The air was electric on the floor of Solar Power International (SPI) 2014 this week. More than 12,000 attendees shuffled between sleek displays and eager salespeople, chattering excitedly that this year will be the one that sees solar power truly come of age.
One key phrase in particular ran from one end of the event to the other.
“I have heard more people use the phrase grid integration than ever before. It is bubbling up in every conversation,” said Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) President Julia Hamm in reviewing SPI 2014. “They are talking about solar being part of a healthy grid and asking how to turn rooftop solar into a grid asset.”
Co-produced by SEPA and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), SPI is the U.S. industry’s most important annual conference.
In a keynote address, SEIA President Rhone Resch warned anti-solar forces in Congress not to discontinue solar’s vital federal investment tax credit (ITC). Declaring the start of a campaign to extend the ITC, he promised that “as sure as World War I started in 1914, if the Koch Brothers and their allies come after solar, 2014 will be the beginning of World War III.”
Hamm announced two major initiatives aimed at developing utility-solar industry communication. A third, perhaps the most important, started up without notice.
The new, crowd-sourced 51st State initiative invites the utility and solar industries to re-imagine electricity market structures, regulatory frameworks, and rate designs.
“SEPA’s obligation is to drive this conversation,” Hamm said. The initiative will be formally launched at the quarterly National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners meeting in November with a fully developed website. A two-stage submission process will offer utilities, NGOs, think tanks, universities, and independent thought leaders the opportunity to contribute.
“We hope the initiative spurs new ideas," Hamm said, "but it will be a success if we just spotlight ideas already out there worth getting attention.”
SEPA’s Utility Solar Database will help SEPA utility members learn from each other and build bridges between the utility and solar industries, Hamm said. The database contains about 500 utilities representing 95% of all solar on the U.S. grid.
“Suppose a utility is thinking about community solar,” Hamm said. “They can see every utility that has a community solar program and dig into them. They can see how other utilities have designed their programs and evaluate the design options.”
Or suppose a solar developer wants to build in South Carolina, she said. “They can select South Carolina and immediately find everything they need in the database about each utility in the state. They can learn about things like rate structures, program options, policy, business issues, and what utilities have done with solar. Those developers can then respond to RFPs with informed proposals.”
The unheralded Utility Executive Solar Leadership Roundtable may prove just as important in the long run. “There are hard conversations for utilities to have publicly, Hamm said, “but they are having significant conversations behind closed doors.”
The roundtable had its first two meetings in 2014. “Our goal is to have a core group of 12 to 15 utility executives committed to attending twice a year.” Others, including solar executives, may eventually join irregularly.
“They are having those significant conversations,” Hamm said. “I preface each meeting by reminding them the point is to help each other find solutions.”
In this week’s meeting, Hamm said, “we talked for three hours about how utilities can directly engage with what customers want in distributed solar and what utilities can offer to meet those wants.”
The execs were from geographically varied regions and from IOUs, munis and co-ops. “That diversity in one room made for a dynamic conversation,” Hamm said. “I have seen a light bulb go off when an IOU exec saw that a small unregulated co-op is doing innovative things he hasn’t even thought of yet, things he can do.”
During the SPI 2014 keynote panel, SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive drew a burst of applause by saying the federal policy should be to tax pollution but, since that is unlikely, it should be to “Incentivize those who don’t.”
Rive also said that while bringing the price of solar down is at the top of solar’s agenda for the next two years, the longer-term goal must be to use storage for more effective grid integration. Executives from sPower, NV Energy, Greenskies, and Enphase Energy agreed.
Sessions covered all the hot topics in solar, from net metering and value of solar tariffs to import tariffs and utility rate designs.
A big debate weighed competing vertically-integrated and networked solar business models but wasn’t conclusive. There were sessions on innovative technologies, the nuts and bolts of installation, and the challenges of financing utility scale solar.
“It is the best energy we have had for years,” Hamm said. “There are questions, like what will happen with the ITC and with net metering, and with tariffs. But people are really excited about where this industry is going. The conversations have evolved and matured.”
The show is bigger in than the past two years, spanning more than 200,000 square feet for exhibitions by more than 600 exhibitors. “There were well over 12,000 attendees,” Hamm said, stressing “well over.”
One of her show favorites was Start-up Alley, where ambitious ideas get pitched to would-be investors looking for the next SolarCity. “I love that as solar matures we are not leaving behind the entrepreneurs,” she said.
Hamm highlighted the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) work with Clean Power Research on software that will make them more accessible solar advisors to their customers. “This is the first tangible thing I’ve seen a utility do to about that,” she said.
She also called out Georgia Power for going “from zero to 60 in solar in two years.” For its performance, Georgia Power won SEPA’s IOU-of-the-year award.
“The 2011 SPI general session was a utility executive panel,” Hamm said. “We asked them what PPA price would make them buy solar. They all agreed on $0.07 per kilowatt-hour and $0.08 per kilowatt-hour. And now prices are well below that. This is real. Utilities are finally starting to treat solar as generation in their resource plans instead of as load reduction, even if it is customer-sited and owned.”
The City of Palo Alto muni was the public-utility-of-the-year for both a long term plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions and their success with solar in the last year. Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative was coop-of-the-year for meeting its renewables mandate by building solar locally so its members could benefit from the jobs and revenues.
CEO-of-the-year was Warren McKenna. He was a founding member of Iowa’s chapter of the SEIA and led his 650-member Farmers’ Electric Cooperative in building a 51 kilowatt community solar project.
On the show floor
People on the floor invariably said this was the most optimistic and positive SPI they had attended. One suggested people are being lifted up by the maturing industry’s success. Another said people are excited about solar’s future.
“It seems like the industry is coming together,” said Clean Power Finance Communications and Public Relations Director Alison Mickey. “The threat of losing the ITC at the end of 2016 seems to give us a common cause. And ‘tax fairness’ seems like a new rallying cry. There is also plenty of talk about tax equity and life after the ITC.”
Like Hamm, Mickey also heard “grid integration” everywhere. Utility participation seems bigger than last year, she said. “And people are talking more about the-grid-of-the-future and the-utility-of-the-future.”
The industry is maturing, she said and it shows in the attendees’ sophistication, the innovative technologies and business models, and in the industry’s work with utilities.
“Southern Company sponsored the gift bags,” she said. “It was the first thing I noticed when I registered. What many might have thought of as not the most progressive of utilities was a conference sponsor.”