Financial Innovations and Falling Prices Lead to Solar Growth

2012 was a very productive year for solar and 2013 is looking just as promising. Between a wide variety of financing options and falling costs, solar is becoming even more readily available to anyone who wants it.

An increase in third party solar leasing programs gives potential solar customers more options to go solar, especially if they’re not in the financial position to go with a purchase. Solar leasing allows customers to–at zero or low upfront cost–have solar installed on their homes. The monthly lease payment and utility bill with solar are less expensive than your utility bill without solar.  Since utility rates are only projected to go up, this means substantial savings over time.

Solar Savings

Customers also have the choice of a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) in which case the customer pays for their energy at a set rate (per kilowatt hour). In either case, with third party financing, the risk for the customer decreases as they don’t have to shoulder the responsibilities that come with ownership (maintenance, monitoring, insurance, and production guarantees).

These financial innovations are part of the reason why total installed solar capacity reached 1,992 MW in 2012 with 684 MW occurring in the third quarter alone–118 MW of which being residential installations.

The growth of the solar industry can also be attributed to costs dropping almost 40% in the past two years. Though this has been beneficial to consumers, the price drop comes in part from an increase in global oversupply which has created problems for the US solar manufacturers who’ve had trouble competing with unfairly low prices.

But despite quarrels over the oversupply, solar in the US is still growing and responsible for adding 13,872 jobs in 2012 according to the National Solar Jobs Census report. Currently, there are more than 119,000 workers employed in the solar industry, a 13.2% increase since 2011.

Between financial innovations and falling costs, solar is becoming even more accessible to families, businesses, and a wide range of other applications including utility scale projects and military installations.

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Military’s Mobile Solar Systems

The U.S. military has been instrumental in developing new technology, helping it develop so that it can be adopted by the private and consumer markets. The military has geared up another project that allows for large scale mobile solar energy systems.

As traditional energy costs and the military’s need for energy continue to rise solar technology for remote locations has become an interesting prospect brought on by SunDial Capital Partners.

Founded in 2009, SunDial created a mobile solar energy unit specific for on the move military operations and operations in remote locations. These units come in 20-foot long containers that are packed with 120 photovoltaic panels that can be set up into a fully functional solar field within 2 hours. Once unpacked, the container itself can then be used as a field operations facility.

A single unit can produce 28.8 kW of power and charge 64 storage batteries stored in the container’s floor so that the power can be used in the container at night. If the battery power begins to dwindle, a diesel generator kicks in to provide power until the sun comes up and the panels begin producing power causing the generator to shut off.

Though the military recognizes climate change as a potential threat to national security, right now, the military is imploring these renewable energy projects as a tactical move. With the ability to pick up and go within a few hours, remote areas that were previously unsuitable because of the diesel fuel needed to be transported can now be accessed. Relying almost completely on renewable energy decreases the need for costly and dangerous convoys for fuel. Self-sufficiency improves reliability, mobility, and most importantly, safety for our troops.

The idea of a mobile solar unit can apply to more contexts than just military. Anyone hoping to operate off the grid could benefit from this solar/battery/diesel hybrid system–from disaster relief efforts and rural electrification to powering outdoor concert events. With the military known for taking technologies out of their testing phases and proving viability, any private sector skeptics will be able to see applications of these hybrid systems and apply them to their specific needs.

The Tipping Point: Humanity at a Crossroads

According to a recent report published by scientists around the world in the journal, Nature, continuing along a “business as usual” path with our greenhouse gas emissions, population growth, and lack of resource management is going to force us to confront a series of tipping points in the next century that could easily dismantle our current quality of life. A tipping point is when ecosystems are pushed to a certain threshold then experience a sudden and irreversible change.

Though no one knows the exact number that will lead to these tipping points, scientists suggest that over 450 parts per million (ppm) atmospheric concentrations of CO2 will signal a chain of events–one tipping point giving rise to another system tipping. We’re near 400ppm, increasing 2ppm a year, a rate that’s expected to rise as these cascading tipping points begin to unravel.

Without adequate preparation, mitigation, and adaptation strategies, these irreversible tipping point will have destructive effects on things like agriculture, fresh water, and other fragile systems we depend on to sustain our quality of life.

The scientists behind the report describe urgent needs for better predictive models based on how past plants and animals responded to extreme shifts in climate so that policy makers can take the necessary steps to initiate policies that will help in mitigating and adapting to changes initiated once the tipping point…tips.

The authors of the report note that in studies of small scale ecosystems, once 50-90% of the area has been changed, the entire system tips into a completely different and irreversible state. Species extinctions and biodiversity loss typically accompany a tip like this.

About 43% of our planet has been altered to maintain its 7 billion person population, and the population is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2045. At the current rate of growth, more land will need to be converted for agriculture or urban uses, more roads will need to cut through the remainder to connect people and places, resulting in half of Earth’s land surface disturbed by 2025. Ideally, we’d like to steer clear of that 50% mark.

“Better predictive models will lead to better decisions,” reads the Nature paper. If we can try to predict what direction we’re heading that would diminish out quality of life, we can avoid those paths and go down a less destructive road. But better models alone won’t solve the tipping point conundrum.

We need global cooperation to wrangle in and reduce world population growth and per-capita resource use, switch from fossil fuels that are contributing to atmospheric CO2 to sustainable sources, initiate more efficient ways to produce and distribute food without altering any more of Earth’s surface, and create better land and water management practices to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity.

Humanity is at a crossroads. We can acknowledge the potential that our Earth will be altered drastically and try to mitigate the consequences, or we can continue business as usual and let havoc be wreaked on the planet. Better predictive models won’t do us any good if people and policy makers don’t take the necessary steps to protect ourselves.

Net Metering: Doubling California’s Solar Energy Goal

The California net metering battle has come to an end–til 2015 at least–and will raise California’s maximum roof-top solar capacity from the current 2,400 megawatts to about 5,200 megawatts.

The state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) voted on Thursday to make a technical tweak in the way it calculates how many electricity rate payers can participate in the net metering program. This tweak includes residential, commercial, and government buildings whose excess solar power gets sent back to the grid, giving the solar user a lower bill.

In the simplest terms, net metering enables solar users to get credit for the electricity generated by their solar system when their overall usage is low (i.e. when you’re not home during the day). This credit can then be used towards their bill when they’re using electricity but their solar is not generating (at night, when the sun’s not shining).

The daytime solar generation – nighttime usage = a lower bill.

Net metering gives solar owners an element of predictability. Based on the credits received for the solar contributed to the grid, a homeowner can project the savings they’ll incur over the life of their solar system (25+ years).

The net metering issue has been under scrutiny recently as the PUC was gearing up to vote on how to calculate a cap on net metering eligibility. Consumers and utilities opposed to net metering argued expanding the program would create unfair subsidies for wealthy people who can afford to install solar in the first place and shifting costs to non-solar customers who either can’t afford solar or don’t want it.

A 3-year-old PUC study estimated the amount paid by non-solar customers to be $140 million annually to cover the net metering program for their solar owning neighbors. But a more recent study done by Berkeley energy consultant, R. Thomas Beach, concludes that the benefits of using solar (decreasing fossil fuel dependence, decreased carbon dioxide emissions) outweigh the subsidy costs.

Net metering is a very important driver of residential solar adoption. As it is, California’s solar industry employs more then 25,000 workers and provides a clean, renewable source of energy to homes and businesses.

After the extension of the net metering program, PUC  President Michael Peevy announced, “Today’s decision ensures that the solar industry will continue to thrive for years to come, and we are fully committed to developing a long-term solution that secures the industry in California.”

Solar Moving Forward Despite Low Subsidies

Despite relatively low subsidies, especially in comparison to the subsidies awarded to other energy sources, solar has been making it’s way as a valuable source of energy .

Incentives Graph

Graph Used From Baker Report and Think Progress .

The federal government provides incentives for every major energy production market and they exist to bridge the “chasm” between early adopters (about 16%) of a certain market and the majority adopters (about 84%). Crossing the chasm doesn’t necessarily mean all companies in the industry succeed, but that the industry itself succeeds. To get from initial adoption to full scale implementation, federal incentives support new energy resources on average for 30 years, including market control for oil, pipeline availability for natural gas, and dams for hydropower. Incentives provide economies of scale in a long term scenario that offer stability during the adoption process with gradual reductions in incentives as the industry matures.

Solar is at the chasm where continued government incentives are critical in assisting the jump between adoption phases. As it is, incentives for solar have been small compared to fossil fuels, according to a report by the Baker Center, “federal investment in solar technologies has been modest in a long-term histroical context relative to other energy technologies”. But, the incentives solar has received have really aided the industry. The growth of solar over the past two years has come with the federal investment tax credit and state renewable energy standards set in place. In addition to the decreasing PV prices, there’s been a 77% growth in the last 5 years.

This growth is spurring innovation, which in itself stimulates growth. Growth means more opportunity for jobs–the Baker Report estimating between 200,000 and 430,000 direct, indirect, and induced jobs coming from the solar industry by 2020. There are already 100,000 Americans working in the solar industry. To top it off, solar provides more jobs per megawatt hour than any other energy industry.

Solar has huge potential in the U.S. Rooftop solar alone could provide 20% of America’s energy needs, which would help decrease impacts of price and supply vulnerabilities from fossil fuel supplies. Solar could be an important addition to the American energy portfolio, but continuing incentives will be a crucial factor in perpetuating this.

Incentives are used to move an industry up the adoption curve. Solar has come this far despite relatively low subsidies; imagine what it could accomplish if the federal government channeled incentives usually given to the fossil fuel industry into solar.

Hogwarts Achieves Carbon Neutrality: Living in a Closed Loop

Imagine an isolated castle surrounded by sloping hills and a glassy lake with the looks similar to the circa 1900 era: Welcome to Hogwarts School of Whichcraft and Wizardry. For those of you who don’t know, Hogwarts is the school of magic in the well known Harry Potter series. After much musing, I’ve determined Hogwarts (though fictional) is probably the greenest, most carbon neutral school in the (wizard and muggle) world.

There are a few things that really stand out when I think of Hogwarts being the greenest school–the fact that there is no electricity is a huge one–but there are other nuances that allow the school to operate on a virtually closed loop system.

I’ll go ahead and get big one out of the way since I’ve already mentioned it: no electricity. Hogwarts is lit solely by fires, lanterns, and the efficacy of your lumos spell. During drafty nights in the library you’d be forced to get a thicker cloak to wear. On hot days you’re better off spending the afternoon in the dungeons than plan on turning on air conditioning. Furthermore, there aren’t computers, copy machines or other pesky vampires (no, this isn’t a jab at Twilight–apparently it’s an actual term) to keep the kilowatt clock running at all hours of the day and night.

School districts in the US spend six billion dollars a year on energy which translates to over 64 billion kilowatt hours of energy. If you’re using coal to generate that electricity, we’ve just emitted about 133 billion pounds of carbon dioxide. Hogwarts is skipping right over those carbon emissions (not to mention the other emissions associated with electricity generation) by not being connected to the grid.

It’s never quite discussed how the kids of Hogwarts are fed day in and day out, but I’m going to assume a good deal of that food is grown on the grounds thanks to Hagrid’s garden. Thankfully, the use of magic appears to have eliminated the need for pesticides and fertilizers, so they’re operating on a fairly organic basis (I’m not sure if enhancing food with magic could really be considered “organic”, but roll with me). Growing their own food–or most of it–diminishes the costs associated with food transportation.

Transporting food into California alone emitted 70,000 tons of carbon in 2005. Whatever isn’t grown on the Hogwarts premises can be obtained in the nearby village, Hogsmeade, and visiting the village is a great way for the students to support their local wizard economy.

If something isn’t readily available locally, the students of Hogwarts can always order from Diagon Alley. Unlike regular mail, all deliveries in the wizarding world are made by owl post–eliminating the carbon emissions associated with postal fleets.

Like electricity, another huge factor in keeping Hogwarts’–and really all of the wizarding world’s–carbon emissions at bay is their unique transportation systems. Whether traveling by broomstick, floo powder, or apparating, wizard’s modes of transportation rarely contribute to greenhouse gases (the exception being the Hogwarts Express train and the few wizards that drive cars).

According to the EPA, a car’s average carbon dioxide emissions is 11,450 pounds per year–this doesn’t include the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the gasoline used in each vehicle. Multiply that by the 250 million vehicles registered in the US and you have a whole lot of carbon dioxide.

My final point regarding Hogwarts virtually carbon free system is water. Granted, this issue is probably a bit of a stretch, but it’s fun to imagine anyway. In my mind, Hogwarts runs solely on recycled water–toilet to tap, if you will. The only conceivable way I can structure this is by having an underwater waste water treatment plant in the lake, most likely operated by the merpeople. Like I said, bit of a stretch, but obviously J.K. Rowling doesn’t go into much detail on the inner workings of the Hogwarts sewage system, so I’m left to my own devices.

Even though I’ve taken a few liberties with my analysis of Hogwarts’ carbon neutrality, I think it’s important to think of different ways to create closed (or more closed) loop systems in our society and make big moves to lower our greenhouse gas emissions. In my Earth Day post, I touched on simple things people can do–conserving electricity, buying local, not wasting water–and basically that’s all that’s done at Hogwarts, but at a much larger scale which allows them to live in a closed, carbon neutral loop.

We need to think a little bit outside the box, get creative, and take a leaf out of Hogwarts’ book to make a difference in our society and live greener lives.

Earth Day 2k12: 5 Things You Can Do To Decrease Your Impact

In honor of Earth Day this Sunday, I thought it would be good to give five simple suggestions on how to live a wee bit greener life. These suggestions really aren’t difficult, you’ve probably heard them a million times already, but humor me and hear them again. Decreasing your impact on the planet doesn’t necessarily require you to spend heaps of money or to put up a wind farm in your back yard; it’s about breaking old bad habits, and creating new ones that are a little easier on our wallets and less stressful on our planet.

#1. Unplug. If it doesn’t need to be plugged in, unplug it. Even if you shut down your menagerie of electronics, chances are they’re still drawing power just by being plugged in. Huffington Post provided an article in HowStuffWorks to explain that standby power consumption could account for 5-10% of your total electric consumption. Combined with everyone else’s standby power consumption, this equates to about 1% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.

Granted, it’s a little frustrating when you’re first getting started to realize your toast is not in fact toasting because the toaster’s been unplugged since last Tuesday, but after a few mishaps you’ll remember (hopefully) to check first, then unplug when you’re done.

If things do need to be plugged in, consider changing power saving settings or sleep settings, or go big and invest in a smart strip which shuts off power to electronics in standby mode.

#2. Turn Off. Growing up, I wasn’t a fan of the dark. If my parents left me home alone they would return to find every light on in the house. Now that I live on my own, I’ve become a bit neurotic about turning off lights–I find myself residing half the time in semi-darkness with only one CFL light bulb burning in the corner. As this probably isn’t most people’s style, just be conscious of the fact there isn’t a little elf that lives in your room that needs the light on after you walk out.

If you’re at work, school, what have you, make sure you’re heater or air conditioner isn’t running full speed ahead while no one is home.

#3. Reusables. I’ve used some form of a reusable bottle since high school. When I started working, I got in the habit of making my tea or coffee at home and bringing it in a mug. I do cheat on Fridays when I reward my hard work for the week with a triple soy latte from the coffee shop down the street, but now that I think of it, they probably wouldn’t be opposed to putting my caffeine addiction in my mug.

In an effort to save money, I bring lunch from home, but after a few months I was going through a foolish amount of plastic ziplock baggies! I decided to cut the baggies out of my lunch life and got an Eco Lunchbox. This little bento style box fits my sandwich, and a good couple of snacks for the day.

Reusable Trifecta

My Reusable Trifecta

Some cities in California have recently instituted plastic bag bans, but if yours hasn’t jumped on the bandwagon, invest all .99 cents most reusable bags cost and bring them when you go to the store. If you’re like me and realize halfway to the store you have no canvass bags, stash some in the trunk of your car.

Plastic is a huge source of waste in the U.S. It comprises of 12% of our waste, 27 million tons of which ended up in landfills in 2005, according to Time.

#4. Buy Local. Buy Organic. Food travels extraordinary distances to get to your table. Not only does this mean you’re probably not getting the highest quality or freshest produce, but it has serious implications for the climate in terms of energy consumption and emissions released.

According to a Health Facts article by the NRDC, imports of fruits, nuts, and vegetables in 2005 released more than 70,000 tons of carbon dioxide, that amount is equivalent to 12,000 cars on the road.

Buying local helps your local economy. Buying organic means no pesticides or fertilizers tainting your food, bringing better quality produce to your table. Bring your recently acquired reusable bag to your local farmers market this weekend!

#5. Turn Off the Tap. If you leave the water on when you’re brushing your teeth, and you brush your teeth twice a day, you’ve just wasted 24 gallons of water. Everyone likes a long, hot shower after a rough day (myself included). Most shower heads use 2.5 gallons of water per minute. If you usually shower for 20 minutes, you’ve lost 50 gallons of water, not to mention the energy it takes to heat that water. Try cutting your showers down by 5-10 minutes a day.

Personally, I know I waste the most water when I’m doing dishes–I’ve developed the bad habit of leaving the faucet running while I scrub my Eco lunchbox clean. I’m contemplating putting a post-it on the wall behind the sink reminding me to turn of the tap when I’m scrubbing. If you do your dishes in a dishwasher, make sure you’re running full loads.

These suggestions are kind of no-brainers. Like I said, it’s about breaking out of our wasteful mindsets and creating new, contentious habits that we practice in our daily lives to help lower our impact.

Happy Earth Day to all!