Another reason we like solar: 0% chance of leaking methane

By SolarCity

February 05, 2016

In late October 2015, an underground natural gas storage facility near Los Angeles began leaking gas, polluting the surrounding area with vast amounts of methane -- a greenhouse gas that has a global warming potential far greater than even carbon dioxide.

Thousands of families have been relocated. Local schools have had to close. Porter Ranch residents have reported headaches, nausea, and nosebleeds. Meanwhile, as the leak persists, much of California’s efforts to combat climate change are being undone. According to the California Air Resources Board, each month the gas leak continues is equivalent to putting 200,000 more cars on the road for a year.

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Aerial view of the Aliso Canyon gas leak near Porter Ranch, two months after the incident began. (Photo Credit: Earthworks, via Wikimedia Commons)

 That the Porter Ranch incident is being compared to other infamous fuel spills, including the notorious BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, is no surprise. While fossil fuels have long powered our cities and towns, they have also often been responsible for dangerous and tragic side effects – coal mining accidents, oil train explosions, and gas leaks, not to mention persistent pollution each day that harms communities and warms the planet.

The 30-second YouTube video below, from our new “How Energy Gets to You” series, highlights the stark contrast between obtaining energy from natural gas and obtaining energy directly from the sun.

 

It’s not hard to see that solar energy wins when it comes to simplicity, safety, and being better for the environment. Moreover, it’s increasingly become an economically superior choice for many homes and businesses, as well as for the power grid as a whole.  In contrast to conventional power generation (which requires constant inputs of costly fuel), once a solar system is installed, it produces power by simply harnessing sunlight, an energy source available to everyone, with no environmental cost.

All things considered, making electricity with solar panels entails 91% less global warming pollution than using natural gas, and 96% less than coal. And in regions like the drought-stricken West, solar’s minimal water impact carries an additional benefit. Solar panel technology uses a trivial amount of the water (as little as 1/200th) used at a typical power plant.

The Porter Ranch gas leak is a tragedy, one which brings into focus the full impacts of our energy sources and consumption. How many more similar events will we have to endure until we realize that there’s a better way?

Check out all the videos in our “How Energy Gets to You” series on YouTube.

New report: solar rooftops can strengthen an aging power grid and save Californians $1.4 billion every year

By SolarCity

February 04, 2016

Solar rooftops are well-known for producing clean power, reducing energy bills,  and helping create hundreds of thousands of jobs. But the benefits don't need to stop there.

Distributed energy resources (“DERs”), such as rooftop solar and other technologies like batteries and advanced inverters, can bring enormous benefits to the power grid as a whole. A new white paper, published today by our Grid Engineering team, describes in detail how embracing DERs offers a superior economic alternative to today’s centralized grid design.

For example, we calculate that if California and its utility sector were to fully embrace distributed resources like rooftop solar, the state would see net societal benefits of more than $1.4 billion annually -- for solar customers and non-solar customers alike . Those societal benefits include improved flexibility in grid planning and operations, increased affordability and consumer choice, and improved grid reliability and efficiency, not to mention less reliance on fossil fuels.

Over $1.4 billion per year in net societal benefits from DERs

162.pngBut to realize these benefits, the existing regulatory landscape needs to change. Today, utilities earn money by building their own infrastructure, and then recouping the costs -- plus a sizable rate of return -- by passing the financial burden onto customers. Perversely, utilities avoid using resources they don't own, even if those resources (like DERs) would deliver higher benefits at a lower cost to utility ratepayers.

It makes abundant economic sense for utilities to take advantage of DERs' full capabilities -- such as supplying additional power supply at peak times, maintaining the right voltage for power delivered to your home, and extending the life of electric distribution equipment in your neighborhood.  But to unlock this potential, regulators need to make sure that utilities have the right incentives and employ rational approaches to grid planning.   

READ THE WHITE PAPER A Pathway to the Distributed Grid

Everyone – consumers, regulators, legislators, utilities, DER providers, and industry stakeholders – should value a cleaner, more affordable, safer, and more resilient electric grid. By adjusting our approach to embrace, rather than tolerate DERs, we can achieve those goals to everyone’s benefit. For more details on how to get there, download the white paper: "A Pathway to the Distributed Grid."

Governor Sandoval's PUC Owes Nevadans the Truth about Decision to Kill Rooftop Solar

By Lyndon Rive, CEO

January 19, 2016

Last week the Nevada Public Utilities Commission chose to ignore hours of testimony from solar customers and workers, begging them to delay their decision to end rooftop solar in Nevada. As I’ve said before, the decision was a massive bait and switch. After encouraging thousands of Nevadans to go solar, the government dramatically increased their costs after the fact. Even worse, the Public Utilities Commission continues to hide the real impact of the decision from Nevadans.

Commissioner Noble misled the public when he said the impact on customers would be $1.68 per month. The real impact is more than 25X greater than that—the average Nevada Power solar customer will have to pay NV Energy about $11,000 more over the next 20 years. As a result of the ruling, Nevadans will receive a lower payment for the solar power they generate than anyone else in the world, and Nevada Power will turn around and sell the electricity solar customers produce to their neighbors at a 400% higher price. 

Before the PUC ruling, Nevadans were beginning to have more choice and control over who provided their electricity and where it came from. Now Nevadans have no choice—they must use electricity from NV Energy or be punished with higher costs and fees.

I have promised SolarCity’s Nevada employees and customers that I will continue to fight for them. I believe when they hear and understand the facts, all Nevadans will join the fight against this unfair decision. This Governor and his commissioners will hear more from all of us in the coming days. Stay tuned.

Election 2016: Which presidential candidate has the best home for solar?

By Barry Fischer

December 15, 2015

This week, Republican and Democratic presidential candidates will face off in their final televised debates of the year.

These politicians are not just candidates for president, however. Like millions of other Americans, they’re also candidates to install solar panels on their roof and save money on their energy bill.

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We’ll leave it to the voters and pundits to pick the best candidates for Commander in Chief. But when it comes to identifying which candidates can save the most money by going solar, we can offer some insights – based on our experience of installing more residential solar power than any other provider in America.

Sizing up the candidates

To assess which presidential candidates are best suited to go solar, we considered various criteria, including: 

-the amount of sunlight each candidate’s neighborhood receives 

-the friendliness of state and local policies toward solar power 

-the cost of conventional grid electricity in each candidate’s area

All other things equal, a strong solar candidate is one whose home receives plentiful sunlight, who lives in an area with friendly solar policies, and who currently pays a high price for grid electricity (see our full methodology for this post).

The Republicans

The Republican field is crowded and full of residents from sunny Florida, but it’s Chris Christie of New Jersey who emerges as the GOP’s top solar candidate. Installing solar panels at his home in Mendham, NJ could win him major energy bill savings – arguably more than any of his competitors. 

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What gives Governor Christie the edge? New Jersey isn’t as sunny as southerly states, but it still catches more than enough rays to make rooftop solar a winning proposition. Thanks to the Garden State’s stellar clean energy policies, including a law that 4.1% of its electricity be sun-powered by 2028, the Christie household has a strong incentive to go solar.

Since New Jersey’s utility electricity prices are among the highest in the nation, using rooftop power can be a huge money saver. And for every megawatt hour of solar energy a homeowner does produce, they can earn hundreds of dollars in tradable “renewable energy credits” – often yielding more than $1,000 per year. That market-driven incentive suggests Christie is poised to be a highly successful solar customer.

The Garden State’s well-designed net metering rules also support Christie’s solar candidacy: his local utility pays homes fair and full compensation for any surplus clean power they contribute to the grid -- a policy that Governor Christie himself recently moved to expand.

Other GOP hopefuls

What about the other Republicans in the running? Donald Trump’s residency in New York implies that he’d be an excellent solar candidate – given the state’s high electricity prices and generous clean energy incentives – but there’s a complication: the roof of Trump Tower, underneath which Donald lives in a three-floor penthouse, appears to be full of obstacles that could impede solar panels. (Don’t worry, we’ll revisit New York when we assess the Democratic contenders below.)

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The roof of Trump Tower -- underneath which Donald resides -- is undeniably "huge." But there appear to be various structural obstacles to installing  a full system of solar panels. (Image from Google Maps: 725 5th Ave, New York, NY) 

 

 

 

Ted Cruz lives in a high-rise condo in Houston. But even if he were able to talk his condo board into installing a rooftop system, he’d still be a mediocre solar candidate in 2016. Texas currently has no statewide incentive for solar, nor a framework to compensate homes for contributing clean electricity to the grid. However, Houston’s convention center is topped with a large solar array, and a number of energy providers in Texas do actively support distributed generation; Senator Cruz could conceivably find a way to keep his candidacy alive.

John Kasich’s solar candidacy isn’t much stronger than Senator Cruz’s. Ohio does have a solid net metering policy, but the state’s solar goals are meager (only 0.5% of electricity by 2026) and there are few real incentives to put panels on one’s roof. Kasich’s utility electricity rates, like Cruz’s, are relatively low. And his neighborhood in Westerville receives less sunlight than any other GOP candidate. That doesn’t rule Governor Kasich out of the race, but he’s a long shot.

Despite living in the most sun-drenched neighborhoods, the three Floridian contenders – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson – are among the weakest solar candidates due to Florida’s energy policy shortcomings. The state has a basic net metering law, but solar and other renewables are largely neglected in the Sunshine State. There are no true solar incentives and the state actually prohibits the most affordable way for a home to go solar – a no-money-down lease or power-purchase agreement (PPA).

Very few states and jurisdictions in the US prohibit solar leases and PPA’s like Florida does, but Carly Fiorina’s area of Virginia is another one of them. Combine that with Virginia’s low electricity prices and its limitations on net metering, and you can see why Fiorina is this election’s lowest-ranked Republican solar candidate.

The Democrats

The Democratic contest of solar candidates is a much smaller affair, and far more competitive than the Republican race. But one candidate stands apart as most likely to save a bundle by going solar – and that’s Hillary Clinton.

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The Clintons have plenty of roof space on their estate in Chappaqua, and have access to New York’s terrific solar incentives – including a $600/kilowatt discount on installation (e.g. $3K off for a typical 5 kilowatt rooftop system), a state tax credit up to $5K, and a strong regulatory commitment to net metering. The state is also working hard to extend these benefits beyond upper-class neighborhoods like Chappaqua: low-income New Yorkers qualify for significantly greater solar incentives than wealthy households like the Clintons.

Hillary’s candidacy looks even more compelling when you consider that New York’s residential prices for grid electricity are among the highest in the nation. In SolarCity’s experience, New York solar customers save $256 on average on their electricity bill in the first year alone.

New York is a great place for residents like Hillary to go solar in part thanks to a state initiative called Reforming the Energy Vision, which has prompted utility companies like Hillary’s to support advanced grid technologies such as distributed solar and battery storage.

There’s no doubt that Clinton’s challengers, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, are also strong solar candidates.

Senator Bernie Sanders’ state of Vermont is aiming to source 75% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2032 and, to help get there, his utility in Burlington offers a supersized payment for solar electricity that homeowners contribute to the grid. Moreover, using free fuel from the sun just makes practical sense given Vermont’s increasingly expensive grid electricity.

Maryland’s Martin O’Malley also could save big by going solar at his home in Baltimore. His state seeks to generate 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2022, a portion of which must come from solar. If O’Malley were to install rooftop panels, he’d get paid by his utility for sending clean power to the grid, as well as earn renewable energy credits worth hundreds of dollars – which could help him fund his underdog electoral campaign.

The Road to the White House

Will 2016’s presidential candidates – Republican and Democrat – realize the potential of their candidacy to go solar? At least a few of them stand to save big bucks on their energy bill, and installing solar panels has never been simpler or easier than it is today. Every 2.5 minutes, another American home or business goes solar.

Today’s weaker solar candidates could very well become stronger candidates in the near future. The solar energy landscape in places like Texas and Florida is showing seeds of progress. Awaking these “sleeping giants” with effective solar policies and energy innovation could easily upend the rankings above.

Regardless, at least one presidential hopeful will be using solar power by early 2017. The next leader of the free world will move into a house that already comes equipped with a rooftop solar array.

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Rooftop solar panels on the White House (Credit: Whitehouse.gov via YouTube)

But of course you don’t need to be a presidential contender to go solar. Find out what kind of solar candidate you are here.

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Barry Fischer is Editorial Director at SolarCity; Graphics by Priscilla Lopez.

Methodology and Data Sources:

The candidates we considered were those who consistently received voter support of at least 2% in national polls between November 23 and December 1, according to RealClearPolitics’ poll aggregator.  

Location of residences is based on LoanDepot.com’s overview of presidential candidates’ homes.

Daily average sunlight: candidates' hometowns were plugged into NREL’s PV Watts calculator. Solar irradiation estimates (kWh/m2/day) correspond to the nearest TMY2 location from NREL’s National Solar Radiation Database. The tables in the post depict a ranking out of 6 kWh/m2/day, which treats the generally sunniest region of America (the Southwest) as a yardstick. Candidates’ neighborhoods had fairly similar solar irradiation, so this variable was less prominent in our analysis.

Local solar policy ranking was based on four criteria. Satisfying three or more criteria earned a happy face (NJ, NY, VT, MD); satisfying two criteria earned a neutral face (OH, TX); satisfying zero or one criterion earned a sad face (FL, VA).

-The candidate’s home has access to net metering (either through state policy or a competitive electric provider), and the state cap is >1% of aggregate peak demand.

-Their jurisdiction allows third-party solar leases and power purchase agreements.

-Their state has a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), and the RPS has a carve-out of >1% for solar or distributed generation.

-Their state offers a non-negligible rebate for solar installation, and/or awards Solar Renewable Energy Credits.

Utility electric prices are residential averages (rounded to the nearest cent) from 2014, according to the US Energy Information Administration (as reported in December 2015). The note that utility electricity prices are rising in each candidate’s state is based on the trend that between 2002 and 2015, residential electricity prices in each state increased in both nominal and real terms (faster than the rate of economy-wide inflation).

Qualitative estimate of expected bill savings: strong solar policy and above-average electric prices (>$0.12/kWh) led to high expected savings; mediocre solar policy led to moderate expected savings; deficient policy led to low expected savings.

The number of SolarCity operations centers in a candidate’s state implies a certain degree of regional readiness for installing solar panels, but was not explicitly considered in our assessment.

New York first-year customer savings savings based on residential PPA and lease customers with at least twelve months of billing data. Savings Rate calculated by subtracting PPA or equivalent lease kWh rate from relevant utility kWh rate. Savings calculated by multiplying actual kWh supplied by SolarCity in customers' first year times Savings Rate. Excludes fully or partially prepaid contracts.

Can your solar rooftop put a dent in climate change?

By SolarCity

December 08, 2015

At the United Nations climate talks currently underway in Paris, the focus is on energy – and rightfully so: more than 70 percent  of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy-related sources like electricity production, heating, and transportation.

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More than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) come from energy-related sources. (World Resources Institute, 2015)

Among strategies to combat climate change, low-carbon energy sources like solar and wind are indispensable. Making electricity with solar panels, for example, entails 91% less CO2 pollution than using natural gas, and 96% less CO2 than coal. Not to mention the sun won’t run out of fuel for another 5 to 7 billion years.

Going solar is the simplest and biggest action a home or organization can take to reduce its carbon footprint. It’s already cheaper for an energy customer to buy solar power instead of buying grid power in many places. The logic behind solar as an effective weapon against climate change, however, lies in its scale: the exponential growth of solar adoption in the last five years is a testament to what is possible.

Even considering this phenomenal growth, can solar power move the needle on climate change? And can distributed solar in particular – installed in places like residential rooftops, commercial buildings, and community-sized solar arrays – add up to meaningful reductions in CO2?

Solar power has the momentum to cut CO2 pollution at scale

Analysts anticipate that solar will be integral to an energy future that supports a healthy planet. The International Energy Agency has outlined how solar panels (a.k.a. photovoltaics, or PV technology) could generate up to 16% of the world’s electricity by 2050; investment bank UBS puts that number at 25% in a “high solar” scenario; researchers from Stanford University envision an even brighter future, in which more than 50% of countries’ electricity comes from solar.

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 Solar PV has the momentum to become an integral part of world energy supply. By the end of 2015, global solar capacity will exceed 200 gigawatts – enough to power the entire state of California (the 8th largest economy in the world). Chart from REN 21.  

Simple math suggests that solar power could solve a meaningful chunk of the CO2 pollution problem -- the leading cause of global warming. Consider a major-emitting country, like the US or China, where roughly 40% of CO2 emissions come from the electricity sector. Were the country to shift to getting one fourth of its electricity from solar power, it would effectively cut 10% of the country’s CO2 pollution. Combine that with nine similarly large-scale climate solutions– from any of an array of technologies and innovations – and you start to halt global warming.  

While solar is most obviously a tool to decarbonize our electricity supply away from coal and natural gas, the convergence of solar power and electric vehicles can likewise move the needle on climate change – by reducing the transportation sector’s oil-driven CO2 emissions.

Distributed solar power is shaping up to be a major part of solar’s growth

Alongside large-scale solar power plants, how big of a role can distributed solar power have in reducing CO2 emissions?

In many countries, it accounts for half or more of a country’s installed solar photovoltaic capacity. And market research suggests that over the next decade, more distributed solar PV will be installed globally than utility-scale PV.

Today in the US, distributed solar represents roughly half of installed solar power capacity. In leading solar countries like Germany and Japan, the proportion of distributed generation is even higher. India aspires to increase its solar power capacity twentyfold by 2022, and is aiming to install 40% of it on rooftops. Other emerging economies, from Kenya to Bangladesh, are ramping up distributed solar to provide low-carbon grid power and also to expand off-grid energy access. 

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The surface area of US rooftops, if covered by solar panels, is large enough to meet 60% of the country’s electricity needs in 2050. 

Distributed generation can also help communities adapt to climate impacts that are inevitable based on yesteryear’s global warming pollution. That’s because distributed systems can be designed to provide local backup power in case of grid failure, such as after unusually intense storms. Moreover, solar power systems (both distributed and large-scale) can help regions adapt to climate change effects like drought conditions: all things considered, solar PV technology uses a trivial fraction (as little as 1/200th) of the water used at a typical power plant.

Realizing solar power’s full potential to cut CO2 pollution is a matter of choice and policy

Solar power’s global momentum is good news for curbing climate change – it’s a low-carbon solution that we know works, that creates jobs, and that can be deployed at scale.

It’s concerning that a number of utilities in states like sunny California and Nevada want to stifle distributed solar power. Instead of innovating to develop the grid of the future, dozens of utilities are fighting policies that fairly compensate energy customers for contributing clean power to the electric grid. It’s a clear case of utilities seeking to protect their profits, rather than protecting than the planet or the interests of their customers.

We need policies and business models that embrace all forms of low-carbon energy – and that create opportunities for everyone to adopt clean power. It’s critical that we have the right policies in force on the ground today – in US states and beyond – that allow clean energy to grow at a pace that matches the urgency of the problem it’s solving.

Because with every solar rooftop, we all advance that much closer to solving the climate challenge.

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Note: Calculation that today's global solar PV capacity is enough to power California, is based on 200 gigawatts of global PV capacity, an assumed 15% capacity factor, and state-level data on annual electric consumption. 

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