It has been a great year for solar in the US! As the year comes to an end, we like to take a look at the numbers to get a sense of how the industry is doing as a whole. The first statistic I came upon stated that through just the first half of 2014, 53% of all new electric capacity installed came from solar!
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, utility-scale solar as of September, 2014 had sent 14.2 gigawatt-hours of electricity to the U.S. grid, up 110% compared to 6.7 GW in 2013. California is leading the way with a whopping 7.8 GW generated in 2014, 188 percent change from 2013!
That means solar generation was enough to meet the electricity needs of 1,513,703 average U.S. homes, and represented about 0.4 percent of the nation’s total electricity. However, these numbers don’t take into account residential and private commercial solar.
“There are now more than half a million homes and businesses nationwide with a solar installation,” reported the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA).
With continued growth and accounting for these additional sources of generation, solar electricity could easily account for 1 percent of U.S. generation by the end of this year. That might sound like small potatoes, but as recently as 2008 the energy contribution from solar was virtually zero. Rapid growth in the sector points toward continued gains in the near future.
What’s spurring this remarkable growth in the industry? For one thing, it is becoming more and more affordable with the average price of a solar panel declining by 64% since 2010. We also cannot overstate the role of effective public policies such as the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), Net Energy Metering (NEM) and Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) among other state and city-specific policies.
Growth in the solar sector has far reaching positive impacts for the US economy as well as the environment! While the numbers are not yet in for 2014, as of 2013 the industry had already provided 143,000 much needed jobs for Americans or more than 50 people hired in solar each day. Looked at another way, nearly $20 billion a year was invested back into the economy due to the industry.
On the environmental side Rhone Resch, CEO of SEIA, noted that solar will “help to offset an estimated 20 million metric tons of harmful CO2 emissions in 2014, which is the equivalent of taking 4 million cars off U.S. highways, saving 2.1 billion gallons of gasoline or shuttering half a dozen coal-fired power plants”. Needless to say, converting to solar or other renewable energy sources is paying huge dividends for both our economy and the environment. We look forward to sharing this great resource with continued growth in 2015 and beyond!
We are fans of SEIA, the Solar Energy Industry Association, as we believe that they do important work lobbying on behalf of solar in Washington, D.C. But a blog post by Chet Henry over at Red, Green & Blue titled, “Who has the best job in solar? Bet it’s not you,” (h/t SolarWakeup) had us spewing our coffee in disbelief—they are paying him what???
It turns out that SEIA is paying its President/CEO, Rhone Resch, $786,000 per year—to say nothing of a gym membership and guaranteed first class air travel. Say what?
Now this is not an attack on Mr. Resch, whom I respect. But seriously, SEIA, what the heck are you doing? Julia Hamm, who heads up SEPA, the Solar Electric Power Association (which tries to get electric utilities to adopt solar-friendly policies) gets paid roughly a third of Resch, at $286,000. Sorry, but there is no way Resch is worth three times what Hamm is. Worse still, according to the blog post, SEIA’s records reveal three other executive women at SEIA, none of whom makes more than a third of what Resch makes.
Frankly, we have been concerned for some time about SEIA’s dues structure which is disproportionately high for small revenue solar companies, and is one of the chief reasons that 80% of solar companies aren’t members. Indeed, we are no longer members as it simply didn’t seem like a worthwhile investment for our all too finite capital. Dumping nearly 800 G’s into one man’s salary, however, is no way to say to small installation companies, “we represent you and want you to participate.”
SEIA has noted that there are more than 140,000 people in this country working in the solar industry. I wonder how many of them are getting paid what SEIA is paying its President? SEIA has said that there are more than 5,000 solar companies in this country. I wonder how many of their President/CEOs are getting paid anywhere near what SEIA is paying its CEO?
I simply don’t buy the notion that you need to pay someone that kind of salary to attract the talent needed to do the job. After all, Ms. Hamm has to hobnob with the heads of IOUs who make 10 times as much as she does, but she can do it for nearly half a million dollars less than SEIA is paying out.
Time for reform at SEIA.
Thanks to our friend Yann over at SolarWakeup.com we came across this great infographic summarizing the State of U.S. Solar in 2013 and we thought we would share that with our readers along with our observations.
The folks at Greentech Media Research and the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) compiled the report summarizing the State of Solar in the US, and you can download the Executive Summary here. Yet it is their infographic that really fired our imagination.
The graphic notes that “a solar system is installed every four minutes” in the U.S. which is a pretty amazing stat.
We have an even more amazing stat to share that will be part of our new website roll-out this January. While you wait, take a guess: If 2% of the households in America that wanted solar, added solar in 2014, how fast would that be?
Even as other markets around the country grow, California still leads the way. So let’s grow it even faster - how about allocating some of those AB 32 auction funds to refreshing the solar rebate programs around the state - particularly for non-profits?
Despite our progress - 12 GW of total solar capacity installed - we have a long way to go to displace coal. According to the U.S. EIA, as of 2012 there were 310 GW of coal capacity installed, making solar just 3.8% of coal’s share.
The U.S. will hit 13% of global solar installations - a 30-year high - by the end of this year and that share will grow over the next four years.
Of course, we invented this technology, we have abundant insolation resources and the people overwhelmingly want it - so all we need are the proper policies.
As we wrap up 2013 and head into a bright new year, let’s hope that we can push back the naysayers and the “not-so-smart ALECs” of the world and propel solar to reach its rightful dominance.
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.
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