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Nanogrids, Microgrids and Virtual Power Plants

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Solar Energy Report

Tonight, I am making a presentation on "community solar" at the Stinson Beach Public Library. This report addresses the technical and regulatory feasibility of installing a solar car port at the Stinson Beach Park southern parking lot.

Read on for the complete text of the report presented.

Community Solar:

Obstacles and Opportunities in West Marin

By Peter Asmus, Stinson Beach Solar Committee

Stinson Beach, Bolinas and the rest of West Marin are currently investigating the concept of “community solar,” whereby a large solar photovoltaic array located in a prime location would ideally feed electricity to multiple end-users, including public agencies, private businesses or individual residences. The Stinson Beach Solar Committee is currently exploring the feasibility of constructing of a solar car port on the southern unpaved parking lot of Stinson Beach State Park.

Providing solar power to public agencies, small businesses and residents that either cannot afford the upfront financial investment or lack a site with adequate solar fuel is a laudable goal. To the best of my knowledge, two community 30 kilowatt (kW) solar projects are currently in the works, both in the service territories of municipal utilities (Ellensburg, Washington and Ashland, Oregon) in the Pacific Northwest.

The rationale for a large community solar project is simple and clear: locally generated clean electricity from a system that would also produce shade for parked vehicles. All solar energy generators increase national security, bolster local economies, and help reduce the global climate change threat.

This report sums up my investigation, so far, of the obstacles and opportunities to this “community solar” concept at the proposed Stinson Beach site:

Key Issues To Be Addressed…

  • Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E): PG&E has the more solar PV on its grid than any other utility in the country. Yet if AB 2993 by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) is not passed this year, projects such as the one being investigated for Stinson Beach would no longer be eligible for net metering, the process by which the utility and solar user swap energy at the retail price [1] . AB 2993 would lift a cap on total net metering capacity from 95 to 200 MW, a temporary but important change to current law. PG&E claims to be in support of customer choice, solar, and Community Choice Aggregation (see below). However, history has shown the utility has engaged in a variety of tactics to delay solar energy’s widespread application, particularly at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Legislature.
  • Technical Feasibility Issues: Solar car ports are a fully commercialized business. The firm of NexGen in Rocklin, California, for example, specializes in their design and installation of solar car ports. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has already installed a large solar car port and Marin County has also been investigating the concept as well.
  • Financial Issues: The Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) model employed by firms such as SunEdison, MMA Renewable Ventures and Solar Integrated/General Electric can help steer private capital to public agency and non-profit systems, but require deep pockets or so-called “passive income” to satisfy the Internal Revenues Service (IRS). Typically, end-users do not own these systems, but receive a fixed cost solar power purchase. However, it may be possible to shift ownership after a specified time, akin to the leasing and then purchase of a car. The structure of the financing for the proposed solar car port in Stinson Beach has yet to be determined.
  • Siting Issues: At the proposed site, additional (and potentially burdensome) regulatory approvals would likely be required in light of the site being on state property. It was also recently discovered that some solar systems installed in the Stinson Beach and Bolinas region – including one proposed on Star Route Farms, one of the first organic farms in the country -- may also require approval at the California Coastal Commission, further increasing installation costs. At present, Supervisor Kinsey and others at the county are working on resolving this potential obstacle to community solar projects.
  • Net Metering: The two successful community solar projects in existence to date both employed a policy described as “community” or “virtual” net metering, allowing for a community of consumers to draw power from a single solar generator. Under current California law, a solar generator can only connect to one single meter in order to be eligible for net metering In order for the solar car port to be feasible, a new law (or perhaps rural solar pilot program?) may be necessary.
  • Renewable Energy Credits (RECs): The clean air benefits of renewable energy sources create a commodity – RECs (sometimes also referred to as “green tags”) -- that can be purchased by those wishing to offset air pollution associated with their power consumption. The economic value of these “offsets” could help a large solar PV array look more financially attractive, adding value to the project.
  • California Solar Initiative: The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved an 11-year, $3 billion solar program this past January, providing for state rebates for solar systems that currently cover approximately 30% of upfront installation costs. The California Legislature is advancing SB 1, which would codify and clarify elements of this program. These subsidies decline over time, so the sooner any solar project goes forward, the better in terms of state subsidies.
  • Federal Solar Tax Credits: At present, a federal solar tax credit of 30% went into effect this past January, and expires at the end of December 2007. While this credit is limited to $2,000 per residence, business customers can take advantage of the full 30% discount on installed price. There are efforts to extend this federal tax credit beyond its current sunset date.
  • Community Choice Aggregation (CCA): Current law allows Marin County to choose its own power supply, while keeping PG&E as provider of billing and transmission and distribution services. If Marin County Board of Supervisors elects to move forward under the CCA law, it has the authority to create special tariffs and rates that could provide incentives for local solar projects to generate extra power to help meet the proposed goal of generating 51% of the County’s electricity from renewable resources. At present, an outstanding issue before the CPUC is whether current net metered solar customers would become part of the CCA supply mix, or have to stick with host utility, i.e. PG&E.
  • Municipalization: The two successful “community solar” projects were developed within the context of a municipal utility. Becoming a municipal utility is a long and expensive process, potentially dragging on for more than a decade. Even if this becomes a goal, intermittent and incremental approaches to solar development would likely be necessary to keep momentum.
  • Off-Grid Alternatives: Perhaps the most radical approach to “community solar” development would be to create a micro-grid, distinct from the PG&E system. This is most likely the most expensive option, but may become more viable in the future as PG&E’s existing infrastructure becomes increasingly expensive to maintain, repair and upgrade. Dismantling the existing connections to the PG&E grid would likely run into severe local opposition. Most micro-grids under consideration have been designed to provide premium grade power to energy intensive hi-tech businesses hoping to any disruption in service at any cost.

Suggested Next Steps…

Write letters of support, phone or perform other acts of political activity focused on the following issues:

ü Petition Congress to extend the current 30% federal tax credit beyond 2007; the ideal scenario is to extend these credits another decade;

ü Petition the CPUC to allow existing net metered PG&E customers to join the proposed Marin County CCA;

ü Petition the California Legislature to pass Senate Bill 1 and Assembly Bill 2993;

ü Petition the California Coastal Commission to exempt all solar projects from their jurisdiction or create a new special expedited and low-cost regulatory review process;

ü Investigate the drafting of legislation to be introduced next year authorizing special pilot program for community solar projects in rural regions such as West Marin.

ü Urge elected officials throughout Marin County to further investigate the opportunities for new renewable energy sources under the CCA program

[1] When the sun is shining, but you can’t use the solar generated electricity, you can send the extra power to the grid for others to use under the policy of “net metering.” When the sun is not shining, you draw power back from the grid. Production is netted against consumption monthly, with a true-up performed on an annual basis.

©2016 Peter Asmus. Photo credit: David Clites. Website by: