California Installed More Rooftop Solar in 2013 Than Previous 30 Years Combined
By Kiley Kroh
2013 was a banner year for clean energy, and the U.S. solar industry was no exception. California, the nation’s solar standout, more than doubled its rooftop solar installations last year from 1,000 megawatts (MW) to 2,000 MW.
To put this number in perspective, writes Bernadette Del Chiaro of the California Solar Energy Industries Association, it took California more than 30 years to build the first 1,000 MW of rooftop solar.
“When utility-scale solar projects are added in, California’s total solar power picture well-exceeds 4,000 MW today—nearly twice as much installed capacity as exists at California’s last remaining nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon,” Del Chiaro said.
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And California isn’t alone in its rooftop solar surge. “About 200,000 U.S. homes and businesses added rooftop solar in the past two years alone—about 3 gigawatts of power and enough to replace four or five conventionally-sized coal plants,” Bloomberg reported.
As record numbers of homes and businesses decide to go solar, utility companies are growing increasingly uneasy about the threat it poses to their existing business model. If more customers install solar panels or adopt energy efficiency measures, a utility will sell fewer units of energy—especially during peak demand when energy costs are the highest. Therefore, utilities will increase their energy prices to cover costs such as grid maintenance and labor and as prices go up, more customers will look to energy efficiency and distributed energy resources to reduce their energy bills, perpetuating the cycle.
Net metering, the process that enables customers to be compensated for excess energy produced by solar panels on their homes and businesses, has become a particular point of contention between utilities and solar advocates. Utilities argue that customers who generate their own power receive too much credit while solar advocates counter that the incentives are critical to the growth of their industry.
According to Bloomberg, net metering fights have broken out in as many as twelve of the 43 states that currently have policies in place. In Arizona, regulators deferred their heated solar battle by agreeing to charge rooftop solar owners a modest monthly fee. California also compromised by extending the net metering program but opening the possibility of rate restructuring in the future. Colorado’s Xcel Energy has proposed cutting the compensation it provides for excess energy by about half, “because it says higher payouts result in an unfair subsidy to solar users.” And Hawaii, where customers pay the highest energy prices in the nation, the rush to install rooftop solar was so strong that the state’s largest utility has blocked new rooftop solar customers from connecting to the grid. The move puts “hundreds if not thousands of the state’s residents are being put in solar limbo by a virtual moratorium on new connections in many parts of the company’s service area,” Bloomberg reported.
Net metering has also attracted the attention of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a secretive group backed by corporations, fossil fuel interests and the Koch brothers. Last year, ALEC failed in each of its campaigns against clean energy but the organization shows no sign of slowing the attacks next year. Characterizing homeowners with their own solar panels as “freeriders on the system,” John Eick of ALEC’s energy, environment, and agriculture program told the Guardian net metering “is an issue we are going to be exploring.”
At its December meeting, ALEC members took up a draft resolution that calls on state legislators to “update net metering policies to require that everyone who uses the grid helps pay to maintain it and to keep it operating reliably at all times.”
GTM Research recently forecast that by the time the books were closed on 2013, more than 400,000 solar projects will be operating across the U.S. and installations will have grown 27 percent over 2012, with a 52 percent growth rate in the residential sector alone. But the report also cautioned that “challenges to net energy metering regulations present a looming threat to the market.”
In California, “rooftop solar continues to face battles on multiple fronts with regards to net metering, incentives for solar heating and cooling systems, the future of tax credits, and the reining in of permitting and interconnection costs and obstacles,” Del Chiaro writes.
“Whether California continues this historic growth depends largely on policy decisions to be made in 2014.”
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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