Category: "Ranting"

04/23/20

  06:41:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 725 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar Economics, Commercial Solar, Residential Solar, Ranting, Non-profit solar

While You Were Sleeping: Will FERC Preempt States' Ability to Regulate Solar?

For the most part, the regulation of the solar industry - particularly the residential and commercial solar industry - is a function of state regulators.  In California, both the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and the California Energy Commission (CEC) have been the major players in shaping the policies that govern solar installations, including policies like Net Energy Metering (NEM) which determines the economic value of going solar.  But now, a petition from the other side of the country could change all of that, and force states to turn control over the solar industry to federal regulators.  Here’s our take…

FERC logo

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is ”an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity, natural gas, and oil.” Well, wait a second, what does rooftop solar have to do with the “interstate transmission of electricity"?  At first blush, certainly nothing - the excess power from your home solar might go to power your neighbor’s house, but it certainly isn’t crossing state lines. (As a recovering lawyer I could go into a lengthy discussion of the Constitution’s Commerce clause and how that has been broadly interpreted to cover an amazing array of things that seem local, but are actually interstate commerce - but I will spare you that discussion!)  

The hook here is in the greater detail of what the FERC does: “Regulates the transmission and wholesale sales of electricity in interstate commerce."  Under NEM rules, excess energy put out onto the utility’s grid by a “behind-the-meter” solar system, i.e., all grid-tied residential and commercial PV systems,  is then resold by the utility to its other customers.  A petition to the FERC filed by the New England Ratepayers Association is asking FERC to find that those sales are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the FERC.  From the petition:

The law is incontrovertible. The [Federal Power Act] draws a bright line between state and federal jurisdiction over energy sales. Sales of energy at wholesale are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of this Commission. Sales of energy at retail are subject to the jurisdiction of the states. The sales at issue in this Petition are wholesale sales because the energy is being sold to the utility for resale to the utility’s retail load…  and therefore the Commission is required to exercise its rate jurisdiction over them. [Emphasis added.]

Wow!  Now that is interesting - energy exported to the grid, for which the PV owner is paid retail rates (or closer there to), and which the customer down the wire pays full retail rates, is somehow transmogrified into a wholesale energy sale!

But what is the point of all this?  Simple - if these are wholesale energy sales, then FERC has sole regulatory control, and pro-solar policies such as NEM would be replaced by, at best, compensation for excess energy exported at the wholesale rate.  Never mind that SCE is charging you anywhere from 19¢ to 40¢, you are only going to be compensated at the 2-6¢ rate!

Much of the “logic” behind the petition argument will be familiar to readers of this blog: rooftop solar is economically inefficient, NEM distorts wholesale energy markets, and imposes unfair burdens on ratepayers without solar.  Nevermind that all of these points have been debunked before (their expert calls those debunking efforts “irrelevant"), what is important to note is that while many of us are locked out and hunkered down during this crisis, are opponents are not.  They are hard at work, hiring top-dollar DC lawyers to press the case while the rest of us are just trying to get through the month.

Make no mistake about it - if this petition is successful, it will be the end of NEM as we know it, and not just in New England, but nationwide!

This is where organizations like CALSSA(for solar installers here in CA) and the Solar Rights Alliance (for solar system owners) are so critical.  If you are a solar installer, or run a solar company and you are not a CALSSA member, shame on you.  Join!  If you have a solar installation on your roof and you don’t belong to the Solar Rights Alliance - wake up!  Join!

NERA’s petition was filed on April 14th and under the fast track rules that NERA requested (and paid a $30,000 filing fee to secure), comments are due by mid-May.   We will update you when we learn more about its progress.  Watch this space.

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04/22/20

  04:19:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 607 words  
Categories: Ranting

Happy Earth Day - Fifty Years On!

It is hard to believe, but the First Earth Day was fifty years ago! A lot has changed since then, but too much hasn’t! Here’s our take…

Earthrise - Apollo 8 - 1968

Earthrise from Apollo 8 - 1968. (NASA photo.)

I’m giving away my age here, but I was a high school student on that first Earth Day and was heavily involved in environmental causes, so the notion that people around the world would come together to raise consciousness about the damage we were causing to the environment was an eye-opening moment for me.  The need for change was so dire - air quality in Los Angeles was unhealthy much of the year, a river in Ohio was so polluted it caught fire, toxic chemicals were released into the atmosphere without concern for their secondary effects - that the task ahead seemed nearly insurmountable. 

The EPA did not yet exist (it was founded eight months later), nor did the Clean Air Act (also later that year), nor the Clean Water Act (1972).  On this day fifty years ago, we were practically starting from square one.

Space flight in general, and the Apollo program in particular, had helped spur the environmental movement, as those first images of Earth from lunar orbit captured the public imagination in a way nothing else ever had.  Truly we were a small, fragile planet in the vast darkness of space, and with no Planet B - certainly not the Moon - people started to realize that we needed to change what we were doing if we were to live in a sustainable world.

In the decades that followed, much progress was made.  California pioneered the way in reducing smog-forming emissions from automobiles, and tough regulations eliminated the indiscriminate dumping of toxins into the air and water.  Air and water quality slowly began to improve, even as the population of the country increased by more than 50%.

To be sure, there were times of lapse, particularly when the economy went into a downturn.  In the early 1990’s I was working as an air quality environmental advocate while California was experiencing a recession.  The constant refrain from the polluters - counterfactual but persistent - was that environmental regulations were “job killers” and that we needed to rollback standards to spur economic growth.  That argument was counterfactual because, as numerous studies proved, environmental standards actually were a net job creator, spurring innovation and job growth.

Fast forward to today.  Despite our progress, we have a long way to go, and for today’s generation the threat of climate change dwarfs the challenges that were confronted fifty years ago.  

Added to that challenge is the sudden, virus-induced economic calamity that we are just starting to comprehend.  Already we are seeing anti-regulation forces and climate-change deniers try to use this crisis as a way of eroding the progress that we have made toward a more sustainable society.  The solar industry is not immune from that attack and we will have more to say on that in the coming days.  Suffice it to say that the forces of greed are never vanquished, and though, at times, we make progress against them, they are biding their time, looking for an opportunity to reassert themselves.  If we are not vigilant, this may well be such an opportunity. There will be time enough to write about where those alarm bells are clanging. 

Today, however, it is important to look back over these past fifty years, just as the Apollo 8 crew looked back toward Earth, and put into perspective what we have accomplished.  It took guts, perseverance, and maybe a little luck to achieve what we have.  With more of the same, we will overcome the challenges of this era.

Happy Earth Day!

03/13/20

  07:39:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 436 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar Economics, Residential Solar, Ranting

Stock Market Scary? Time to Invest in Solar!

The other day we had a potential client postpone a meeting to discuss our proposal for their home due to “market instability."  To say that the market has been unstable is a major understatement, but that got us wondering: in uncertain times, doesn’t investing in solar make sense?  We sure think so - hear me out…

Unstable Times

Market crashing

Instability? Oh yeah!

The worldwide pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has induced travel bans, the cancellation of sporting events (MLB, NBA, March Madness, even NASCAR!) and social events (for once the show isn’t going on on Broadway!), and possibly even postponing some Presidential primaries, combined with a sudden drop in oil prices due to feuding between Saudi Arabia and Russian, has done a serious number on the stock market.  In the past 30 days, the Dow Jones has lost 21% of its value (and it would have been far worse but for a close of the week rally).

Instability indeed!

It is certainly reasonable for any investor to be concerned by such numbers, especially when a wild card - like a global pandemic - is the driving factor.  Hard to plan for such an event, yet it can have enormous impact on the economy, at least in the short term.

The Stability of Solar

But now consider what makes installing solar on your home or business such an attractive investment.  Modern equipment, like Enphase microinverters and LG solar panels, come with 25-year warranties, providing peace of mind. And no matter what happens – short of the zombie apocalypse – you are going to continue to need electricity to power your life, and that need is likely to only increase over time (think of your electricity usage twenty years ago compared to today).  Electric utilities, especially the Investor-Owned Utilities like SCE, clearly do not have your personal best interests at heart, and their rates will continue to increase, even as service declines.

Which means that installing solar provides you with a reliable asset that will reduce your out-of-pocket costs for the next 20 years!  We typically see payback periods that range from 5 to 10 years, with a 20 year ROI of 150%+ and IRR of 12-20% (though our largest residential client in SCE territory is looking at an eye-popping ROI of 460% and an IRR of 28%!).

Of course, your mileage may vary.  But it is hard to imagine a scenario where the value of your solar investment drops 21% in a matter of days - but easy to do so for your 401k - because it just did!

If you would like to diversify your portfolio into a less risky investment, give us a call.  We can help you trade up to solar!

02/29/20

  03:14:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1167 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Commercial Solar, Residential Solar, Ranting

Run on Sun Enters the Drone Era!

Just about a year ago, we really started thinking seriously about what drone technology might add to our solar installation company. The folks over at Scanifly – with their ability to take drone images and convert it into a 3-D model of a potential solar site, without needing to climb onto a roof, was really appealing. And that got us thinking of other ways a drone might be helpful - as with finished project photography, or inspecting existing systems. All of that seemed possible, but certainly there were obstacles in the path.

Well now, a year later, those obstacles have been surmounted, and Run on Sun has officially enter the Drone Era!  Here’s how we did it…

Research

We started by doing some homework.  Lots of it.  Watching videos to see what it would take to make this happen.  The list was fairly long: what drone to purchase (there are a lot of drones out there!), how do you learn to fly one (safely!), what does it take to do this legally?  And on and on.

Choosing a drone…

Drones come in all shapes and sizes - to say nothing of costs.  Last year LG sent out a professional crew to photograph one of our installations (you can see one of those photos here), and they used a $20,000 drone for the task.  Clearly that was going to be too rich for our blood!  A number of years ago, my good buddy Josh - who is always on the bleeding edge of fun tools - had let us use his drone for shooting some video of our reservoir project. Josh did all the real flying, but I did get to take the controls and found it pretty straightforward to fly.  So we had some exposure to some of the different drones out there.

Our Mavic Air, aka Oscar

Our Mavic Air, FAA # FA3NMEK4RF - aka Oscar!

In looking around, it seemed like DJI was the market leader in the types of drones that we might consider.  Ultimately, we settled on the DJI Mavic Air (in Flame Red, thank you very much!), and we purchased the “More Fly Combo” which included two extra batteries, spare props, prop guards and a carrying case.  We also shelled out for a hardshell carrying case, a landing pad, and some neutral density filters.  Total outlay was just over $1,000, and for that we bring you our Mavic Air (nicknamed Oscar by Victoria who insists that it is the only robot she loves), FAA #FA3NMEK4RF. Which brings us to the next point - flying legally!

Making it Legal

Choosing a drone was fairly easy.  Figuring out how to fly it legally, that was more challenging.  Way back in the day, I was a private pilot, but I found that I either had the time, but no money, or the money, but no time.  And living in the greater LA area meant dealing with the most complicated airspace in the country, if not the world!  So I quit flying when my daughter was born and haven’t flown since.

But, that did give me a leg up in learning how to fly legally, since I was generally familiar with the rules and regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  One of the first things you learn is that any drone that weighs more than 0.55 pounds must be registered.  Our Mavic Air weighs in at just over 15 ounces, so registration was a must.  Turns out that is super easy, and can be done online for a nominal fee.  We had our local label maker create registration labels so our Mavic Air is legal everytime it flies!

Of course, getting me licensed was another matter!  I found a number of great resources online, including this great video created by Tony Northrup! Tony’s video is an hour and forty-three minutes long and I watched it multiple times.  He is clear, funny, and amazingly helpful.  I also found an online study guide (currently unavailable as they update it) here.

The test consists of 60 multiple choice questions and you need a 70% to pass.  While a significant number of the questions are really just common sense - like is the FAA going to ever suggest that having a drink of alcohol will improve your visual acuity??? - there are a number of questions that require you to parse a weather report that looks like this: KIAD 180005Z 19008KT 10SM TS SCT060CB BKN090 BKN200 31/21 A3002 RMK AO2 TSB04 FRQ LTGICCCCG SW TS SW MOV NE T03060211 (seriously!), or puzzle through a sectional chart that is one of the densest data presentations ever invented. (Don’t believe me?  You can download it here, but be patient, it will take a while!)

Suffice it to say, I took my test prep seriously, and the result was rewarding: 100%! 

Now all I needed was to start flying!

Flying for (fun) and Profit!

So now that I was a fully licensed drone pilot, it was time to start putting those skills to use.  Here are some recent drone shots and a description of their application.  (In each case, clicking on the image will give you a full-scale picture.

Completed residential solar installation   

Finished Project Photography

One of the really cool uses for the drone is to give homeowners a view of their new system that you just cannot get any other way!

This image shows a just completed tilt-up system on a flat - and very bright white roof!

Garage roof   

Residential Site Evaluation Photography

Another great reason to use the drone is to take imagery that our friends at Scanifly can turn into a 3-D model - all without actually going on the roof!  This is a 25 degree pitch garage roof - not really something you want to walk on if you don’t have to!  Guess what, thanks to the drone, everyone stayed on the ground and we got a great model to use for our proposal!

Array inspection   

Inspection Photography

The other day, one of our clients reported that a neighbor’s tree had fallen on his carport, where our solar system was installed five years ago.  When we came out, the array was completely buried under the tree.  We advised the client to get the tree removed and we would return to survey the array for damage.

Once again, we were able to examine the array closely for signs of damage, without ever breaking out a ladder!

Commercial building   

Commercial Site Evaluation Photography

One of our most anticipated uses if for modeling larger commercial roofs.  Using Scanifly, we can get shading readings for any area on the roof, letting us have very accurate production models, thereby allowing us to provide our commercial and non-profit clients with better proposals than ever before.  And when you try to distinguish yourself by the quality of the information that you can provide, this is a great leap forward!

We really think that the drone brings us a new level of safety and competence.  So when you call us for that site evaluation, don’t be surprised if we never break out the ladder, but instead let Oscar - the newest member of the Run on Sun team - do the hard work for us!

02/28/20

  04:46:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 411 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, PWP, LADWP, BWP, GWP, Residential Solar, Ranting

SMUD Scheme Threatens New Solar Homes Mandate

With very little fanfare, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District ("SMUD") just convinced the California Energy Commission to allow it to offer a SMUD-owned alternative to installing solar power systems on new homes under California’s just instituted New Solar Homes mandate. As other municipal utilities lined up in support – including PWP, LADWP, BWP and GWP – it is clear that this is nothing short of a full-on assault against the New Solar Homes mandate. Here’s our take…

Solar installed on a new home

Solar added to a new home in Altadena

The intent of the New Solar Homes mandate was to install appropriately sized solar power systems on every new home in California.  There are many benefits to such a program, including providing distributed power across the grid, thereby increasing grid reliability, as well as generating jobs and raising public awareness as solar becomes commonplace. 

The SMUD scheme thwarts all of that.  Instead, a SMUD-owned solar farm would have it production allocated across participating new homes.  (Tellingly, the SMUD scheme does not permit privately built community solar farms to participate in the program!)  Worse yet, the SMUD scheme effectively prevents subsequent home owners from adding local solar, since the first 4,700 kWhs must come from the SMUD-owned facility.

So how did this get approved?  In addition to all of the municipal utilities in California lining up behind SMUD’s power grab, so did much of the building industry (as they can simply fill out paperwork for compliance instead of actually building solar systems), and the IBEW (whose members get employed when utility-scale solar farms are built).  On the short end of the stick are local solar contractors, and consumers who lose the power to choose their own, local solar system because the builder decided to opt-into SMUD’s scheme.

What say you, PWP?

Which brings this back home.  While Pasadena Water and Power did not submit their own letter of support (that we could find), their trade association, the California Municipal Utilities Association, did.  Now there aren’t that many new homes being built in Pasadena at this point, but can we expect to see a similar power grab from PWP?  LADWP did submit their own letter and there are plenty of new homes going up within the City’s boundaries - is a similar scheme in the works?

The utilities rely on consumers being largely uninformed as to these schemes to push them through.  We will be keeping an eye on what our local utilities bring forward in the coming months.  Watch this space.

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Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, Pasadena's premier installer and integrator of top-of-the-line solar power installations.
Run on Sun also offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities, and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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