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Five Takeaways from Solar Power PV Conference & Expo – Chicago

In only my second week at the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA), I headed off to Solar Power PV Conference & Expo – Chicago to learn about the Midwest solar market. This regional conference provided an excellent overview of the solar market in the United States in general and deeper, more intensive details of what’s going on in the Midwest.


The expo floor at Solar Power PV – Chicago — it was hopping. (Photo by Mike Kruger)


Here are my five takeaways from the event:


1. The exposition hall was hopping.
The Midwest is not a region of the country that initially springs to mind when people talk about solar energy, but you couldn’t tell that from the exposition hall. More than three dozen exhibitors were on the scene, building relationships and making deals. The exposition hall had it all — displays of solar racking and mounting systems, new inverter technology being showcased, and even nonprofit organizations offering job training. There could be no doubt that solar is expanding and opening new opportunities across the Midwest.

2. Regardless of who is in the White House, all politics are local.
The conference started only after the results of the presidential election were declared, and the news was on the lips of many of the attendees. The opening session focused on the results, and the panelists’ initial thoughts on a change of administration in Washington, D.C. While some folks were personally upset by the results, attendees agreed overall that the future of solar in the Midwest will be set by state and local policies. Developers were more interested in state-level policy around renewable portfolio standards, and installers were more interested in permitting times. And all parties were interested in discussions around rate reform and net metering.

3. Manufacturing is key element of the solar ecosystem.
One of the more interesting panel discussions was about the role of manufacturing within the solar ecosystem. A lot of media focus has been on Chinese-made photovoltaic panels, but this breakout session highlighted how renewable energy manufacturing reinvented the American Rust Belt, providing more than 30,0000 jobs, with an additional 25,000 jobs expected over the next year. Panelists stressed that given the Midwest’s central geographic location and its long history of industrial manufacturing, setting up manufacturing facilities in the area was a no-brainer.

4. Community solar continues to be hot.
The session on community solar was packed — to no one’s surprise. Developers, manufacturers and utility representatives were all in the room to hear the panelists share their experiences with community solar in the Midwest. The panelists explained how the the Midwest’s diverse markets have created different solutions, even in geographically compact areas.

Lissa Pawlisch, Director of the Clean Energy Resource Team at the University of Minnesota’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, gave an update on the state’s highly competitive community solar market. Her presentation generated quite a bit of discussion as a majority of the audience were developers who were interested in how to succeed in the fast-changing environment.

Don Peterson, Assistant Vice President for Strategic Products and Services at Madison Gas and Electric, talked about developing the utility’s program, a 500-kilowatt (kW) array that sold out in under three months. SEPA helped Madison Gas and Electric conduct market research and design the program, and Don gave us a huge shout out for the work.

Vito Greco from Elevate Energy talked about developing a program in Chicago. The company has developed a very innovative stakeholder engagement process centered on a matchmaking service for interested developers and site hosts. This approach helps ensure the tricky program design phase meets everyone’s requirements, which, in turn, can help to bring a program online sooner.

Nate Owen, CEO of start-up incubator Ampion, talked about his experience with community solar in the Northeast. He compared community solar to deregulation 2.0 and noted that public policy has to be adjusted to ensure that developers, utilities and customers all realize a long-term benefit.

The Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative’s recetly launched Solar in Your Community Challenge also generated a lot of buzz. The $5-million initiative aims to build community partnerships to bring solar to underserved areas.

5. Rate Design and Net Metering are still being worked out.
Scott Vogt, Vice President of Energy Acquisitions at Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), spoke about the utility’s proposal for a new rebate program — called the Distributed Energy Rebate program — to compensate residential and commercial solar customers. The proposed payment structure would reflect the value of the energy to the grid. For current net-metered residential customers and new residential customers with systems — up to a program cap of 150 megawatts (MW), ComEd would provide a rebate of $1,000 per installed kilowatt. After 150 MW, or before 2022, the rebate would be reduced to $750 per kilowatt. Commercial customer rebates would be slightly lower. While homeowners would not be compensated for excess generation at the retail rate, they would continue to save on their electricity bill each month as they consumed the energy their solar panels produced. ComEd believes that this program could result in a total of 1.5 gigawatts of distributed solar in its service territory by 2030.

Becky Stanfield, Vice President of Policy and Energy Markets at SolarCity, noted that the proposal was built around the assumption that net metering results in a cost shift from solar to non-solar customers, and had concerns that the program might be introduced as mandatory, with no initial pilot program or opportunity for the Illinois Commerce Commission to review the modeling or consider alternatives.

No solutions were worked out in the one-hour session, but it was interesting to hear another proposal around net metering and rate design. As discussed in SEPA’s “Blueprints for Electricity Market Reform,” rate structures should provide transparent cost allocation that supports a sustainable revenue model for utility services. ComEd’s proposal provides yet another option for assessing the value of distributed solar and compensating customers.

Mike Kruger is SEPA’s communications director. He can be reached at [email protected].