Solar data visualization helps US market get the picture

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Florida is a state blessed with lush everglades, orange groves, an average of seven hours of sunshine even in winter and zero income tax. But while it might be a magnet for retirees and sunseekers, when it comes to solar, Florida is far from policy paradise.

As the SunShot Initiative chases down US$1/watt, some Floridian counties have a long way to go. Collier County [see image 2] takes some beating at US$959.54 per watt. But this high cost is skewed by the low number of installations, according to the Open PV project funded by the Department of Energy and run by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Ted Quinby, Open PV's senior developer and project manager, said that data visualization can have a profoundly powerful impact.

“A picture can tell 1,000 words. If it's just a spreadsheet it's more difficult to split out the important information from dry data,” he said.

The Open PV Project began in 2009 and emerged from the precursor of the SunShot Initiative and has collected 50,000 records.

“We wanted to build a comprehensive, publicly available database and create applications that could inform policymakers, analysts, businesses, investors and consumers. Consumers who can also compare quotes from installers to check if they've been given a fair price.”

On a national scale, Open PV really does tell a very powerful story about the state of the union's solar industry [see image 3] and why investors and developers are so keen on the west coast.

Open PV's Market Mapper illustrates clearly why it's impossible to describe the US as a single, homogenous market.

The United States currently has approximately 4.4GW of solar installed nationally and is expected to add about 3.2GW of solar in 2012, 7.6GW by the end of the year, according to EuPD Research USA.

California remains the largest market in the US; in 2011 it added 620MW of new capacity, bringing the total installed capacity to 1.67GW.

A cumulative 7.6GW might seem like a healthy appetite, but it's a diet compared with Germany, which installed that capacity last year alone, bringing the total cumulative figure to 25GW.

But it's no accident that the Sunshine state is not as fruitful as the Golden State for solar developers: it is in some cases pure policy design.

Third party PV power purchase agreements (PPAs) are drivers of the solar market in western states. But they are not welcome in five states, including Florida and Virginia, which have apparently been disallowed by the state or restricted by legal barriers [see image 4], according to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DESIRE).

Rusty Haynes, is project manager at DSIRE, also funded by DoE, but administered through NREL. DSIRE does effective work in tracking the policies and regulations state by state throughout the US. It's a full time job.

“It's not a coincidence that the states can have the largest PV markets not only have a solar carve out or some form of financial incentive or SREC market that's strong but they also allow third party sales.”

Federal policy incentives boil down to one thing: the Investment Tax Credit. But also the policy vacuum in some states means that DSIRE only really needs to track 20 or so states.

“It's not that hard to figure out what's going on at the federal level in terms of incentives. It takes Congress so long to do anything, if it does do anything.

“But the market is so dynamic that you really need to understand what's going on in roughly 20 states to stay on top of the solar market here in the US. Keeping on top of what's happening at the state level which evolves very fast is not easy.

“Companies are increasingly interested in what's happening in the state arena both in the legislative and regulatory arenas. They are becoming more actively involved in individual states, which is of course is very good for solar. The more the merrier from their perspective.

“But historically it hasn't been that easy when solar didn't have any money or it was a very nascent industry in the US. You didn't see much money being made and in turn dedicated to these kinds of policy activities that you see now.”

Utilities in some states all too often appear to have their guns locked and loaded, ready to shoot down any hopes of a PV market.

The Interstate Renewable Energy Council Updates and Trends report in 2011 noted one particularly aggressive attempt by New Mexico's largest utility, PNM.
PNM claimed that the losses in retail sales as customers switched to solar were so egregious that it should be allowed to charge US$0.08/kWh for net metered electricity. That's almost full retail rate as image 5 shows. Thankfully, the public utilities commission refused to allow PNM to charge its solar customers in this way and would have all but ended NEM in the state.

“If you look at it from the utilities perspective most of them have some form of monopoly and they like to protect their revenues that typically come through sales – the more kwh you sell the more money you make,” said Haynes.

“Some retailers have realized that they need to jump on board with the whole solar scene to control part of it and others especially in the south-east are trying to snuff it out whenever they can and have a lot of success because of the politics in the south east.”

Nowhere is the vice-like grip US utilities have on the energy industry more evident than sundrenched Florida, this year's host state for the annual Solar Power International.

The Solar Energy Industries Association and the Solar Electric Power Association, who organize the world's largest solar trade show, might hope in vain that Florida will put the sun to work.

Policy alignment means getting intricate state-level mechanisms integrated to smooth progress towards a sustainable industry.

The ITC might be the single federal signal for solar. But state incentives are not completely exclusive of influence from federal government. The Solar Outreach Grant is one example of the DoE's attempt to influence effective policy through data. Visualisation takes that data to another level to help everyone in the industry – and the refuseniks outside it – get the picture.

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