Solar and political struggle: The view from Intersolar North America


2017 is already a banner year for solar in the United States. Following on record levels of deployment in 2016, the solar industry has been hitting a series of new records, with utility-scale solar costs falling below $1 per watt, power purchase agreements being reported at under $0.03 per kilowatt-hours, and the leading state, California, getting 13% of its electricity from solar on an annual basis.

But at the same time that the solar industry is seeing these successes, there are new challenges. While the overall solar market continues to grow year-over-year, the national residential PV market declined in the first quarter of 2017, largely due to difficulties in California and the other largest markets. Some of this is due to political pushback, and the modifications to state-level implementation of the Public Utility Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA) are in some cases closing off new state markets.

This is to say nothing of the national political picture, where the Trump Administration has made moves to threaten renewable energy, including proposals to slash funding for support through the U.S. Department of Energy. But while Trump can’t stop the progress of solar, the challenges to integration of high levels of wind and solar are already showing in California, which is leading to new fights over not only solar, but the future of the grid.

As such, at the opening ceremony 10th anniversary of Intersolar North America in San Francisco, the mood is decidedly combative. MC and California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA) Executive Director Bernadette Del Chiaro started the event with a social media audience participation exercise to put pressure on the California Assembly to pass SB 700, which would spur the creation of $1.4 billion in consumer rebates for energy storage systems.

But as states such as California are grappling with what to do next, the divide between the actions of progressive states that are grappling with a changing grid and states that have turned their back on the Energy Transition are stark. 2017 Champion of Change Award Winner and New York State Energy Czar Richard Kauffman during his acceptance speech referenced a statement by early 20th century Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who described states as the “laboratories of democracy”.

“There are states that are going forward, and there are states that are going in another direction,” noted Kauffman. He could have been speaking of Indiana, which recently shut down its net metering program, or Montana, which has greatly weakened its implementation of PURPA.

To be sure, the movement of policy to adapt to the rapid changes in the grid is always a balancing act. “We can’t keep putting DG On the grid of Tesla and Westinghouse, that was not designed for distributed generation or intermittent sources,” noted Kauffman.

However, he also noted that due to the opportunities involved in transformation of the electric system, there will be rewards as well. “There are ample opportunities for the utilities to share in the savings,” Kauffman explained.

And even with all of the political and policy work needed, there is also a need for less confrontational roles within the industry. Keynote Speaker and former Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chair Jon Wellinghoff spoke of the “three i’s” – Information, Innovation and Integration.

“There are lots of winners if we do this right,” concluded Kauffman.

And ten years in at Intersolar North America, in many ways the work is just beginning, as the needs move beyond raw deployment to integration, and beyond solar to an entire clean energy ecosystem.

More on that tomorrow.

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