The Solar Shift: PV Power Side-Tracks the Feds

Under the Trump Administration, policy initiatives and financial supports that propelled the solar industry forward have been under attack, but for the most part, it’s not working out. The latest dust-up over the tariffs on solar panels has cost installation jobs and overall, $1 billion in projects have either been delayed or ended, but that’s being off-set a little by growth of U.S. solar manufacturing and broad surge in solar power across the country. The analysts may have lowered their forecasts for growth, but costs continue to drop and last summer “the Central Arizona Project signed a record-low 20-year purchase power agreement for $0.0249 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). That record didn’t last long, as Nevada’s NV Energy the next day announced the signing of a 25-year solar PPA for $0.0237/kWh.”

In the end, it might all add up to a bump in growth.

The tariff isn’t the only roadblock that failed. The attempt to end the solar tax credit outright ended up being a roll-back that keeps a 10% credit in 2022 and a move to boost nuclear and coal plants by the Department of Energy with a subsidy, collapsed when every member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission voted down Secretary Rick Perry’s proposal. There are five members – four of them are Trump appointees and they all said no too.

Solar PV Modules Installed on the Walnut Place, Boulder
Photo: National Renewable Energy Lab / Flickr

Regional Solutions to National Problems

Over the last decade, a new phrase has entered discussions about government in the U.S. “Compensatory Federalism” is about states and regional development commissions entering what used to be firmly in the federal domain. It’s happening in economic development and foreign trade, the environmental, water policies and nowhere is it any plainer than climate change and energy policy. States and multi-state commissions are stepping in to fill a federal void and there’s little mystery that the states and cities that have pledged to meet the goals of the Paris accords are the also advancing solar power.

If the initiative has shifted toward the states, so has the political fight, but opponents aren’t doing any better there. Republican Senator Joni Ernst’s 2017 attempt to cut funding to federal-state commissions failed 71 to 25 vote and half of the Republicans in the Senate turned against President Trump and his base in favor of gaining working energy solutions in their states.

The push forward sometimes comes from unlikely states. Massachusetts conjures images of lobsters and snow and “northeasters” blowing through with gale-force winds. But the state’s SMART (Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target) program has won accolades from the press and green power advocates. The state program urged citizens to go solar fast as 2019 would be the last year residents can qualify for the full 30% credits available for residential and commercial installations.

Another state that breaks the mold is Illinois with its 2019 initiative that promotes gaining the federal credits along with the state’s progressive net-metering policies, ComEd commercial solar rebates and a property tax break. They sum it up when they say, “Even if you aren’t quite ready to make your solar purchase, these Illinois solar rebates and incentives are sure to make the case for why solar is a smart decision in the Land of Lincoln.”

Every state making headlines isn’t an outlier. The traditional leaders are still breaking new ground. In May 2018 the California Energy Commission decided to require that all new homes built in the state include rooftop solar panels. That could mean up to 100,000 new homes going solar. California faces a unique problem when it comes to solar power – they make too much of it! They sell excess power at rock bottom rates to Arizona but even that doesn’t help with the overflow and that may have a downside for climate goals. The dropping prices and the CAISO (the state’s power grid association) forced their alternative plants to “dial back almost 95,000 MWh” of production. The growth trends will only continue and the only solution to that will be increasing distribution networks providing more low-cost power to more states, homes and businesses.

California Curtailment Hit a Record High 2019 Spring
California curtailment hit a record high this spring. | Source: CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT SYSTEM OPERATOR | Click here to view the full-size chart.

Arizona was happy enough about the arrangement and California’s overflow was greeted by the declaration that is was “better than free.” And it just might be true! California offered negative pricing during the great sell-off (I wonder if it’s still a sale when you pay someone to buy from you…) as midday prices dropped from negative $3 to negative $7 per megawatt hour. It was a temporary opportunity to cash in around 1pm local time.

The Empires Strike Back

Solar Magazine: Solar Industry News and Insights

All of the news isn’t good though. Just like some Republicans, the fossil fuel industry is fighting back at the state and local level to slow progress.

During 2017 alone, 19 utilities in 10 states requested to add or increase electric bill charges for rooftop solar customers. And, over the past few years many states have considered or passed cuts to net metering – the critical practice of crediting solar energy customers for the excess energy they supply to the grid.” Major energy providers are pushing back in a number of ways. Duke Energy’s long-range plans for its two major grids in the Carolinas do (for the first time) account for the great increase in solar production in their region, but they also announced plans to build large natural gas plants under the pretext of filling the gaps left by “intermittent” solar power.

“Duke Progress projects it will build or acquire 7,817 megawatts of new power generation through 2033. That is up from a projection last year that it would see 4,829 megawatts of new capacity through the end of 2032. Duke Carolinas anticipates it will add 6,615 megawatts of capacity by 2033, up from last year’s projection that it would add 5,054 megawatts of new power through 2032.”

Duke has run into a roadblock of its own from the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) with the filing of a counter analysis of the plan, challenging Duke’s plans and seeking to protect customer interests. The challenge was filed on behalf of the Sierra Club, The Southern Alliance for Energy and the Natural Defense Council. And you can read it HERE.

Solar energy is without doubt, the way of the future, and the way of the energy business as well. There may be opposition, but it’s a delaying action while the major utilities figure out how to not reap get every dime out of their past investments and then face the realities of distributed power generation. The fights not over – or even close, green energy in all of its forms is here to stay – with solar power leading the way. comment↓


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