Co-authored by Bryan Jacob, Simon Mahan and Alissa Jean Schafer
All of the things we mentioned in our blog after the opening session did come up again throughout Solar Power International (#SPIcon). Maybe we should have been placing bets. We were in Las Vegas, after all.
We were definitely correct with one of our predictions. The Suniva trade case did emerge as a dominant theme. That was true both in the sessions and in the hallway discussions. One of the General Sessions was about “The ‘Other’ ITC” – to distinguish the Investment Tax Credit from the International Trade Commission. The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) predicts that 88,000 solar jobs are at risk if Suniva’s petition is granted. In the Southeast, North Carolina and Florida stand to lose 4700 and 3700 jobs, respectively — and South Carolina could lose 7000 (more than 90%) of their solar jobs. SEIA also indicated that about 47 GW of solar capacity is at risk over the next 4 years. Again, downscaling that to the Southeast, we think it could affect as much as 4 GW of our projected growth or to put that in monetary terms, at least $4 billion of investment at risk.
While that ITC cast a shadow over the entire SPI, we did also want to point out some of the other content that was highlighted.
A major talking point at SPI this year was just how low cost solar energy resources have become. Large, utility-scale solar power installations are now reaching sub-$40 per megawatt hour, or 4 cents per kilowatt hour. The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) just published a report highlighting the plummeting costs of solar power. In fact, NREL found solar power prices have dropped by 30%, just in the last year. Solar power resources have effectively met the Department of Energy’s SunShot goals of achieving $1/watt costs, nearly three years early.
One of the sessions we attended was “Using solar to provide essential grid reliability.” A key point from that discussion was that solar has much better control/regulation accuracy than other technologies. Steam turbines are only about 40% accurate; gas turbines around 60%. Solar, on the other hand has about 85% regulation accuracy – i.e., it’s output can be controlled. This was raised in the context of the so-called “duck curve” behavior exhibited in places like California. It is entirely possible to gradually ramp down solar output prior to the afternoon drop in order to allow some of the slow start technologies to ramp up more gradually. Of course, this does imply sacrificing a bit of the potential solar generation but it may be an enabler of even greater solar capacity on the system. And, incidentally, the Southeast doesn’t exhibit the pronounced duck curve like California anyway.
Other sessions we attended ranged from “Low Income Solar” to “The Next Frontier: Rates, NEM 2.0 and Value of Solar” The former profiled a rural co-op in Colorado where members voted for a voluntary 2% contribution to fund community solar. The latter included representatives from Nevada and Arizona public service commissions along with SunRun and discussed how utilities are attempting to change net metering programs to institute higher fixed charges, standby charges, demand charges, etc. Panelists affirmed that the biggest issue is grandfathering (to ensure the economic rationale customers’ used to make their investment decision in the first place remains valid throughout the lifetime of the assets). Another important point was that oftentimes a customer’s export to the grid is actually only going to serve load in their own neighborhood so they really aren’t “utilizing” the entire grid infrastructure. This can be used to further discredit some of the opposition to net metering.
Of course, SPI is not just about the sessions. We also hosted meetings with many of our industry partners and spent a lot of time in the 240,000 SF exhibit hall.
Though we’re exhausted from it, it was indeed time well spent.