The U.S. solar market: mixed views

GreenTech Media held its Solar Market Insight Conference Monday and Tuesday in San Francisco, bringing together major players in residential, commercial and utility-scale solar to track the trends in the U.S. solar market at present and going forward.

Many of the panels and presentations are still available online for techno-geeks like me who couldn’t make to SF.

The GreenTech outlook is decidedly mixed – the residential solar market will continue booming through the end of the year, but could slow in 2013 and beyond.

– U.S. solar installations are expected to hit 3.2 gigawatts this year, a 71 percent spike over the 1.9 gigawatts installed in 2011. Next year growth could slow, with installations projected to grow to 3.9 megawatts, or about 22 percent.

– Solar leasing companies continue to claim an increasing slice of the residential market.  In California, leased residential systems accounted for 10 percent of residential installation; as of the second quarter of the year, they now make up more than 70 percent. In Arizona, the figure is more than 80 percent.

– On the utility-scale side — projects 50 megawatts and up — the picture is more complicated. Shayle Kann, GreenTech’s vice president of research, reported that the U.S. has about 2.2 gigawatts of utility-scale projects in operation, with another 4 gigs in construction and close to 6 more gigawatts in the pipeline for 2016-17.

The question is how many of the projects not in construction or in earlier stages of development will make it.

“If you don’t have a PPA, it’s harder and harder to find one,” Kann said, referring to power purchase agreements developers negotiate to sell power to utilities, which are critical to getting a project financed.

The trend is toward smaller-scale projects and much lower prices being offered on PPAs, he said. 9.7 gigawatts in the pipeline. Only utilties in states with renewable energy portfolios, such as the 33 percent mandate in California, are showing any appetite for large projects, Kann said.

– One issue hanging over both residential and utility scale is the sunsetting of the 30 percent federal investment tax credit at the end of 2016. The credit has been key to the growth of solar leasing and utility-scale financing — it draws in investors that need a healthy income tax credit.

As it stands now, at the end of 2016, it will go down to 10 percent and especially for utility scale solar, that prospective drop is already having an impact as developers look at the timelines for big projects.

These trends could have significant effects for solar development in eastern Riverside County, for projects on public and private land.

Can NextEra Energy get the 1,000-megawatt Blythe project – which it bought from the bankrupt Solar Trust of America — repermitted, financed and in construction by the end of 2016? Ditto BrightSource Energy and the 500-megawatt Palen project it bought from Solar Trust, along with its Sonoran West project, one of the two contracts the California Public Utilities Commission approved last week.

BrightSource officials have said they don’t expect Sonoran to come online till 2017, and they have no definite timeline for Palen.

The Coachella Valley, and surrounding areas, have looked to large solar projects as a source of good jobs for the region’s still struggling construction workers. The federal guidelines for solar development in the 148,000-acre Riverside East solar zone, between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe, envisions 80 percent of the area covered with projects.

Whether any of that will pencil out now appears uncertain.

Environmental advocates have always argued that for solar, smaller rooftop and community projects are the better play, and the market may just prove them right.


Solar thermal fights back; FedEx expands its electric fleet

Every day, 5,000 times more energy shines down on the Earth from the sun than it takes to power the entire world.

That enlightening factoid comes to us today from the solar industry’s newest trade group, the Concentrating Solar Power Alliance. CSP, as it is called in the industry, is what most of us call solar thermal — where panels or troughs collect or concentrate heat from the sun, which is then used to heat a liquid, create steam and run a generator.

Large-scale solar thermal projects have had a tough time in the past year, what with the pressure from falling photovoltaic panel prices and permitting challenges related to how much water they use.

In the Riverside East solar zone, the public land east of the Coachella Valley, three of the first four fast-track projects were originally solar thermal — Solar Millennium’s Blythe and Palen projects and NextEra Energy’s Genesis project.  As most local readers are aware, both Blythe and Palen are now on hold, presumably being retooled as PV plants by their new owner, solarhybrid.

Only the 250-megawatt Genesis project, now under construction, has remained solar thermal, and NextEra’s next project planned for the region, the 750-megawatt McCoy plant, is PV.

BrightSource, one of the three solar thermal companies behind the new organization, also has a local solar thermal project in the works, the 750-megawatt Rio Mesa plant on private land near Blythe.

Making the world a little more welcoming to solar thermal is where the new group comes in, building on the efforts of a new international organization, the World Solar Thermal Electricity Association. Both groups are clearly aimed at promoting the benefits of solar thermal technology to energy markets. 

While more expensive upfront, the alliance says that solar thermal plants are much more reliable than PV projects and produce power that can be stored to match peak energy demands.  Another plus, they can keep operating even when the sun is not shining. 

Solar thermal also produces more construction and permanent jobs than PV plants.  A 2006 study commissioned by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab for the Department of Energy found that a 100 megawatt solar thermal plant creates more than $600 million in impact to gross state output, ten times that of a fossil fuel plant due to the local content and job creation.

With PV clearly the technology of choice right now, and panel prices continuing to move toward grid parity — it will be interesting to see  how CSPA will market itself and its projects.

In other breaking green tech news today, Smith Electric Vehicles of Kansas City, Mo.,  unveiled a new all-electric truck that FedEx will be adding to its fleet throughout the rest of the year.

FedEx put its first all-electric vehicles on the road in Los Angeles in March 2010.

The new FedEx electric vehicles will have a range of 100 miles on a single charge.










The new trucks will have a range of about 100 miles on a single charge, which makes them ideal for urban delivery routes.  Don’t know if we’ll see any in the valley, but hats off to FedEx for its ongoing efforts.