Navigant Research Blog

Solar vs. Utilities: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

— September 4, 2015

Tightrope_webTo say that the battle over net metering payment schemes is getting heated is an understatement. But nearly 2 years after I wrote about how the net metering debate was playing out globally (see those blogs here, here, here, and here), what troubles me most is that little progress appears to have been made in terms of finding an equitable, transitional solution that promotes solar adoption without unfairly affecting the business models of regulated power utilities.

In the United States, the state-level regulation of utilities means that 50 different public utilities commissions (PUCs) are considering proposals from numerous utilities, and no two proposals are exactly alike. But nationwide, solar supporters are still doing their best to make utilities look like the bad guy—and inflammatory solar tax headlines still dominate in the media.

War in the Great Lakes State

This summer, a bill before the Michigan State Senate has created more sturm und drang because, as written, the bill would not grandfather in existing solar customers. I found article after article where homeowners who’ve invested tens of thousands say that rather than a 10-year payback, it will now take 20, 30, or more years for their solar system to pay for itself. Why? Because the proposal would make solar customers sell their power to their utility at wholesale rates, then buy back what they need at retail.

As in most net metering battles, solar advocates argue that the incentive for consumers to install solar will be eliminated under such rules. Combine that with that the expiration of the federal solar tax credits at the end of 2016, and solar supporters imply the end of their industry (and jobs) is nigh.

On the other side of the table are utilities that typically rely upon the cross-subsidization argument to defend their efforts to implement higher fixed fees or reduced net metering payments for solar customers. Their argument is that, in order to pay for the grid that everyone—even solar customers—still needs, those customers should pay a connection fee so that fixed grid maintenance costs aren’t unfairly shouldered by non-solar (often lower income) customers.


Both sides of the argument have merit. Increased fees or reduced net metering payments to solar customers will make a potential customer think twice before committing to a $20,000 (or much more) investment. But utilities do have to maintain and operate their power plants, distribution grids, billing systems, etc. whether a customer buys $200 worth of power in a month or $20. Today, solar penetration in the United States is still low, but it’s growing rapidly. There’s no reason to think that growth will slow—especially if the federal tax incentives are extended, as has been proposed by New York Senator Charles Schumer.

What’s harder to understand is why more utilities and solar companies aren’t working together to create a plan that allows solar investment to continue growing—creating jobs, reducing carbon footprints, and taking stress off of the grid—without creating abrupt, unfair financial stresses for these utilities that have been bringing power to Americans for more than a century.

Yes, the business is changing. Yes, regulatory action often comes too slowly while business forces can shift rapidly—just ask the old school telcos that still had more customers than mobile carriers less than 10 years ago. But there ought to be enough creative juice among advocates on both sides to imagine a transition plan that works for all. Industry-driven compromise would be embraced and emulated by regulators nationwide. Let the mudslinging end and productive dialogue begin, I say.


The Future of U.S. Solar Energy Companies – Part 3

— July 13, 2015

Note:  This blog is the third in a four-part series examining the evolution of U.S. solar companies.

In this blog, part of a series highlighting key trends among U.S. solar PV companies that offer a glimpse of what a post-30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) world will look like, I will discuss storage and utilities.


Energy storage, primarily in the form of batteries, has been on the horizon for a number of years, but U.S. solar companies are now moving forward with strategic partnerships and storage offerings in certain market segments.

SunEdison will use more than 1,000 flow batteries from Imergy Power Systems for its solar microgrid projects in India. In March, The company announced it was acquiring the project development team, four existing projects, and a reported 100 MW of projects in the pipeline of Solar Grid Storage. Solar Grid Storage is a Pennsylvania-based startup that packages lithium-ion batteries and inverters to provide demand reduction, backup services, peak shaving, and grid stabilization services such as frequency regulation. Similarly, SunPower and Sunverge announced an exclusive agreement to provide solar and storage solutions available in the residential and utility segments in the United States and Australia. SolarCity and Tesla have also announced a strategic energy storage partnership for residential, commercial, and government customers in the United States and in remote communities around the world. It is expected that there will be many more announcements to come.

Due to increasing competition and the expiration of the U.S. federal ITC at the end of 2016, U.S. solar companies will need to continue to evolve their offerings. SunEdison, SolarCity, First Solar, SunPower, and others have all demonstrated a commitment to continuous innovation of their technology and business models, which will result in sustained growth for these and other U.S. solar companies in the future.


One of the most critical issues in the U.S. market today, and after the expiration of the ITC, is how net metering policies will be adjusted within each utility service territory. Here, there is no one-size fits all answer. It will be a fight that will continue to play out differently in each region. Thus far, Arizona has been ground zero for net metering policy fights, with neighboring New Mexico following suit, and California expected to release an update soon. Utilities are increasingly proposing fixed fees on solar PV customers, ranging from $5 to $50 per month, significantly affecting the value proposition to residential solar PV customers. In addition to this, many utilities are also considering providing distributed solar as a service themselves. In some cases, such as APS, they are doing both at the same time.

Solar Electric Power Association put together a great map of where utilities are offering solar PV programs of their own. The map illustrates the variety or business models being employed–ranging from pure utility ownership, to financing, to energy purchases, and other customer programs. Clearly, the concern among U.S. solar PV companies is that monopolies have an unfair advantage due to their status, but utilities also have a point that they enable solar PV to be utilized in such great volume because of the stabilizing and backup role they will play now and increasingly in the future. That is why more than a dozen value-of-solar analyses are being conducted across the country and U.S. solar companies will need to continue to adapt.

For more information on the most recent regulatory updates affecting distributed solar PV, check out North Carolina State University’s recent report on the topic.


Is Akon Lighting Africa Leading to a Brighter Future?

— July 10, 2015

Popular singer Akon recently announced the creation of his Solar Academy to be centered in Bamako, Mali. The academy is the latest in a line of solar projects dubbed under the moniker Akon Lighting Africa. However, aside from some inspiring qualitative assessment on how artificial light will impact lives, there is very little information available about these projects on the web. There is even disagreement on whether the program has so far brought light to 11 or 14 countries. While news reports sing praises of Akon for undertaking a philanthropic endeavor, they also leap to alarming generalizations about the project, from the assumption that it will create more jobs and allow for infrastructure growth to the astounding assertion that Africa gets 320 days of sunshine a year.

Africa, as a continent with a land area 3 times the size of the United States, has a tendency to be lumped into the category of one country with only one problem hindering its development. However, this diverse continent faces a variety of problems. Solar energy could be a huge boon to the African economy for sure, but it is unclear what exactly Akon’s Solar Academy will do.

A Ray of Sunshine

To its credit, Akon Lighting Africa has partnered with a number of groups, including Solektra International, China Jiangsu International Economic And Technical Cooperation Group, SUMEC, and NARI Group, and it focuses on a number of solar solutions. These include community infrastructure, such as streetlights, as well as individual and household solar lights.

The announcement of the Solar Academy was made at the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All conference earlier this summer, indicating that the group’s efforts are getting international recognition and support. While there is little information available on the specifics of the work it is doing, Akon Lighting Africa is said to provide an average investment of $75,000 per village. Up to this point, the solar panels used in the organization’s projects appear to have primarily been provided by a company in China, with expertise from a group of European scholars.

Other programs are available to give solar energy to developing communities across Africa. SELF (the Solar Electric Light Fund) has implemented projects in over 20 countries with specific applications (drip irrigation, health care, online learning, etc.). Another group, Innovation: Africa, provides solar-powered water pumps. The Solar Academy represents a fairly distinct movement away from traditional financial aid, as it focuses primarily on enabling the youth to create their own solar power and microgrid systems. This is important to the long-term sustainability of the organization. While the Akon group has big goals and promising aspirations for electrifying the continent, it is unclear what progress it’s made and what its plans are for the future.


The Future of U.S. Solar Energy Companies – Part 2

— July 6, 2015

Note:  This blog is the second in a four-part series examining the evolution of U.S. solar companies.

Continuing on my previous blog, outlining some of the most important trends that have shaped the U.S. solar PV landscape and offering a glimpse into the post-30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC) future, this blog looks at how U.S. companies have made inroads overseas, with a particular focus on emerging markets, microgrids, and hybrid energy solutions.

Emerging Markets: Utility Scale

Developing countries are becoming a growing opportunity for U.S. solar companies looking to leverage their expertise in regions and applications with very high electricity costs or weak grid systems. In many ways, developing countries are the next frontier, but they offer unique challenges along the way. Markets such as South Africa, India, Chile, and China have rapidly been turning into high-growth markets that could drive sales in the latter half of this decade in utility-scale installations down through remote microgrids.

Notably, SunEdison has been operating in India for a number of years, but in 2015, the company has made numerous high-profile announcements, including reportedly signing agreements for up to 15 GW of solar and wind projects in the country. The company also announced a $4 billion deal to manufacture solar panels in India. Another company in this field, First Solar, has also made significant announcements for the Indian market, including a target of 5 GW by 2020. In addition, this company has installed the largest solar PV plant in South America in Chile at 141 MW.

At the utility scale, the leading country in Africa for renewable energy deployment is South Africa, where the government’s integrated resource plan may result in nearly 10 GW of solar PV installed by 2030.  With nearly 1.5 GW of solar PV and 2 GW of wind currently installed or in development, following four well-administered auctions, the country is making strong progress. SunPower has completed 33 MW of projects in South Africa in addition to being appointed as the preferred energy performance contractor (EPC) and operations and maintenance (O&M) contractor for an 86 MW project by the MULILO-TOTAL consortium. SunPower also announced at the end of 2014 that it is moving forward with at 160 MW module manufacturing plant in Cape Town, South Africa to meet growing demand.

Emerging Markets: Microgrids/Hybrid Energy Solutions

Remote microgrids and hybrid solar-diesel or wind-diesel systems are already common, with more than 600 identified  in Navigant Research’s Microgrid Deployment Tracker. To put that number in perspective, SunEdison has set a target of developing 5,000 microgrids in India by 2020, with many including storage. Since 2014, First Solar has been pursuing build, operate, and own (BOO) fuel-replacement projects, which include the prospect of displacing diesel in mining and other heavy industrial operations.  First Solar can provide a levelized cost of energy at between $0.07-$0.15/kWh, making it comparable, or cheaper, than conventional power plants—but also far less expensive than diesel, which generates electricity upwards of $.70/kWh.

In 2015, First Solar and CAT announced a strategic partnership to develop an integrated PV solar solution for microgrid applications. Under the agreement, First Solar will design and manufacture a pre-engineered turnkey package for use in remote microgrid applications, such as small communities and mine sites. The package will feature CAT-branded solar panels manufactured by First Solar and will include balance of system components. CAT will exclusively sell and support the integrated solution through its worldwide dealer network, along with its current offerings of generator sets and energy storage. Many other companies are expected to soon be offering similar solutions.

In the next installment of this four-part blog series, I’ll cover energy storage and the role of utilities in distributed solar.


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