As the debate over net metering’s future intensifies, two newly introduced tools have caught our eye - an outreach effort by the folks at Vote Solar targeting the California Assembly and the release of a net-metering Primer by the folks at SEPA.
Let’s start with what SEPA has done. For those not familiar with them, SEPA is the Solar Electric Power Association and it is dedicated to “helping utilities integrate solar energy into their portfolio." In order to have an informed debate about the value of net metering, SEPA observed that there is a need for all participants to share the same lexicon, specifically as it pertains to two, very complicated disciplines: “state utility regulation (particularly rate-setting) and principles that are considered during the valuation of incremental resource additions, specifically distributed solar resources." Needless to say, for most people who do not operate under those state regulations (or set them), this is an arcane lexicon indeed.
Into that breach SEPA had provided a forty-nine page report titled, Ratemaking, Solar Value and Solar Net Energy Metering - a Primer, with the stated goal of providing “an unbiased foundation for broad and productive participation in NEM-related discussions and policy processes.” The report is divided into three main sections: The History and Status of Net Metering; the Regulatory Processes relevant to Net Metering Policy Review; and Solar Value Analyses. It includes an extensive set of expert resources (from a variety of perspectives) and concludes by hoping that “this paper will support better critical understanding of those references and more productive communications going forward.”
This is not an easy read by any means. But it should be “must read” material for those of us who would opine on the issue of net metering as public policy. It is on our Kindle App and once we’ve had a chance to work our way through it, we will have more to say about this important contribution to the debate.
While SEPA is looking to provide a non-partisan primer to raise the level of the ongoing discussion, Vote Solar is looking to advance the solar cause more directly. Vote Solar has set up an online campaign to help the public contact their members of the California Assembly urging them to continue supporting strong solar policies, like net metering. Under the headline “Help us celebrate California’s solar success story,” Vote Solar declares:
Rooftop solar is helping California families, schools and businesses take charge of their power supply and electricity bills like never before. Today we have more than 165,000 solar roofs – that adds up to a whole lot of clean, reliable, local power that’s improving air quality and creating jobs right in our own communities.
But with some big utilities lobbying hard in Sacramento to create new barriers to rooftop solar, your state representative needs to know that you see and support this kind of solar progress!
The site then allows visitors to enter their zip code to determine their Assemblymember and provides an editable letter that can be easily emailed through their system. Personalization would seem important here as politicians tend to discount identical messages but are more likely to attend to something that explains who you are and why you support the solar cause. If you care to participate, click on the sunny Vote Solar logo and it will take you to the page.
Although reflecting the different starting points of their sponsoring organizations, both of these tools are welcome additions to the debate and deserve your attention.
Before you can ever get a bid for your commercial solar project, you have to contact a solar installation contractor to come out to your location and perform a site evaluation. Actually, you should contact at least three contractors so that you have a set of bids to compare (more on that process below) - but how do you find them in the first place? Well, you could choose based on who has the most ads on TV or the Internet, or you could rely on Cousin Billy’s recommendation - but somehow that just doesn’t seem sufficiently scientific for a project like this. There has to be a better way - and there is.
If you remember that you need to find someone who will work NICELY with you, success is all but assured. And no, we don’t mean nicely, we mean NICELY - as in:
N - NABCEP Certification
I - Incentive provider (CSI or local utility) connected
C - City building department experienced
E - Electrician on staff
L - Local or national?
Y - Years in business.
Focus on those attributes and you will have found a contractor who will inspire confidence and guarantee a successful project. Let’s expand on why these particular attributes are so important.
The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners - NABCEP for short - provides the most rigorous certification process of solar installation professionals in the industry. Not to be confused with their Entry Level Letter that merely demonstrates that the person has taken an introductory course in solar, the NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer™ credential is the Gold Standard for installers and consumers alike. Earning NABCEP Certification requires the successful candidate to have an educational background in electrical engineering or related technical areas (such as an IBEW union apprenticeship program), at least two solar installations as the lead installer, and the successful passing of a 4-hour written examination on all aspects of solar power system design and installation.
As NABCEP notes:
When you hire a contractor with NABCEP Certified Installers leading the crew, you can be confident that you are getting the job done by solar professionals who have the “know-how” that you need. They are part of a select group of people who have distinguished themselves by being awarded NABCEP Certified Installer credentials.
NABCEP’s website offers a database of all Certified Solar PV Installers - just enter your zip code to find the installers located near you. It is with great pride that we point out that at Run on Sun, all three of our owners have earned the designation, NABCEP Certified Solar PV Installer™ - and we know of no other solar power company in Southern California that can make that claim.
A second source of solar installers is the Incentive provider such as the California Solar Initiatives’ Go Solar California website. Every installer who has done a solar power installation for a CSI utility (i.e., SCE, PG&E or SDG&E) will be included on this list. Unfortunately, there are no other criteria associated with getting listed - and there is limited verification done to guarantee that the listed installer is reliable. If your job is in California, your contractor must be on this list - but this is a double-check only - not an ideal starting point for your search.
Another source for information about solar installers is your local utility’s point person for solar rebates. This person deals with installers on a daily basis, and while s/he won’t give you a specific recommendation, they may be able to warn you off of an installer whom they have learned is less than reliable.
Similarly, the folks in your local building department deal with installers regularly as part of the permitting/inspection process. Once again, they won’t be in a position to provide referrals, but they may be able to give you a warning if there are red flags associated with a contractor that you are considering.
Solar installation companies come in all sizes - from national organizations that have crews installing systems all across the country, to local operations that only work in a limited geographic region. To be sure, there are pluses and minuses on both ends — maybe lower prices for the national chain due to economy of scale in their purchasing versus greater attention to detail from a local company that lives or dies based on how well it satisfies its local customer base. And, of course, money spent on a local company tends to stay in the local economy - another consideration in tough economic times.
The last of the NICELY elements is to look at the number of years the company has been in business. Again, this is not a perfect indicator – some recent ventures really have their act together and some long-standing enterprises have long since ceased to really care about what they are doing – but at a minimum you want some assurance that the folks you are doing business with know how to run a business. Otherwise you run the risk of having a largely useless warranty and no one to call if things go wrong.
We would recommend a minimum of three-to-five years in the business of doing solar, with preferably a longer track record of running a business. Expertise in areas beyond just installing solar is also useful such as engineering, management and law.
The preceding is an excerpt from Jim Jenal’s upcoming book, “Commercial Solar Step-by-Step,” due out in July.
The good folks over at the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) are all too aware of the threat facing the solar industry from utility attacks and they are fighting back - with facts about the industry and its importance. Here’s our take.
Nowhere is the solar industry more vital than right here in California. Indeed, if California were its own country, it would rank 7th in installed solar capacity worldwide, higher than our overall economic rank of ninth in the world.
To help mobilize our supporters, SEIA sent out a press release with some important facts and with some useful action items. (If you are in a hurry, just skip to the Action Items!)
First, here’s the presser:
It’s official: for the third year in a row, solar is the fastest growing energy source in America. Released today, the SEIA and GTM Research report U.S. Solar Market Insight: 2012 Year-in-Review reveals that the U.S. solar market grew by 76% in 2012.
But what does that mean for California?
California continues to lead the U.S. in solar energy installations thanks to declining system prices and the state’s “net metering” policy that gives customers fair credit on their bills for the electricity they generate. California was responsible for nearly one-third of the nation’s solar installations last year. More than 1,000 megawatts (MW) of solar was added to the state’s power grid in 2012, a 44 percent increase over 2011. This is the first time any state eclipsed the 1,000 MW mark.
More than 40,000 Californians are currently employed in the solar industry, many in positions related to the installation and maintenance of net-metered residential and commercial solar systems.
The good news doesn’t end there:
- Solar creates jobs: Every second of the work day, more than two solar panels are installed by a solar worker on American soil. Today, solar employs 119,000 total workers in the U.S.
- Solar powers homes: There is now more than 7.7 gigawatts of cumulative solar electric capacity installed in the U.S., enough to power more than 1.2 million American households.
- Solar drives our economy: In 2012, new U.S. solar installations were valued at $11.5 billion – more than double the $5.5 billion value of installations in 2010.
This is the effect of smart policy, innovation, and competition.
So what can we expect from solar in California in 2013? The industry can continue its rapid growth if policies like net metering are protected, allowing new developments to flourish in the state. Unfortunately, as solar gets cheaper and more accessible, many utility companies see it as a threat to their 100-year old business model. Some California utilities claim that distributed solar generation shifts costs to other customers, when in reality a recent study showed that it provides net benefits to lower all customers’ costs by more than $92 million.
We’re fighting back. Allowing customers to net meter is critical to making solar an economically-viable option for most homeowners.
So here are two things to do RIGHT NOW:
Join our Thunderclap, so that we can all say with one voice that we Fight for #SolarInsight!
Sign this petition today and call on the California Public Utility Commission to protect California’s 40,000 solar jobs and leading solar energy industry.
More will be needed over time to preserve the industry we have all worked so hard to build - but please, add your voice to the mix. Thanks!
UPDATE - We are starting to see “news” articles that seem to be following the ALEC playbook, including one from the AP bemoaning the carbon footprint of solar modules, particularly once you considered disposal of associated hazardous waste. But not so fast, says this piece which offers a contextual rebuttal.
The ultra-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) - the organization that brought you the much maligned “stand your ground laws” - has trained its guns on another vulnerable target: economic support for renewable energy. Now it is up to the supporters of a clean energy future to push back against ALEC’s concerted campaign of “subversion” against renewables.
We have written before about the PR problems facing the solar industry, a problem that continues to this day. However, we are starting to see that this problem isn’t simply the fault of misinformed or lazy reporters. To the contrary, it now appears that there is an orchestrated campaign underway with the expressed intent of denigrating the entire renewable energy industry - and the spearhead of that campaign is ALEC.
ALEC’s mission - funded by such dirty energy sources as Exxon Mobil and the Koch brothers - is to develop conservative legislation for adoption by state legislatures around the country. Although generally unknown to the public, ALEC has had considerable success pushing its conservative agenda, which now includes climate change denial. Not content with promoting “model” legislation that would roll back Renewable Portfolio Standards, ALEC is now looking to create a national organization devoted to making the wind industry in particular - and potentially all renewables in general - unacceptable to the public, and thus to policy makers.
The Guardian newspaper got a copy of an ALEC internal memo that laid out their ultimate goal:
Cause subversion in message of industry so that it effectively becomes so bad no one wants to admit in public they are for it (much like wind has done to coal, by turning green to black and clean to dirty).
Ultimate Goal: Change policy direction based on the message.
While it may be true that the present target of ALEC’s efforts is the wind industry, one need not be a visionary to realize that if they can succeed there the solar industry will be next. And while the Orwellian prospect of “turning green to black and clean to dirty” might seem like an unlikely goal, these types of “big-lie” campaigns have been successful in the past. Indeed, the failure to take meaningful national action on Climate Change is at least in part attributable to the tactics of the Heartland Institute, coincidentally one of the co-conspirators on this scheme with ALEC.
So how do we fight back? Here are a number of ways:
Without a doubt the folks supporting ALEC have more money for this fight than does the renewable energy industry. But we have the people on our side with more than 90% of the American electorate supportive of solar and other forms of clean, green energy. Let this be our wake-up call - we are making strides and our opponents have noticed and are now fighting back. As has been noted before, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”
It’s winning time!
In this intense election season, we are accustomed to seeing lots of polls tracking the day-to-day changes in the “horse race” of the political process. But while various candidates struggle to “break out” of the pack, solar energy is an overwhelming consensus winner with strong support from 92% of the electorate - and when was the last time that 92% of us agreed on anything? Given that tomorrow night’s debate turns on domestic issues, it will be interesting to see how this issue plays, if at all.
We base our observation on a poll that was recently conducted by Hart Research Associates (Hart) for the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA). (You can find the poll results here.) The Hart poll got responses online from 1,206 registered voters, including an oversample of so-called “swing” voters (people who did not indicate a strong or consistent partisan voting history). The margin of error was ±2.8%.
Support for solar among voters cuts across party lines. 98% of Democrats and 95% of Independents think it is very important or somewhat important for the U.S. to develop and use solar power - but even among Republicans, support was at a very impressive 84%. And voters think that energy issues should be a factor in this year’s Presidential election with 27% saying such issues are one of the most important while another 47% say they are very important.
Despite an aggressive and well-funded ad campaign to support the quaint notion of “clean coal", of all of the different energy sources surveyed, only coal is upside down on its favorability rating: 34% of the electorate has an unfavorable view of coal, compared to only 32% with a favorable opinion. Solar energy, on the other hand, is on the opposite end of the spectrum, with 85% having a favorable opinion and only a miniscule 4% unfavorable. Here are the overall results:
Interestingly, the three greenest energy sources are at the top of the list while the two dirtiest, coal and oil are at the bottom.
As nice as it is to be supported, perhaps a more pressing question for policy makers/candidates is this: Which, if any, of these forms of energy should the federal government support through tax subsidies? Once again, solar energy was the clear winner with a full 64% of all voters (67% among swing voters) supporting federal tax subsidies for solar. In contrast, only 8% overall support subsidies for coal (4% of swing voters) and just 13% for oil (9% among swing voters). Yet subsidies for the coal and oil industries dwarf those provided to all renewable energy sectors overall and solar in particular. Here’s the overall chart:
These results, if not surprising, are nevertheless gratifying, particularly in an election year. We can only hope that voters will determine where the candidates stand on support for all energy sources, particularly solar, and use that knowledge to inform their vote next month.
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