Ever since a fire chief in New Jersey let a warehouse burn for days because of his concerns about dealing with the solar power system on the roof, we are seeing a spate of these stories now migrated to concerns about residential solar as well. We think the risk is greatly overstated, but it turns out that allaying a firefighter’s fear of solar is one more argument for using Enphase microinverters.
We wrote about the New Jersey issue back in September and the fire chief was quoted as saying, “with all that power and energy up there, I can’t jeopardize a guy’s life for that.” Now no one wants to see anyone injured because of a fire, and certainly not because solar was on the structure that was burning. (The cause of the fire has not yet been disclosed.) But was that really the only option—avoid the roof and let the fire burn for days?
Worse still, now we are starting to see a steady drumbeat of similar stories with a residential slant.
Take this story that aired on a local news outlet with the scary title: Firefighters Warn Solar Panels Could Prevent Homes from Being Saved in Blaze. While the homeowner is thrilled to be saving money, he is unaware of the danger he is facing until it is presented to him—by the reporter. But how great is that danger, and what can be done to minimize it?
For one thing, here in California there are already State Fire Marshall guidelines that require set-asides on the roof to allow firefighters access and space to vent the roof as needed, without having to cut into areas covered by solar.
As for the concern about turning the system off so that dangerous amounts of power aren’t present on the roof, well, that is where the benefit of microinverters, such as those that we use from Enphase Energy, comes into play. When you shut off the power at the ground-based AC disconnect switch, the entire array is powered down. The solar conduits coming down from the roof are rendered inert, harmless, with no power present at all. This is the safest possible environment for firefighters with solar and the fire inspectors that we have dealt with readily understand, and appreciate, the difference.
So, should a homeowner pick a solar power system based on avoiding fire danger? Perhaps not; but if you are the sort that worries about such things, you should know that microinverters give you one more benefit—firefighter safety—over older designs. To maximize that benefit, we just need a generally accepted sign to mount on our systems that will let firefighters know what sort of solar system they are facing.
While the buzz around REC Solar this week is that their residential and distribution segments have been bought by Sunrun, we were struck by a press release that they circulated a couple of weeks ago and which was picked up in a story by Greentech Media. In it, REC puts forward a shocking statistic which, if true, is something of a scandal for the residential solar industry—but is it true?
It was the GTM piece that originally sparked our curiosity. Titled, “The Secrets of Selling Solar: Drivers of REC Solar’s Strong Growth,” the piece appears to have taken REC’s press release pretty much at face value. Here’s the money quote:
While 40 percent of solar install orders are canceled industry-wide, only 5 percent of REC Solar’s customers cancel. “When we qualify customers, we are honest and educate them about solar,” [REC Solar VP/General Manager Ethan] Miller explained. “That way, we are more likely to meet their expectations.”
That casual indictment—40% of solar install orders are canceled industry-wide—jumped off the page at me. How could it be that so many people were signing up to go solar, only to cancel the order after the fact? And if that was true, why on earth was it happening? What had been done to those poor people to get them to sign on the dotted line in the first place, only to have sufficient regrets that they cancelled their contract?
Unfortunately, the article provided no source for that shocking stat. Checking with folks at GTM for a source pointed us back to the REC press release. Here’s how that same stat is presented there:
Just 5 percent of REC Solar customers cancel before completing their system, compared to a 40 percent cancellation rate across the solar industry. This statistic reflects that REC Solar’s superior customer service enables more projects to come to fruition than any other solar installer.
Once again, the 40% figure is tossed out without citation. The only contact info on the press release was to someone named Sara Mier so we sent her an email asking for the source of the number. She replied promptly, if not helpfully, saying:
A good place to look for statistics on cancellation rates is California Solar Statistics.
Hope that helps!
Now I have as much respect for the insights possible from the CSI data as anyone, but this struck me as just strange. First of all, REC’s quote referred to the cancellation rate for the entire solar industry, whereas CSI data doesn’t even cover all of California. (In particular, the CSI data only covers systems interconnected to the state’s three Investor Owned Utilities: PG&E, SCE and SDG&E. Notably missing are municipal utilities like LADWP and PWP.) Moreover, presumably this 40% number is driven, at least in part, by contracts that are cancelled during a state-law mandated “cooling-off period” which in California is three days. As a general proposition, CSI data would have no visibility into such cancellations, even for contracts signed in IOU territories, since those contracts most likely never have rebate applications submitted, thereby making them invisible to CSI.
But given those caveats, what does the CSI data tell us about projects going south?
CSI categorizes cancelled projects as “delisted” and we wrote about delisted projects last August. In that slice of CSI data (limited to the first six months of 2013 and just in SCE’s service territory) we found that only 3.26% of projects were delisted—less than a tenth of the figure cited by REC! We even published a chart that showed the top companies with delisted projects (where they had at least 10 projects delisted), and guess what? REC made that list, albeit at just 2%! Indeed, only one company—out of 149 different companies that had delisted projects—showed a cancellation rate at or above the 40% figure that REC has published.
My email back to Ms. Mier pointing out these limitations invoked no response but silence.
Having failed in that avenue I decided to reach out to Mr. Miller directly and after some sleuthing was able to determine his email address. Unfortunately, our email to him requesting comment on this question was similarly met with silence.
So what is the basis for this damning number? We have no idea. Which makes Mr. Miller’s quote somewhat ironic:
While 40 percent of solar install orders are canceled industry-wide, only 5 percent of REC Solar’s customers cancel. “When we qualify customers, we are honest and educate them about solar,” Miller explained.
One wonders just how honest you are with your potential customers when you toss out baseless statistics to make your own performance look better.
UPDATE - 2/10 - LADWP has now revealed the reasoning behind their delay in moving forward on the program “tweaks":
The FiT Set Pricing Program was deferred from the February 4th Board of Water and Power Commissioners (Board) meeting so the Rate Payer Advocate may review the proposed changes. The program modifications and enhancements are still expected to go before the Board for review and approval at the February 18th Board meeting.
Given that no change—that is, reduction—to the set-pricing offered under the FiT was made in the proposed changes, it is pretty clear how the RPA will come out in all this. It looks like we may be seeing a threat to the FiT’s viability come the meeting on the 18th. Interested parties should plan to attend.
On Monday we reported on an email that we had received announcing minor changes to LADWP’s Feed-in Tariff program and the anticipated launch of the third tranche of 20 MW on February 14. Now we have learned that the Resolution adopting these changes and authorizing the third tranche, which was to be considered at yesterday’s Board of Commissioners meeting, was pulled from the agenda and “deferred until further notice!”
Bottom line: the third tranche will not be offered as of February 14. Not sure what is going on with this, but here are our thoughts.
In reading the resolution that was to be adopted by the Board, we noted that there had been a presentation made regarding the status of the FiT by staff on December 3rd, but that the presentation was not online. (Thanks to the kind assistance of the staff, we now have the December 3rd presentation here.) As we suspected it must, the presentation reflected the slow progress in moving projects past the adoption of standardized contracts—a prerequisite for construction to begin.
As this chart from the presentation shows, the only projects “in service” actually date from the demonstration program, not the actual FiT. In fact, only a bare handful of projects are even under construction, with the bulk of the first tranche still pending execution of the standardized contract and some still in the interconnection study phase. Keep in mind the standardized contracts (SOPPA on the chart) are just that, standardized take-it-or-leave-it contracts, the form of which was available to participants before they ever submitted their initial applications! So what could be causing this delay? Surely the Board had some pointed questions for staff on this point
We decided to watch the video from that meeting to see if we could gain any insights into how the Board viewed this issue and to see if we could discern why consideration of this resolution was pulled without notice or explanation.
The video—you can watch it here jumping to agenda item 27A—really doesn’t go into much in the way of relevant discussion. (There is a long detour into problems that a SolarCity customer was having with a bill—post solar—that was higher than ever before, and the clear confusion on the part of Board member Barad regarding how net metering works. But that is a topic for another day.)
There was a question as to adequate staffing, but that was not cited as a reason for the delay.
Instead, staff responds by saying that some of the developers (actually, it would appear to be nearly all of the developers) had problems filling out the standard contract. However, the proposed tweaks did not include streamlining the contract so maybe that is why there is a concern about the proposed resolution?
We also hear in the video that the CleanLA/UCLA Luskin Center coalition, which was one of the driving agents behind the FiT, was supposed to be producing a report on the FiT so far—perhaps that report raised issues that caused the postponement? Alas, the report does not appear at the LADWP website, nor can we find it on the CleanLA website.
However, the last person to speak about the FiT is longtime FiT opponent, the Ratepayer Advocate, who once again complained about the cost of the FiT. Indeed he asked that the program switch from a set-price program to a competitive bid program. His complaints are no better grounded now than they were a year ago, but perhaps he has caught the ear of one of the new Board members who pulled the resolution because a change in pricing was not proposed?
For now, all we can do is speculate. But one thing is sadly certain—LADWP is playing Scrooge this Valentine’s Day as the third tranche remains on hold.
We have written about the occasional PR problems that the solar industry faces, so it was a pleasant surprise to come across a “fair & balanced” story about solar power over at Fox.
Before you get too excited, this was not Fox & Friends or The Kelly File where we found this article. Instead it was on the Fox Business website. The article, titled Buy vs. Lease: Solar Panels on Your Home, by Donna Fuscaldo, did indeed offer its readers a fair view into the world of residential solar. For example, the article discusses the pros and cons of leasing versus owning your solar power system and notes:
Homeowners who chose to own the solar panels not only get the best price but they can also benefit from city and state tax breaks depending on where they live. According to Kimbis, homeowners may be able to get city, county, state, utility district and federal incentives that bring significant cost savings.
“Just like other tax rates or incentives, these programs vary significantly by geography,” says Kimbis, noting that any good installer will be able to walk homeowners through available tax incentives in their state.
That is fair advice, and they go on to explain that:
Whether home owners decide to lease or buy, they shouldn’t go with the first offer they come across.
“All homeowners should get multiple bids for solar panel installation, as they would with any other home improvement project,” says Kimbis.
After years of hit pieces, it was remarkably refreshing to see something from Fox (even if it was Fox Business) that presented the value of solar to homeowners in an honest and unbiased manner.
This article deserves to have its hit counter driven up so take a moment and check it out—who knows, maybe it will inspire more stories like it.
UPDATE: The postponement is “until further notice.” We have a more detailed report on the delay of the third tranche of LA’s FiT here.
UPDATE: LADWP has informed us that the meeting scheduled for tomorrow has been postponed. As soon as we learn more, we will update this post.
LADWP has announced that the third 20 MW tranche of its Feed-in Tariff program will launch on Friday, February 14, pending Commission approval.
Outgoing GM Ron Nichols signed off on the Board Packet, and the tweaks to the program suggested therein are set to be reviewed and approved on Tuesday, February 4 at 11:00 a.m.—that is, tomorrow morning—according to the email DWP sent out Friday afternoon. (Can you say, “Friday news dump,” anyone?)
Apparently DWP made an update presentation to the Board on December 3. We say apparently since it is referenced in the new materials, but we cannot find a copy of the report anywhere online. We wonder, for example, if the Board was informed about the surprisingly low number of contracts that have been executed under the FiT so far? As we reported back in early January (going just on published data and without access to the report to the Board), out of 109 projects that originally “won” in the First Tranche lottery, only 3—a 2.7% success rate—have signed contracts.
Hard to say whether any of the “tweaks” being proposed will do much to address that problem.
We observe with some dismay DWP’s observation that “numerous developers have been confused or inexperienced with designing solar for the California market, ” since that could have been avoided (or at least reduced) if the program had given preference to local developers. After all, one of the stated purposes of the FiT was to develop local jobs.
Seems like a missed opportunity and one that has delayed successful project implementation while the out-of-towners get educated on the mysteries and joys of doing solar in the City of the Angels.
Other tweaks include:
Beyond those changes, “staff will post updated sample forms and contracts, answers to frequently asked questions, and checklists on the FiT Website to provide guidance and transparency." A noble goal, to be sure, but it would be a start if they could post their own Board presentations in a consistent manner.
Assuming the Board approves these modifications, the window will open on the Third Tranche on February 14, with a base price for energy of 15¢/kWh. The window will stay open for five business days and all completed applications will enter a lottery to see who will be part of the 20 MW allocation. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone - may your solar dreams come true.
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