Let’s Talk About Solar

Category Archives

California Celebrates a Solar Milestone with Big Clean Energy Implications

California can feel good about the fact that it has more than half of all the solar rooftops in America, but now there’s even more to celebrate — the 100,000th such installation and the commitment it signifies.

This milestone demonstrates the substantial opportunity we have to make use of this ample and clean energy source — the sun —  and the importance of this effort for all stakeholders to achieve California’s clean energy goals, which are among the most ambitious in the world.

Yesterday, I joined with Steve Malnight, vice president for customer energy solutions at PG&E, in writing an op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News laying out the enormous progress that’s  occurring in solar in California and the way we see the future.

The high points:

  • NRDC and PG&E agree that solar is a key part of California’s energy future.
  • Government, utilities, researchers, advocates and individuals can work together and avoid divisiveness to exploit this ample and clean energy source.
  • An infrastructure is needed to support a surge in clean energy innovations.
  • The electric transmission grid needs to be modernized.
  • Policies and planning are needed to maximize the value of the grid.
  • Clear regulations and stable policies at the state level help create an investment climate for a thriving green economy.

The California Way

NRDC and PG&E often have different views on energy policy, but progress in the solar arena has brought us together as demand for solar grows.

In some states, thorny issues have pitted utilities against solar power companies and solar customers against non-solar. In California, we’re proud to do things differently. We’re committed to working with all stakeholders to strike a balance that enables us to succeed.

Malnight and I are convinced it’s possible to speed the deployment of solar power, energy efficiency, energy storage, electric vehicles, and other locally generated resources while improving the resiliency of the electric transmission grid and providing opportunities for all to enjoy the benefits of such technologies.

Grist for the Grid

There are more than 2,000 new solar rooftops connected to PG&E’s grid every month – a testament to their growing popularity as prices fall. These panels send excess power onto the grid during sunlight hours and draw power from the grid at night.

But it’s not just about panels on rooftops.

Investments in solar power are increasing in many places including California. PG&E now has agreements to buy solar power from seven of the largest projects in the world. By 2020 almost 20 percent of the electricity PG&E’s customers use will come from solar sources. That is enough clean power from the sun to run more than 2 million homes.

Today’s electric grid — which was designed to receive and distribute power in old ways — needs to be modernized to accommodate solar and wind energy as well as innovative technologies like electric cars and power storage technologies.

The cost structure of the grid is also challenging. Allocating costs fairly among customers is essential to help maintain its financial integrity.

Our electricity grid, deemed “the greatest invention of the 20th century” is now in a new century, facing new demands of its balancing act of physics and governance. Its challenge is to be able to continue to regulate supply and demand instantaneously, providing a shared resource for the benefit of all.

California’s Clean Energy Ambitions

The solar revolution is an essential part of California’s effort to meet its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which will help make our air cleaner and reduce carbon pollution in the atmosphere.

The target for this aggressive campaign is for one-third of the state’s electricity sales to come from renewable sources like solar and wind by the end of this decade. Achieving this goal will require the production of enough clean electricity to power nearly 9 million homes.

Despite the naysayers, success in meeting the RPS is within reach — as long as we continue to support investment in renewable and low-carbon energy resources like PG&E has done with solar.

This blog was originally published on NRDC and was republished with permission.

Lead image: California flag via Shutterstock

Honda’s Solar House

DAVIS, Calif. — As more homeowners generate their own electricity from solar panels, they still need power from a utility after the sun goes down.

Now, automakers say they may have an answer, by storing that carbon-free energy in electric car batteries for later use.

Honda on Tuesday is introducing an experimental house in this environmentally conscious community to showcase technologies that allow the dwelling to generate more electricity than it consumes.

It is one example of the way solar companies and carmakers are converging on a common goal: to create the self-sufficient home, with a car’s battery as the linchpin.

With buildings and transportation accounting for 44 percent of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions, car companies increasingly view all-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell cars as vehicles that will meet environmental mandates and lead to development of new energy services and products beyond the garage.

Ford, Tesla Motors and Toyota are pursuing strategies similar to that.


A homeowner can use an iPad to wirelessly control and monitor the solar home’s functions.CreditThor Swift for The New York Times

“It’s a new world in terms of vehicles operating not as isolated artifacts but as being part of a larger energy system, and I think the greatest opportunity for automakers is figuring out how their vehicles become part of that system,” said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, which provided the building site and the heating and lighting technology for the Honda Smart Home.

The heart of Honda’s 1,944-square-foot home is a room off the spotless garage that contains a 10 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack housed in a black box. The battery is a smaller version of the one that powers the all-electric Honda Fit parked nearby.

Next to the battery pack sits a bigger white box called the Home Energy Management System. It is the brains of the house, deciding when to tap renewable electricity generated by a 9.5-kilowatt solar panel array installed on the home’s roof to charge the car’s battery or store the solar energy.

The rooftop solar array is about twice the size of one typically found on a comparable suburban home. The amount of electricity generated by the solar panels and stored in the battery pack allows the home to operate independent of the power grid, if necessary.

The home sends excess electricity to the grid. And if the utilities become overloaded, say, in the summer when temperatures spike and everyone turns on their air-conditioners, the local electricity provider can send a signal directing the home to send solar electricity to the grid to help avert blackouts.

A similar size home would consume 13.3 megawatt-hours of electricity a year while the smart home would generate an estimated surplus of 2.6 megawatt-hours annually, according to Honda.

“We can get our carbon footprint below zero,” said Michael Koenig, the project leader for the Honda Smart Home, as he stood in the living room of the airy, light-filled house while a rerun of “McHale’s Navy” played on a large flat-screen television embedded in a wall.

He held an iPad that wirelessly controlled all the home’s functions, from lighting to the power systems, and that showed the house generating 4.2 kilowatts of electricity on a partly sunny morning while consuming 0.84 kilowatt.

“The system will calculate the household electricity load for the day based on the home’s history as well as the expected solar output and it’ll only buy power at the lowest price,” Mr. Koenig said.

The Honda Fit EV in the garage has been modified to accept energy directly from the solar array, too.

To minimize electricity consumption, Honda and the university have installed several energy-saving technologies. A geothermal system taps heat in the ground below the house to provide heating and cooling while an energy-efficient automated lighting adjusts the hue of LEDs to mimic natural daylight. In the early evening, for instance, the lights cease to emit blue hues, which have been found to interfere with sleep.

Making concrete is a carbon-intensive process, so Honda replaced half the concrete in the foundation with pozzolan, a volcanic ash.


A Honda powered by the home’s solar panels. CreditThor Swift for The New York Times

Steve Center, vice president for American Honda’s Environmental Business Development Office, said the company did not expect to sell green-building innovations like that. Instead, Honda will focus on the potential to sell home energy management technology and battery systems to homeowners, builders and utilities.

“We see a lot of things converging,” Mr. Center said. “There will be new business models like home energy sharing and energy storage, using your car’s batteries.”

He said one way into the home was through alliances with solar panel installers like SolarCity. In 2013, Honda and SolarCity created a $65 million fund to finance the installation of solar arrays for Honda customers.

Ford struck a deal with SunPower to give buyers of its electric cars a discount on the company’s solar panels. A prototype of Ford’s C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid electric car uses 16 square feet of SunPower’s solar panels on its roof to charge the car’s battery. No utility needed.

“There’s clearly a business case for the home market if battery prices continue to fall,” said Mike Tinskey, Ford’s director of global vehicle electrification and infrastructure. “You could charge the battery” of the car “at night using lower-cost, potentially cleaner electrons than you could use during the day when rates are higher.”

That, of course, would threaten the revenues of utilities, which have emerged as an obstacle to such systems.

In California, SolarCity has offered some customers 10 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery packs made by Tesla Motors to store electricity generated by solar panels. But the state’s three big utilities have been slow to connect such systems to the grid, arguing that homeowners could use batteries to store electricity when rates are low and sell it back to them when rates are high.

Regulators have so far sided with solar companies. The California Public Utilities Commission in October ordered the utilities to obtain 1,325 megawatts of energy storage by 2020 to help balance the grid as more sources of renewable but intermittent electricity come online.

The utilities commission also issued a preliminary ruling in October that directed the utilities to plug homeowners’ battery storage systems into the grid at no extra cost. But the ruling allowed homeowners to be charged connection fees if their batteries could store more electricity than their solar panels produced.

With solar installations in the United States soaring and state subsidies paying 60 percent of the cost of home energy systems installed in California, automakers expect more homeowners to view their electric car as a backup power source in the event of disruptions in the grid.

Both electric cars and the hydrogen fuel-cell cars can be modified to return electricity to the home or grid, though that technology has yet to be deployed outside pilot projects.

The Honda Fit EV has a 20 kilowatt-hour battery while the most expensive Tesla Model S electric sports sedan has an 85 kilowatt-hour battery. And thehydrogen fuel cell cars that Hyundai, Honda and Toyota are introducing over the next year can generate at least 100 kilowatts. The average home in the United States consumes about 30 kilowatt-hours of electricity a day, the United States Energy Information Agency says.

“There’s an enormous potential for fuel-cell vehicles to serve as a power source for the home,” Mr. Center said.

A version of this article appears in print on March 25, 2014, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Car Companies Take Expertise in Battery Power Beyond the Garage. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe


Before You Launch Your Crowdfunding Campaign, Read This

Need to start or grow your business? Crowdfunding is an attractive alternative to traditional funding. Take it from music legend Neil Young who blew away his crowdfunding goal of $2.4 million in just one day! Sure, star power was likely what kicked this Kickstarter up a notch so quickly, but crowdfunding is hot – and continues to make positive impacts to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Crowdfunding has, in a very short time, revolutionized the way startups fund projects, but it’s not a magic bullet. The key to success, no matter where you seek funding, is directly linked to the amount of work you put into your idea – and that happens long before you launch your campaign. Ask all the right questions when you’re working on your plan. What problem does my product or service solve? Who will care about it? How much money do I need today to fund my project?

As with traditional fundraising models, there will be challenges, but if you do your homework – plan the work and work the plan – the positives will far outweigh any roadblocks you encounter.

The State of Crowdfunding

Did you know the crowdfunding economy has more than tripled in the last three yearsEntrepreneurs just like you are using crowdfunding for proof of concept, early idea validation and even customer pre-orders.

To illustrate the magnitude of crowdfunding – and its impact on the global economy over time – here’s something to think about:1

  • If just 2% of the $30 trillion in the U.S. long-term investment capital were placed into startups, it would be 10 times greater than the amount angels and VCs invest annually.
  • That same 2% would equal 100% of small business bank loans outstanding today in the U.S.
  • 80% of pentamillionaires in the U.S. are entrepreneurs who sold their business.

That is powerful! Crowdfunding is not only putting the power of fundraising into the hands of the people, but it’s permanently changing the financial ecosystem.

Where reaching out to a bank for financing used to be status quo, many small businesses believe that banks aren’t doing enough to help and I agree 100%. According to the Sage Small Business Index, 67% of small businesses are looking at alternative sources of funding. While some look to friends and family for investment, platforms like KickStarterIndieGoGoKivaPeerbackers, and Fundable are making it possible for SMBs to leverage the power of the crowd in their growth.

The SEC is in the process of approving the last part of the 2011 JOBS Act, which would allow smaller investors to purchase shares of a company instead of just receiving gifts for their investment. Although this portion of the law, called Title III, is still being finalized, the crowdfunding revolution is here to stay.

What’s really interesting is that some states have enacted their own legislation, allowing an exemption for “intrastate” crowdfunding and several states (including Georgia, Michigan and Washington) are taking action to actively shape the industry to suit today’s needs.

Three Must Haves in Your Crowdfunding Strategy

If you have a great idea, or think you do, crowdfunding may be the way to go – but you have to get buy-in from your audience. (And this is true, no matter what kind of fundraising model you use!)

Even if a person’s investment is small, you need to take steps to ensure you have all the important elements in place before approaching investors – or launching a campaign.

Here’s how to get started:

1. Perfect your message.

“The most important aspect of explaining your product isn’t around the benefits, it’s around the problem it solves,” says Wil Schroter of Fundable. Schroter advises to start with the problem, explain your solution and then verify the market size in your pitch to frame the situation for investors.

For example, Jessica Mathews was born in Nigeria, an area like much of Africa that is still without reliable power. In her pitch on Fundable, which is an amazing example of how to crowdfund, she explained that over 1.4 billion people are without access to power – and so she created the Soccket, a soccer ball that stores kinetic energy when you kick it that can be used as a clean source of energy for small appliances. With soccer being such a popular sport around the world, the idea of having three hours of a power for just 30 minutes of play is appealing.

“When Jessica explains that 1.4 billion people are without access to power, her solution sounds very powerful. The size and severity of the problem drives the value of her solution, not just the product itself,” says Schroter.

Give people something to believe in, and they’ll be more likely to invest.

2. Get clear on how much you need.

More money is always better, right? Not when it comes to crowdfunding. Asking for too much can leave you disappointed, and limit your future funding options.

Don’t ask for everything at once. Focus your crowdfunding requests on specific parts of your business or certain phases of development.

“The number one challenge businesses face when funding a company isn’t raising all the money they need in a single fundraise – it’s raising any at all,” says Schroter, “Like Kickstarter, Fundable requires businesses to meet or exceed their funding goal in order to successfully complete their fundraise.”

Instead of shooting too high, break down your funding into phases and establish a goal that makes sense within each phase. Forming estimates that are born from good ole due diligence will never steer you wrong. It sends the right signal to the crowd reviewing your offering and signals to them that you didn’t just “pull a number out of the sky.” Once you receive funding, do what you promise and use that success to prove your value to potential investors as you reach out for a second round. If the response is less than stellar, you could at least reach your minimum goal and be prepared for the next round. If it goes well, you can raise your goal amount, and use your initial success to prove to investors that a second round is worth their funds.

3. Skip the cold start.

Nobody wants to be the first to jump in the water. As with traditional funding, the psychology of things is a factor in producing the desired outcome – getting funded. Increase your chances on crowdfunding by starting out with some initial investment. Assemble a starter crowd to draw attention to your pitch and make investors more interested. Gary Humble of Grapevine Craft Brewery gathered together his local community for his efforts on Fundable.

“Instead of waiting until the day of his launch to announce his fundraise, Gary started building a list of potential supporters prior to his launch,” shared Schroter. “The moment he launched, he knew he had a good percentage of his funding already accounted for. This led him to rally over 200 backers to get even more than he needed to launch.”

Prime the pump and get interested parties on board before the launch. Create the atmosphere of success and other investors will flock to it. When you have interested people investing from the start, your product or service is perceived as more valuable. There’s a lower perceived risk, which can translate to more funding for you.

Keep in mind that once the crowdfunding round is over – it’s really just the beginning. If things didn’t go as planned then find out why. Analyze the feedback and then adjust your goals if need be. For example, you might find that your message wasn’t getting across clearly enough and investors weren’t sure what value your product served in the marketplace. Alternatively, you could have a great product that meets a specific need, but you haven’t explained how the money will help you take it to market. Listen to what people have to say about your company and offerings, and consider your fundraising as an initial pilot to whether you’re on track or not.

If you had a successful round of funding, maintain a relationship with your investors and show your gratitude. Regardless of how much a person has invested, they may be willing to donate more during your second round. You don’t know what they are prepared to do if you’re successful and fulfill your promises. Show your gratitude for the faith they’ve shown in you so far, and sow the seeds for future investment.

Finally, give back to others who are crowdfunding, too. Look for opportunities to connect with other companies that are starting up or on the grow. As you support fellow entrepreneurs, you’ll see support coming back your way when you launch round two or three.

With a crowdfunding strategy that has a clear message, a reasonable goal and some initial backers, you could be the next crowdfunding success story.

Everyone Can Be “The Power Company” Through Solar

Let These Companies Turn Your Home Into a Power Plant (article courtesy of www.fool.com)

By Reuben Brewer

The utility industry is changing and one of the biggest shifts is distributed power. That’s when a customer generates electricity and sells it back to the power company. SolarCity (NASDAQ:SCTY  ) and SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR  ) are the leaders in this emerging niche. They are, effectively, building a different electric utility one rooftop at a time.

Not in my backyard
Southern Company (NYSE: SO  ) is building a new coal plant with the latest, cleanest technology in Kemper, Mississippi (580 megawatts). It’s also building two nuclear power plants, also using the latest advances in technology, in Georgia (2,230 megawatts). However, these three projects have faced stiff opposition. That’s one of the problems with big projects, especially when they involve coal and nuclear power.

Southern’s position is that it has to build these plants to satisfy customer power demands, particularly as older electric plants are retired. Opponents vary from those who don’t want the plants “in their backyard,” to those who want Southern to find cleaner alternatives. While the pros and cons of different power options can be hotly debated, there is a new model taking shape that sidesteps these issues and shows a new way to look at this old-line industry.

The roof, the roof, the roof is on solar
Solar power was once the purview of the environmental fringe, but with advances in technology and price declines, its slowly joining the mainstream. Utilities like NRG Energy(NYSE: NRG  ) , with backing from Google (NASDAQ: GOOG  )  and others, are building giant solar power plants like Ivanpah in California. Ivanpah is so big it can reportedly be seen from space and generates an impressive 400 megawatts of power.

(Source: Sbharris, via Wikimedia Commons)

But the big solar news isn’t happening at that scale, its happening one rooftop at a time. That’s where companies like SolarCity and SunPower come in. This pair works with individuals and home builders to install solar panels on rooftops throughout the country. SolarCity expects to have up to 525 megawatts of power installed throughout 2014—that’s more power than NRG’s Ivanpah produces.

SunPower is well behind that, with just about 150 megawatts of power installed at the start of 2014. However, the company’s model is much broader than SolarCity. SunPower makes solar cells as well as building solar installations from the ones on your neighbor’s roof to power-plant size facilities. SolarCity focuses mainly on installing rooftop systems.

(Source: BrokenSphere, via Wikimedia Commons)

Although being green is nice, the real benefit for customers is the ability to reduce electricity bills by selling excess power back to the grid. This is so enticing that, according to SolarCity, “12% of new U.S. Generation Capacity in 2013 was distributed solar.” That includes more than just rooftops, but it shows that there’s a real opportunity for these two industry leaders.


Not in my backyard—the other way round
Part of the opportunity comes from government mandates that utilities buy power from their customers, often at premium prices. Needless to say, utilities don’t like that idea. For example, Edison International (NYSE: EIX  ) is pushing back, saying that it has to pay as much as a $0.20 premium per kilowatt hour for distributed power. That means that customers without rooftop solar have to pay more, essentially subsidizing those with solar.

Note that Edison International is happily buying power from NRG’s Ivanpah. So it isn’t against solar power, just against having to buy it from its customers at inflated prices. But as solar panel prices come down, the government’s support should become increasingly less important. On that front SunPower expects solar panel costs to fall by 35% while efficiency increases by 10% between 2012 and 2015.

The new utilities
SunPower and SolarCity are slowly building the solar utilities of the future. While you have to keep a close eye on the regulatory front, this pair is in the early stages of what could be a sea change for the energy industry.