CleanTechnica’s Charles W. Thurston sat down Tuesday morning with Abigail Ross Harper, the CEO of the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), based in Washington, to discuss the state of the solar union at Day 2 of the Solar Power Industry (SPI) show taking place this week in Anaheim.
CleanTechnica (CT): What is your outlook for the U.S. solar industry?
Hopper: The future of solar is bright, I have to say. Our company members knew about the step-down of the federal tax credit, have planned for it, and are still building their businesses. In the next five years, solar installation will double. Some 8 gigawatts were announced during the first half of this year. Corporate and industrial projects are now about 10% to 12% of demand, so there are opportunities along the value chain.
CT: How would you describe the rising role of energy storage?
Hopper: Storage is a cool factor. Residential customers understand what a battery is, so we are seeing opportunities to pair it with solar in the residential market. Even on the commercial side, it is easy to under the value proposition. And grid services are also a very obvious and utilities will have to embrace it. We are critical partners in this, so it is not surprising that storage is the fastest growing part of this show — at an exponential rate. But we also are seeing more integrated companies. Technological development is moving so rapidly that what we think we now know is not likely to be the case in five years.
CT: What part will electric vehicles play in driving the growth of storage and solar?
Hopper: EVs are going to be very impactful in a couple of ways, and they will represent a growth opportunity for utilities. Solar-plus-storage represents a challenge for utilities, and EVs provide the path for them. EVs also are an opportunity for us in terms of how they interact with the grid and can offer grid backup support. The conversation of all these technologies is working together in a holistic way; that’s the way the future is headed.
CT: How will the utility perception of solar change within those dark areas of the country?
Hopper: One of the utilities’ most valuable assets is their relationship with their customers, so as residential, commercial, and industrial customers understand the value proposition of solar, which brings more resilience and resiliency, even in the darker pockets of the country, a demand and outcry by customers will take place. As customers manage their energy more and more as software develops for that, they will go from spending 8 minutes a year thinking about electricity use to spending time like they do with their bank checking account balances.
CT: What will be the rules of the road for energy arbitrage?
Hopper: It could develop on the residential level, because if I can charge my EV, then maybe we can do that as part of the process.
CT: How is SEIA pursuing its political challenges?
Hopper: The evolution in solar technology is happening much more quickly than we think. Since parts of Washington have been less and less responsive to our issues over the past two years, SEIA has been improving its relationship with the state chapters; I come from a background with a state government — Maryland. We are working really closely to see what issues are shared and to execute a plan. We see some opportunities in areas like state mandate for solar in new homes, and we are seeing support for community solar, and for aggressive renewable resource portfolios.
Our greatest challenge at the federal level is that as a function of our success, we are taking energy market share from established industries, and are taking money away from coal and nuclear. We have great support in Congress, so the challenge is the actions of the new president.
On the state level, our biggest challenge is grappling with the compensation of people who provide services to the grid, making sure there are fair rules. But we are big believers.
CT: How can storage help solve problems with energy security?
Hopper: Storage is a game changer, one of those cases where you think it will take 5 years to happen, while it may happen overnight. Residential service will become secure, commercial customers can have storage in case there is an outage, and manufacturers, R&D facilities, and medical entities can also have greater security. Transformational expectations will change the market.
I first started thinking about microgrids within the State of Maryland, where we had outages from storms, and how islands of users could develop a common resilience. Solar also has to be a player there, since a microgrid can’t depend on fossil fuel supply. Our tolerance for extended outages is declining.
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