Rooftop, community solar see big jumps in 2015 — report

Source: Christa Marshall, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 21, 2016

Rooftop solar jumped 50 percent last year, the number of active community solar programs spiked 80 percent, and 27 state legislatures or utility commissions took up net-metering reform in 2015 as debates raged about how much to compensate homeowners for excess power sent to the grid.

Those were some of the chief conclusions from the Smart Electric Power Alliance’s solar market snapshot, which surveys hundreds of utilities about current trends in the industry. The group, which recently changed its name from Solar Electric Power Association, said about 350 utilities participated this year, a 20 percent increase from the prior year.

SEPA research analyst Ryan Edge said the report aims to get a more realistic assessment of trends through direct data from utilities.

Overall, solar markets added 6.1 gigawatts last year via more than 300,000 new systems, according to the report. While rooftop solar is experiencing the strongest growth, utility solar projects continue to deliver the most capacity. Net metering and falling prices generally are driving growth with rooftop solar, as is general customer interest, said Edge. “If you get one person in the neighborhood with solar, you see other neighbors start to pick it up,” he said.

California continues to dominate many of the rankings. Southern California Edison Co. was first in integrating the most solar capacity, followed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which led the pack in terms of the most interconnected solar systems.

Even so, “power purchase agreement prices are now competitive with those of fossil fuel plants in many areas, not just the southwest,” the report states.

For example, Texas-based Austin Energy received offers last year for $40-per-megawatt-hour agreements, about a 20 percent drop in price from the previous year. Sixty-two percent of survey respondents said they were planning for solar as a “low-cost resource.”

Along with growing 80 percent last year, 79 additional community solar programs are expected to come online this year and the market “shows no signs of slowing down.” Community solar refers to projects that typically are owned by multiple individuals, such as a shared system on a neighborhood block.

Growth is being fueled in part by policies in states like Minnesota, which enacted a law three years ago requiring the state’s largest investor-owned utility to accept proposals for community solar projects. Five new states enacted community solar programs last year, bringing the total to 14, SEPA said.

Additionally, 84 percent of utility respondents said they were researching or implementing rate reforms to “address what they see as financial inequities intrinsic to net metering.”

Some utilities contend that paying homeowners for excess solar power generated on their rooftops unfairly transfers costs to utilities and non-solar customers. The debate played out prominently in Nevada last year, after the state public utilities commission slashed the amount residents with solar panels could be compensated for surplus power. Two recent studies say the policy can be a net benefit to ratepayers, despite the concerns (Greenwire, May 25).

More than half of surveyed utilities said they were interested in advanced technologies such as energy storage and microgrids, but actual deployment numbers remain low, SEPA said.