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Solar Showdown Looms As Barclays Downgrades Electric Utility Industry (updated)

Why does this not surprise us? Just two weeks after the US Navy announced a major research partnership to ramp up its solar power and other clean energy programs, the Barclays credit strategy team has warned that the solar market is likely to “disrupt the status quo” for the electric utility industry sooner rather than later.

We’re not surprised because the Navy and the other branches of the armed services have played a key role in advancing clean tech R&D and putting it into action — in some cases literally, in war zones. The US military has also served as a critical test bed and demonstration model for mainstreaming new energy technology and new systems, encompassing some of the very factors that Barclays warns about.

We also heard similar warnings from industry insiders at the Ceres investor conference at U.N. headquarters in New York, all the way back in January.

US electric utility industry disrupted by solar

Solar panels (cropped) courtesy of US Navy.

A Big Barclays Stinkeye For The Electric Utility Industry

Michael Aneiro over at Barrons blog tipped us to the Barclays warning. In his post on the electric utility industry downgrade, Aneiro notes that in Barclays’s view, the US electric sector has not yet priced in the challenges posed by the emerging solar market, resulting in a downgrade to “underweight.”

Here’s part of the Barclays reasoning cited by Aneiro:

Over the next few years…we believe that a confluence of declining cost trends in distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation and residential-scale power storage is likely to disrupt the status quo.

…We believe that solar + storage could reconfigure the organization and regulation of the electric power business over the coming decade.

So, the kernel of the disruption is not solar energy alone. It’s the killer combination of distributed solar energy with advanced storage solutions.

To pile on, let’s also add the emergence of multiple clean energy options for a single site (say, for example, biogas + solar + fuel cells), new energy efficiency technologies, “smart” microgrids, advanced energy management systems, and mobile energy storage units (aka EV batteries) that enable individual owners to stock up on additional supplies of stored electricity while they’re at work or elsewhere.

Put it all together and you have a rapidly growing number of electricity consumers, large and small, who can get off grid clean energy service 24/7, rain or shine, just like a full scale utility, but without the burden of freighting the bill for peaking plants and long transmission lines.

As for cost competitiveness with grid electricity, that could happen sooner than you think. By Barclays’s analysis, Hawaii is already a competitive market in the residential solar + storage sector.  California could be next, by 2017 (possibly with a little help from Ford, speaking of the BEV/solar market).

Barclays also sees New York and Arizona turning over in 2018, with a number of other states following close on their heels.

US Military And Clean Energy

The anti-clean tech rhetoric from the Republican side of the aisle has toned down recently (remember the light bulb wars?), but early on in President Obama’s first term, when the mudslinging was much more intense, the US military was already stepping up to use its facilities for clean energy generation and storage.

Some recent examples now include a massive $1 billion distributed rooftop solar program for military housing and the Army’s Energy Initiatives Task Force for streamlining utility-scale renewable energy projects.

Military facilities have also been pushing the renewable energy storage angle, including solar energy storage and electric vehicle-to-grid systems incorporating solar power.

As for that aforementioned Navy research project, that’s a new clean tech partnership with Purdue University aimed at ensuring that half of the total energy requirement of the Navy and Marine Corps comes from alternative sources by 2020.

All this activity is by way of transitioning our national defense out of a potentially crippling dependency on petroleum, so before we sign off for the Memorial Day weekend here’s a tip: keep your eyes peeled for a new documentary on the consequences of petroleum dependency called The Burden.


We first heard about The Burden, which is under the umbrella of The Truman Project and Operation Free, during the 2012 election cycle. Back then there was an awful lot of whining from the Republican side of the aisle about the role of the federal government in picking “energy winners and losers,” which missed the obvious point that one key factor in national defense is exactly that: picking out the energy winners and discarding the losers.

The Burden has just achieved its initial Kickstarter funding goal for completing the film but the”stretch goal” for marketing, film festival showcasing, and distribution is still open through today, so if you’d like to pitch in (and get a free, signed copy of the original soundtrack by John Caban) visit The Burden on Kickstarter.

UPDATE: As for Republican attempts to block clean energy legislation, the lightbulb wars have faded out but the Republican party still has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Here’s a little nugget on a House vote last week that we got from the Al Jazeera America blog (emphasis mine):

On Thursday, 227 Republicans and four Democrats voted for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) proposed by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., that would prevent the Pentagon from spending money to carry out the policy recommendations from the National Climate Assessment or several United Nations reports on climate change and sustainability.

Hey, whatever happened to that thing about supporting our troops?

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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