Solar Energy 101

Solar energy is a “green, environmentally-friendly energy solution. By using the sun as a natural, clean source of energy, solar energy is able to create electricity or heat in a way that doesn’t involve any fossil fuels being burned or undesirable emissions into the air. Furthermore, the sun is a sustainable, renewable source of energy that isn’t going to run out or be depleted, so there’s no need to worry about dwindling natural resources with solar energy.

Of course, when it comes to solar energy there is one limitation that needs to be considered. The sun isn’t always out. That makes solar energy an intermittent source. If it’s cloudy, raining, or simply dark outside, solar energy systems aren’t absorbing the sun and, as a result, aren’t able to produce energy. To compensate for this, most solar energy systems are built to store energy or they have a backup source of energy, like the electric grid. This allows the energy user to still get power even when the sun isn’t out at the moment.

For solar energy technologies, there are two basic types – active and passive. Active solar technologies utilize solar PV (short for “photovoltaic”), heated water, heat, or solar thermal electric to produce electricity. Passive solar, on the other hand, creates heat and is used for lighting structures.

Below is a closer look at some of the most popular solar energy technologies.

  • Solar PV—A solar photovoltaic (PV) system uses components like solar panels to absorb sunlight and convert it into electricity, an inverter to switch the electrical current from DC to AC, and other accessories to complete the system. Panels are very common and can be installed on all sorts of structures and properties. They can power anything from a home to an entire commercial facility, depending on their size.
  • Passive Solar—In passive solar systems, the sun’s energy is utilized through the actual design or layout of the structure. Everything from windows to floors to walls are meant to distribute energy from the sun, heating a structure in the winter and rejecting the heat during the summer. No mechanical or electrical devices are used.
  • Solar Heating—In some cases, passive solar might not be enough, so supplemental heating is needed through the use of certain other active solar technologies. A space heating system can utilize a solar energy collector to concentrate and distribute heat through the structure. For more robust applications, parabolic trough collectors, evacuated tube collectors, and other advanced solar heating technologies may be useful.
  • Solar Thermal Electric—Solar thermal electric technologies are somewhat similar to solar heating because they too harness sunlight to create heat. The difference, however, is that solar thermal electric technologies create an amount of heat great enough to power a generator that then pumps out electricity.

Businesses and homeowners alike can take advantage of solar energy technologies to go green and save money!

Utility Sales Tax Exemptions

Many states offer utility sales tax exemptions (or partial exemptions) to encourage companies to operate facilities in their state. The qualifications for these exemptions vary from state to state. However, most states require “predominant use”.

A particular utility type (electricity, natural gas, water, etc) has predominant use when the majority of that utility is being used for exempt purposes. To prove whether or not a utility has predominant use, a utility study is required. The utility study must be both accurate and comprehensive in order to minimize risk exposure.

What is a Utility Study?

A utility study is an engineering report that analyzes your company’s utility usage. The purpose of the study is to determine your percentage of exempt usage. In most states, you must be using the utility (e.g. electricity, natural gas) predominantly for an exempt purpose (e.g. manufacturing, agriculture).

Third Party Consulting Firms

Although it’s possible to perform a utility study yourself, it can be quite complicated and time consuming. Each state has its own set of requirements regarding how the study should be performed. In addition, the tax code (for example, what is or isn’t considered exempt) varies from one state to the next.

But more importantly, most states prefer that you use a third party firm to do your utility study. In fact, some states require it. The reason being that a third party firm is more likely (in the state’s opinion) to produce accurate, non-biased results.

When choosing a consulting firm to do your study, make sure they have experience doing studies and filing for exemptions in your particular state. This will help to ensure that the process goes smoothly. And of course, get multiple quotes to make sure you get the best price.

How Much Does A Utility Study Cost?

A utility study involves collecting information on each and every piece of equipment at your facility. So, the price will be dependent on the size of your facility and the quantity of equipment. Also, since the third party consulting firm will need to travel to your facility, your location may be a factor.

That said, here are a few pricing examples. If your facility is a 20,000 square foot shop and you’re using a local firm to do the utility study, your cost may be as low as $1,500. If your facility is a 60,000 square foot manufacturing plant, a utility study may cost you $2,500-3000. And finally, if you’re using an out of state firm to do a study on a 250,000 square foot facility, it will most likely cost you over $5,000.

From Dump to Dynamo: EPA Launches Giant Solar Project in Bay Area

On May 13, 2015, at Hayward, California, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) celebrated the launching of the first project by the Regional Renewable Energy Procurement Program (R-REP), described as “an unprecedented collaboration of government agencies.”

The head of the EPA, local officials and executives from the solar power industry met at the 24-acre West Winton former landfill, situated across the bay from San Francisco, where 19,000 solar panels will be installed. The project also represents the launch of the Federal Aggregated Solar Procurement Project (FASPP), the first federal partnership to purchase solar power across multiple federal agencies: the Forest Service, the Department of Energy and the General Services Administration. It was inspired by the R-REP program.

SF_Bay_Public_Domain“This is about reducing carbon emissions, saving money and growing jobs. It’s a win all over the place,” said U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. She added, “Combining the purchasing power of local and federal governments is a common-sense approach to combating climate change, reducing taxpayer costs, and spurring innovation.”

Four Bay Area counties – Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara – pooled their resources for the R-REP project, which will save tax dollars through economies of scale. The West Winton solar system, which is expected to be completed next year by SunEdison, will generate 6.6 MW of energy, enough to provide power to over 1200 homes, and is one of the largest urban solar projects in California. It will be financed through cost-saving power-purchase agreements: the solar vendors will own the panels, while the counties will pay for the energy through the utility PG&E. Public sites that will receive power include community centers, libraries, fire stations, medical facilities, city halls and educational facilities.

It is estimated that the R-REP programs collectively will involve 186 solar sites, power 19 Bay Area public agencies, create 839 jobs, generate 31 MW of solar power and result in $108 million in savings. The collaborative procurement of renewable energy is anticipated to provide these benefits to public agencies:

  • Reduced transaction costs and administrative time;
  • Competitive contract terms compared to similar projects;
  • Standardized procurement documents, financing and process;
  • Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; and
  • Local economic activity and job growth.

Susan Muranishi, Alameda County Administrator, was quoted as saying, “This project is nothing short of transformational” for creating a model for government agencies to maximize their resources and to overcome environmental threats.

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Source: Solar Tribune

Students Race for Solar (and Life) Knowledge in Riverside County

This past weekend, students from 41 Southern California high schools participated in the 13th Annual Solar Cup race, held on Lake Skinner at Temecula, near Winchester in Riverside County.

Teams from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties, operating boats powered totally by solar energy, competed in the race, which is sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California.

Past Competitors in the Annual Solar Cup Race (Photo: Solar Cup website)

Past Competitors in the Annual Solar Cup Race (Photo: Solar Cup website: http://bit.ly/1GmqS3E)

The event was the culmination of a seven-month educational program for the teams, which started in October 2014. Newcomer teams and veterans competed in separate divisions, and all participants were sponsored by a water district or other utility. The program’s goal is for participants to learn, according to the program’s website, “about conservation of natural resources, electrical and mechanical engineering, problem solving” and other skills. The competition originally began in 2002 with just eight high schools and about 100 students participating. For the 2015 event, about 1000 students enrolled.

The competing crafts are all 16-foot-long single-seat boats, constructed with kits made of marine-grade plywood supplied by MWD. During the events, only one “skipper” can be present in each boat, but a team is required to equip the boats with steering, solar panels, batteries and motors. The motors may produce up to 320 watts, and the maximum weight of the boats, including the skipper, cannot exceed 450 pounds. The competition was held over three days, and consisted of the qualifying event (Friday), the endurance race using solar panels (Saturday), and the sprint race, using battery power without the panels, followed by the awards ceremony (Sunday).

Solar Cup coordinator Julie Miller was quoted as saying, “Solar Cup supplements textbook curriculum with hands-on experience giving these bright students an opportunity to learn about California’s natural resources, while fostering an interest in science, math, environmental and engineering careers.” Fred Olmedo, an engineering teacher at McBride High School in Long Beach, said, “This is as close as it gets to real life, in my opinion. [The students] are really using their critical-thinking skills [and] problem-solving skills. I mean, it’s just like the whole nine yards…It’s what you would want in an engineer.” One challenge the McBride students faced involved the solar controller and battery, which were ordered from China… and arrived without instructions. The students figured out what to do, partly from the Internet, but mostly by their own ingenuity.

 

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Source: Solar Tribune

The Little Utility That Could

Warren McKenna, the Manager of Farmers Electric Coop in Kalona, Iowa is a soft spoken fellow. However, it only took one sentence to bring an auditorium full of solar installers and electrical contractors to their feet for a standing ovation.

After a full day of presentations from state and local leaders on solar energy at the Iowa Solar Installers Summit in 2009, McKenna presented on a panel along with representatives of investor-owned and municipal utilities. When McKenna took to the podium, he smiled, cleared his throat and said, “Well, I don’t have a powerpoint presentation. But I DO have a feed-in tariff!” The crowd roared with approval.

Warren McKenna of FEC  photo:presscitizen.com

Warren McKenna of FEC photo:presscitizen.com

Since 2008, Farmers Electric Coop (FEC) has been a national model for utilization of solar. The tiny, 650 person cooperative electric utility serves customers in the heart of Amish country and is the states oldest electric utility, but despite its long history, FEC is leading the way into the future. McKenna’s savvy, cost-effective approach to providing clean, locally produced power has caught the attention of much larger utilities across the country, and his start-small, pay-as-you-go business plan has proven to be a hit with co-op members as well as the solar industry.

FEC has a multi-tiered approach to reaching its goal of 15% renewable energy by 2025. First, co-op members can contribute $3 per month to a voluntary program that helps offset the cost of their solar feed-in tariff for local members who want to install solar. It also pays for biodiesel for their back-up generators.

Next, McKenna began training his own in-house team to keep installation costs low. FECs own licensed electricians started by installing some small projects, including 1.8 kW at two local schools, and at McKenna’s own home, proving that McKenna was willing to put his own money where his mouth is. “I might be the only utility manager in the nation that gets all of his kwhrs from the sun.”

The FEC feed-in tariff (FIT) was one of the first of it’s kind in the nation. Co-op members who own their own solar arrays get two electric meters, one to measure their consumption and the other to track monthly solar generation. For solar production up to 100% of monthly use, the credit is determined at the cooperative’s retail rate. Production above and beyond 100% of the members monthly use is paid a rate of $0.06/kWh. The FIT has a term of 10 years, which allows the producer to pay down the system faster, and guarantees the utility less expensive solar generation (between $0.08 and $0.10/kWh) in the future.

Members also have the option of using solar rebates rather that the FIT. The rebates amount to $0.50 per watt up to a maximum of $2,500. The rebate option adds flexibility to the individual member and how they choose to finance their project.

After six years of research, training, number-crunching, planning and careful investments, McKenna quietly lead FEC to the top tier of the nation’s solar utilities. Last year, (2014) FEC opened the largest solar farm in Iowa. The 2,900-panel solar array is capable of generating more than a million kilowatt-hours a year. With the solar array, Farmers Electric Cooperative is capable of generating 1158 watts of solar per customer, putting it among the highest per-capita solar generation rates of all the utilities in the country. In fact, it provides more than double its next closest competitor, and only recently was passed up by the Pickwick Cooperative in Tennessee, which now generates 1679 watts per customer. The ranking of utilities come from a recent report from the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA). But McKenna doesn’t plan on being #2 for very long. “By the end of 2015 we should exceed 2000 watts per customer.”

photo: 25X25blog

photo: 25X25blog

What’s in the future for Warren McKenna and FEC? “With the help of Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association we are working on passing Iowa PTC legislation to free up existing tax credits so that we can double the size of our solar farm… We started down this road doing experimental projects that proved successful. When we had consultants tell us the payback was 20 years and their recommendations weren’t favorable, the Board of Directors looked back at these first projects as proof that this technology worked and that we could count on it long term. The customer response and feedback has also supported our efforts to keep moving in the direction of adding even more locally sourced renewable energy. It’s been a win-win for the cooperative and its membership.”

FEC may be small, but their message is loud and clear. Like the innovators who started the Farmers Electric Cooperative to bring reliable electricity to rural residents in the last century, FEC continues to innovate, with a model that is leading the utility industry into the 21st century.

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Source: Solar Tribune

Palo Alto Seeks to Lead in “Solar Ready” Housing in Bay Area

Just before Earth Day, the Palo Alto City Council unanimously passed an ordinance mandating that all new single-family residences in the city be “solar ready.”

panels-607251_640The new regulation is consistent with the objectives of Palo Alto city government in recent years, which has sought not merely to comply with but to go beyond already strict state energy requirements. The new regulations are part of what the city calls a new “energy reach code,” by which it will require buildings to exceed state energy requirements by 15 percent. The ordinance expands upon the city’s Green Building code of 2008, which at the time was the most stringent in the state. According to the city’s website, the goal of Green Building is “to design, build, and operate a new generation of efficient, environmentally responsible, and healthy buildings.”

The ordinance mandates that all new single-family residences dedicate 500 feet of roof surface to the potential installation of solar panels. Conduits must also be provided by builders to support the future wiring of a solar system. (Exceptions to the rule include, for example, cases in which trees block sunlight from a roof, making harnessing solar energy impossible without eliminating the trees.) The goal is to quadruple local solar power generation by 2023.

The Palo Alto local building code is more aggressive than state requirements, according to a report by the Development Services Department. According to a story in Palo Alto Online, the staff of Peter Pirnejad, the director of the department, estimates that, for a home measuring 2,400 square feet, the new requirements would add about $2,000 to the construction bill, but that this would be cost effective if the cost of installation is amortized over 30 years.

According to the Palo Alto Patch, the city has already cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by an estimated 37 percent from 1990 levels.

 

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Source: Solar Tribune

San Diego Still #2 City for Solar in U.S., But Will It Remain a “Shining City”?

As had been the case the previous year, San Diego attained the number two spot, after Los Angeles, in overall solar capacity in the second annual survey of major U.S. cities (65 in all), called Shining Cities, published earlier this Spring by the Sacramento-based Environment California Research & Policy Center.
san-diego-bay-737005_1280The other three top five cities were Phoenix, Indianapolis and San Jose. In addition, according to an Environment California press release, San Diego exceeded Los Angeles in the growth of solar power capacity, as it installed 42 megawatts of solar power in 2014, as opposed to 34 MW for Los Angeles. The document also revealed that the city came in fourth in solar-per-capita, behind Honolulu, Indianapolis and San Jose. San Diego is also among the group of cities that Environment California calls its “Solar Stars”: that is, the 14 cities that can claim 50 or more watts of installed solar PV capacity per person.

Although it would seem only natural that a sunny city such as San Diego would be a solar leader, Dan Jacobson, a program manager at Environment California, was quoted as claiming that sunshine had little to do with it. “The reason San Diego is in such good shape for solar is that [the city has] done such a good job of making it financially attractive,” Jacobson said. For example, multifamily housing complexes can gain special solar incentives, and home loans are available for the installation of solar systems that can be repaid through property tax assessments. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said: “Solar energy is a key element to the City’s proposed Climate Action Plan, which calls for 100 percent renewable energy use in the City by 2035.”

However, the Environmental California release also notes that utilities throughout the country are “campaigning intensely” to slow solar adoption by increasing fees for solar households, seeing the phenomenon as a “direct threat to their business model.” An executive with San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), James Avery, claims that, though his utility does not oppose solar power, solar adoption makes the grid harder to run, and solar customers pay less towards maintaining it. However, this infographic by Vote Solar, based on a published report, suggests that for California energy users in general, benefits to the grid through net metering outweigh costs by over $92 million.

 

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Source: Solar Tribune

Can Tesla's Battery Hit $1 Billion Faster Than the iPhone?

Tesla’s new line of big, stackable batteries for homes and businesses started with a bang. The reservations reported in the first week are valued at roughly $800 million, according to numbers crunched by Bloomberg. If Tesla converts even a fraction of those reservations into actual sales, the battery roll-out could measure up as one of the biggest ever for a new product category.

Source: Renewable Energy World

What’s In A Name? That Which We Call A Solar Microgrid Is By Any Other Name A Solar Installation

A few years ago in a solar marketing department near you an enterprising executive had an epiphany: the word “microgrid” could be adapted to describe any system of any size and then used to confer a marketing advantage. Moreover, the more timely and part of the solar-lexicon the phrase microgrid became, the bigger and broader the opportunity it could describe potentially applying to everything from a residential PV system with a battery to a multi-megawatt installation. As long as the installation could be described as distributed generation (DG), it can be a microgrid.

Source: Renewable Energy World

The Value of Net Metered Electricity in New York

Net metering is unfair and is dangerous for the long term health of utilities, at least according to Raymond Wuslich, when he spoke at the 2015 Renewable Energy Conference in Poughkeepsie, NY. Wustlich is an attorney and partner at Winston & Strawn, LLP., and advises clients across the electricity and natural gas industries on Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) matters.

Source: Renewable Energy World

From Finance to Customer Acquisition, Catalyst SunShot Finalists Compete to Launch Big

In January, SunShot competitively selected 17 teams to move forward in the overall Catalyst Prize competition. Each of the teams had 60 days to build a prototype product using the TopCoder platform, a 700,000 member community of software developers managed by Appirio, a San Francisco-based information technology consulting company.

Source: Renewable Energy World

Disadvantaged Households in Fresno to Get Solar… and Financial Relief

A new statewide pilot program in California is giving free solar panels to households in disadvantaged areas, starting with communities in Fresno. Called the Low-Income Weatherization Program (LIWP), it is eventually intended to serve about 1800 households throughout the state.
fresno-391271_1280Senate Bill 535, passed in 2012, directed state and local agencies to try to improve California’s most vulnerable communities through the investment of part of the proceeds from quarterly auctions of the state’s cap-and-trade program. A total of $75 million has so far been set aside for LIWP.

The LIWP solar panel program is administered by the California Department of Community Services and Development (CSD) and has three purposes:

  • to produce greater environmental sustainability in heavily polluted communities in order to combat climate change;
  • to provide cheaper energy bills for low-income residents of such communities;
  • to provide local job training in solar panel installation.

A community’s eligibility for the program is determined by the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) through an analysis tool known as CalEnviroScreen 2.0, which, according to its website, determines “California communities that are disproportionately burdened by multiple sources of pollution.” Fresno was chosen to inaugurate the program because of the high number, more than a dozen, of disadvantaged and polluted neighborhoods in the city, including the downtown, south and west areas.

To implement the program, CSD partnered with the Fresno Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), which in turn partnered with the corporation Sunrun to provide the solar systems. Brian Angus, the CEO of Fresno EOC, said: “We are helping to improve the lives of these low-income families, providing job training in solar installations and contributing to our state’s environmental goals.”

The program profiles two early recipients of the program, Fresno residents Salvador and Ricarda Mendoza. Ricarda, 61, works a low-wage job, and Salvador, 66, who is unemployed, is ill and requires very expensive medication. They applied for the program because it is projected to reduce the couple’s energy bills by 75 percent. Ricarda was quoted as saying: “I am glad, because now we will have more money for my husband’s medical expenses.”

In addition to Fresno County, Sacramento, Merced, Madera, Tulare and Los Angeles counties will be served by the program.

 

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Source: Solar Tribune