Solar energy usage and development has steadily expanded throughout California, though not without political and economic obstacles. The California Legislature has mandated that the state source half of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, which will require utilities to diversify their energy base in order to meet the state’s goals.
Utilities’ place in the solar energy scene
“There’s very much a good versus bad dynamic to this industry,” said Benjamin Airth, senior manager of renewable programs at the Center for Sustainable Energy, a national nonprofit organization. “We don’t want to frame this conversation because we all need to work together … California has very aggressive goals and it’s a balancing act of competing interests.”
Annie Tsai is an attorney for Ballard Spahr LLP, and specializes in financing renewable projects. Before that, she worked for Southern California Edison for almost a decade.
“The energy sector used to be very secure and stable — the future looked consistent. The technology, however, has changed very quickly and now we look at creating and using energy in a very different way. The landscape has changed dramatically in the last five years,” she said.
Tsai said when she first started at Southern California Edison, it was a very different company than it is today. The standard model of utilities selling energy to consumers is undergoing a paradigm shift, and according to her, utility companies must adapt.
On the grid, off the grid
“We’re reaching a point when consumers can really unplug from the grid and source their own energy, and utilities don’t have a choice except to adapt rapidly,” Tsai said.
Tsai, Airth and Jason Wilhite all agree that one of the attractions to solar energy is the idea of being self-sufficient and independent of utilities — going “off the grid.”
Jason Wilhite, director of operations and cofounder of SoCal Solar, doesn’t agree with the idea that individuals can install solar panels and be “off the grid.”
“Yes, during the day you’re selling energy back to the utility or whoever, but unless you have a storage unit, you’re going to be buying energy from the utility at night,” Wilhite said. “People don’t understand that even with solar, they’re connected to the grid, and if there’s a blackout they’ll experience it, to.”
His company, SoCal Solar, is different from others in that its customers are actually buying the solar panels rather than leasing them. By eliminating the need for a power purchase agreement, the homeowner is getting a better deal and bigger benefits, Wilhite said.
“Homeowners don’t consider what’s going to happen when they want to sell their house with leased solar (panels) on the roof. The new homeowner has to qualify to take over the lease, it’s not easy. At first zero down seems great but there are hidden costs,” he said.
Solar forecasting and storage is making the industry more attractive
Jan Kleissl, a mechanical engineering professor at University of California, San Diego, expects solar energy to become cheaper to store and more efficient and cost-effective to produce. One of the main obstacles facing the expansion of solar is the costs associated with storage.
“(Solar) is great during the day but we need to harness the energy and remove the variability so that it can be sold as a more typical resource,” he said.
His research focuses on solar forecasting — analyzing the sun, atmosphere and other information to determine how much output a solar plant can produce.
“We’re not really developing new technology right now; the focus is to understand state-of-the-art forecasts and make the grid work better so that there’s flexibility in the usage,” Kleissl said.
Wilhite’s SoCal Solar installs solar panels with the expectation that viable storage sources will soon be mass produced. “We’re leaving a space for storage units, we’re using components that will easily integrate with storage technology.”
One of the main problems with harnessing solar energy is that the storage units aren’t aesthetically pleasing, Wilhite said. He expects that to change with Tesla’s home batteries. Wilhite said he is confident that Tesla’s technology and creativity is going to help spur further development of solar storage options.
Airth, from the Center for Sustainable Energy, expects to see more money spent on financing and developing storage.
“Storage is a huge component in the future of solar energy…big banks and venture capitalists will focus on storage — it’s straight economics — and will spur research and development,” Airth said.
Solar for all income levels
Another critical component of growing the solar sector, according to attorney Tsai, is the idea of community solar —installing solar panels on the roofs of apartment complexes and condominiums.
“I don’t own my roof,” she said, “but we’re figuring out how to get around that problem and all go in together on a larger scale, so that makes it a more affordable option that isn’t limited to homeowners.”
California is implementing programs to bring down the costs associated with going solar. The Single Family Affordable Solar Housing program and the Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing program (SASH and MASH) provide incentives to low-income community members to make transitioning to solar more affordable.
Airth said it has been exciting to see the solar energy market develop from its infancy; originally it was only considered an option for high-income homeowners.
Now, it has become a more inclusive, community-based industry, for people in apartments and condominiums. Just five years ago, he said, solar was very expensive; the cost has gone down by over half as business and technology have grown.
“We can help drive market development through incentives; anytime there’s a good opportunity (the Center for Sustainable Energy goes) for it,” Airth said. “It’s about understanding the business development, the technology, the market and the policy, and getting funding.”