Clean Power

Published on December 30th, 2015 | by Tina Casey


Massive US Utility Scale Solar Group Dives Into Small Scale Solar

December 30th, 2015 by  

So, this could get interesting. The Solar Electric Power Association, a leading US solar industry trade group, is branching out to the distributed solar field after a 12-year history of advocating for utility scale solar. That could be good news for the small scale rooftop and ground-mounted solar markets given the group’s research, support services, and education activities, though it may cause some rumbles among the group’s membership, which consists of hundreds of utility-scale electricity suppliers along with solar manufacturers and other stakeholders. Or maybe not, as the case may be.

USA solar prices

SEPA Embraces Distributed Solar And Microgrids

Until now the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) has crossed the CleanTechnica radar mainly for its solar utility rankings. Among many other activities, the organization has also been tracking the role that utilities can play in reducing the “soft costs” of small scale solar, by helping to reduce grid connection costs.

The interplay between utility scale solar, distributed solar and small-scale solar has been growing more intense with the explosion of the residential rooftop solar market and the rise of energy storage technology, with a consequent ripple effect on the interests of SEPA’s membership. That explains this announcement by the organization back in November:

The Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) and Association for Demand Response and Smart Grid (ADS) announced today that they are joining forces and will now move forward as one organization under the SEPA banner.

The announcement follows SEPA’s recent move to expand its mission from a focus on utility integration of only large-scale and distributed solar to a broader view including a suite of distributed energy resources, from demand response and storage to microgrids, electric vehicles and other smart-grid technologies.

Look forward to a name change in 2016 as SEPA transitions its mission and integrates its membership — and Board of Directors — with ADS. For a hint of things to come, consider that the board chair of ADS has been the Manager of Distributed Energy Resource Policy at Southern Company Services. The current chair of SEPA is the Senior VP for Regulatory Relations, Pacific Gas & Electric Company.

Also of note, SEPA’s board and executive committee includes the VP of Business & Project Development for BHE Renewables. If BHE doesn’t ring a bell, think Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy, and now think Nevada and SolarCity and you’re on the right track. Didn’t we say this could get interesting?


Digging Into Solar Prices

That brings us over to the latest report from SEPA. Reflecting its stepped-up interest in the small scale solar market, SEPA has just come out with a new solar price report that attempts to pick apart state and regional pricing within the national average prices.

Using data from a select group of states and aggregated data of 11,000 prices for analysis (with research partners Mercatus of George Mason University and EnergySage), SEPA found a national average price range of $3 per watt to $4 per watt for residential solar projects, and $2 per watt to $3 per watt for non-residential and commercial.

SEPA notes that broad conclusions shouldn’t be drawn from this relatively small sample, and it unearthed no significant pattern of correlation between solar pricing and variables such as local labor costs, incentives, and other factors generally associated with soft costs.

However, according to SEPA the report does provide a useful snapshot of the state of the market, underscoring the need for more pricing transparency as well as additional research and data.

SEPA cites these two outliers to demonstrate how different factors affect solar prices in different states, with this somewhat counter-intuitive result:

For example, according to EnergySage, Florida’s inexpensive electricity and lack of solar incentives have generally kept prices quite low, with an average price of $2.51 per watt.
Washington state, on the other hand, has a solar power performance payment incentive, which is significantly higher for projects using panels manufactured in the state. The resulting average price of $4.43 per watt was the highest average price in the sample data.

And this:

According to EnergySage, New York and Massachusetts have vibrant solar markets with some limited price transparency among consumers and between vendors, factors that pushed the average price of solar to $4.03 per watt and $4.20 per watt respectively.

Maybe it’s just us, but it appears that SEPA is beginning to make the case that state based solar incentives mask the real price of solar. The organization notes that state-by-state pricing showed “comparatively more consistency” in the report, which it attributes to greater transparency in the non-residential and utility scale solar markets.

Or, perhaps SEPA is building a case to lobby Congress to enact legislation providing for a consistent national incentive for residential and small-scale solar. SEPA has issued a call for additional data leading to a followup report in 2016, so stay tuned.

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Image (screenshot): via SEPA.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • BrotherKWS

    I see the utility company requirements as more of an inhibiter to solar adoption. Additionally, I think very small plug in systems could easily be the best way to get consumers trying solar, however, the external shut-off, even for an inverter that has a shut down function, makes such systems uneconomical. If an inverter senses the grid presence and shut down feed to circuit when the grid is down, the what is the purpose of an expensive external shutdown? It is a redundant element without a purpose except to inhibit small system that could be easy for consumers to install themselves.

  • vensonata

    Remove permit fees. Installers should be licensed to approve the installation and are responsible as electricians for the code compliance. Municipal governments are addicted to the revenue from signing a piece of paper. There is no safety issue that a clerk could possibly influence. Next, make advertising free on a central website, advertising budgets are being tacked on to installation rates of course. And finally, regularly feature the prices being paid in Australia and Germany for identical systems on central websites in the U.S. so people get it…it can be done for half the price, safely and reliably.

    • Bob_Wallace

      I’m not totally comfortable with removing the requirement for a final inspection. That’s not a big cost. Building inspectors work sections of their districts on a given day and it doesn’t take them long to drop in and do a quick check.

      • BrotherKWS

        In theory it doesn’t take long for an inspector to drop in and do a quick check, but in practice there is great variability in that regard depending on your locality. If you live in the east then these folks are typically very unresponsive. Most of those jobs are political patronage with an annual salary that depends not one bit on performance.

      • Ronald Brakels

        It’s hard to get my head around this. We don’t even inspect cars in Australia and we quite literally have gasoline pumped into them and frequently drive them in excess of 100 kilometers an hour in a country where the dominant life form is a hopping sinuous mass of muscle inside an indestructable leather bag, with less peripheral vision than a guard in a stealth based computer game.

        We don’t even have inspections for air condiitioners, electric ovens, or emergency generators, which frequently involve more power than the median rooftop solar system. And my state had about 11 air conditioner fires last year, but our air conditioners still go uninspected. To put that into perspective that’s equal to having 134 air conditioner fires in a year in Mexico City. But oddly enough, despite our obvious suicidal nature (obvious since we haven’t emmigrated from Australia) we’re still here and with a longer life expectancy than in the United States or most of Volvo fume sucking Europe.

        • Matt

          I just had my gas furnace and Air replace. No permit and no inspection. Tell me that solar panel have a higher risk, I don’t think so.

      • Matt

        I think if you go the route of Australia (3-6 steps) then the permit/inspect isn’t needed. IIRC they require certified panels, electrician to connect, max load at connect points, some installer requirement. Don’t recall others, but if you meet the basic steps no permit is needed. You just need to find an installer that can find a spot in their schedule.

    • nitpicker357

      permitting is a disproportionate cost. Also, vagaries in procedures are another barrier to entry to the industry. We need cheap, competent installers, not crafty paper-shufflers. Competence in permitting has nothing to do with competence in installing panels.

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