their own market evolution.

How has SEPA’s mission evolved over time?

Our most recent rebranding is not our first. We were originally called the Utility Photovoltaic Group, or UPVG. Our new name, Smart Electric Power Alliance, allows us to build on a brand with wide recognition in the industry and continue to grow. We are proud of our history and remain dedicated to helping utilities make smart solar decisions. We want to become a platform for all industry stakeholders, a place where they can share diverse views and ideas, and find the collaborative new solutions that are needed to reframe the narrative of our industry. The expanded scope of our mission directly addresses the challenges of solar integration on the grid and the role of distributed technologies in ensuring that solar continues to thrive.

The growth of community solar is in part a result of the industry’s customer-centric focus, and SEPA continues to play an active role in helping utilities design these shared solar programs. However, the process of change is uneven and uncomfortable; both utility and solar industry business models will likely continue to evolve. The research, collaborative processes and market transformation models SEPA has developed and supports are all aimed at ensuring that even as these important and necessary changes unfold, our energy markets remain vital and provide real benefit— economic, environmental and social—for all.

Many of your members are utilities. How would you compare utility perspectives on energy storage versus solar assets?

In the bigger picture, utilities are increasingly seeing solar, storage and other distributed technologies as potential grid assets. We are seeing many utilities launching solar-plus-storage pilots to test out how to optimize these technologies to provide both customer and grid benefits. At the other end of the spectrum, rooftop solar has been a challenge for some utilities primarily because they cannot see or control behind-the-meter assets and the impacts these technologies may have on local distribution systems. Cross-industry collaboration and partnerships are beginning to offer potential solutions to this challenge. For example, SEPA recently partnered with Nexant on a report laying out a practical model for calculating the locational value of solar and other distributed technologies, which is a critical need for integrating distributed energy resources in utilities’ distribution resource planning processes.

As the industry scales, how would SEPA like to see rate design and market opportunities for DERs evolve? What changes might best align our policies to ensure maximum stakeholder benefit?

As an educational nonprofit, SEPA does not promote or endorse any one approach or strategy for rate design, but we have laid out basic doctrines, structures and concepts for market transformation that actively involves all stakeholders. As detailed in our recent report, Blueprints for Electricity Market Reform, the four basic doctrines are: promote efficiencies; clearly define roles; identify principles of rate making; and foster customer choice. The four concepts that grow out of those doctrines are flexibility, incrementality, affordability and transparency, or FIAT. FIAT can be an extremely effective tool in helping ensure that stakeholders are focusing on real, actionable and meaningful transitions for the industry.

Amicus Solar Cooperative (amicussolar.com)
Stephen Irvin, president

Amicus Solar Cooperative, founded in 2011, is a jointly owned and democratically managed purchasing cooperative of PV installers, integrators, EPC firms and developers who benefit by collaborating to lower customer acquisition costs, streamline project financing and drastically improve operational efficiencies. Stephen Irvin moved from Namasté Solar, where he was CFO, to serve as president of Amicus. Irvin has a background in environmental economics.

Which developments or events in 2016 stand out as having had notably positive or negative impacts on the US solar industry?

Two major positive influences were the extension of the federal investment tax credit and the significant decrease in module pricing due to the overcapacity of module supply in the second half of 2016. These two developments sustained the growth and prosperity of our member companies. We also saw some impactful negative influences, such as some state-level policy changes regarding net-metering laws and community solar rules that represented challenges to the solar industry. Further, the SunEdison bankruptcy had a ripple effect resulting in lower investor confidence, which directly impacted sources of project financing. We saw more-stringent underwriting criteria that put downward pressure on EPC pricing and necessitated additional guarantees, such as system uptime and warranty wraps.

As we move into 2017, what initiatives is Amicus prioritizing?

Amicus plans to invest heavily in creating more opportunities to share best practices and learn from each other. We’ll also add new members to expand our coverage across the US.

For the last 2 years, several member companies have been working to charter a proposed Clean Energy Credit Union, which will be an independent entity, to provide financing for products and services such as residential solar, electric vehicles and energy-efficiency home improvements. Credit unions are financial cooperatives, backed by the federal government, and are thus very safe places to deposit funds. As we continue to see more customers seeking loans over leases, this is a timely entrant to the marketplace. Clean Energy Credit Union (cleanenergycreditunion.org) expects to receive its federal charter and begin operations in early 2017.

Lastly, Amicus received an award through the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) SunShot Initiative to form the Amicus O&M Cooperative, which will support the O&M needs of commercial and utility PV systems across the US by identifying co-op members who are located in close proximity to system sites for rapid response, with all members operating under standardized services, pricing and contract terms. We will require all member technicians to complete our certified training programs to ensure a standard quality of work.

Amicus Solar is a member-owned cooperative. Why did Amicus opt for this business structure? Are any of Amicus Solar’s individual members employee owned?

Three of our member companies, including one of the founding companies, are employee-owned cooperatives. What makes cooperatives unique is that the members are also the owners. Rather than rewarding outside investors with its profits, a cooperative returns its surplus earnings in proportion to how much members use the cooperative. This democratic approach to business results in a powerful economic force that benefits cooperative members and the communities they serve.

Amicus Solar and some of its members are Certified B Corporations. What is a B Corporation and what value does the certification offer?

B Corporations are certified by the nonprofit organization B Lab (bcorporation.net) that their business practices genuinely create social good for employees, customers, the community and the environment. The certification represents a rigorous, third-party assessment, and it is a powerful sales tool for customers who believe in voting with their dollars. It helps companies attract and retain talent. The B Corp brand is well known within the socially responsible investor community and helps attract funding. Additionally, it brings these companies into another community of forward-thinking business leaders, where people work together to bring about meaningful change. We are proud to say that 14 of our members (34%) are currently B Corps, including Amicus itself, with several other members now interested in the certification.

Many Amicus members point to the information exchange that the group facilitates as one of its most valuable aspects. How is this exchange facilitated, and why do members feel comfortable sharing business information that may be considered proprietary?

We provide several ways to facilitate information sharing among members: we hold two in-person retreats per year, we manage an online communication tool where people pose questions and the brain trust answers, and we have monthly conference calls on dedicated topics such as marketing practices and general business questions. We carefully manage individual member information to preserve confidentiality, and when we share it, we always present it in aggregate form.

The Solar Foundation (thesolarfoundation.org)
Andrea Luecke, president and executive director

The Solar Foundation is a nonprofit organization with a reputation for impartiality and high-quality, objective research on solar markets, economic impacts and the workforce. The foundation works with decision makers in the government, business and nonprofit arenas. Founded in 1977, it relaunched in its current form in 2010. As president and executive director since the relaunch, Andrea Luecke is the lead on The Solar Foundation’s annual National Solar Jobs Census report series and frequently presents on practical solar best practices.

What recent developments is The Solar Foundation most excited about?

Just in the last year, we’ve seen solar take off at an unprecedented pace. The sharp drop in the cost of solar modules and related components, combined with the growth of both corporate renewables procurement and wholesale distributed generation, has provided new life to the small utility-scale and large commercial and industrial sectors. On the residential side, we’re seeing more and more homeowners looking to finance their solar installations with loans and other products that allow them to keep more of the financial benefits of the system.

All of these developments represent the evolution of an increasingly healthy and mature solar market. Of course, a big wild card will be the impact of the 2016 election on US energy and climate policy. The bottom line, though, is that solar provides a clean and abundant energy source that is increasingly popular and very cost competitive. I’m very optimistic that these trends will continue into 2017 and beyond.

What are your priorities as we enter the new year?

Early in the year, we’ll be releasing the annual National Solar Jobs Census. We first released our National Solar Jobs Census in 2010, so this is our seventh annual jobs census report. We will also be ramping up several programs funded by the US DOE SunShot Initiative, including two major initiatives to strengthen the solar workforce. One is the Solar Training Network, which will build connections between solar job seekers, employers and training providers. Another is Solar Ready Vets, which helps transitioning military personnel gain access to solar training and employment opportunities.

Another one of our priorities will be to help the solar industry reduce soft costs, which now represent up to two-thirds of the cost of an installed residential system. We lead a program called SolSmart, which provides no-cost technical assistance and national recognition to help cities and counties cut red tape and demonstrate that they are open for solar business. That’s a way to create jobs and economic development at the local level, and at the same time provide more residents and businesses with the opportunity to go solar.

We will also be moving forward with the CivicPACE program, which supports expanded solar energy deployment by bringing property assessed clean energy (PACE) financing to tax-exempt organizations, including affordable housing, schools, nonprofits and faith-based institutions.

Are there results from the 2015 Solar Jobs Census that might surprise US solar industry professionals?

Solar employment in the United States reached 209,000 workers as of 2015, having grown at least 20% for each of the last 3 years. This job growth is happening nationwide. In 2015, states that saw their solar workforce grow by 30% or more included not only California and Massachusetts, but also Florida, Maryland, Tennessee, Oregon, Nevada, Michigan and Utah.

Are there specific areas within the industry that offer more job opportunities than others?

Project installation is the industry’s largest employment sector, with 119,931 solar workers as of 2015. However, other jobs are available in sales, marketing, project management, engineering and much more. Solar industry jobs come with relatively few barriers to entry and many opportunities for advancement. In some cases, individuals can start out in an entry-level installation position and then, with a lot of hard work and the right attitude, double their salary when they are promoted a year later. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s Solar Career Map (irecsolarcareermap.org), which outlines career opportunities based on job category and education level, is a useful resource for job seekers.

What is The Solar Foundation’s Solar Training Network?

In our Solar Jobs Census, we found that one in five solar employers reported it was “very difficult” to find qualified employees. The Solar Training Network, which we launched in 2016, aims to bridge the gap between supply and demand in the solar workforce. It will strengthen connections between job seekers, training providers, workforce development boards and solar employers. It will also facilitate new research to better understand the solar workforce and the benefits of solar training for employers.

North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP at nabcep.org)
Rebekah Hren, NABCEP Board of Directors

Since its founding in 2012, NABCEP has developed and administered the most widely known and respected personnel certifications for the solar and small wind industries. Rebekah Hren started her solar career as a “wrench,” an electrician installing solar. She is a licensed electrical contractor, as well as an instructor and curriculum developer for Solar Energy International (SEI) and a technical consultant for SEI Professional Services. In December 2015, NABCEP appointed Hren to its board of directors.

From your perspective, what were the most notable developments in 2016?

As reported by The Solar Foundation in its 2015 National Solar Jobs Census, the solar industry is already three times larger than the coal mining industry. A development related to solar jobs growth is an increase in training programs targeted specifically to veterans transitioning to careers in the solar industry. For example, the DOE launched the Solar Ready Vets program as a pilot program in 2014, and The Solar Foundation took over the administration of this program in 2016, under the Solar Training and Education for Professionals (STEP) funding program. As a separate initiative, Solar Energy International (SEI) and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), both nonprofit training organizations, received US Department of Veterans Affairs approval for training courses in 2016. Both organizations now offer solar training to transitioning vets through the use of GI Bill education benefits and are actively recruiting vets for solar training.

What initiative is NABCEP prioritizing as we move into 2017?

NABCEP is developing PV Specialty credentials—sometimes called micro-credentials—in design, installation, and commissioning and maintenance. NABCEP has also developed a PV System Inspector credential intended for individuals performing system inspections for AHJs, utilities, incentive programs, investors or others responsible for photovoltaic quality assurance and code compliance.

In May 2016, the US DOE SunShot Initiative awarded NABCEP a $1.1 million cooperative agreement. As one of the DOE STEP awardees, NABCEP has been updating and expanding upon its personnel certification programs to address the changing needs of solar professionals and their employers and stakeholders.

As the industry scales, is the role of certification and training more or less important?

The days of the solar generalist are drawing to a close, and the days of the solar specialist are here. Solar specialists have particular skill sets: financial analysis, sales, legal, PV system design and engineering, construction and project management, performance modeling and analysis, or O&M. However, every solar specialist needs a base upon which to stand, and that base is solid training in PV fundamentals. Certification allows employers to hire educated generalists and confidently invest in more-specialized training and advanced certifications. This is why NABCEP is rolling out specialty credentials, including one for the quickly growing field of solar O&M.

Do you have any advice on how students can qualify training providers, whether to meet NABCEP continuing education requirements or to improve job prospects?

The Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) sets the bar for accreditation for solar training providers. Always look for IREC-accredited training providers and certified instructors when choosing solar training. Each year, NABCEP holds an industry-leading continuing education conference targeted towards certified PV Installation Professionals. The next conference is scheduled for March 21–23 in Dallas, Texas, and will consist of an excellent mix of industry expert panels, equipment-manufacturer technical trainings and day-long in-depth seminars.

Solar Energy International (SEI at solarenergy.org)
Kathryn Swartz, executive director

SEI was founded in 1991 as a nonprofit educational organization to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy. SEI offers hands-on workshops and online courses in solar PV, microhydro and solar hot water. One of the more than 50,000 alumni of SEI, Kathryn Swartz has been its executive director since 2012. She has a background in environmental education.

What recent developments stand out as especially good news for the US solar industry?

From a policy perspective, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) ruling in support of rural electric co-ops was one of the most important events. FERC affirmed the right of Delta-Montrose Electric Association—which happens to be SEI’s electric co-op—to buy electricity outside the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association. FERC’s ruling in support of cooperatives’ ability to buy electricity from qualified facilities significantly increases the prospects for distributed energy in rural America, which has over 900 electric co-ops. In Delta County, Colorado, where SEI is based, this ruling creates the opportunity for large-scale local renewable energy systems, including PV, microhydro, biogas and coal-mine methane.

Additionally, Tesla Motors CEO and founder Elon Musk has brought much attention to the potential of energy storage and roofing tiles, which other companies have tried to do for years. The general public, although sometimes misinformed from a technical perspective, is actively discussing renewable energy and storage, and it’s incredibly exciting. Regardless of what happens with Tesla, Musk’s announcements have spurred innovation and growth within the industry.

Lastly, the National Fire Protection Association put PV modules on the cover of NEC 2017, which is a testament to how far we have come as an industry. Regardless of what one thinks about the major rapid-shutdown overhaul, the industry is working more closely than ever with stakeholder groups, such as firefighters, and that benefits all of us.

Moving into 2017, what initiatives is SEI prioritizing?

This year, SEI is prioritizing the expansion of our international outreach efforts, including expanding our scholarship funds so that no person is denied the opportunity for quality technical PV training. In 2016, SEI gave over 80 scholarships to people from around the world, including members of the Masai tribe in Kenya; refugees from Syria and Sudan; students from India, Iraq, Nigeria, Ecuador, Belize and Colombia; and US veterans who no longer had access to GI Bill funding for training. We are also in the process of developing international hands-on training centers, which we will model off SEI’s flagship campus in Paonia, Colorado. People from around the world take our online courses. However, there’s no substitute for in-person, hands-on training. By developing international satellite training locations, we can bring our hands-on quality training to even more people.

SEI has more than 50,000 alumni of its training programs. How has the profile of SEI’s training participants changed?

To date, we have provided training to people from all 50 states and 190 different countries through our online campus and in-person trainings. When we founded SEI more than 25 years ago, we mostly trained homeowners who were seeking energy independence through off-grid living. As the industry has changed, so too have our participants. They come to SEI for solar training for a multitude of reasons. Some are driven by a desire for energy independence—that hasn’t changed—or are seeking financial opportunities and career development. Others are concerned about geopolitical and global conflict pressures or fascinated with the technologies driving the clean energy sector. We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of veterans we are serving. Though we’ve always been an international training nonprofit, we’ve seen a major increase in the number of students from both the developing world and emerging markets.

Has the focus of SEI’s training programs evolved in recent years?

Though grid-connected applications obviously make up the bulk of the US solar market, SEI has always maintained a comprehensive energy storage program. We now have over 175 hours of energy storage curriculum that we continue to change as new technologies emerge. We’ve also spent a lot of time on our O&M trainings, and we will be launching an online O&M course in the spring of 2017. Geographically we’ve expanded with the addition of our Programa Hispano training for Latin America and our new Middle East Program. We have a team of ten people working on not only updating our online and in-person trainings, but also developing new courses.

What training opportunities does SEI offer for solar professionals?

SEI offers a variety of high-level trainings for professionals already working in the solar industry, from hands-on O&M, to advanced one-day conference trainings, to on-demand online continuing education courses. All of SEI’s training provides NABCEP education hours for certification or continuing education credits for recertification. We also offer the SEI Solar Professionals Certificate Program (SPCP), which creates a pathway to graduation requiring more than 200 hours of training and multiple tracks of emphasis. Many of our SPCP graduates go on to get NABCEP certification.

SEI launched SEI Professional Services and SEI Engineering in 2015 and 2016, respectively. What technical services is SEI offering and what businesses or groups could leverage and benefit from these services?

SEI launched these two for-profit entities because of the many requests from our alumni, who wanted additional support as they began businesses or took on more complicated projects. Not only are we supporting our alumni and their business growth, but we are also providing professional growth opportunities for SEI staff and instructors who work on a wide variety of projects, and that feeds back into keeping our curriculum cutting-edge. In addition, the profits support SEI’s nonprofit mission and fund our scholarship program.

SEI Professional Services offers third-party commissioning, performance verification, design, consulting and feasibility services. SEI Engineering provides electrical and civil permitting and construction documents for projects ranging from residential to microgrids to utility scale. We’ve worked with companies from around the world, from start-ups to established multinational corporations, to provide them with the tools they need to implement successful projects, and we’ve only just begun.

Blue Oak Energy (blueoakenergy.com)
Bill Reaugh, director of engineering

Blue Oak Energy is a Davis, California–based engineering and construction firm that has fielded more than 1 GW of solar capacity across more than 900 sites since its founding in 2003. Bill Reaugh, the company’s director of engineering, has worked in the PV industry since 2002, specializing in technology development and regulatory policy.

How does the future of the US solar industry look from Blue Oak Energy’s perspective?

The 2018–2020 business outlook is staggering. We owe that to the extension of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC). The ITC provides a stable tax incentive framework for projects, which helps ensure long-term industry stability and growth. As an engineering and construction firm that supports developers, financiers, contractors and product manufacturers, we see firsthand how the ITC extension has improved the outlook for all of our partners.

How has Blue Oak Energy adapted its business model and services over time?

One of the primary adaptations we have made is the addition of a full-service civil engineering team. Utility-scale solar projects have taken over a large percentage of our engineering capacity. Getting the civil aspects of a project right from the very beginning of a development effort is essential to delivering a successful project on schedule and within budget. We have also seen project schedules compress as the industry matures. Having a full-service civil engineering team in-house working closely with our electrical and mechanical team members creates a cohesive system design across all boundaries. As a result, we can now fully engineer, permit and begin construction on very complex utility solar projects in a matter of a few weeks.

What products or services are coming to market that are potentially game changing or particularly important incremental advances for the US solar industry?

From both a design and an O&M perspective, we like using tracker systems that operate without the need for drive shafts or external power supplies. In terms of plant design, this provides significantly more flexibility, particularly in areas challenged by terrain, wetlands or other obstacles that prevent regular power block shapes. The efficiency of O&M activities improves because the O&M team can drive module-washing and weed-control equipment straight through the row without having to turn around in the middle, which also allows for tighter spacing between rows and improves ground cover ratio. Other incremental improvements include steel pile product and wire harness advances, increased string inverter capacity and 1,500 Vdc utilization voltages.

You have some experience with tile- and roof-integrated solar products from your tenure at OCR Solar & Roofing, which PetersenDean acquired in 2009. What lessons did you learn about the residential new construction market? What do you make of Tesla’s new Solar Roof products?

Many media reports about the October 28 announcement are inaccurate. Tesla introduced Solar Roof tiles, not shingles as many outlets reported. Roof tiles, on one hand, are typically made of concrete, clay or slate. Even trained roofers have a difficult time handling roof tiles as they are heavy and brittle. Shingles, on the other, are made of asphalt and other petroleum byproducts, so they are exceptionally inexpensive to manufacture, durable and easy to install.

Elon Musk’s claim that his solar roof tiles will be cheaper to produce and install than traditional roofing materials may be accurate—with a very large emphasis on may— but much depends on the details. When I worked with a roofing contractor doing solar roofs integrated with traditional roofing tiles, we used a product manufactured by BP Solar precisely because it installed identically to roofing tiles. What many have observed, but not necessarily thought about, is that while roofing tiles are nearly uniform, roofs are not. Therefore, roof tile installation needs to be flexible to accommodate changes in roof shape and pitch. To integrate easily with roofing tiles, solar roof tile installation must also provide flexibility. While the BP Solar tiles were flexible, a competing product at the time was not, which led to some compromises that could cause long-term issues with the roof.

Elon Musk and his team have proven to be incredible innovators and have disrupted multiple industries with technologies that achieve economic scale. It is also true that venerable companies such as BP Solar, Dow Solar, SunPower, Unisolar and many others have ventured into this particular solar niche with varying degrees of success. Based on that history, it will be difficult for Tesla to achieve the level of success it has attained in other areas. We will simply have to wait to see what comes out of Buffalo.

Before joining Blue Oak Energy, you represented KACO new energy in some of the Rule 21 proceedings. What was that process like and where do things stand?

According to the California Public Utilities Commission, Rule 21 is “a tariff that describes the interconnection, operating and metering requirements for generation facilities to be connected to a utility’s distribution system, over which the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has jurisdiction.” The process of creating Rule 21 started in 2011 and is ongoing in 2017. During the development process, stakeholders decided to break the rulemaking into three phases: Phase 1 deals with autonomous functions, Phase 2 deals with communication requirements, and Phase 3 deals with advanced features. Prior to the creation and adoption of Rule 21, inverters were required to trip offline when the grid became unstable for any reason. Outside the US, countries with large penetrations of renewable generation sources—such as Germany and Denmark—decided that the flexibility inverters provided was beneficial to the grid, and those countries developed standards for when and how inverters could support the grid. In the event of an abnormal voltage condition, for example, you might want interactive inverters to ride through the event rather than disconnecting from the grid and exacerbating those conditions, which could potentially lead to a blackout.

Rule 21 is among the first efforts in the US to develop and follow similar standards on a grid-wide basis. Prior to implementation of Rule 21, it was possible to allow the additional flexibility, but only on a case-by-case basis and only through special operating agreements between the plant operators and utilities, which limits these functions to large-scale solar projects. Rule 21 now pushes those options down to systems as small as 15 kW.

As of December 2014, the investor-owned utilities in California (PG&E, SCE and SDG&E) had adopted Phase 1 of Rule 21 statewide. As of September 2016, UL developed testing standards to certify inverters as having “advanced inverter functionality.” Inverter manufacturers are now getting equipment certified to the new Advanced Inverter Standard and will have commercially available products soon. Inverter manufacturers are required to complete the certification process no later than September 2017.

California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA at calseia.org)
Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director

CALSEIA is a California nonprofit organization created to promote the growth of the solar industry and expand the use of all solar technologies in the state through policy development, advocacy, education, networking and business services. Since 2013, Bernadette Del Chiaro has served as the executive director, coming to CALSEIA with more than a decade of policy and advocacy experience on renewable energy issues in California.

What was the good news out of California in 2016?

The biggest policy event of 2016 was the strong NEM 2.0 decision issued by the CPUC. Despite fierce opposition from California’s large and powerful utilities, and in the face of a three-to-two vote of the Governor Brown–appointed board, the CPUC adopted a strong successor program that will allow customer-sited solar to continue to grow over the next several years.

Did the California solar industry lose any fights this year?

The state suffered market losses in utility territories governed by local municipal utilities and irrigation districts. Alameda, Imperial, Modesto and Palo Alto are just some of the local utilities that have turned their back on rooftop solar, essentially killing the solar market going forward by effectively eliminating net metering.

What are CALSEIA’s top priorities this year?

Our number one priority in 2017 is our Storage and Smart Grid Project, which aims to usher in Grid 2.0, enabling high levels of distributed solar and ensuring that the customer-sited solar market continues to grow. Specifically, we will work to improve interconnection processes, create new tariffs for grid support services, launch a market transformation initiative for storage, and ensure that the next generation of NEM tariffs clears the way for continued growth of distributed solar.

How will these initiatives benefit your members, customers or the industry as a whole?

Making storage paired with rooftop solar a reality for everyday consumers is the single most important thing we can do to promote the future growth of the solar industry. This vision will come about through a combination of storage-friendly rate structures that give market value to smart inverters and storage systems, such as rebates to drive up demand and drive down prices, as well as consumer and contractor training and information to build the knowledge base to take this next big step into a clean energy future.

What is CALSEIA’s current membership profile and has it changed notably in recent years?

CALSEIA is in a major growth phase. Over the last 3 years, we’ve quadrupled our membership, and we show no signs of slowing down. We’ll start 2017 with over 430 members, and we aim to exceed 500 by the middle of the coming year. Our membership is broad, with contractors and developers making up about half of our companies. The other half is a mix of manufacturers, financiers, software developers and other support service providers. Given this growth, we are able to represent the industry in every major decision-making forum from the CPUC to the state legislature to OSHA. We are also able to help our members with more day-to-day business, such as local permitting and HOA battles that can add up and become quite the thorn in the industry’s side.

What is the status of California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program?

Extending the Self-Generation Incentive Program was an important accomplishment of the 2016 legislative session, as it effectively kept the lights on for distributed storage projects. However, the program is not big enough, and the new funds are likely to be subscribed by mid-2017, leaving a gap in funding for an industry that is trying to get off the ground. Rate structures that truly value storage, along with other grid-support services such as smart inverters, are still a ways away. Without a stand-alone incentive program to give the industry and consumers alike consistent support to drive up demand and drive down prices, California’s emerging storage market will remain expensive, serving only a niche market. This is exactly what happened to the solar PV market in the early 2000s, before adoption of the California Solar Initiative in 2006. Creating a market-transformational initiative for California’s storage industry in the next 3 years is critical.

California has always been a leader in solar policy and market development. As individual states work to develop or expand their solar industries, do you have suggestions for areas of focus?

The most important thing this industry can do is build up our outside game. Having and mobilizing strong public and coalition support, to match strong advocacy and regulatory work, is critical. Money still talks, and this industry, despite our recent growth, cannot match the resources of our opponents. Our number one resource, besides the sun itself, is people power. It is what delivered a strong NEM 2.0 decision in California, and it is what will always be the foundation of successful policy outcomes. Just look at Florida and Amendment 1. The utilities understood the power of public support for solar and tried to harness it for their own deceitful self-interests. It looked like we were going to lose until the utilities were caught in their lie and the public was made aware with the help of the media. This recent story demonstrates the importance of the outside game.

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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