Attention U.S. Department of Commerce: your well-intentioned efforts to help the U.S. solar panel manufacturing industry are not working.
Even with 30%+ tariffs on imported solar panels and cells, the remaining U.S. manufacturers are struggling to stay competitive. The good news, as one would expect, is that there is strong demand for Made in the U.S.A. solar panels – both from ordinary consumers as well as government purchases. However, structural issues with the supply chain for solar components puts the remaining U.S. manufacturers at a substantial disadvantage.
The reasons for these supply chain challenges are simple. Basically, many of the key components that go into solar modules are not manufactured in the U.S., including wafers, cells, EVA and junction boxes. And many of the components that are indeed available in the U.S. — such as glass, backsheets and aluminum frames — are significantly less expensive at comparable quality levels if purchased from overseas suppliers. To make matters even worse, these essential imported solar components are subjected to additional tariffs when imported from certain countries. Essentially, we are shooting ourselves in our foot if we expect U.S. solar manufacturers to be competitive when 30%+ tariffs are applied to most of the major solar components.
A rational plan to make the U.S. competitive in solar manufacturing does not require government support. Instead, it requires government to get out of the way and set a long-term solar manufacturing policy. U.S. manufacturers would instantly be more competitive if they did not have to pay tariffs on imported solar components — particularly cells and aluminum solar frames. Once the U.S. solar manufacturing base is re-established and consistent, U.S. manufacturers could invest in domestic wafer, cell, junction box and other component manufacturing.
How are U.S. manufacturers coping with competitive global issues of cell production and purchasing, U.S. production costs, cell and panel tariffs, local and federal regulations, and shifting national policies? The best way to answer this question is to speak with one of the most experienced U.S. solar panel manufacturers. My guest on this week’s show is Mamun Rashid, COO of Auxin Solar, based in San Jose, California. Auxin manufactures high quality poly and mono solar panels for residential and commercial customers. They also do original equipment manufacturing for tier-1 manufacturers who have “made in the USA” requirements. Please listen up to this week’s Energy Show for Mamun’s perspective on the opportunity and challenges for companies manufacturing solar panels in the U.S.
Solar combined with battery storage seems like magic to many residential and commercial customers. With a million and a half systems installed in the U.S., the question is no longer: “does solar work?” Instead, customers want to know how much money they will save with a system. And commercial customers are even more diligent about accurate savings predictions.
There are a plethora of “solar calculators” on websites all over the internet. But these crude calculators do not take into account detailed weather data, shading, orientation, equipment parameters and utility rates. Surprisingly, the utility rate information is hard to get, extremely detailed, and changes more often than import tariffs. And correlating hourly solar output data with these utility rates, time periods, rate tiers, fixed fees and demand charges can be a programming nightmare. I’ve had experience with huge spreadsheets that did these calculations for rates all over the country. Just thinking about a spreadsheet with 35,000 rows of 15 minute interval data is enough to make me reach for the Advil.
Traditionally, solar performance calculators only had to model energy flows in two directions: to the building or to the grid. With batteries there is a third path for the energy to flow, making it exponentially more complicated to optimize savings from a particular system design. Dedicated software tools such as Energy Toolbase provide an accurate software platform for modeling the economics of solar and storage products — and also provide professional proposal tools.
My guest on this week’s Energy Show is Adam Gerza, Chief Operating Officer of Energy Toolbase. Adam gained his solar chops after many years in the commercial solar industry. He knows the business and knows how to crunch the numbers. So leave the headaches to Energy Toolbase, and listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we speak with Adam about his company, solution and the solar + storage market.
When a business or homeowner gets a new rooftop solar installation, the second question they always ask is “how often do I need to clean my solar panels.” We’ll answer that question on this week’s show — taking into account the different effects of rain, dust and electric rates. BTW, the first question people always ask is “how do I read my electric bill;” but that’s a topic for another show.
Rooftop solar panels get dirty primarily from wind-blown dust and pollen. Birds are usually not a problem unless your last name is Hitchcock and you live in Bodega Bay. As panels get dirtier, their output declines. A small amount of soiling — say a light dusty film — may only cause a 5 percent output decline. However, when panels get very dirty — perhaps in an agricultural area or location that does not get regular rainfall — the output decline can be greater than 20 percent. A good heavy rainstorm will usually wash away most of the accumulated soiling.
I use the term “usually” because on panels that are tilted at about 5 degrees or less, the rain may leave a puddle of muddy debris along the lower edge of the panel. When this puddle dries, sometimes a thick layer of dirt accumulates along the lower row of cells (sometimes moss and weeds may even grow in these areas). Depending on the design of the system, this small accumulation of dirt can cause a very significant decrease in output.
So the answer to the question: “how often should I clean my solar panels” really depends on five factors: your location (does it rain regularly or only during certain months), the tilt angle of your panels (steeply tilted panels tend to stay much cleaner than panels that are close to horizontal), the amount of wind blown dust, your electric rate (if your electric rate is high then it is more worthwhile to clean your panels), and the cost to clean your panels.
If you have a large solar array at a low tilt angle in a dry climate with high electricity costs, our basic advice is to clean your panels once a year. Under these circumstances the additional electricity output from clean panels will be much greater than the cleaning costs. On the other hand, if you have a small array in an area that rains regularly, then it may only make sense to clean your panels every five years or so. Here in California it generally does not make a lot of sense to clean your panels in the late fall or winter during the rainy season.
Regardless of your circumstances, please make sure you clean your panels with soapy or treated water to prevent damage from mineral deposits. Contact your solar contractor or maintenance company if you would like your system cleaned professionally. For more about keeping your solar system operating at top efficiency, please Listen Up to this week’s edition of the Energy Show.
There are there are three market segment for solar in the U.S.: residential, utility and commercial. Based on some rough math, in 2018 we expect to install 5 to 7 million solar panels on homes in the U.S. In areas with high residential electric rates, paybacks are usually in the range of 4-8 years. But the utility solar segment is much larger: about 20 million solar panels will be installed by utilities in 2018. Utilities realize that it is cheaper to generate power with solar compared to coal or nuclear generation. Moreover, the combination of solar and batteries is projected to be even cheaper than natural gas in a few years.
The commercial solar segment has been growing, but has been challenged by a lack of efficient financing, slow decision making, and relatively high costs. But this market segment is poised to grow much more quickly in the coming years. Standardized lease, PPA (Power Purchase Agreement) and PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing is now available. Cheaper solar panels, inverters and rooftop installation techniques are reducing up front costs. And commercial customer decision making is accelerating now that a number of national retailers (Costco, Staples, Target, Safeway), tech companies (Microsoft, Apple, Google), casinos and data centers have made rooftop solar a standard part of all their buildings.
Quite simply, the biggest advantage of rooftop solar to commercial customers is financial. As with the residential and utility segments, almost any commercial building can reduce their electricity costs by 20-40% (net of financing costs). Paybacks are in the range of 3-8 years, easy financing is available for both for-profit and non-profit businesses, and even tenant-occupied buildings with triple net leases can benefit.
As a result, the acres and acres of flat roof buildings around the country are destined to be put to work generating clean, renewable power. For more about commercial solar for businesses of all sizes, Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show.
Great solar policy is just as important as great solar technology. Obviously we need the technologies for these products — but we also need the policies so that solar products can be cost-effectively installed. And I’m not just talking about incentives…policies related to net metering, interconnection and permitting are just as important.
Getting good solar policy requires effective political lobbying. I hate to let you down, but these great energy policies did not magically spring from the brains of inspired politicians When I look back at the successes our industry has had over the years — net metering, the California Solar Initiative, Solar Tax Credits, state incentives — all of these policies were based on sound analytical research coupled with effective lobbying.
There are a few companies that specialize in the types of analysis that’s required to put together good policies. One of the best is Cross Border Energy, based in Berkeley California. They provide clients with strategic advice, economic analysis and expert testimony on market and regulatory issues in the natural gas and electric industry. It is my pleasure to have Tom Beach, Principal Consultant of Cross Border Energy as our guest on this week’s Energy Show.
Tom has been influential on many of California’s ground breaking energy policies. He has worked on the restructuring of the states gas and electric industries, the addition of new natural gas pipelines and storage capacity, renewable energy development, and a wide range of issues concerning California’s large independent power community. I also had the pleasure of working with Tom on the California Solar Initiative many years ago. To learn more about the energy industry, real world solar economics, and Tom’s perspective on energy regulatory issues, listen up to this week’s Energy Show.
PS – the Kyocera and SMA rooftop solar system I installed for Tom back in 2003 is still working perfectly, with only 0.4% degradation over the last 15 years.
PPS – his monitoring system is intermittent since his 15 year old computer that runs the software is on its last legs.
The electric utility industry is undergoing rapid change. There used to be two types of utilities: investor owned utilities (IOUs, such as Pacific Gas and Electric and ConEd) and municipally owned utilities (MOUs, such as LADWP and Silicon Valley Power). Now there is a third hybrid type, called a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) utility.
IOUs work for their stockholders — striving to maximize their profits by charging the most they can for electricity, maximizing their net assets and minimizing their expenses (often maintenance). MOUs work for their local cities — and try to provide affordable and reliable power in their territory. Not surprisingly, electric rates at IOUs are almost always higher than rates at nearby MOUs. Because IOUs profit by installing their own solar and storage systems and maximizing their own sales of electricity, they do not look favorably on homeowners and businesses installing their own systems. My biggest competitors for almost 20 years have been local IOUs.
CCAs offer the potential for lower electric rates for customers in their territory, without changing completely to a municipally-owned business structure. CCAs buy power from large solar and wind farms, as well as hydroelectric facilities. They then distribute this power over the existing utility lines. The existing utility bills customers and maintains the power lines, while the CCA essentially just charges customers for the energy they use. CCAs offer customers cheaper electricity, and they offer better economics to solar customers.
Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE) is the new CCA serving most of the Silicon Valley area. My guest this week is John Supp, Manager of Accounts Services at SVCE. Please listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we talk about the operations, economics and effects that CCAs will have on both customers and the utility industry in general.
California continues to lead the country when it comes to clean and inexpensive energy. Here is an example – In May the California Energy Commission passed a rule that goes into effect on January 1, 2020 that requires solar on all new homes. The rule applies to all new homes, apartments and condos under three stories tall. The rule also includes an option to include an energy storage system (which we believe will become a standard feature with all solar systems).
We have received a number of calls and emails from people both in favor of and against this new rule since it was passed. What we really like about this new rule is that new home buyers will definitely save money. We’ve done hundreds of installations on new homes and the monthly energy savings are always more than the monthly mortgage increase. Always.
According to data from the California Energy Commission, the cost of a new solar system would be an extra $40 per month on a typical mortgage. And that’s without the tax credit. The monthly savings on the homeowner’s electric bill would be $80 per month. So the net monthly savings is $40 per month, or almost $500 per year. So every new home that has solar on it is going to come out almost $500 cash flow positive every year. Based on our installation experiences, I think the CEC’s cost numbers are on the high side and savings number are low – so the benefits are even better. This New Solar Homes Mandate is good for home buyers, and will increase the awareness of solar on existing residential rooftops.
But there are some negatives about this new rule. Some people have a visceral reaction against mandates. They simply don’t want to be told what to do. Moreover, adding solar will slightly increase the cost of a new home. Nevertheless, our government mandates things like seat belts, clean air, new home warranties and energy efficiency. By mandating popular consumer safety and efficiency benefits, costs generally come down for everyone, to the overall benefit of society. For more about California’s New Solar Homes Mandate, Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show.
Success in the solar industry requires leaders with a diverse skill set. Leaders must really understand the technology’s evolution, be effective with sales and marketing, coordinate what always seem to be chaotic operations, juggle financial issues and manage a growing team. I’m always interested in learning from people who have this diverse background — and have demonstrated success in the solar industry.
One of these executives is Todd Lindstrom, CEO of Enable Energy. Todd and I go back to his time at Sun Power and Geothermal Energy circa 2004. Since then he’s been at Solar Power Inc., Sharp Solar, and Paramount Energy Solutions. He is also manufacturing very clever mounting solutions for flat roofs that we are using at Cinnamon Energy Systems for many of our flat roof projects.
Join us on this week’s Energy Show as Todd discusses innovations that are changing the way the industry installs commercial rooftop solar — as well as his solar installation business at Enable Energy.