The story behind the numbers: Utility Solar Top 10 Preview | SEPA Skip to content

The story behind the numbers: Utility Solar Top 10 Preview

By K Kaufmann

For Ryan Edge, numbers on a spreadsheet tell stories.

Looking at the 178 columns of data collected for each utility in the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) 9th annual Utility Solar Survey, Edge, the research analyst leading this year’s effort, points to the impacts of different state markets and incentives behind the numbers.

One utility’s surge in rooftop installations may be driven by state incentives or a new renewable energy mandate, while another has increased its total megawatts with a few big utility-scale projects. The diversity of state markets — and utilities’ ability to adapt to their ever-changing economic and regulatory landscapes — means SEPA’s 9th annual Top 10 Solar Utilities lists, generated from the data, will contain some surprises, Edge said.

The utilities who made this year’s lists — for the most new megawatts of solar added and the most watts per customer in 2015 — will be announced at the educational nonprofit’s Utility Solar Conference (USC) April 11-14 in Denver.

Ryan Edge
Ryan Edge, SEPA Research Analyst

“This data is exclusive to us,” said Edge, a video game devotee from Kentucky, who’s been following the utility solar market for SEPA for the past two years. “We’re the only ones who have this data from the utilities’ perspective. There’s no data modeling to this, no extrapolation. If I tell you how much is installed in a specific state, you’re going to get numbers directly from the primary source, the utilities, cause they gave me the data — and we ask for a ton.”

In fact, this year’s survey represents a major retooling of survey questions and input methods, aimed at both increasing utility participation and providing more in-depth data on solar market growth.

The difference is immediately apparent when Edge pulls up both this year’s and last year’s surveys for a side-by-side comparison. Instead of seven different categories of solar — from rooftop residential to off-grid — for utilities to figure out, this year, Edge has boiled the survey down to three main classifications based on the type of transaction involved — net metered, solar tariff and utility owned. Subcategories include customer-sited projects, power purchase agreements (PPAs) and merchant power plants selling their generation on wholesale power markets.

Check out last year’s Top 10 and Solar Market Snapshot here.

The resulting data, he said, is more explicit — noting, for example, that for the survey, the term “net metered” is not defined in terms of retail-rate compensation to solar customers for their excess power.

“It’s actually, are you offsetting customer usage?,” he said. “Even in a nonexport tariff situation — where customers are using all the power they generate on site — you may not be earning net metering credits, but you’re still offsetting load. We’re looking at the transaction, and I thought it was important to keep the phrase ‘net metering’ because for a lot of utilities, it makes the connection for what we’re really asking for.”

The survey questions on utility adoption of new business models — such as community solar programs — and distributed energy resources, such as storage, have also been updated so they’re easier to fill out, Edge said. This year, filling out this part of the survey is, for the first time, required, as opposed to being optional in the past.

The success of the new survey format has been reflected first in an increase in participation, up nearly 20 percent over last year, and a decrease in the time Edge and other researchers have spent on the phone answering questions and tracking down data.

Top 10 trends and surprises

Although born and raised in Kentucky, Edge said he never quite fit in with the state’s coal culture, even after a few years spent working on the regulatory compliance side of a mining services company.

He headed out to Oregon for graduate work at Portland State University, where he received a Masters of Public Administration with a concentration on energy policy.

“I was really into energy infrastructure,” he said. “It had the most interesting and challenging problems.”

An internship at Portland General Electric eventually led to his current job at SEPA. He took over leadership of the survey last year and began the redesign in October, a process, he said, that took many meetings “to build consensus on what the final shape of the survey was going to be.”

Each data point of information from submitted surveys — whether complete or not — gets downloaded into one of the 178 columns on Edge’s master spreadsheet. He then breaks down the information and reorganizes it into yet more spreadsheets to produce initial figures for the Top 10 lists. Additional figures for the survey comes from the Energy Information Administration and other market research firms, such as SNL.

By the time the Top 10 lists are released next month, Edge will have compiled and analyzed data from about 1,000 utilities, covering more than 90 percent of installed solar capacity across the United States, he said.

USC is where utilities talk solar strategies. Register now here.

All that data will be available to SEPA members shortly after USC on the Utility Solar Database (USD), where the figures for any one utility can be called up in a few clicks.

Rita Edwards, director of marketing at Coldwell Solar, a commercial solar firm in Northern California, called the survey data in the USD a valuable market research tool for identifying potential clients.

“I use the data to compare states and utilities in regards to solar power costs and individual utility rates,” Edwards said. “I’m looking at commercial data mostly, and it helps me understand changes” in the market.

Edge said Edwards and others will have plenty of changes to keep track of this year. While he cannot name names — yet — he said some surprising new ones appear on this year’s Top 10 list — signaling solar market growth in previously less developed markets. The megawatts needed to get on the list are also trending up, he said — a figure that would have landed a utility in the middle of the list last year might only qualify for a bottom spot this year.

But, he said, it’s not the numbers that intrigue him the most — but the stories of change that led to utilities landing on the list.

“What’s most interesting to me is analyzing our survey data year after year and seeing the ways the solar market is maturing,” Edge said. “A few years ago, solar was almost exclusively in the Southwest, but 2015 was a very strong year for states on the East Coast, such as North Carolina, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Georgia — and each of these markets has different drivers. The more solar we get, the more diverse and innovative the markets become.”

K Kaufmann is SEPA’s communications manager. She can be reached at [email protected].