Categories: Solar Economics, AB 811/PACE/LACEP Funding, AB 920 Payments, Feed-in Tariff, Solar Rebates, BWP Rebates, GWP Rebates, LADWP Rebates, PWP Rebates, SCE/CSI Rebates, Solar Tax Incentives

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10/01/11

  10:17:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1078 words  
Categories: LADWP Rebates, LADWP, Commercial Solar, Residential Solar

Early Trends from LADWP's SIP Restart

“Data, data, data, I cannot make bricks without clay.”

Alone among the municipal utilities, and in a most welcome new development, LADWP has started to publish data from its Solar Incentive Program (SIP) which was restarted on September 1.  Although this analysis is clearly preliminary given that there are only three weeks of data available in the 9/21/2011 working dataset, nevertheless some interesting trends are already evident and one clear necessity arises - LADWP needs cost caps even more than does CSI.

Background

In restarting the SIP, LADWP allocated $40 million in new funds, evenly divided between the Residential and non-Residential (Commercial, Governmental, Non-Profit) segments of the market.  Although the program is technically a Step-driven program with MW allocations for each step, in reality, it is a budget-limited system - when the annual budget for a given segment is met, the program in that segment will shut down.

As part of their new and improved program, DWP has also started to publish datasets that are similar to, but different from the data gathered and released by the California Solar Initiative (CSI).  For example, the CSI data reports on the specific products used on the project whereas the DWP data only identifies the manufacturer.  Hopefully future releases of the data will correct this limitation.  In addition, neither data set allows analysts to distinguish between costs associated with the actual installation versus lease-based financing costs which apparently a handful of companies - most notably SolarCity - include in their reported costs.

For the purpose of this post we analyzed DWP’s most recently released dataset, dated 9/21/2011.  That dataset includes data from both the so-called “legacy” program and the newly revised program.  As we were only interested in the most recent trends - that is, based on what has happened since the program restarted on September 1 - we excluded all legacy data from our analysis.  Also, while system costs are often reported in dollars per DC or Nameplate Watts, we don’t believe that provides much insight into the quality of the systems being installed.  For that reason, our system costs are based on dollars per CSI AC Watts.

Non-Residential Systems

The big news from the non-residential sector of DWP’s brand new SIP is that it is already over-subscribed!

Non-residential sector daily rebate reservation requests vs cumulative

Wow - that didn’t take long!  Indeed, based on the date applications were submitted, the non-residential sector crossed the $20 million limit on September 16 and is now some $2.3 million over-subscribed.

So who got all of that money?  A total of 54 projects combined to grab the $20 million - 24 commercial, 24 government and six non-profit.  In terms of actual dollars, however, it was the government sector that was the big winner: its 24 projects snagged over $16 million, with commercial set to receive $4.6 million and non-profits picking up the scraps left behind at $1.5 million.  (Word to the wise for non-profits that are interested in snagging some solar rebate money from DWP - get your ducks in a row early and be sure that your rebate application hits the stack the day the program re-funds next year.)

Residential Systems

The residential side is somewhat more interesting if only because it is still open for business!  Indeed, we got stated looking at this data because a potential client was being told by another solar company that they had to get their application on file by October 15th or they would be left out.  How accurate is that contention?  Well, it is always hard to predict the future, but based on the data so far, that appears to be mostly marketing hype.  Here’s what the program looks like so far:

Residential sector daily rebate reservation requests vs cumulative with trendline

That linear trendline seems to fit the data rather nicely.  If we use that trendline to predict when the cumulative rebate reservations will hit the $20 million threshold, the answer is - not anytime soon.  Indeed, the predicted date is not until April 3 next year.  (We will check back next April to see how well this preliminary prediction fared!)

Of course, there is also the step limitation to consider - presently the SIP is on Step 5 with 3.37 MW available (as of 9/15) and is paying residential rebates of $2.20/Watt.  When the Step 5 allocation is exhausted, the rebate will decline to $1.62/Watt.  What does the data so far suggest about when that will occur?

Residential sector daily system sizes vs remaining step 5 allocation with trendline

Here the equation for the trendline does offer some reason for greater urgency - it predicts that Step 5 would be exhausted by November 26.  (Of course, if that happens, it will extend the lifetime of the current funding for the residential sector beyond the April 3 target predicted above since rebates after November 26 would be paid out at the lower rebate rate.)

Outlier - A.S.E.S. Electrical Group Inc (American Solar Energy Solutions)

Finally, as we did with the CSI data, it is informative to go hunting for outliers in this early data.  This is especially important since these applications are still being reviewed and DWP staff is in a position to push back against any of these applications that appear to grossly exceed expectations.

We filtered the data to only include residential projects from the new program.  We additionally excluded any company that did not have 20 or more kilowatts of project applications pending.  Finally, to try and isolate sold systems only (as opposed to leased) we required the system owner to also be residential.  As filtered, our remaining data accounts for 133 of the 239 total residential projects in the dataset.  Here’s what we found:

reported system cost, $/csi ac watts - residential sector

Now what is going on here?  A.S.E.S. Electrical Group, Inc., is installing three systems for a total of 35.9 kW at a total cost of $597,500 or $16.66/Watt! (This makes our lead outlier in the CSI data - Galkos Construction, Inc. - look like a real slacker.)  From the data, A.S.E.S. (not to be confused with - or was that the intent? - the American Solar Energy Society which is commonly known by the acronym ASES) appears to be planning to use Schuco panels.  Although the data does not reveal the precise model Schuco panel they are proposing, a quick search online for Schuco panel pricing suggests that Schuco panels can be purchased for somewhere in the range of $2.00 to $2.28/Nameplate Watt, retail.  If we apply the nameplate to CSI derating factor that appears in the data for the A.S.E.S. projects, that works out to a retail price average of $2.61/CSI AC Watt.  Where is the remaining $14/W going?  And why would any residential customer choose to have an installation performed at a cost nearly twice the local average?

We hope staff at DWP will take notice of these results and give some serious thought to imposing cost caps to protect their customers.

09/29/11

  08:44:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 909 words  
Categories: LADWP Rebates, LADWP, Feed-in Tariff

FiTless: LADWP's Ill-Fitting FiT Program

When is a Feed-in Tariff Program not a feed-in tariff?  Apparently when it is conceived by the LADWP - or at least that was the prevailing view in a sometimes raucous public workshop at LADWP headquarters earlier this month.  Here’s our report and recommendations.

Defining a Feed-in Tariff

It might help to begin by defining one’s terms.  As it is commonly understood, a feed-in tariff is a provision by which a utility pays an energy producer for every kilowatt hour their system produces, usually at a preset price that is above market value (to provide an incentive for the installation in the first place).  A feed-in tariff differs from a net metering arrangement since the payment is based on production, not on whether the energy produced is “surplus” to the needs of the site where the production is hosted.

By that definition, what LADWP is proposing to do is not a FiT since they are not offering developers a set price for the energy to be produced.  Instead, at least during their initial “demonstration phase", LADWP is asking developers to compete amongst themselves by offering proposals for a fixed price (as adjusted by LADWP’s time of use modifiers) and LADWP will pick the “winners” based on lowest cost to the utility.

It was this “reverse auction mechanism” that produced the most animated response from a well-engaged audience which included community activists alongside solar industry participants.  Despite the sometimes pointed objections to the demonstration program’s structure, it was clear that DWP staff was committed to this approach, at least for the demonstration phase.  Their adamance seemed to be tied to the idea of “price discovery” - staff seemed to suggest that despite having lots of data about other FiT programs around the world, they were not in a position to properly price their program and so they were going to use the demonstration period to determine just how low a price they could get out of the bidding developers.

Of course, just as with any lowest bid proposal process, there is no guarantee that the lowest bid developers can actually produce a successful project at that cost, and in any event, it seems to violate the fundamental concept of a FiT.  (Interestingly, Black & Veatch -  the consulting firm that is working with DWP - notes that until July of this year the FiT was called the LREP or Local Renewable Energy Program. Perhaps they too realize that what is being proposed might be a good thing, but it is a poor FiT.)

Specific Program Issues

Overall, it appeared that DWP staff had learned from the July workshops and had made some changes to the program’s details - if not underlying design - to respond to the concerns that were raised.  In no particular order, here are the points that struck us:

  • Interconnection - One of the biggest concerns was the wildcard associated with the added cost of interconnecting the project to the grid.  Since the developer had to provide a fixed price bid when their proposal was submitted - before actual interconnection costs were known - the variability of these costs were a great point of concern.  Staff responded by announcing that they would make a chart of potential costs available to developers that would allow them to make a better estimate of their interconnection costs.
    Recommendation: DWP should put an absolute cap on interconnection fees based on the size of the proposed project.

  • Target Energy Price - Although not willing to be nailed down, staff indicated that a target price of $0.20/kWh was in the neighborhood of their expectations.
    Recommendation: DWP should be more forthcoming and provide a price ceiling based on the size of the proposed project.

  • Fees - There were many concerns regarding the amount of the fees and the staff responded by setting up a two-tiered price based on whether the project was “small” or “large” (i.e., small being between 30 and 150 kW).  Moreover, DWP agreed to refund application fees to any developer who is eliminated in the initial screening round.
    Recommendation: DWP should waive all fees for the demonstration phase given the added uncertainty created by their desire to use this for “price discovery."  Developers should not have to pay for the privilege of being part of DWP’s experiment.

  • Participation Limitations - At present, DWP is not intending to impose any limitations on how much of the total 6 MW in the demonstration phase could be performed by any one company.  Thus, in theory, a very large player could come in, underbid every local company and walk away with the entire pie.  Nor are there any preferences incorporated to favor companies that will maximize employment opportunities for local residents. 
    Recommendation: DWP should include a preference into their evaluation formula for local firms and put caps on the total size of the chosen projects that could be performed by any one company.

  • Timing of Next Phase - DWP staff indicated that while they believe the demonstration phase would take approximately 18 months, they also stated that once they had their pricing data, they could move ahead with the full FiT program.  (Of course, this overlooks the fact that they will not necessarily know whether the discovered price is actually sufficient to get a project installed and operational.)
    Recommendation: DWP should move forward with a true FiT at the earliest possible date.

DWP will be taking comments through September 30th and hopes to go to their Board with this proposal later this Fall.  You can access the supporting documents for the FiT at the LADWP website.

09/28/11

  02:07:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 391 words  
Categories: Solar Economics, SCE/CSI Rebates, Commercial Solar, Residential Solar

Cost Caps Coming to CSI

We have previously noted some pretty outlandish outliers in the cost of installing solar power systems in California, but now that is going to change. Under SB 585 (Kehoe D-39) that was just signed into law, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has 90 days to establish and impose cost caps on residential and non-residential solar installations for the California Solar Initiative (CSI). From our perspective that cannot come a moment too soon.

Senator Kehoe’s bill started out as an urgency measure to refund the CSI program which had exhausted its available funding for projects in PG&E and SDG&E territories.  The bill still does that, directing an additional $200 million into the program and that is a very good thing.  But what we like every bit as much is the amendment that was added in the State Assembly which provides for the following:

Within 90 days of the enactment of this act, the Public Utilities Commission shall establish and impose project cost caps for residential and nonresidential projects under the California Solar Initiative, based on national and state installed cost data.

We believe that this is an important, and long overdue consumer protection feature for CSI and we hope that other rebating entities such as LADWP and PWP will also adopt such caps.

Why is this so important?  Well, take a look again at this chart that we prepared from the CSI data for the first half of this year showing the reported installed costs for the largest solar installers in the CSI program:

The range here is striking, even shocking.  At the low end you see an installed cost of $6.56/Watt, ranging all the way up to an outlandish $13.32/Watt!  And that price is an average over hundreds of installations by Galkos Construction.  If the PUC were to establish a hard cap for residential installations of, say, $10/Watt and if that cap had been in place during the first half of the year, the customers of Galkos Construction would have saved $2.97 million - or on average, $7,618 each!

Wow!

The cap, of course, should be lower than $10/Watt.  We sincerely hope that the PUC will look closely at the abuses evident in the CSI data and put some teeth into this new law.  Only then will potential solar clients be protected from the predatory actions of the few outliers that needlessly inflate costs to pad their pockets.

09/27/11

  04:18:00 pm, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 708 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar Economics, Solar Tax Incentives

Why Solyndra Just Doesn't Matter - Updated

1BoG infographic

UPDATE: The folks over at 1 Block Off the Grid have a great infographic that does a fine job of putting the Solyndra situation into perspective.  You should go check it out and then come on back here to see what we have to say.  Go ahead - check it out - we’ll wait!

Unless you have been hiding in a cave lately, you have undoubtedly encountered the media orgy over the collapse of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra.  Yet amidst much media hype - most of it driven for political gain - the fact remains that as to the overall solar industry, Solyndra just doesn’t matter.

Federal Subsidies for Solar

Much has been written about the so-called failure of federal solar subsidies in light of Solyndra’s $535 million dollar loan guarantee debacle. Indeed, some would go so far as to demand that all solar subsidies should be abolished.  To be sure, there are many, more reasoned voices explaining the error of such thinking, including at the NY Times, Time magazine, and the Washington Post, but the fact of the matter is that for most solar installations, loan guarantees play no role whatsoever.

Here is where federal money does assist solar power installations:

  • The 30% Federal Investment Tax Credit - this program allows for residential and commercial clients alike to take a tax credit worth 30% of the system cost against their taxes.  On a typical residential installation, that credit is worth anywhere from $4,000 to $12,000.

  • The 30% Federal Grant for Commercial Projects - commercial clients can (through the end of this year) elect to receive a grant in lieu of the tax credit making the 30% available immediately without regard for the client’s tax appetite.

  • Accelerated Depreciation - the final benefit is the ability of commercial clients to depreciate the value of the equipment on an accelerated schedule (100% in Year 1 for projects installed this year and five year depreciation for all other projects).

Collectively, these federal tax subsidies save residential clients thousands of dollars, and as much as 50% of the total system cost for commercial clients.  As a result, these subsidies play a part in every solar project installed in this country and they have gone a long way toward making solar more affordable, particularly during difficult economic times.  The money is distributed to all who qualify for it without favorites - mostly - and in terms of actual dollars, it represents a tiny fraction of the $$$ lavished on other players in the energy marketplace.

Taking the Fifth

Against that backdrop of how most solar projects operate in this country, the top executives at Solyndra just pleaded the Fifth Amendment in refusing to answer questions posed by a decidedly hostile House committee.  That is their right - enshrined in the Constitution, no less - and it does not mean that they are guilty of any wrongdoing.  (Indeed, the lawyer in me notes that it would constitute malpractice to let your client testify before such a committee while multiple investigations are in the works.)

But the optics are awful.

Add this sad display on top of solar’s pre-existing PR problems and it is clear that, once again, the solar industry is in for some harsh words and tough times.

What the Rest of Us are Doing

So what can the rest of us - who aren’t taking the Fifth but are actively promoting solar for our clients because we know that it is a great deal for them - do about this?  Plenty.  Here are some suggestions:

  • We can push-back against the madness with letters to the Editor or posted rebuttals to the arguments made by the fossil fuel industry (SEIA has some great talking points to help).  After all, not only is the future of solar at stake, but our children’s future as well.

  • We can encourage our clients - the folks who know best just what a great deal solar really is - to speak out and relate their experiences.

Solar is an exciting and dynamic industry and as such it has had and will continue to have winners and losers.  But Solyndra aside, the future for solar is bright, and for those of us at Run on Sun, there’s nowhere else we would rather be - join us!

09/15/11

  06:23:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 427 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar Economics, LADWP, Commercial Solar, Feed-in Tariff

LADWP FiT Workshop Preview

FiT issues from JulyBack in July we reported on LADWP’s draft Feed-in Tariff program (FiT) and we noted that there was still a great deal of clarification needed.  Today is the follow-on workshop (which we will be attending) and the preliminary presentation materials indicate some movement in the right direction with some issues still to be resolved.  This post will highlight the changes that we have noted and we will report later in greater detail following the workshop.

In contrast to the plan that was discussed two months ago, the initial “Demonstration” phase of the program has been expanded from a total of 5 MW to 6 MW with 1MW carved out for so-called “small” systems - those between 30 and 150kW.  (Overall the program is capped at systems < 1MW.)  This was hinted at before and makes sense since it is not really feasible for the smaller systems to compete on cost - DWP’s primary selection criteria - against systems many times larger.

Beyond the change in the Demonstration program size, DWP’s materials identify four areas where changes have been instituted based on feedback from the July workshop.  Specifically:

  • Deposits & Fees - specifically, complaints were raised that the fee structure discriminated against smaller systems.  DWP has agreed to reduce the fee for the interconnection study (more below) for small systems and will return application fees to applicants who are rejected in the initial evaluation and ranking phase.
  • Allocations for Smaller Systems - as noted above, a carve out of 1 MW total (850 kW in LA-basin and 150 kW in the Owens Valley) has been set aside for small systems between 30 and 150 kW.  It will be interesting to see if that 85% - 15% allocation ultimately makes sense.
  • Pricing - in the competition for which projects get approved, small systems will only compete against other small systems on price while larger systems will compete with each other.
  • Interconnection Costs - as we had noted before , interconnection costs were a real wild-card in the initial draft proposal.  DWP has responded by saying that it will provide an interconnection cost estimator (online?) to help developers anticipate costs.  Also, once the interconnection study has been completed, developers will have the option to withdraw their application if the proposed cost renders the project financially unappealing.

The timeline remains that DWP intends to seek City Council approval for the Demonstration Program during the 4th quarter of this year with program roll-out to commence in the first quarter of 2012.

If you are interested in attending today’s workshop (from 2-4 p.m. in downtown L.A.) you can read the details in our previous post.

We will keep you updated as the program evolves.

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Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, Pasadena's premier installer and integrator of top-of-the-line solar power installations.
In addition, Run on Sun offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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