Grid-Tied v. Grid-Free Solar Deployment – Op-Ed by Mike Rybacki

By Mike Rybacki, Chairman, CITY-GREEN

* All opinions contained in this article (8.21.14 Rybacki Op-Ed) are those of the author alone and should not be attributed to other members of CITY-GREEN or the organization as a whole.

On July 25, I received an email invitation from Jeffrey Brownson, a lead organizer for the Community Solar on State workshop and luncheon on August 23. CITY-GREEN’s secretary, Nari Soundarrajan, also received an invite. Alex Wiker, CITY-GREEN’s Assistant Secretary, who is on the Solar On State Planning Committee, will be there as well. Out of the roughly 100 people who can be accommodated at the Conference, after approximately 60 had responded to the direct invitations, the remaining capacity was opened to the general public on August 19.

By contrast, CITY-GREEN meetings are open to the public, and Dr. Brownson attended the May meeting to offer a preview of the CSOS (Community Solar on State) project. However, CITY-GREEN members were not invited to participate in planning the agenda for the CSOS meeting August 23. Although the event is being branded as transparent in promotional materials, privately planned, invitation-only events are – by definition – non-public and therefore non-transparent.

The structure of the planning meetings matters, because community solar projects are at risk, especially in the areas of public policy and finance/debt issues, for becoming large centralized corporation-controlled facilities, and that risk increases in proportion to corporate control of the planning process. For example, a community solar project established as a mini-corporation tied into the large centralized utility grid might compel all residents in the district to pay annual “taxes” to maintain the system, even if their personal residences are generating renewable energy and are off-grid (including removal of the electric meter and capping of the electric lines). And if use of the grid by residents continues to diminish (see “Looking forward” below) people may begin to ask why policy was initiated in the first place which advocated the pumping of community money into a collapsing system.

As currently structured, the PSU Community-Solar-on-State meeting can be seen as a privately sponsored, corporate lobbying event partially sponsored with public taxpayer dollars. It is private because, financially, Penn State’s expenditures are not fully accessible to the public (but can begin with posting its share of the cost in sponsoring this event), and politically because their decision to apply for the federally-funded SunShot grant was not only made previous to, but discluded, as a whole, the same community that, on a post-decision basis, is invited to the conference. It is corporate because the presumed decision makers, the United States Government (US Department of Energy), Penn State University, and the local utility (West Penn Power) are all corporations.

Its background appears to be anchored within the US Department of Energy-sponsored $15 million SunShot Initiative that Dr. Brownson spoke about at CITY-GREEN’s May 2014 meeting. Under the SunShot umbrella, the Solar Market Pathways funding opportunity document reads, in part: “This funding opportunity seeks to support regional . . . efforts to develop multi-year solar deployment plans that will . . . address the potential challenges arising from increased solar penetration on the electrical grid.”   Presumably, Penn State has already applied for this grant money since the application deadline was July 11, 2014.

Is there a present interest for grid-tied district solar? In the CSOS promotional material (agenda, flier), its purpose statement in part, reads:

“Penn State has a strong interest and passion for solar energy research and development, supported by a community interest to expand local renewable energy production.”

Having worked for the company (Mesa Environmental) that built the first “community district” solar project (which was also the first megawatt-sized endeavor) in Pennsylvania, I remember it being a thoroughly corporate-sponsored (Excelon/Waste Management) event. At the present, I know of no community district systems in the area, but there are dozens of individually-owned systems. If the building-by-building level is where the community interest lies in choosing solar energy, it raises the question as to why another path – grid-tied district solar – is the direction this project seems to be moving (which conforms to the criteria set forth within the SunShot grant’s framework).

Looking forward

What are the long-term consequences of merely using solar energy as a part-time supplement, entrenching a non-renewable-driven energy distribution system all the more? What about the “solar generation plus storage” model that is gaining attention?

The Economics of Grid Defection, an article put out by the Rocky Mountain Institute and forwarded to me by Nari Soundarrajan, points out that solar PV and battery storage is rapidly spreading and getting much cheaper. The article goes on to say that: “equipped with a solar-plus-battery system, customers can take or leave traditional utility service.” It concludes by saying: “Because grid parity arrives within the 30-year economic life of typical utility power assets, it foretells the eventual demise of traditional utility business models . . . even before total grid defection becomes widely economic, utilities will see further kWh revenue decay from solar-plus-battery systems.”

If, indeed, the centralized grid network is disintegrating, how can it be to a community’s advantage to have untold millions (see POLITICO’s article Utility Begins Work on First All-Solar Microgrid, highlighting a $10 million Green Mountain Power effort to support 365 homes with year-round energy) pumped into solar district propping mechanisms for a centralized system that is becoming prohibitively costly to maintain in the face of idle power lines that will front an increasing number of vacant-metered properties that are choosing to go off-grid?

Another unanswered question is: how do the builders of district projects plan to reimburse the loss of at least a portion of the $10,000 – $20,000 in equity for every $1,000 saved that each building owner would otherwise enjoy, not to mention their solar renewable energy credits, for their own private systems?

Perhaps the greatest financial prospects for utility companies for the next generation and beyond lie in the arena of financing off-grid building-by-building renewable energy systems. There will always be a market for new construction and retrofits but not so for dwindling supplies of non-renewable fuels.

To me, the goal of Penn State’s initial planning meeting is muddled, and the vague language in the agenda does not help clarify matters. Penn State is fully capable of establishing solar energy capacity to meet University needs, on Penn State land, without attempting to gather community consensus. If the University intends to help set up a grid-tied district solar system off-campus, to offset some campus electrical needs, then the project will endorse the existing centralized, capital-intensive, central government debt-subsidized, profit-driven corporate model, and should not be promoted as a “community” project.

Please send in your comments so that we can include them in our next CITY-GREEN newsletter.

Editor’s Note:

In searching for some of the source articles to put in the links, I found this one:

 

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