The biggest news in solar power is the mainstreaming of distributed generation. Call it a suburban dream, version 2.0: a chicken in every backyard, an electric vehicle in every garage, and a solar panel on every roof. Americans want more solar power, and solar companies are now ubiquitous at home improvement shows. The wonks call it distributed generation, but friendlier names abound: rooftop solar, “locapower,” or “you own your own power.”
Solar industry news reads like the dawning of a very sunny day. One study shows that rooftop solar is already cheaper than grid power in over ten percent of the market in five states—California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. That trend is projected to spread among 49 states—with hydropowered Washington the only exception—by 2022.
A separate Citigroup report projects that solar power module costs may fall to 25 cents per watt by 2020. (For comparison’s sake, the United States Department of Energy’s SunShot program aims to get the modules down to 50 cents per watt by 2020.)
Jonathan Silver, who ran an Obama Administration Department of Energy loan program, tells TakePart: “There is a lot to be optimistic about in the solar space. More solar came on line last year than in any prior year. More kinds of solar came online. Many of the big solar projects the loan program supported are already operational. There is an increasing consumer demand for both residential and commercial solar. A majority of states have some kind of RES (renewable energy standard). The cost of panels has dropped by 80 percent in the last few years. The world is now focused on clean energy. The cost of solar inputs is free and the price will come down further. The BOS (balance of system, or everything besides the modules themselves) costs are being addressed and will speed the drop.”
The utilities have noticed. Many see it as a mortal threat. The investor-owned utilities of California complain that net metering—the plan allowing homeowners to lease panels from solar companies that then sell power back to the grid—will hurt consumers not signed up for solar power.
Meanwhile, the solar industry’s counter-study claims that distributed generation and net metering benefit all ratepayers, and the grid operators are finding it easier to integrate renewables than they’ve been predicting. So one is left wondering whether heavily regulated utilities are looking out for ratepayers, or their own self-interest. And of the 29 states with renewable energy standards, 22 are facing fights to roll back the standards, many led by fossil fuel interests.
Although most traditional utilities see mortal threats, one has a vision; NRG Energy is branching into distributed generation with a solar pergola that includes a battery to store solar power at night or during blackouts.
The sunny-side-up news even has the very serious New York Times envisioning life after oil and gas: for example, New York state, not normally known for its sun or wind, can provide all its electric needs with solar—including 18 percent on rooftops and 20 percent from solar plants—along with wind and small percentages of hydropower and geothermal power.
Much of the credit for the boom in rooftop solar goes to top-down policy.
“I think its fair to say that the Obama Administration programs, led by the loan programs, had a major, even game changing effect on the ramp up of clean power generation in the United States,” says Silver.