Vote Solar’s Top Ten in 2010

It’s been a big year, and there is plenty to celebrate. Here’s our recount of Vote Solar’s top 10 (or so) in 2010:

– New 1 GW program for wholesale distributed generation in California. We–and many allies–put nearly three years into the effort to build a new market for mid-sized solar. These are projects that can utilize the existing distribution network to come on-line quicker and closer to load, yet still with enough scale to rival costs of natural gas generation. On December 16, the effort paid off when the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously adopted the Renewable Auction Mechanism – or RAM. The 1 GW pilot program requires utilities to conduct biannual auctions for renewable projects under 20 MW in size. The idea is to provide a regular drumbeat of sustained business opportunity and healthy competition that helps drive down costs; standard contracts with equitable terms and conditions that reduce transaction costs; and development security of $60/kW and relatively quick on-line times to help ensure project viability and market functionality. All in all, it’s an elegant design that rounds out California’s solar market nicely and serves as a model for other jurisdictions seeking to tap the potential of the new wholesale distributed generation market. Keyes & Fox and the Solar Alliance were true heros in the effort.

– Colorado raised the bar to 30% renewables. Colorado is a great lesson in how solar success begets solar success. An RPS standard failed three times in the legislature before a local coalition made history by taking a 10% renewable target to the voters with a ballot initiative in 2004. It passed at the polls, and the year after, the legislature doubled the standard. This year the legislature upped the ante again – this time to 30% with a 3% DG requirement, placing Colorado squarely among our nation’s leaders in renewable energy. Once a state gets a taste of the solar good life — pretty panels on roofs, good local jobs, savings on electricity bills — it’s easier to grow from there. Jobs were a huge selling point in this year’s RPS effort: when we put out a report calculating economic benefits of an expanded solar goal, the response from press and partners was so robust that we need a bigger internet to hold it all.

– Big solar got real. California utilities have signed over 7 GW of solar contracts, and utilities in Arizona and Nevada are just as busy gearing up to tap the sun for power. With RPSs in the Southwest driving demand, federal loan guarantees enabling financing, ‘Solar Energy Zones’ enabling smart-from-the-start development on federal land, and the FERC notice of proposed rulemaking on regional transmission planning, variable resource integration and cost allocation, large-scale solar is moving off the drawing books and into reality. Renewable energy on this scale, at this level of grid penetration brings another set of challenges to the table. In order to acheive renewable success suffient to beating climate change, we need smart planning to ensure resource adequacy –essentially, figuring out how to use variable resources, at a scale never before acheived, and still ensure that there is an electron available when someone needs it. As a part of this effort, we’ve intervened into the CPUC’s Long Term Planning Process and are leveraging our position on the WECC’s Scenario Planning Steering Committee and the State of Nevada’s New Energy Industry Task Force, among other efforts, to plan for success in a way that maximizes our conservation values. Jim and Kelly are working full-time on this effort.

– New York got a sign that it’s time for solar. Literally. Sometimes you have to find new ways toget your message across. In the last days of our first run at a 5 GW solar program for the Empire State, Vote Solar ran witty and provacative pro-solar messages on an electronic billboard right next to the state capitol building in Albany. On their way in to work, lawmakers were reminded that “When there’s a huge spill of solar energy, it’s just called a nice day.” Good times. Campaigns like this go a long way in making up for the tedium of regulatory proceeding minutiae, which comprises the other 95% of our efforts. Going forward, NY remains a top target for Shaun in 2011.

– Keeping PACE. We managed a national campaign that helped enable these innovative local finance programs for solar and efficiency retrofits in 23 states and the District of Columbia…that is, before Fannie, Freddie and the FHFA put on the brakes. We’re not going to lie to you…after all that time, effort, and, well, hope in a promising solution, that setback hurt like a stick in the eye. Currently, multiple lawsuits filed by impacted municipalities, Attorney General of California, and Sierra Club and NRDC are proceeding apace, and folks in DC are brewing up support for federal fix-it legislation. Stay tuned. Some ideas are too good to die.

– Solar-friendly utility rates got a champion. The structure of tariffs – how much you’re charged for electricity at any given time – plays a huge role in determining a solar system’s payback. Our first intervention in Southern California Edison territory increased the value of solar to commercial customers by ~26%. Now Gwen is conducting our 4th and 5th General Rate Case interventions to ensure that solar customers in Northern California and New Mexico are fairly compensated for their investments. Just three words–”General Rate Case”–they mean a sustainable solar market to you, but to Gwen it’s long-nights with Excel spreadsheets that could dim the lights of a major city.

– Community solar made its mark. The traditional panels-on-your-roof approach to solar simply doesn’t work for everyone. Apartment dwellers and shade tree growers, we’re looking at you. This year, Vote Solar launched a new effort to empower more people to participate in the solar economy through shared, community solar programs. More on the subject our website, here. Both Colorado and Delaware passed legislation enabling various versions of community solar; we are participating in the implementation, as well as administrative procedures in Arizona and California. Look for more in the year to come; Peter is your contact for the latest.

– Solar made inroads in the heartland. Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio all have solar carve-outs in their RPSs totaling nearly 2,000 MW of new solar by 2025. Implementation, on the other hand, has been a bear. Things are just more difficult in semi-deregulated sort-of-restructured markets with lots of coal interests. Some utilities in Ohio, for example, would rather file for force majeure than, you know, comply. Claudia has spent more time in the Show-me state, working with our partners, than she ever thought she would.

– California avoided this year’s apocalypse, lifted cap on net metering. The country’s largest solar program faced a huge hurdle — net metering, that critical policy that allows solar owners’ meters to spin backwards, was capped at 2.5% of utility system peak load, a looming barrier that was set to hit the brakes on the growing local solar industry by mid-year. After a much harder-than-expected battle involving nearly two years of press and grassroots efforts on our end, the state legislature doubled the net metering cap to 5% in February and the Governor signed the bill immediately. We note that incentive applications passed the 2.5% mark in PG+E territory in June. Bullet dodged. California now has over 745 MW of behind-the-meter solar generation, and is on the way to grid-parity. Without this action, the state’s solar industry would have been in a world of hurt.

proj_perm_web- Project Permit drove progress in Arizona. Project: Permit is a campaign to use web 2.0 tools and grassroots advocacy to highlight the need for improved permitting practices. We identified Arizona as our pilot state and Phoenix (with 70% of the state’s market) as our first municipal target. After launching the interactive map and releasing a city-rankings report for Arizona, we worked with local installers (American Solar Electric and Solar City) to advocate for improved permitting in the city of Phoenix, a major market with sub-par permitting practices. Vote Solar members in Phoenix emailed in support of improvement permitting practices prior to the city counsel’s vote, and in May the Phoenix city council unanimously approved a new fee structure, lowering fees from upwards of $1000 to $225 for expedited projects.

– Wholesale DG took off. PV’s new low price points make small to mid-sized solar energy systems a much more feasible way to deliver power to the utility grid. We call this wholesale distributed generation. All that’s needed are market mechanisms to take advantage of the opportunity. In addition to California’s RAM, we worked hard in Arizona to develop new programs for WDG –count ~100 MW more in APS territory (As an aside, can we take a moment to collectively thank Commissioner Mayes for her super efforts for solar? We are going to miss her and wish her the best in her next gig). The New York Power Authority is angling for 100 MW of its own, San Francisco gets a 5 MW emission-free urban power plant, SMUD is off and running with a sold-out 100 MW feed-in tariff, all three investor-owned utilities in CA have DG PV programs (totaling 1.1 GW over the next 4-5 years), Southern California Edison has had great success with its Renewable Stanard Offer program….and that’s just for starters. Plenty of challenges remain: going forward, we expect that there will be contined discussion and activity at FERC, much more attention paid to best practices for ensuring project viability, and interconnection processes will be a key issue.

– Silicon? I love silicon. Our Valentines Day special was fun to make, but Hollywood did not come calling. Someday we’ll release the outtakes–but in the interim, just the threat is a good source of funding.

Speaking of funding (nice segue, eh?), it’s been a shatteringly busy year, and we’ve been lucky enough to be able to grow to better meet the challenge. For much of VSI’s existence, we’ve been just 3 people; in 2010, we welcomed Kelly Foley and Peter Olmsted to the team, increasing our staff size to eight smart, committed solar advocates and doubling our East Coast HQ. If you are the kind of person that makes year-end donations, consider this: even a modest contribution makes a big difference to a small organization like Vote Solar. And Lord knows there’s a lot more to be done.

Happy holidays, friends, and best to you all in the new year. Here’s to solar heaven in twenty-eleven.