Dominion’s Solar Partnership Program Adds Another Participant

As part of their ongoing Solar Partnership Program, Dominion Virginia Power is currently constructing the latest in their statewide portfolio of solar power projects at an open field adjacent to the Merck manufacturing plant in Elkton, VA.

Dominion is installing about 6,800 PV modules at the project site for a total of 2.2 MWDC of nameplate capacity. The modules are supported by ground-mounted steel racks. Power collected by the modules is converted to AC power via inverters distributed throughout the array and fed directly into Dominion’s grid infrastructure.

elktonRecent aerial photo taken of Dominion’s Merck Solar Facility under construction (Courtesy of Dominion Virginia Power)

The project marks the eighth project to be constructed in the Dominion program since it began primary development activities in 2013. The map below shows a portion of Dominion’s renewable energy project sites including those of the SPP in the state of Virginia. ANTARES has assisted Dominion with each of these SPP solar projects from initial site studies to construction oversight and operating guidance, as well as provided additional support in vetting the feasibility of potential projects along the way.


Courtesy of Dominion Virginia Power

The Zombie PTC rises again, and the ITC lives to tell the tale

In keeping with what seems to have become a semi-annual tradition, the Section 45 Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit (PTC) was resurrected at the end of 2015. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 passed in early December retroactively renewed the PTC through the end of 2014. For eligible wind energy facilities, the credit was extended through the end of 2019, and will be reduced by 20% in 2017, by 40% in 2018, and by 60% in 2019. For other eligible technologies, the credit will once again expire at the end of 2016.



The same legislation saved the Energy Investment Tax Credit (ITC), and the solar energy industry, from certain doom. Previously, the ITC for solar energy was set to reduce to 10% after December 31, 2016. The credit is now extended through the end of 2019 at the 30% level, and will step down to 26% in 2020, 22% in 2021, and 10% in 2022 and future years. Geothermal heat pumps continue to be eligible for a 10% ITC through the end of 2016, and geothermal electric systems are eligible for a 10% ITC through 2022 and future years. Utility-scale wind projects continue to be eligible to claim the ITC in lieu of the PTC as long as the PTC is in effect.

Now that the solar energy industry is no longer peering anxiously into the abyss of a world without the ITC, we can start thinking about the type of ancillary effects this extension might have. One possible impact is to accelerate the end of net metering such as we’re seeing in Nevada right now, care of NV Energy and the Nevada Public Utilities Commission. The idea is that as solar costs continue to drop and project economics remain buoyed by the ITC, the case is stronger for utilities to claim losses and expenses as a result of increasing solar adoption. The form that’s taken so far is an overhaul to net metering policies.

Solar energy systems produce at their max typically in the middle of the day when the sun is most directly incident on the modules. But typical residential consumers, who by-and-large aren’t home in the middle of the day, have relatively small home loads at these times. When systems produce excess power because of low load demand, that power is delivered back to the grid and the meter is ‘credited’ for the delivered energy during the day. Those credits are used at night when loads are typically higher in the house and the PV system is not generating. Historically, net metering rules have given a 1:1 credit for excess generation meaning every excess kWh generated is a kWh credited. Currently, this mechanism of shifting energy generation from daytime to nighttime using credits is what helps incentivize and fuel solar growth at the consumer level.

The Nevada PUC ruling in late December 2015 unanimously approved a new tariff structure for solar customers (and later modified its ruling in February 2016). The new tariff institutes a new, higher fixed monthly charge (i.e. independent of energy use) for net metering customers and implements a tiered de-escalation of the ‘credit’ these customers receive for their excess generation. The NV Energy excess energy credit, as of January 1, starts at roughly 83 – 94% of the retail energy value and ramps down every 3 years over the course of 12 years until it reaches the wholesale rate of energy[1]. That’s just over 2.5 cents per kWh of excess generation. What this amounts to is that solar energy producers will not be credited for excess generation during the day in the way they’ve historically been used to, making pay-back periods much longer and threatening economic viability of many projects altogether.

The PUC hearings for these rulings received enormous press and included testimony from stakeholders across the energy industry such as high profile energy developer Elon Musk, SolarCity board chairman. Solar City currently holds Nevada’s largest market share for residential solar. One of the more contentious details following the rulings was the rejection of a “grandfathering” rule which sought to make current solar producers already under the old net metering tariffs, and who invested in their systems under the impression that net metering rules would not dramatically change, exempt from the new tariff changes. As a result, many PV system owners may not even recoup their investment.  This kind of government bait and switch is very harmful to consumer trust and industry sustainability, and further, strains the ability to add new industry-related legislation down the road for fear about its impermanence. We’ll dive deeper into this topic in a separate blog post later this year.

But the Nevada PUC isn’t the first commission to file such rulings. Late last year the Hawaii PUC similarly voted to end net metering for Hawaii Electric Company’s (HECO) solar generating customers. The related issues behind this vote were decidedly a bit more complex than in Nevada due to the uniquely high solar penetration Hawaii is experiencing (as of October 2015, roughly 16% of HECO Companies customers were generating power with grid-connected solar the capacity of which amounted to about 35% penetration on the system peaks[2]. The tariff change in Hawaii also differs from Nevada in the sense that the new rate for selling back excess power, while roughly half of the retail rate, is still 15 – 28 cents per kWh[3] (due to the high wholesale energy rates in Hawaii) and likely still valuable enough to justify many PV projects. But the new rates are only applicable for the next two years making investment in solar a very difficult decision considering the 20 – 30 year life cycle of projects.

While the examples of Nevada and Hawaii are strikingly different from each other, they represent a potential sea change that could be seen in many other states as utilities continue the push to recapture revenues lost to solar generation and grid planning costs associated with preparing for higher circuit penetration rates on their lines. So far in solar’s journey, net metering has been the secret sauce for many sectors that makes the generation profile of solar make economic sense.

Without net metering, and considering the gradual plateauing trend of installation cost reductions, many are speculating that demand response and storage mechanisms, such as generation-coupled batteries, will be the future of helping to monetize the energy value of customer-sited distributed solar and maintain favorable economics and incentive for consumers to go solar. Customer-sited demand response technology is at a very young stage in its development and deployment and the costs reflect this, but looking at the trend of solar cost reductions in the last 10 years it’s easy to imagine a similar industry boom and increase of accessibility for this newer technology. With the looming threat to net metering and the enormous potential of distributed storage, we believe the next 12 months will be very telling in exactly what the future of customer-sited solar will look like for the next 10 – 20 years and beyond.

(Thanks to Heidi Alsbrooks for collaborating on this post.)


[2] DECISION AND ORDER NO. 33258; Public Utilities Commission; Docket No. 2014-0192


UPDATE: Solar Employment Continues Growth in 2015

Another year ends and new year begins, and with it comes a myriad of best-ofs, retrospectives, and reports for the past 12 months. Among those, don’t miss the sixth installment of The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census[1], a yearly report covering current employment, trends, and projected growth for all things related to the U.S. solar industry. (I covered the release of the 2014 census in a previous blog post.)

It should be noted that all census activities were conducted prior to the recent extension of the Federal Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC).  The ITC was previously slated to be cut or expire altogether at the end of 2016. The Solar Foundation points out that the extension of the ITC may result in slightly lower solar employment growth in 2016 than what was projected in their report due to reduced pressure to complete projects before year’s end. The employment benefits of those projects whose schedules are pushed out will be seen the following year. Coupled with the long-term benefits of the ITC extension, it’s therefore expected that the growth numbers for 2017 and beyond will be higher than those shown in this report, which depict the industry’s future without the ITC extension.

In 2015, solar again continued its upward trend adding an estimated 7.4 GWDC to the grid of new solar PV alone, a 19% increase over 2014[2]. With that growth came a 20.2% increase in solar employment, just shy of the projected 20.9% increase for 2015 published in last year’s report. That’s about 35,000 new jobs just this year, the majority coming from new jobs in the installation sector, which is not surprising considering it makes up about 80% of the industry. That means a huge lift in the number actual boots on roofs. The solar industry’s growth accounted for about 1.2% of all job growth in the nation last year.

Solar Employment Growth by Sector (Source: The Solar Foundation)

Solar Employment Growth by Sector (Source: The Solar Foundation)

As mentioned above, with the recent extension of the ITC, new capacity and job growth in 2016 may be a bit more conservative than the numbers mentioned in the Census, but overall far more stable in the longer run for years ahead. This long-term job growth will likely only be reinforced by new policy and awareness from opportunities such as the newly passed EPA Clean Power Plan and the recent COP 21 Paris Summit on Climate Change.

Of particular note, the report does not explicitly speculate on the expansion of intersections of parallel industries with the solar industry. Energy storage as it relates to solar has seen huge growth in policy, acceptance, and cost effectiveness in the last year. Energy storage and smart controls allow solar energy facilities to be responsible grid citizens by enabling a variety of grid support features at the source of the power. With new mechanisms for monetizing and incentivizing these features it’s estimated that the next few years will bring an exponential increase in energy storage deployments. This expansion of market opportunities for the solar industry is likely to boost employment to new heights as solar becomes a more permanent figure in the smart-grid solution.

figure 2

Energy Storage Deployments by Segment (MW), 2012 – 2019E (Source: GTM Research)



The Solar Decathlon’s Legacy

Another chapter of the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon has come to a close. This year saw the Stevens Institute of Technology team, entering with their SURE HOUSE, take top honors overall while also winning many of the individual contests including the coveted architecture and engineering categories. If you’re not familiar with the Solar Decathlon, see our previous post on my experience with the 2011 contest here.

The Stevens house focused a large portion of its design approach on structural and infrastructural resiliency in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The college is personally familiar with the devastation of the 2012 storm as it lies on the west bank of the Hudson River in Hoboken, NJ, directly in the path of Sandy and other mid-Atlantic storms and nor’easters. The energy plan for the house emphasizes reduced energy use through high-efficiency building materials and appliances such as its robust envelop design and energy recovery systems amounting to an R-40 annual heat loss design. As communities continue to rethink their approaches to building concepts with respect to storm resistance, we’ll very likely see some of the design principles in SURE HOUSE influencing planners and designers.

decathlon 2

SURE House (Image courtesy of Stevens Institute of Technology)

But this is just one promising example of the advanced ideas present at the Solar Decathlon with the potential of making the jump from concept to commercial realization. With all the forward thinking that’s come out of past competitions, it’s actually quite common to look back at past entries and see, what were at the time, untested concepts that have since progressed toward commercial implementation. Many of the design concepts and inspiration behind the now-widespread ‘tiny house’ craze can be traced back to ideas that were forged or proven during past Solar Decathlons including: novel uses (reuses, really) for shipping containers, and dynamic structural elements such as moveable walls that allow the interior space to transform when the occasion calls for it. But aside from the incredible shrinking house, here’s a couple new technologies borne out of past Decathlons that have potential application in a much broader range of design for physical space.

In the 2011 competition, the Ohio State University team developed an innovative new approach to home HVAC and water heating with its integrated energyhawc prototype combining aspects of air conditioning, heating, water heating, ventilation, and dehumidification into a single unified system. Since 2011, the protoype has been continuously developed for subsequent competitions, an OSU capstone course, and now an emerging commercial product being brought to market.  energyhawc touts a SEER rating of 24 and boasts operational savings of 40% over equivalent code standard equipment amounting to a quicker payback period with greater environmental savings as well.

Similarly, the 2007 University of Maryland LEAFHouse (full disclosure, I was a team member, so I’m partial to this one!) developed a novel application of a dehumidification system with a liquid desiccant mechanism at its heart. The system used a partially exposed liquid desiccant waterfall to pull moisture from the air inside the house and trap it in the desiccant solution thereby reducing the massive conditioning loads on the HVAC system that are especially prevalent during summer and fall in the mid-Atlantic area. UMD explored this concept further in 2011 with their Watershed house where the HVAC team improved on the design by integrating a highly attractive chamber filled with plastic column packing spheres to increase the liquid-air reaction times for increased performance. The technology is patent pending and a new business has been formed to bring the product to market.

Watershed liquid desiccant wall (Image Courtesy of Stefano Paltera/US Department of Energy)

Watershed liquid desiccant wall (Image Courtesy of Stefano Paltera/US Department of Energy)

Since its inaugural contest in 2002, the competition has spurred Solar Decathlons Europe, starting in 2010, and more recently Solar Decathlon China in 2013. As the competitions and technologies continue to evolve, there’s no doubt that we’ll start to see even more novel engineering and architectural concepts reach widespread adoption.

News from the Front: SPI 2015 in Review

Earlier this month ANTARES returned to Solar Power International. I made the trek across the country to Anaheim and met up with Ali Schmidt from our Petaluma, CA office for a non-stop week of all things solar (you can check out Ali’s reflections on the event in a previous blog post here). If you’re unfamiliar SPI, it’s the largest solar conference in North America and amasses over 15,000 solar industry professionals from 75+ countries for a week-long affair of networking events, industry speakers, education sessions, and of course the expo hall floor with more than 600 manufacturers, service providers, and vendors.

This year’s host was the Anaheim Convention Center just across the way from Disneyland, not surprisingly the de facto location for this year’s perennial SPI Block Party. This attendee was dragged kicking and screaming to The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror by his boss in what I have assumed was a lesson in stress management  (see embarrassing photo evidence).

spi conference

Listening to the array of speakers and checking out the newest equipment offerings always gives a good pulse on the current trends of the industry and what the next big thing is going to be in solar. This year’s major themes seemed to be the grid of tomorrow and what I ended up dubbing ITC Chicken Little.

With the continued flourishing of utility-scale solar deployment, it’s likely no great surprise that storage was a hot-button issue at this year’s conference. With increased T&D penetration levels and larger MW-scale projects becoming common on both coasts, the DSO/ISO/RTO’s ability to manage those resources and best put them to use where they’ll mean the most has taken center-stage in discussions of what the grid will ultimately look like 5, 10, 20 years forward and beyond. The big buzzwords here from grid operators were demand response, peak shifting, and voltage & frequency regulation. The take-away is that the energy solar generates doesn’t necessarily coincide with the peak demand periods when it is most needed to offset dispatchable, costly spinning reserves that grid operators have to call on during those big demand periods. Further the intermittent nature of solar power without storage can create power quality and forecasting issues for grid operators. Here, storage can step in and stockpile that energy to be discharged at a later, more opportune time or supplement solar output during the daytime at moments when the PV system sees a sudden drop in power output (for example, when cloud cover rolls over a project site). And these technologies aren’t limited just to the larger utility-scale installs; some of the biggest buzz is coming from the residential sector where models for monetizing in-home storage through grid support functions will likely be popping up in the near term.

Storage may also work together with newer smart solar inverter functionality which will allow for, among other things, dispatchable reactive power control and advanced ride-through settings for increased grid stability. Larger systems may also start to see curtailment of PV output power by grid operators.

And of course, like a raincloud hanging over the conference, there was the looming threat of the expiration of the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) which is set to be reduced to 10% for commercial projects and eliminated altogether for residential projects at the end of 2016. Industry advocacy groups shared the role of Chicken Little speculating of severe detrimental effects on the rapidly growing solar industry pointing to the expiration of the wind PTC and the resulting boom-bust of that industry. As solar starts to approach, and in some places surpass, grid parity the opinions around the industry on how to deal with the incentive expiration vary from demands for extending the ITC outright, to stepping it down slowly allowing the industry to react gradually, to just a handful arguing it’s the time to say goodbye to the long-time federal incentive.

But regardless of the final decision on the ITC, it seems that the new EPA Clean Power Plan could help bridge that gap with the newly approved policy which seeks to reduce carbon emissions from national electricity generation by 30% by 2030 (based on a benchmark of 2005 emissions). Generally, it certainly seems that the industry has just about reached a boiling point and it’s now become essential to start looking at solar from a more holistic point of view as part of the bigger-picture of national power infrastructure. As usual, policy from our government agencies, state level commissions, and utility grid operators leads the way. It’s an exciting time for the power sector as a whole as all stakeholders work to shape the next generation of our transmission and distribution systems.

Virginia Rooftop Solar Hits New High

Dominion Virginia Power unveiled its most recently finished project last month in Sterling, Virginia just a stone’s throw from Dulles International Airport. This is the utility’s most recent project as part of their Community Solar Partnership program. At roughly 750 kWDC, this marks the largest rooftop installation in Virginia to date. ANTARES has assisted in the due diligence and development of similar projects, including site assessment, RFP assistance, design review, and project inspection.  For help on your next solar project, give us a call.

Big Additions to U.S. Solar Jobs in 2014

The end of any year always gives us heaps of new information about industry trends: the big gains, the big losses (hopefully not), who’s hot, who’s not, etc. A particularly interesting year-end report on the current state of solar energy-related jobs the U.S. is providing even more fuel to the proverbial fire for those seeking an expanded use of solar energy. According to the 2014 National Solar Jobs Census[1], a report released last month by The Solar Foundation, the solar industry has had yet another banner year in terms of adding domestic jobs to the U.S. economy.

solar MW growth

So how many jobs are we talking?

In the last 5 years, the industry has reached almost 174,000 jobs, an 86% increase from 2010, which makes sense when you consider installed capacity has increased by over 700% in the same time frame. As of November 2014, 31,000 new solar-related jobs were added last year alone, accounting for 1.3% of all new jobs in the U.S.

increase in solar jobs for 2014

What about big oil and gas?

So how does this stack up against solar’s very distant energy cousins in the fossil fuel industries you might ask? Despite solar being a David to these industries’ Goliath at only 1% of total U.S. electricity generation, solar added more jobs in 2014 than the oil and gas pipeline construction (~10,500 jobs) and crude petroleum and natural gas extraction (~8,700 jobs) industries combined. The report goes on to project an almost 21% increase for solar jobs in 2015 as well.

Future of ITC and beyond…

All this is great for headlines (not to mention the economy) but the big question on everyone’s mind is what will happen at the end of 2016 when the current 30% federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) expires (see Heidi’s recent post for more info on current ITC). The solar ITC is slated to be reduced to 10% starting 2017 and, according to The Solar Foundation’s report, about 60% of current solar industry employers are anticipating job cuts following the reduction. The good news is programs like the Department of Energy’s SunShot initiative are making big-time investments aimed at bring solar to grid parity.




Income from Solar Power. What’s Your Roof Worth?

As the cost of photovoltaic (PV) materials continues its downward trend, developers and businesses are finding novel new ways to make the economic side of a PV project work. From complex third-party ownership arrangements to utility funding for multifaceted energy savings projects, the course is quickly progressing away from simple direct ownership of PV projects.

In particular, one of the newer trends starting to gain momentum has been property owners leasing their roof spaces to project developers.

Solar Power Installation Costs

Installed Costs of PV Systems Over Time (Source: Lawrence Berkley National Labs)

[Read more…]

Avoiding the Scrapheap: Sizing Up End-of-life PV Down the Road

Lately, any conversation about our growing global energy needs is sure to include considerable discussion of the roles renewable energy technologies will play in our future energy portfolio. The idea is to slowly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and non-renewable sources of energy generation in favor of the more environmentally friendly and continuously sustainable ones. Photovoltaics (PV) are decidedly the poster-child for the energy revolution with dominating mainstream exposure. While PV has existed for over 70 years, its adoption as a potentially significant contributor to energy needs has only started to ramp up in the last 10 – 15 years. With such a recent market boom, most attention has been focused on production and deployment, which has grown exponentially in the last decade (see chart below). But like all technologies, PV panels have limited lifespans (around 20 – 30 years for most modern panels); so when a generation of PV panels’ usable life comes to a close how do we suddenly deal with the gigawatts worth of PV infrastructure being removed from operation?


The problem with all this e-waste goes beyond the idea of mountains of electronic trash; panels are commonly made up of materials which are easily recyclable, precious/costly, or harmful to human health and the environment. The table below shows a breakdown of the general material composition for the most common PV technologies and points out the potential for the recovery of glass and specific rare metals as well as the toxic elements contained in each. Organic solar panels, or OPV, are the subject of millions of dollars worth of laboratory research every year and along with being a more sustainable and cost effective technology, could simplify the recycling process. This would cut down on not only the number of materials in the panel but also the difficulty of extracting them; many OPV cells are comprised of over 95% plastic.[1] This technology may, however, be quite far off in terms of market-readiness and adoption leaving the majority of what we should expect to see in the waste stream consisting of the current, widely-used technologies.


Two techniques of recycling panels are already in operation for handling crystalline and thin-film modules, used by Deutsche Solar and First Solar, respectively. For crystalline panels, recycling starts with a thermal process which eliminates plastic components while glass and metals in the panels are collected for recycling. This is followed by a chemical process which recovers the semiconductor wafers from whole and broken cells. Thin-film modules follow a simpler procedure, first being ground into small pieces before having the semiconductor layers removed and separated from the other materials with an acid solution.[2]



Recycled Glass at Loser Chemie

Recycled Glass at Loser Chemie (Source)

So why not simply put in place recycling centers specifically for handling decommissioned PV panels? The methods are there; unfortunately, according to a study by the Environmental Directorate of the European Commission, the volume of PV coming offline is still too small to make recycling programs economically practical. Another issue is that recovery of pure materials from waste panels is difficult and, due to cost and technology hurdles, produces a “downcycled”, or degraded 2ndgeneration product.
First Solar Recycling Facility

First Solar Recycling Facility (Source)

However, with an exponential increase in recent PV installations, the world will be facing a corresponding pattern in retired panels. The same study predicts that by 2030 there will be over 2 gigawatts of PV waste in the European Union alone; five years later that figure tops 20 gigawatts and continues to grow.  These projections

suggest that within the next 15 years, PV waste may likely reach quantities which give recycling an economic incentive in addition to the environmental incentive.

Newly Commissioned and Decommissioned PV by Year

Newly Commissioned and Decommissioned PV by Year (Source)

Europe currently has in place several initiatives to increase awareness, availability, and networked infrastructure for the proper disposal and recycling of end-of-life PV. The CERES network, based in Paris, uses a network of partners to create local collection points for end-of-life PV panels, a minimum of 85% of which is recycled. Collection also includes PV manufacturing plants which dispose of material scraps which would otherwise end up in landfills or incinerated. PV Cycle, based in Brussels, operates on a very similar model. To date, PV Cycle has collected over 3,700 tons of end-of-life PV while CERES has collected over 500 tons, the majority of which was recycled.

Aside from recycling, industry members have also begun discussing the idea of reusing decommissioned PV. Panels which have run the course of their first life may still perform at 75% their rated capacity or greater after 25 years of operation. Those which are not damaged beyond use may be resold at far lower costs per watt as they have already run their primary economic life-cycle. Plenty of other opportunities for PV panels exist aside from investment-grade systems such as use on boats, around the home to charge electronic devices, and there is even potential to develop 2nd-hand systems in remote areas or third-world areas in dire need of energy resources but which may not have the capital or resources to finance a new system.  Reusing panels eliminates the energy and financial costs of breaking down spent panels into their foundational materials and reduces the need for centralized recycling centers creating a near-direct path to its 2nd-life function. This approach will require further economic and logistical research, including benchmarking the typical performance behavior of end-of-life panels, but it presents an attractive alternative to recycling.

Whether recycled, reused, or designed for efficient breakdown at the end of service life, what matters most will be keeping reusable materials out of incinerators and landfills, and dealing with toxic materials in an appropriate and regulated manner.  If PV is going to live up to its true environmental potential, it must prove its value all the way through its life cycle.

[1] Krebs, F., Polymeric Solar Cells: Materials, Design, Manufacture. DEStech Publications, Inc., 2010

The Solar Decathalon – Building a Winner

Watershed Home - University of Maryland

Courtesy of DOE

We all have our pet projects.

Whether related to our careers or hobbies, they’re the essential complement to our work lives. My personal favorite comes in the variety of the former. The Department of Energy’s biennial competition, dubbed the Solar Decathlon, serves as a proving ground for solar technologies that lie between new technology research and consumer adoption.

The twist herein lies with the competitors; entrants are neither highly-experienced research engineers nor internationally renowned architecture firms, but rather students from colleges and universities from around the world. [Read more…]