Thursday, September 19, 2013

Companies Unplug From the Electric Grid, Delivering a Jolt to Utilities

Wall Street Journal 

On a hill overlooking the Susquehanna River, two big wind turbines crank out electricity for Kroger Co.'s Turkey Hill Dairy in rural Lancaster County, Pa., allowing it to save 25% on its power bill for the past two years.

Across the country, at a big food-distribution center Kroger also owns in Compton, Calif., a tank system installed this year uses bacteria to convert 150 tons a day of damaged produce, bread and other organic waste into a biogas that is burned on site to produce 20% of the electricity the facility uses.

These two projects, plus the electric output of solar panels at four Kroger grocery stores, and some energy-conservation efforts are saving the Cincinnati-based grocery chain $160 million a year on electricity, said Denis George, its energy manager. That is a lot of money that isn't going into the pockets of utilities.

From big-box retailers to high-tech manufacturers, more companies across the country are producing their own power. Since 2006, the number of electricity-generation units at commercial and industrial sites has more than quadrupled to roughly 40,000 from about 10,000, according to federal statistics.

Experts say the trend is gaining momentum, spurred by falling prices for solar panels and natural gas, as well as a fear that power outages caused by major storms will become more common.

"The battle cry is Hurricane Sandy," said Rick Fioravanti, vice president of energy-storage technology at DNV Kema, a Netherlands-based consulting company.

The growing number of companies that are at least partly energy self-sufficient is sending a shudder through the utility industry, threatening its revenues and growth prospects, according to a report earlier this year by the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association for investor-owned electric companies.

State and federal regulators say they are worried that utilities could end up with fewer customers to pay for costly transmission lines and power plants.

Utility executives, meanwhile, are asking themselves a disquieting question: "Am I going to just sit here and take it and ultimately be a caretaker of a museum, or am I going to be part of that business" that's emerging, said Nick Akins, chief executive of American Electric Power Co., a big Ohio-based utility. AEP is considering helping its customers install their own generating facilities.

On-site generation still accounts for less than 5% of U.S. electricity production.
But it is peeling off some of the bulk sales that utilities find especially profitable. And some of the companies getting into the business think it is approaching a tipping point called "grid parity," at which point power would be as cheap to make as to buy from a utility.

Since 2007, when the first solar arrays went up on its store roofs in California, the installed costs of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s solar systems have dropped from $6 or $8 per watt of capacity to about $3.50 per watt, said David Ozment, the company's senior director of energy management. He said he expects the retailer to be paying as little for solar power as utility power "in less than three years," opening the floodgates to solar expansion.

Wal-Mart produces about 4% of the electricity it uses but intends to make 20% by 2020, taking advantage of idle acreage on thousands of store rooftops.

On-site generation isn't a new idea. It existed before the electric grid—the interconnected system of power plants, substations and transmission lines that ferry power thousands of miles—was stitched together beginning in the 1920s.

But for most of the past 50 years, the practice was associated mostly with remote locations like Alaska fish canneries or industrial facilities like oil refineries that generated lots of waste heat that could be harnessed for power production.

Almost overnight, that niche market has gone decidedly mainstream. Six years ago, Google Inc. attracted attention by installing big solar arrays atop its Silicon Valley complex in California. Other tech companies followed suit, worried about ensuring power supplies for energy-hungry server farms and achieving sustainability objectives.

Apple Inc. now gets 16% of its electricity from solar panels and fuel cells that run on biogas. Apple's data center in Maiden, N.C., makes all the power it consumes, a company spokeswoman said.

BMW AG's assembly plant in South Carolina, which made 300,000 vehicles last year, gets half its electricity from an on-site energy center that burns methane piped to it from a nearby garbage dump. Drugstore chain Walgreen Co., which has solar panels at 155 stores, plans to install them at 200 more.

Falling equipment prices make on-site generation increasingly attractive. From 2002 to 2012, the cost of installed solar systems fell by half, according to an August report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Companies also have the option of leasing big solar systems, rather than incurring the capital cost of buying them.

Many "clean energy" projects also qualify for federal and state subsidies. In the case of solar installations, there is a 30% federal tax credit, which is set to drop to 10% in 2017.

Government officials say a shift to greener energy resources is good since it reduces the output from coal-fueled power plants, which produce about 40% of the nation's electricity and are the most polluting.

But analysts say the importance of subsidies has been waning, overshadowed by steep declines in the cost of power-generating equipment. For example, the cost of solar modules—the biggest single component in a rooftop solar system—has dropped about 80% in the past four years, to about 65 cents a watt from about $4 a watt, said Galen Barbose, a senior researcher at the lab.

Companies also are turning to wind turbines and technologies like fuel cells, batteries, small natural-gas turbines and reciprocating engines, which are natural-gas-fueled cousins of the auto's internal combustion engine.

Engineering and technology company SAIC Inc. is installing enough generating capacity at a data center outside New York to meet the center's core needs, with batteries for backup power. The system uses reciprocating engines burning natural gas, an option considered reliable in storms because gas pipelines are buried.

A report released by the White House in August estimated that power outages caused by bad weather cost the U.S. economy $18 billion to $52 billion a year in lost productivity from 2003 to 2012.

Demand for fuel cells in the U.S. is coming primarily from telecom companies, hotels and universities, said David Wright, CEO of ClearEdge Power Inc., a manufacturer in Hillsboro, Ore. Many buyers want reliable on-site generation as a hedge against storm-related outages.

By next year, Verizon Communications Inc. plans to install $100 million worth of fuel cells from ClearEdge and Bloom Energy, as well as solar panels, at 19 data centers and other facilities in seven states, including New York and New Jersey.

Some traditional utility companies are edging into the on-site generation business.

Edison International, which owns big utility Southern California Edison, recently bought a Chicago-based developer of rooftop solar projects, SoCore Energy LLC, and it is an investor in solar-finance company Clean Power Finance.

As power production becomes more decentralized, "I want to make sure the company is deeply involved," said Edison CEO Ted Craver.

Write to Rebecca Smith at and Cassandra Sweet at

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Does Solar PV Work?

1. How does solar PV work? 

Solar panels convert sunlight into electricity. An inverter converts DC (like battery electricity) into AC (like household electricity) and sends it along to the home’s existing electric panel. The electric panel distributes this solar electricity to household appliances, augmenting it with traditional electricity from the utility grid. The home’s existing electric meter tracks how much electricity is purchased from the utility and also credits the homeowner’s account for the amount of solar electricity that was generated. This process is known as net metering. The utility grid still provides electric service to the home. PV stands for photovoltaic, the method of converting sunlight into direct-current electricity.

2. Are solar panels right for my home?

Every home is different. The best homes for solar have large, unshaded, south-facing rooftops that are not too steep. Homeowners that consume a lot of electricity and pay high electric rates benefit the most – by cutting their utility bill and saving the most money – from a solar roof.

3. How much does solar cost?

The cost of a solar home installation depends on the size of the system. Talk to a professional solar installer or try an online solar estimator tool. For many homeowners, solar is a smart financial decision. Compare the price of the system to the amount of money you will save every month and every year to see if solar is the right solution for you.

4. Will solar provide all of my electricity? 

Solar systems are usually not designed to provide 100% of your electricity. Buying electricity from the utility – staying grid-tied – makes sense at night, on rainy days and when electric rates are low. Buys electricity from the grid Credits your solar genera5on 

5. If the power goes out, will I still all have electricity?

No. For safety reasons, your solar system will automatically shut off if the power goes out. This protects utility workers from being exposed to live electricity.

6. What happens if it rains or snows? 

Solar electricity generation varies with the seasons, the hours of sunshine per day and the weather. It does not have to be completely sunny to produce electricity, but in bad weather, your production will not be 100%. Solar panels are designed to be tough enough to withstand hail, wind and snow.

7. How much money will I save with solar?

A professional solar installer can estimate your year-to-year savings. In addition to saving money on your electric bill, you earn a 30% federal tax credit for solar. Some states, but not Virginia, offer solar tax credits, rebates and solar renewable energy certificates (SRECs) which generate cash for the solar owner.

8. How long will a solar system last? 

Solar systems last over 25 years. Most panels are guaranteed for decades. Inverters last 12 to 15 years.

Misconception 1:
“Solar is an expensive way to make electricity.”
This is the number one misconception. First, solar was expensive in the past, just like any developing technology. Recently, economies of scale have significantly reduced solar costs. Second, most people do not realize the full revenue stream available from solar, which includes electric savings, tax credits, state rebates and Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) which can be sold for income. The value of solar increases every year when compared to increasing electric rates.

Misconception 2:
“I have to have batteries with my solar system.”
In the past this was true, but with the development of grid-tied inverters and net metering this is no longer the case. Batteries can be used to store electricity while the sun is shining. They are no longer needed because your utility will provide electricity. Your meter insures that you receive full retail credit for the solar electricity you produce. Batteries are still used where critical functions cannot be subject to power disruptions.

Misconception 3: 
“I should wait because solar technology keeps advancing.”
Do not wait. Solar technology has been around for decades. Scientists are making panels more efficient, but these improvements are incremental. Since the price of solar is lower than ever, and federal and state tax credits are in place only until 2016, there is no better time to install solar panels.

Misconception 4:
“Solar panels require extensive maintenance.”
 Solar panels have no moving parts and require no regular maintenance. Most owners let the rain clean their panels. Solar monitoring systems let you now see the actual production of each panel from your computer or smartphone. Most solar panel manufacturers warranty their panels for twenty-five years, but many last much longer than this.

Misconception 5: 
“Solar panels can damage my roof.” 
Solar panels actually preserve your roof by protecting it from UV rays. Since the panels are installed on rails, they actually never touch the roof. On commercial buildings, ballasted racking systems are used so there is no penetration of the roofing membrane.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Aug. 13 Meeting

We will meet in the back room of:

Marker 20
21 E. Queens Way
Hampton, VA 23669 

You can check out their menu at

Wine Street is closed north of Queen’s Way, so it’s difficult to access the parking lot behind Marker 20 unless you come in via Pembroke. So we recommend you park in the free public lot at the corner of Wine and Settler’s Landing (right across from the Hampton Carousel), and walk the short block to Queen’s Way.

To get there, take exit 267 off I-64 to Settler’s Landing Rd. Cross the Hampton River Bridge, and turn right at either Eaton or Wine and then left onto Queen’s Way. There’s some street parking and a lot out behind off Wine. Call Ken Wright (757.751.4156), if you need to contact him last minute.

If you plan on attending via webmeeting, please let us know. The audio situation should be different (maybe not better, just different) than last month, since we’ll be using a laptop, which has a built-in mic. So you won't get much, if any, of the group input, but you should be able to hear us okay.

The URL is:
Phone number: 213.416.1560
Access Code: 728 3742 (I believe you’ll need a # after that).

The agenda will be mostly devoted to 2013 Solar Tour organization, but feel free to propose other topics for us to include (preferably in advance). We’ll also have time for announcements and items of interest.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

If you're hiring a solar contractor ...

... Make sure they are properly licensed! If they give you a proposal, it should have their license number, expiration date, class of contractor and their speciality.
  • Class A contractors can perform unlimited size jobs. 
  • Class B contractors can perform most residential-size retrofit jobs up to $120,000.
  • Class C contractors are only allowed to do individual jobs up to $10,000. 
If they are installing a solar water heater, they may have an Alternate Energy Systems classification (AES), but they must also have a Plumbing (PLB) or Master Mechanics (HVA) license to perform the work and obtain permits. Likewise, if a contracor is going to install a solar electric (PV) system, they may have an AES classification, but they must have an Electrical license (ELE) as well. If they are licensed as a general contractor (BLD), they may employ subcontractors such as electricians, plumbers and other trades to perform work at your location.

System installed by Solar Services in Hampton Roads

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Grandy Village Learning Center Selected as Central Site for Southside Solar Tour

The Hampton Roads Solar Group has chosen Grandy Village Learning Center as its central site for the 2013 Hampton Roads Solar Tour, Oct. 5, 2013. Grandy Village Learning Center is a LEED Gold-certified building (the first in Norfolk to achieve this) owned by the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority located at 2971 Kimball Loop in Norfolk. The Southside Tour will kick off from there, and it will be used all day for a series of presentations and educational sessions on solar power in homes.

During construction, approximately 70 percent of the building materials were recycled. The building also uses structural insulated panels, which contain a core of rigid foam insulation between two structural pieces of oriented strand board. This coupled with four inches of expanded foam in all the exterior walls, double-glazed low-E windows, help the Grandy Village Learning Center lower heating and cooling costs and create a healthy environment for the building occupants.

Grandy Village Learning Center has a parking lot out front as well as on the nearby streets. The walkways and parking areas are permeable surfaces to reduce runoff.

Enter (from the doors on the right) into a large, bright foyer which could hold a dozen or so tables for displays.

The conference room will seat at least 50 people and has overhead projection capability. In the other direction you have views of the East Branch of the Elizabeth River.

Outdoors, a path leads to the waterfront (the Elizabeth River).

The building has a solar hot-water system and large roof overhangs over concrete walkways that provide space for outdoor displays if the weather is nice.