A Trifecta for Solar Energy and Distributed Generation

We all have good weeks and bad weeks. For proponents of Solar Energy (and all other inhabitants of our planet) this has been an historic week, with major achievements at the International, National and California-state levels. Setbacks will be inevitable, but the events of this week will have memorable and lasting impact.

The first and International achievement was the December 12 Agreement of 188 countries at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris to take measureable actions with the eventual goal of keeping global temperature rise to less than 2ᵒ Celsius (3.6ᵒ Fahrenheit) by 2050 compared with pre-industrial levels. As we have repeatedly been informed, this is the level estimated by numerous scientists to avoid the worst affects of atmospheric warming and ocean rise.

Though yet to be ratified (a process that starts in April 2016), the agreement commits those countries that do ratify the agreement to establish national emission targets and report on progress every 5 years. While the agreement calls for zero net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to be reached during the second half of the 21st century, lowering the target would (according to some scientists) move this goal forward to the 2030 – 2050 timeframe. Either way, implementation of this agreement puts pressure on countries to support low- and non-carbon energy sources, solar very much included, accelerating their deployment and continued improvements.

The second and national achievement has not been enacted as this is written, but is the tentative agreement by Republican and Democratic House party leaders incorporated into the Appropriations bill that would extend tax credits for solar and wind projects from the current end-2016 expiration date through 2021. The agreement was the result of a compromise where-in Democratic Representatives would support eliminating the ban on US oil exports in exchange for Republican support for the Tax Credit extension.

While the vote can still go awry, a senior analyst at GTM Research (who closely follows the Solar market and industry) commented “the extension to the federal ITC is without question a game-changer for U.S. solar’s growth trajectory. Between now and 2020, the U.S. solar market is poised to see a number of new geographies open up with a 30% ITC, within both distributed and utility-scale solar.”

Finally, the third and California state achievement was the December 15 proposed ruling by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to leave in place most of the charges and fees now in place between the state’s major investor-owned utilities (Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric) and customers who have installed residential and commercial PV systems. Though yet to be finalized (in January 2016), the proposed ruling leaves in place most of the terms that allow customers with PV systems to recoup their investments in a timely manner thereby increasing the desirability of these systems.

Challenges to PV-favorable net metering terms and (lack of) other fees have been raised in many states, and regulator decisions have been mixed. The proposed CPUC ruling is perhaps the strongest pushback by any state regulator to utility claims of the high costs distributed PV systems impose on other (non-PV owning) rate payers. While new costs are proposed, and some uncertainty is introduced by requiring PV-system owners to be placed on Time-of-Use rates (with unknown impact on their bills), the proposed ruling is seen as leaving the business environment favorable for continued expansion of distributed generation.

For now the sun shines on distributed generation and the growth of solar-sourced clean energy. Let us hope that all three events help realize solar’s potential contribution to our future energy mix for the sake of maintaining our habitable planet.

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