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Utilities unacknowledged catalysts of first million solar installs

By K Kaufmann

The recent announcement that the U.S. solar industry has passed its millionth installation is being marked next week with a social media campaign called Million Solar Strong — and an accompanying solar installation on a low-income home in Washington, D.C., on May 3. To ensure the campaign is inclusive, the group of energy and environmental groups behind it — which includes the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) — is keeping its message general and positive.

With one million installations, solar has emerged as one of the fastest-growing energy sources in the country and is now part of the industry’s mainstream.

Solar neighborhood. (Source: Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the Department of Energy)

But, whether by coincidence or cosmic synergy, I happen to be reading a book — “Routes of Power” by Christopher F. Jones — about energy transitions in the United States, and it has set a couple questions buzzing in my head. What is the real significance of this solar industry milestone, and what does it mean for utilities amid the changes now rippling through our electricity system?

Although the word “unprecedented” is often used to describe the disruptions solar and other distributed technologies have triggered across the sector, U.S. history has, in fact, been marked and driven by successive energy transitions, beginning from our earliest days as a nation. From the use of wood as our primary fuel source, to coal and oil, and finally to electricity, each transition has had its unique technical and social impacts.

But as Jones, a professor at Arizona State University, convincingly shows, they have all followed a similar pattern, which can already be glimpsed in the current transition.

The introduction of each new energy source, Jones says, has set off a period of market building, cost cutting and technical innovation, all aimed at familiarizing people with the new fuel and how to use it, making it affordable and finding ever-expanding commercial applications. For example, the rise of coal power in the early 19th century drove the first wave of the industrial revolution and the building of factories, which created a new focus on indoor lighting. The need for safe, steady light in factories and homes was later met with kerosene, one of the first commercial applications of oil.

Underlying all these aspects of energy transitions are what Jones calls “landscapes of intensification” — the physical and social infrastructures that create positive feedback loops to propel ongoing growth and innovation, supply and demand.

“People had lived for centuries without coal, oil and electricity, and they needed to be convinced that it was worthwhile to alter their practices,” Jones writes, referring to the 19th- and 20th- century transitions. “Entrepreneurs . . . convinced factory owners to adopt new energy sources, experimented with processes that gave rise to new industries, and taught consumers how to use coal, oil and electricity.”

Switch “coal, oil and electricity” to electricity provided by renewables and other distributed technologies, and the parallels to the present are obvious.

The 21st-century’s first energy transition

Taking the longer perspective Jones provides, our one million solar installations, while noteworthy, constitute at best a jumping-off point in what may be the 21-century’s first energy transition. Solar technology is proven and increasingly competitive with fossil fuels, but today only accounts for about 1 percent of total energy production in the United States.

We are just beginning to build the intensifying infrastructure and feedback loops that will truly drive the adoption of solar as a core power source and convince the public at large that altering its century-old energy practices is worthwhile. The focus right now is, first, on overcoming solar’s main drawback — its intermittency — with storage, and other technologies and load-shifting strategies.

The second, critical piece of the transition is transforming our existing, 20th-century, one-way grid and distribution system into the interactive “smart” grid that can support the integration of ever-greater amounts of solar and other distributed technologies. Some analysts are predicting that getting to two million solar installations may only take two years, versus the more than 40 years since the first rooftop solar panels in the U.S. were installed in 1973.

One of the unknowns of the current energy transition — and a topic of intense discussion across the nation — is the role utilities can or should play in it. While sometimes publicly labeled as anti-solar, utilities have been and will continue to be unacknowledged catalysts in the transition to renewables.

Taking part in the Million Solar Strong campaign is an opportunity for utilities to create their own positive feedback loops with this message. Every single one of those first million solar installations has been connected to the grid by a local utility. Utilities are also taking a leading role in testing the new technologies that will provide the customer and grid solutions to take us to the next million solar installations and beyond.

The Million Solar Strong campaign is sponsoring an online Thunderclap campaign here — which will release a mass pro-solar message via social media, including Twitter and Facebook, on May 3. The campaign is also asking supporters to sign a declaration here.

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