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Eating the duck for breakfast: What the Southeast and California can teach each other about going solar

The week after California regulators updated the state’s green building code to include solar on all new residential construction beginning in 2020, I was at Solar Power Southeast in Atlanta, hearing about Alabama Power’s Smart NeighborhoodTM initiative.

Located in suburban Birmingham, the project includes 62 super-efficient homes powered by a microgrid comprised of about one-third each solar, storage and, for back-up, natural gas. The system can be islanded, but residents also sign agreements allowing the utility to control their HVAC and water heating, resources that can be integrated with the microgrid to provide additional, vital services such as voltage support.

Tyler Norris of Cypress Creek Renewables (left) joins Jim Leverette of Southern Co., Cory Ramsel of Florida Power and Light, and Jared Leader of SEPA at Solar Power Southeast

The point here is that Alabama Power, and its parent Southern Company, undertook the project not because of any legal mandate — Alabama is one of 20 states with no renewable energy requirements. Rather, they did it, said Jim Leverette, Research Engineer at Southern Co., “to understand the impacts of solar, storage and high-performance homes on the grid.”

On the West Coast, California’s new solar regulations may be just one sign of the changes ahead, he said.

“We are trying to understand what the future of the utility looks like,” Leverette said, during a panel on evolving business models in the energy sector. “In 15 years, are all of these (technologies) standard construction in homes? Does the cost of solar and batteries change so that we build generation facilities differently than we do today? This is one possible future . . . a snapshot that will give us data and information on how these different things perform, what the opportunities and benefits are.”

Alabama Power Smart Neighborhood microgrid, containing solar, battery storage and natural gas generation.
Alabama Power Smart Neighborhood microgrid, containing solar, battery storage and natural gas generation.

A second Smart Neighborhood is being developed in Atlanta, with 46 high-efficiency townhomes. Each home will be equipped rooftop solar and in-home battery storage on the homeowner’s side of the meter. Southern will be able to compare the two projects “to try to understand how these changes in both home technology and grid technology, and the coordination of these things, may impact our utility business model going forward,” Leverette said.

The fast-approaching future of solar, storage and other distributed, smart technologies was one of the hot topics at Solar Power Southeast, with a range of stakeholders — utility executives, policymakers and solar developers — zeroing in on the impact these technologies will have.

Andrew Barron Worden, CEO of GameChange Solar, a racking manufacturer, sees solar and storage as “the real big thing” driving the market as more jurisdictions commit to 100-percent renewable energy in the coming decades. He envisions the U.S. adding increasingly higher amounts of gigawatts per year for the next 40 years.

Similarly, Florida State Rep. Holly Raschein, a Republican, called microgrids pairing solar and storage “the wave of the future,” a way to optimize both the use and value of solar.

Two Markets, Same Direction

Hearing such statements at the conference, while reading the extensive and somewhat mixed coverage of the California solar mandate, I was struck by the difference in tone and perspective between the two regions and their solar markets.

Long characterized as slow-moving and risk averse, the Southeast now has a booming solar sector, which includes not only a small army of local companies, but developers from across the nation looking for growth opportunities. According to figures from the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), the region now has a total of 5.9 GW of solar; more than a fifth of that total — 1.6 GW — was added in 2017.

Further, like Leverette, many of those involved in the Southeast market seem to understand that solar, and its impact on the grid, can no longer be viewed as a separate, siloed phenomenon. They also recognize that partnerships between utilities and the solar industry are part of the way forward.

James Marlow, CEO of Radiance Solar, an Atlanta-based developer, described himself as “pro-utility, pro-solar.”

“Not working with utilities is a really bad plan,” he said. “Working with utilities, (you) will have a greater impact and accelerate market growth.”

Meanwhile, the primary arguments raised against the California solar mandate — its impact on housing prices and electric rates, and the potential for even more excess solar production — seem to have missed the longer view and all the potential futures on offer.

First, the mandate does not go into effect for a year and a half — which by today’s standards of technological innovation could mean major changes in the cost (down) and capabilities (up) of solar, as well as of storage and other distributed energy resources (DERs). California is full of engineers and technology developers who eat problems like the duck curve for breakfast.

Another key point, California already has one of the nation’s most rigorous green building codes, which has kept the state’s per capita energy use relatively low and flat since the early 1980s. The code is updated — and made even more rigorous — every three years. The residential solar requirements are part of the latest update, coming on top of a previous state mandate for all new residential construction to be net zero by 2020. Thus, the average, highly efficient new home probably won’t need a big installation that would pump out piles of excess electrons.

California also has the largest electric vehicle (EV) market in the country, as well as another statewide target to put 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025. A new study from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory suggests that with managed charging, all those EVs could help flatten the duck curve by soaking up as much as 1 GW of excess solar power at mid-day.

Where these and other California initiatives are all headed is the integration and aggregation of solar, storage and other DERs to create a cleaner, more efficient and more reliable grid, with benefits for consumers, utilities and other stakeholders.

All of which sounds pretty much the same as Southern Company’s Smart Neighborhoods. In other words, markets can and do vary, but we all seem to be headed in the same direction.

Imperfect places

The idea of many possible futures — critical to the electric power industry’s transition to a clean modern grid — must also recognize the many different, imperfect places we currently inhabit.

The robust profile of the Southeast solar market has been built primarily on utility-scale projects. However forward-thinking, Southern Company’s Smart Neighborhoods initiative is, in many ways, an outlier. Residential solar continues to struggle in many jurisdictions; rate reform and other related issues remain divisive; and the respective roles of utilities and technology developers in competitive retail electricity markets are evolving and uncertain.

Similarly, California’s residential solar mandate will likely hit bumps as it moves from abstract policy to actual implementation, and adjustments may be needed. For example, regulators could perhaps add more flexibility for housing developers to opt for community-based microgrids, such as the one in Alabama, rather than individual rooftop systems.

As in California, a critical issue for the Southeast will be a planning process that recognizes the changing technologies and business models that are part of grid modernization.

Speaking at one of the closing workshops at Solar Power Southeast, Caroline Golin, Regulatory Director for the nonprofit Vote Solar, noted that utilities are starting to shift their investments toward transmission and distribution. But, she said, the regional picture remains “a big question mark,” with implications for utilities and the solar industry.

“Investment in the grid is happening now in the Southeast, happening in a large way,” she said. “Solar needs to be involved. What do we want the grid to look like, and what technology does solar need so it can be used for peak shaving and other things? We need to start focusing on a grid that values and optimizes DERs and the solar business case.”

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