Investing In Solar Energy: If Only I Was Younger

As I write this early in my 79th year I am aware not only of my mortality (although I don’t spend much time on that except for getting my bucket list and will in order) but also of the investment opportunity that is coming and that I can’t really take advantage of. It’s long term, longer than I likely have.

It is the realization that the solar revolution is finally unfolding and that we are in the early stages of a sea change that will change the energy picture in major ways for our children and grandchildren over the next few decades of the 21st century. It is an exciting time to be alive, with all the changes coming, but the transition will take time as history teaches. There will also be ups and downs along the way – e.g., the fact that some governments in Europe recently and retroactively cut subsidies and Introduced import tariffs on low cost Chinese solar panels. But the long-term trend is clear.

I say this after forty plus years in the clean energy field, going back to 1969, and being overwhelmed recently by the burgeoning literature on solar and other renewables that appears on my iPad every day – e.g., the following interesting and encoraging piece on ‘community solar’ that appeared recently in the journal Energy and Environment :


“There’s a tense dynamic accompanying the rapid growth of solar in the United States—in which traditional utility companies, nervous about the spread of rooftop solar panels, are seeking ways to limit the revenues made by solar customers who earn credit for the extra electricity they provide to the grid.

This battle over so-called “net metering” has been often depicted as a zero sum conflict between an upstart and an incumbent — but new research out of the University of Texas at Austin suggests there could be a kind of “middle ground” in the conflict between some utilities and solar installers.

The potential “win-win,” as the researchers put it, involves so-called community solar — solar energy projects or panels that are in effect shared by a group of people, such as the inhabitants of an apartment building, rather than sitting on a single residential rooftop. The study, recently published in Energy Research & Social Science and led by Erik Funkhouser of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and three university colleagues, found that at least some utility companies seem to like community solar programs, are already offering them, and plan to expand them.

One key reason? Customers clearly want access to solar, and some utility industry representatives find community solar to be a great way to give it to them — in a manner that allows the utility to continue to service these customers’ full electricity demand, that is.

“If you are a utility that is concerned with the rapid growth of residential solar — which means that a lot of the demand is moving away from your direct control — in that case you can imagine developing a competitive community solar program that is priced around what a residential system or residential lease might look like, and you might actually price it lower,” says Varun Rai, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas, Austin and one of the authors of the study.

The research also suggests yet another way — beyond getting directly into the business of installing rooftop solar, as Southern Company subsidiary Georgia Power is now doing — that traditional power companies seem to be finding their way into the hot solar market.

Community solar has certainly been getting a lot of attention lately — largely because of its vast potential to expand solar access.

Last month, the Obama administration announced an array of new initiatives to broaden access to solar energy to more Americans — since so far, solar has generally been the province of relatively wealthy homeowners. Solar City, the top U.S. solar installer, recently announced a massive project to install some 100 “solar gardens” in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, with a particular focus on allowing renters to participate in solar energy. And GTM Research, which studies the clean energy industry, projects that community solar will be “the most significant solar growth market for the United States.”

[Many Americans still lack access to solar energy. Here’s how Obama plans to change that]

The new study adds to the theme, reporting on the results of seven utility industry interviews about community solar, as well as the responses to 57 surveys on the subject distributed to investor owned utilities, municipal utilities, and rural electric cooperatives. The researchers also analyzed 61 community solar projects. And they concluded that community solar has the potential for “stabilizing the customer-utility relationship with deeper solar penetration.”

In effect, this is happening because some utilities seem to realize that they’ve got to get involved in the solar wave, the sooner the better. Or as the study put it:

One utility reported that, even without significant penetration of residential solar PV in its territory, staving off potential attrition of its customer base partly drove its adoption of a [community solar] program. Another utility, a large [investor-owned utility], reported that it was motivated to pursue [community solar] for the same reason. The organization anticipates increases in the popularity of solar [distributed generation] going forward. By investing in [community solar] it hopes to satisfy customer demand for solar [distributed generation] as cost-effectively as possible.

The state of California has even mandated that its three main utilities — Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric — begin to offer community solar programs, and on a large scale. The utilities are slated to set up 600 megawatts of community solar capacity by 2019.

PG&E’s community solar program, for instance, will allow customers to sign up to get either half or all of their electricity from solar projects that PG&E will “contract with,” or separately make an agreement with an outside solar installer to purchase some of that installer’s electricity gene
ation. Either way, the customers get billing credit from PG&E for not needing to use as much traditional electricity any longer. Initially there will be a premium to be in the program, but PG&E says that will “likely diminish over time if PG&E’s overall generation costs increase and solar costs fall.”

Other community solar programs offered by utilities include the Bright Tucson Community Solar program, offered by Tucson Electric Power, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s SolarShares program.

Granted, for now only a relatively “small fraction” of utilities appear to be moving into the community solar space, according to lead study author Erik Funkhouser. And of course, not all community solar programs are offered by utilities. A group of individuals might start one of their own, of their own volition. A project might also be carried out on a nonprofit basis.

One major difference, notes Rai, is that when individuals set up a community solar program, they often do so with so-called “virtual net metering,” which allows participants in the program to get credit for the electricity generated and thereby reduce their electricity bills, in much the same way that residential solar owners do under current net metering schemes. The only difference is that they don’t actually own the equipment or have it on their own roofs — rather, their credit is divided up virtually among participants in the community solar program.

Rai thinks utilities won’t go for this arrangement, for the same reason that they’ve been so resistant to net metering in general. “For all practical purposes, the only difference between virtual net metering and net metering is, you don’t have the system on your roof,” he says. “But for the utility, you are exactly the same on your bill.”

The power company is still losing out on a portion of the individual’s electricity demand in this case — what has been termed “load defection” — so Rai thinks that utilities will try to offer community solar customers cost savings in a different way: through economies of scale. As prices for solar get lower and lower, community solar plans offered by utilities might simply become a good deal. “It just comes down to what the rate plan is,” Rai says. “If you give me a solar plan that has a benefit, then sure.”

Whether those in the solar camp will agree this is a “win-win” is not so clear, of course — virtual net metering could be the new sticking point.

So in sum, it’s far too early to know yet how this is going to play out — but it’s just another sign that we can expect major dynamism in the solar space, not only due to growth overall but as incumbent utilities try to compete with the upstart solar industry. For now, utility-offered community solar is just the latest indication of that.

“It’s a very early phase of a very interesting business model,” says Rai.”

I could list many other articles that lead to the same conclusion, that some U.S. utilities have finally begun to come to grips with the reality that renewable energy (not just solar but also hydropower, wind, geothermal, biomass, ocean energy), when combined with a smart national grid and cost-effective energy storage, can eventually provide the vast majority of our electrical energy needs, including the anticipated demand growth from electrified transportation vehicles. Utitilities in Germany came to this conclusion earlier, largely due to Germany’s energy policy that encouraged installation of wind, solar, and other renewable energy technologies through provision of so-called feed-in tariffs (FiTs). FiTs is a policy mechanism that provides an extra fee (tariff) above the retail rate of electricity to provide long-term security to renewable energy producers, typically based on the cost of generation of each technology.

At this point in time solar energy is the fastest growing energy source in the world today, having recently passed wind energy for this distinction. Of course solar starts from a small base and has a long way to go to provide a significant share of the world’s electrical energy. Nevertheless, when one looks at recent trends in various countries such as the UK, China, India, Australia, and others, let alone the U.S., it is clear that large parts of the world have accepted the inevitability of a renewable energy future, with a large part of that future being based on solar energy. In addition, African nations are beginning to expand their economies and take advantage of their extensive renewable energy resources, particularly solar, and the related investment opportunities are huge.

All this leads me to believe that the transition to renewables is well underway and offers not only investment opportunities for those with insight and patience, but also a response to the challenge presented by global climate change. With care being paid to where the investments are made, the financial returns should be quite impressive in the decades ahead. If only I were younger.

Ron D. White

Being just a few years younger than you and having worked through the many of the years during and since the Carter Presidency on renewables, my take on the situation is a bit different. A few quick thoughts….

First, I don’t wish I was younger. I am very glad to have been at DOE at exactly the right time to make a real difference on both the technology and the economics of the transition. Glad and proud are the two key words.

Second, the phrase “smart grid” is a very doubtful outcome. The real money depends on anything but a smart system. Renewables can add some intelligence, but not many folks make the effort to fix the system in the sense of diminishing the income inequality outcome from historic and current energy policy. The idea of a genuine Solar Bank never made it out the door at Forrestal or the White House, sad to say.

Finally, the work out of the LBJ School will be read asap. It will be interesting to compare it with the report we supported there. It was quite enjoyable to make the trip to Austin and hear the students who did the work make their presentations.

Income distribution has become worse. Renewables could make a significant difference here and in nations around the world that are still struggling to free themselves from the institutions created and maintained by colonialism.

I certainly don’t disagree about our roles, and those of others, in bringing public visibility to renewable energy. What I meant was the long-term financial investment opportunity that is now emerging and which I can’t take full advantage of. Purely a greed thing!

Ron D. White

Thanks. I am glad you made clear who the gains from RE are going to given the current system. My point is that it was not OUR intention that it turn out that way. We showed and argued for ethical options.

The technology development system for the electricity industry fundamentally works one way. It slowed RE and, of course, storage.

The Engineers and The Price System, one of Veblen’s more significant books, gives readers a more general description of the problem. He wrote that about the time you were born. So, it is not news and there is much more to be said.

Comment by Peter Varadi:

“This is one of the clearest analyses of the murky field related to the involvement of the US utilities and the administration in the utilization of solar electricity systems.”