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.”

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The Creation of a Unified Solar Front

Last week the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the national trade association for the solar energy industry, announced its merging with The Solar Alliance, a state focused group allying solar manufactures, integrators, and financiers and establishing solar policies and programs at the state level. The Solar Alliance will now be operating under the SEIA brand in order to present a unified solar front in all state level matters regarding the solar industry.

As president and CEO, Rhone Resch commented, “The solar energy industry is expanding and it is critical for SEIA to mirror this growth and put our resources and expertise into developing state policy that expand markets for solar energy.”

SEIA has also been establishing collaborative relationships with a handful of state and regional SEIA chapters to create partnerships (though independent entities) to bring to the table additional resources that mirror SEIA’s goals.

Resch added, “The focus on state-level policy allows SEIA to speak as the voice of the solar industry in all government arenas.  We have important work to do to ensure solar energy has access to energy markets across the country and that solar is cost competitive in all 50 states. This is a major step in that direction.”

By presenting a unified front, SEIA is hoping to address policy issues ranging from international trade, to extending the 1603 Treasury Program while targeting state policies including net metering, and addressing barriers for grid interconnection and permitting.

Hopefully this merger will work to remove the barriers that have kept solar from becoming a mainstream form of renewable energy by strengthening the industry at not only state levels, but federal as well.

If Not Your Backyard, Then Whose?

There are a multitude of things people don’t want in their backyards, and for good reason…chemical plants, coal fired power plants, nuclear waste facilities, incinerators, wind turbines, solar farms…

Sustainable Sunflowers

Wait, what?

Let’s back up a minute.

Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) is a movement that gained serious momentum in the 1980’s and represents strong community oriented opposition to certain types of development.

This morning I read an article about NIMBY movements going global, and how most of these movements were strongly opposed to the industrial projects (power plants, chemical plants, landfills etc.), and to my great surprise, the renewable energy industry.  The article went on to describe that ‘young’, ‘controversial’ industries are more subject to NIMBY resistance than traditional businesses.

I read this sentence not once, but three times. The way this sentence reads to me is that people would rather have “traditional” forms of energy–like coal–in their backyards instead of this newfangled energy we like to call wind and solar.

In theory, NIMBY a good system. No neighborhood should be subjected to the negative consequences of industry–air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution–so close to their homes and families.

No neighborhood. 

The fact of the matter is, this isn’t the case. Chemical plants, coal fired power plants, nuclear waste facilities, and incinerators do go in someone’s backyard, and that backyard usually belongs to minority neighborhoods with low socioeconomic statuses, and little political clout.

Environmental racism, policies that disproportionately heave environmental hazards on minority communities, is a large part of the NIMBY movement, and at the root of environmental disparities.

If communities are shouting, “Not in my backyard!” to wind and solar projects, will that mean these projects will move to low income neighborhoods? If wind and solar energy is sidled off to low income neighborhoods, is that preferable to a power plant polluting poorer communities despite the mechanisms behind it?

Will large scale wind and solar projects even end up in low income neighborhoods? Does this mean dirty energy will continue to prevail as we are accustomed to it as our main energy sustenance?

I realize people might think wind and solar farms are an eyesore. I personally find them mesmerizing and beautiful, though it’s not my opinion that matters at this moment. The fact is, we need to obtain energy some how and if we’re not developing and progressing in the energy sector, we’re at a dirty standstill–one that puts minorities and low income neighborhoods at a disproportionate risk to environmental hazards–to power our iPhones and Macbooks.

Not In My Backyard is a powerful movement, one that is important to protecting communities from harmful environmental risks. If you’re opposing wind and solar farms in your neighborhood, that is, of course, your choice, but you could do a lot worse. Your opposition could mean that these projects are being sidled off onto poor communities–and that’s practically a good scenario–in comparison to what could happen which is dirty “traditional” energy continuing to ravish the energy sector and communities not being able to resist it being in their backyard.

Thanks to this environmental justice article for supplying a good read and valuable information.

Could Vanishing Tax Credits Dismantle Green Energy?

It would be nice to believe that people take steps to greening their homes for the sole purpose of bettering the environment and not because of financial gain.

Solar Panel Installation

Unfortunately, the evidence is indisputable: more people go green if they get a tax break.

Federal tax incentives play a huge role in jump starting green energy movements. Now, there’s a good change they’ll be cut back, or scraped completely which could have disastrous consequences for energy efficiency progress. For instance, this year, residential tax credits for energy efficient doors, windows and appliances was cut from $1,500 down to $500 ending with a 16% decline in the sale of windows and doors. This incentive–along with a $2,000 dollar credit for builders to construct homes that use 50% less energy than the original standard–is set to expire at the end of this year.

Even if Congress extends these, energy incentives are at risk, especially if Republicans gain control of the White House in the 2012 elections as, “The classical conservative position is that credits and incentives for renewable energy or energy efficiency are not good policy,” says Clint Stretch, director of legislative affairs at Deloitte & Touche.

Many of the Republican presidential candidates have plans to decrease or eliminate tax credits, setting an ominous precedence for renewable energy. According to Stretch, even if President Obama is reelected, “there is still going to be a push to take incentives out of the tax code in the context of tax reform.”

It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of energy tax incentives. For instance, is the 30% credit for solar energy installations provided by federal government the reason why solar installations have exploded 800%? Or is it because solar energy awareness has increased while the cost of solar panels has decreased?

Furthermore, tax incentives are currently structured so that some tax payers may receive a credit where as others might not. Many businesses weren’t able to take advantage of the 30% credit for solar system installations because they had no profits to show with the current economic climate–and businesses must claim the tax credit against profits. To alleviate this problem, Congress allowed businesses in this position to get a grant instead of credit, though this too expires at the end of the year.

84% of energy production in the US still comes from fossil fuels with only a sad 8.2% of energy coming from renewables. It seems if the US is actually interested in moving along the path of energy efficiency, nixing energy efficiency tax incentives is a bit preemptive and may seriously divert the potential of transitioning to green energy.

For more information, check out the article in The Fiscal Times.

Do As The Michiganans Do

Michigan Logo

Perhaps it’s time for California to take a leaf out of Michigan’s book when it comes to crawling out of the hole we like to call: the recession.

In an article in Capitol Weekly, they suggest just that the best solution won’t be fixing California’s problems one at a time, but tying them together, adhering public sector companies, private sector investments and university research.

This approach has been working in Michigan where the state established Centers of Energy Excellence to use the availability of raw materials to create lithium ion batteries, better battery technology and–perhaps most important–jobs…all at once. With a troubling budget crisis threatening to dismantle public education, almost 12% unemployment rate, and Occupy movements condemning growing economic disparities,  it’s arguable California can employ the same technique as Michigan but with solar energy.

California–the sunshine state–has a raw material of its very own…solar energy. Not only that, but solar energy is limitless, sustainable, and environmentally friendly. It could very well be a ray of hope for the California economy.

The state however, needs private investment in the solar energy field. Though the Bay Area already wields a number of solar energy companies, for this trifecta to work solar energy companies need to thrive state-wide. Though grants, tax credits and solar subsidies, California could entice more solar energy companies to set up forts throughout the state.

This funding won’t just go to any solar energy company, but specifically those who have secured the participation of California’s state schools. Involvement from state schools ensures continued solar energy research and growth. It also reiterates the importance of public education, educates tomorrow’s solar energy leaders, and validates the importance of funding public education whose budgets have all but run dry.

The intertwining of the public, private, and education sectors of the state might aid in California declaring solar energy standards for the future, and also help keep the state accountable for those goals as so many parties have a hand in these plans. These sectors are all struggling. Why not initiate a plan that can not only boost the economy, but stimulate environmentally safe and sustainable energy practices?

Hey, if Michigan can do it…