Coach Dave’s Playbook

This month, I want to share some thoughts and observations from a local solar conference. Each year, the Maryland-DC-Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association (MDV-SEIA), a group that represents manufacturers, installers, developers, and distributors of solar power, hosts its “Solar Focus” conference. Session topics range from federal solar policy to local training and employment initiatives. It was a great place to meet local solar professionals, advocates, and recognized leaders in the industry.

Below are a few notes from sessions that I attended. Overall, I learned a great deal at the event. I also noticed that a great majority of attendees looked and sounded alike (much like me, actually)—a reminder that we still have a lot of work to do to strengthen the solar industry through diversity and inclusiveness.

Solar plus storage

  • The solar industry is becoming increasingly reliant on energy storage for resiliency and improved system performance.
  • Solar and batteries make a natural pair. One of the most important functions of energy storage—meaning battery systems—is to provide backup power in the event of a power outage on the local electric grid. Historically, backup power for any kind of large building generally depends on diesel generators; batteries run without the same kind of polluting emissions and without the need for imported fuel.
  • The benefits and revenue opportunities for battery systems, however, extend far beyond providing backup power. Solar on its own can create headaches for utilities. For example, on cloudy days, the output of a given solar system will be much reduced from the same system’s output on a sunny day. Discharging—or using—a battery storage system on a cloudy day can "smooth" the variable power output that is inherent to solar systems, reducing stress on power generation equipment. Also, as more solar systems come online, rising voltages across a local power grid can trip up transformers; batteries can help absorb some of this extra voltage on the grid.
  • As utilities in some parts of the country seek to roll back solar-friendly policies like net metering, and given the unstable political environment (most notably the Section 201 trade case, which threatens to raise solar prices), conditions are ripe for rapid growth in the energy storage industry. In fact, some analysts are anticipating a 200% annual growth rate for the next 5 years.
  • Distributed battery systems are still relatively new to the marketplace. As our friends at AF Mensah discussed, it is critical to bring local officials (permitting departments, public utility commissions, etc.) to the table to learn and talk about the tremendous opportunities that this new technology has to offer.

Creating Inclusive Solar Policies and Programs

  • This session focused on the distinction between providing access to clean energy and the need to create employment in the clean energy industry for low-income communities and communities of color.
  • Crafting smart policies that enable low-income families to access solar should start by addressing challenges that exist, including: financing, physical siting issues (low-income families are more likely to rent and/or inhabit older housing stock), and cultural issues like values and education around clean energy.
  • Maryland has designed for a low and moderate income (LMI) “carve-out” within the state’s pilot community solar program, but the state has not designated additional resources to support financing for this category of projects. Because the cost of capital is higher for financing LMI projects, state support could significantly benefit LMI project development.
  • Our friends at GRID Alternatives described how their relationships with affordable housing providers enable them to obtain low- or no-interest loans, as well as various tax credits that they can leverage as part of a building rehabilitation or upgrade.
  • On the employment front, the panelists spoke to the important of developing both “hard” (i.e., technical) and “soft” skills (timeliness, conflict resolution, etc.) for trainees in the solar industry.
  • Given the strength of the solar market here in DC, many developers in Maryland and Virginia are bringing trainees to DC to learn on the job.

Community Solar in the Mid-Atlantic

  • At the current time, 14 states and the District of Columbia have implemented community solar programs and policies.
  • Criteria that make for a strong community solar program include:
    • Access to a broad group of consumers (regardless of income level and geographic factors)
    • Tangible benefits on customer utility bills
    • Flexible business models
    • Competition among project developers
  • Subscribers to community solar projects can be commercial or residential, depending on the jurisdiction. For example, in Massachusetts, 50% of community solar off-take must be small customers (residential or small businesses); the remaining subscriptions can be larger commercial offtakers. Having a portion of off-take dedicated to commercial customers can be helpful from a financing perspective, as these customers are perceived to be more credit-worthy.
  • Illinois and Rhode Island have emerging markets for community solar, as does New Jersey.
  • Community solar should not be just another form of retail electric choice. It is important to work with the community from the beginning of the process and involve neighborhood leaders, City Council members, and others at community meetings so that everyone has a stake in the process.