Utility Companies Launch Attack Against Rising Rooftop Solar Market
By Marc Gunther
Issues of electricity regulation typically play out in drab government hearing rooms. That has not been the case this summer in Arizona, where a noisy argument—featuring TV attack ads and dueling websites—has broken out between regulated utilities and the rooftop solar industry.
An internet web video attacks the California start-up companies that sell rooftop solar systems as the “new Solyndras,” which are spending “hard-earned tax dollars to subsidize their wealthy customers.” Meantime, solar companies accuse Arizona Public Service, the state’s biggest utility, of wanting to “extinguish the independent rooftop solar market in Arizona to protect its monopoly.”
Similar battles about how rooftop solar should be regulated have flared in California, Colorado, Idaho and Louisiana. And the outcome of these power struggles could have a major impact on the future of solar in the U.S.
Today’s solar industry is puny—it supplies less than one percent of the electricity in the U.S.—but its advocates say that solar is, at long last, ready to move from the fringe of the energy economy to the mainstream. Photovoltaic panel prices are falling. Low-cost financing for installing rooftop solar is available. Federal and state government incentives remain generous.
Yet opposition from regulated utilities, which burn fossil fuels to produce most of their electricity, could stop a solar boom before it gets started.
Several utilities, including Arizona Public Service and Denver-based Xcel Energy, have asked their state regulators to reduce incentives or impose charges on customers who install rooftop solar; so far, at least, they aren’t making much headway. A bill in the California legislature, backed by the utility interests would add $120 a year in fees to rooftop solar customers.
But other utility companies are adopting a different strategy—they are joining forces with solar interests. NRG Energy, based in Princeton, NJ, has created a rooftop solar unit to sell systems to businesses and, eventually, homeowners. New Jersey’s PSE&G is making loans to solar customers, and Duke Energy and Edison International have invested in Clean Power Finance, a San Francisco-based firm that has raised half a billion dollars to finance solar projects.
“The industry is divided on how to deal with the opportunity—or threat,” says Nat Kraemer, Clean Power Finance’s founder and CEO. “Some utilities are saying, how do I make money off distributed solar, as opposed to, how do I fight distributed solar.”
Distributed solar—which produces electricity outside the grid—“has become one of the more polarizing topics in the power industry, with some utilities joining the party, some doing just what is legislatively mandated and others remaining reluctant and not being true believers,” according to a new report from Citi Research, Rising Sun: Implications for U.S. Utilities. The report warns the utilities that “solar is here to stay, and very early in the growth cycle in the U.S.”
Until recently, utilities could ignore solar. Although the sun’s rays have been touted as a clean energy solution since Jimmy Carter first installed photovoltaic panels on the White House roof in 1979, solar remains barely a blip in the U.S. power market. In 2012, solar power provided a mere 0.11 percent of U.S. electricity generation, according to the Energy Information Administration, a government agency. By comparison, coal delivered 37 percent, natural gas 30 percent, nuclear 19 percent and wind 3.5 percent. And that solar percentage includes utility-scale projects, like the big solar farms in California and Nevada that feed into the electricity grid, as well as distributed solar.
But the solar industry is growing fast, and much of the growth is distributed solar built “behind the meter”—that is, on commercial and residential rooftops, where electricity from solar panels eliminates the need for power that would otherwise be generated and sold by the utilities. Last year, nearly 90,000 businesses and homeowners installed rooftop solar projects totaling about 1.1 megawatts, roughly the amount generated by a large coal plant. That represented a 46 percent growth over 2011, according to the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA). By the end of last year, the number of customer-sited photovoltaic systems in the U.S. topped 300,000, the association says.
Most industry experts expect that growth will accelerate as prices for solar continue to fall, to the point where rooftop solar will eventually cost less than the retail price of grid-delivered electricity. According to the Citi Research report, solar is already cheaper than electricity at the plug in several states, including Arizona, and in many countries, including Germany and Spain, where solar subsidies are generous. Last month, Jon Wellinghoff, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told GreenTechMedia that “solar is growing so fast it is going to overtake everything...it could double every two years.”
No wonder the utilities are nervous. Just as personal computers threatened the manufacturers of industrial-sized mainframes, and the rapid adoption of cell phones shook up once-formidable landline operators, distributed solar could disrupt the de facto monopoly long held by regulated utilities.
“From the utility’s perspective, it’s a mortal threat,” says NRG Energy’s chief executive, David Crane. As an independent power producer, NRG competes with regulated utilities; it has been selling rooftop solar directly to commercial customers, including hotels, Arizona State University and NFL stadiums in Washington, New Jersey and Philadelphia.
“Big corporations are realizing that they can openly display their commitment to sustainability with solar panels without having to pay any more for electricity,” Crane says.
The regulated utilities say they welcome the growth of rooftop solar, as long as businesses and homeowners who install rooftop panels pay their fair share of the costs of maintaining the electricity grid, which they rely on when the sun isn’t shining. The utilities say solar customers currently benefit from subsidies and regulations, particularly the policy of “net metering,” which requires utilities to buy back excess electricity from rooftop solar systems, at retail prices in some locales.
Arizona Public Service, which has asked regulators to impose higher costs on solar customers, says current rules essentially allow those customers to use the grid for free. As a result, customers who can’t afford solar panels or don’t have a place to put them end up paying higher rates. That, in turn, will help drive more customers to solar, increase the burden on those who don’t have it, and, not incidentally, eat into the utility’s earnings. That’s not a sustainable model for the future, the utility argues.
SEPA, whose members include utilities and solar firms, is trying to help the industries find common ground so both can thrive. “People need to be equitably compensated for the services they are delivering—in both directions,” says Eran Mahrer, executive vice president of strategy and research at SEPA. “At the end of the day, that’s a negotiation.”
But because utilities are regulated, and because regulators in some states, including Arizona, are elected, the argument has turned political. It has also led to some unorthodox alliances.
In Arizona, solar firms formed an advocacy group called Tell Utilities Solar won’t be Killed (TUSK) and hired as chairman Barry Goldwater Jr., a former Republican congressman and son of the 1964 presidential nominee. True to his heritage, Goldwater casts the issue as one of giving consumers “the freedom to make the best choice.” The utilities, he says, “don’t like competition. Competition tends to drive the price down and the quality up.” In Georgia, too, Tea Party conservatives have allied with environmentalists to form a Green Tea Coalition to oppose the local utility, again under the banner of free choice.
But other conservatives, including a group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, are loudly opposing government support for solar. A Virginia-based advocacy group for senior citizens called the 60 Plus Association has built an Arizona website, and an accompanying web video attack on solar subsidies. The video seeks to link California-based rooftop firms SunRun and Solar City, which are operating in Arizona, to bankrupt manufacturer Solyndra, calling them “connected companies getting corporate welfare.” An APS spokesman told Yale Environment 360 that it was not responsible for the video or any campaign against rooftop solar. But APS has confirmed that its parent company, Pinnacle West Capital Corp., hired Sean Noble, an Arizona political consultant who also has worked for the 60 Plus Association. 60 Plus has received funding from Charles and David Koch, whose conglomerate, Koch Industries, includes fossil fuel holdings.
The fact that organizations funded by the Koch brothers are going after solar subsidies may be the best evidence of all that the industry’s future is bright.
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLE ENERGY page for more related news on this topic.
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If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
An "explosive" wildfire ignited in Los Angeles county Wednesday, growing to 10,000 acres in a little less than three hours.
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If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.
<div id="ecf36" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c2dcc9d48a6cd61f247df1544539a783"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290959314132361216" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Naming heatwaves is a good idea—making the abstract concrete, the invisible visible. Why should hurricanes and wild… https://t.co/hDWgYb79Ob</div> — Ed Maibach (@Ed Maibach)<a href="https://twitter.com/MaibachEd/statuses/1290959314132361216">1596623660.0</a></blockquote></div>
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One of the challenges of renewable power is how to store clean energy from the sun, wind and geothermal sources. Now, a new study and advances in nanotechnology have found a method that may relieve the burden on supercapacitor storage. This method turns bricks into batteries, meaning that buildings themselves may one day be used to store and generate power, Science Times reported.
Bricks are a preferred building tool for their durability and resilience against heat and frost since they do not shrink, expand or warp in a way that compromises infrastructure. They are also reusable. What was unknown, until now, is that they can be altered to store electrical energy, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.
The scientists behind the study figured out a way to modify bricks in order to use their iconic red hue, which comes from hematite, an iron oxide, to store enough electricity to power devices, Gizmodo reported. To do that, the researchers filled bricks' pores with a nanofiber made from a conducting plastic that can store an electrical charge.
The first bricks they modified stored enough of a charge to power a small light. They can be charged in just 13 minutes and hold 10,000 charges, but the challenge is getting them to hold a much larger charge, making the technology a distant proposition.
If the capacity can be increased, researchers believe bricks can be used as a cheap alternative to lithium ion batteries — the same batteries used in laptops, phones and tablets.
The first power bricks are only one percent of a lithium-ion battery, but storage capacity can be increased tenfold by adding materials like metal oxides, Julio D'Arcy, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who contributed to the paper and was part of the research team, told The Guardian. But only when the storage capacity is scaled up would bricks become commercially viable.
"A solar cell on the roof of your house has to store electricity somewhere and typically we use batteries," D'Arcy told The Guardian. "What we have done is provide a new 'food-for-thought' option, but we're not there yet.
"If [that can happen], this technology is way cheaper than lithium ion batteries," D'Arcy added. "It would be a different world and you would not hear the words 'lithium ion battery' again."
One of the concerns about a warming planet is the feedback loop that will emerge. That is, as the planet warms, it will melt permafrost, which will release trapped carbon and lead to more warming and more melting. Now, a new study has shown that the feedback loop won't only happen in the nether regions of the north and south, but in the tropics as well, according to a new paper in Nature.
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By Jessica Corbett
A sheriff in Florida is under fire for deciding Tuesday to ban his deputies from wearing face masks while on the job—ignoring the advice of public health experts about the safety measures that everyone should take during the coronavirus pandemic as well as the rising Covid-19 death toll in his county and state.
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<div id="79024" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4ac086eab58b9713f2ad777c40938252"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1293578984148606977" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">This actively puts peoples' lives at risk. https://t.co/GKF0Xgjyex</div> — CAP Action (@CAP Action)<a href="https://twitter.com/CAPAction/statuses/1293578984148606977">1597248238.0</a></blockquote></div>
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