Category: "SCE"


What You Need to Know About Commercial Solar Power in Three Easy Lessons - Part 2: Understanding Rebates and Tax Incentives

(Editor’s Note: Part 1 of this series - Understanding Your Bill can be found here.)

Commercial solar power systems are economical now - and in the first part of our series we explained how understanding your bill is the key to understanding what is currently driving your costs and how much you will be able to save.

Now we turn to the next step in preparing to install a commercial solar power system - understanding the applicable rebates and tax incentives.  We have written at great length before about these topics, including a blog post summarizing the year-end state of all solar power rebates in the Run on Sun service area and our solar tax incentives page provides great detail into this topic for all types of system owners - commercial, residential and non-profit.  In this post we will analyze just those rebates and incentives that are applicable to commercial solar power installations.

PBI vs EPBB Rebates for Commercial Solar Power Systems

Rebates for commercial solar power systems come in two flavors - Performance Based Incentives (PBI) and Expected Performance-Based Buydown (EPBB) - but PBI rebates are by far the more common for commercial systems above 30 kW.  EPBB rebates are lump-sum payments made based on the expected performance of the system.  The rebate rate is denoted in dollars per Watt based on the calculated AC Watts for the system.  EPBB rebates are nice for the consumer as the money is paid as soon as the system is approved, but for larger systems, they represent too much upfront risk for the utility.  Since there is usually no requirement to monitor the performance of the system, the utility ends up putting out its money with little guarantee of reaping the expected benefit.

PBI rebates, on the other hand, are paid out over five years based on the actual performance of the solar power system as verified by monitoring devices attached to the system inverter(s).  PBI rebates are denoted in cents per kilowatt hour generated.  Since the utility only pays for power actually provided, rebate dollars are guaranteed of providing the bargained for benefit. However, because of the need to provide the utility with verified performance data, PBI rebates increase the Operations & Maintenance expense of a commercial solar power system - at least for the five years of the rebate.  On the other hand, if your system is well maintained and conservatively designed, you may actually receive more in rebate payments than originally projected.

Each utility will have a threshold system size beyond which the system owner must take a PBI rebate.

Regional Rebate Amounts for Commercial Solar Power Systems

Of late there has been a great deal of turmoil among the local municipal utilities regarding their rebates.  This has lead to uncertainty and delays.  As of this writing, here is the landscape for commercial solar rebates in the Run on Sun service area:

Utility PBI Rate EPBB Rate PBI/EPBB Threshold
SCE 3¢/kWh $0.25/W 50 kW
PWP 21.2¢/kWh $1.40/W 30 kW
BWP Suspended until August 2013 $2.07/W 30 kW
GWP Suspended until 2015 ??? ???
LADWP Suspended until July 2011 ??? ???
Commercial Solar Rebates as of March 2011

This means that as of this writing, only SCE and PWP are paying rebates on commercial solar power systems greater than 30 kW. While LADWP is expected to come back online this summer, in what form remains to be seen.

We believe that these suspensions have come about because the lobby for commercial solar rebates is small and too often silent.  Of course, when no public discussion occurs before the decision is made to suspend rebates - as happened in both Glendale and Burbank - it is pretty hard to organize solar supporters.  Indeed, in Los Angeles, where the plans to severely limit solar rebates were publicly debated, the solar community came out in numbers to argue for those rebates - which resulted in LADWP only suspending their program for a comparatively short time.

The conclusion in inescapable - until there is a statewide feed-in tariff at a reasonable rate that offers predictability along with economic viability, the market for commercial solar in this state will continue to be subject to the caprice of unaccountable bureaucrats.

Tax Incentives for Commercial Solar Power Systems

While the news regarding rebates remains murky, the news on the tax front is - at least for this year - very good.

One caveat before we begin - while we believe this information to be accurate as of the date that it is written, you must always consult with your tax professional as to the applicability of these incentives to your tax situation.  Accountants shouldn’t design solar power systems and we don’t give tax advice.

Commercial solar power systems qualify for a federal Investment Tax Credit of a full 30% on the direct cost of the system.  (By “direct cost” we mean those costs directly associated with installing the solar power system.  The applicability of the Credit to indirect costs - such as deciding to re-roof your building before adding solar - must be decided on a case-by-case basis - see why that tax pro gets paid the big bucks?)  That Credit can be taken over two years and is a substantial incentive if you have the tax liability to offset.  Fortunately for systems that are put in service in 2011, commercial solar power system owners can elect to receive a Grant directly from the Treasury for the full 30%, regardless of their tax appetite.  Moreover, that Grant is paid out typically within 60 days of project completion, as opposed to being credited in the next tax payment cycle.  This provision in the tax code is subject to expiration at the end of this year, and there is no telling whether a more conservative Congress will renew it.  (The tax Credit, however, continues through 2016.)

Commercial solar power systems also qualify for accelerated depreciation.  For the past several years, that was a five year period with 50% in Year 1 and the remaining 50% divided evenly over the next four years.  (California offers a similar depreciation schedule.)  However, once again 2011 is special.  This year alone, that depreciation is 100% in Year 1, meaning that system owners may realize more of their savings sooner.

Collectively, rebates and tax incentives can reduce the cost of a commercial solar power system by 50% or more.  When combined with the savings from the energy generated, it is easy to see why a commercial solar power system is one of the best investments a building or business owner can make.

Up Next - Part 3 of Our Series: Understanding Your Bid for a Commercial Solar Power System

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  10:32:58 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1230 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Solar Economics, Utilities, PWP, SCE

What You Need to Know About Commercial Solar Power in Three Easy Lessons - Part 1: Understanding Your Bill

While many companies sit on the sidelines with accumulated capital, we have argued before that spending some of that capital on a commercial solar power system makes great economic sense.  But for some companies (and their facility managers and accountants and Board Members, and so on), commercial solar is still a mysterious concept, filled with confusing jargon and competing claims.  Can a commercial solar power system really be as economically beneficial as the proponents (like this blog) claim?

Rather than answer that question directly (well, ok, the answer is YES but please read on), we thought it would be useful to actually layout the case for commercial solar power in some detail.  Although no blog post (or series of blog posts) can take the place of a face-to-face conversation that takes into consideration all of the relevant  elements of a specific company’s situation, there are enough common elements that can and should be explained to demystify the overall process.  That is the task of this series - to teach you, the business/building owner everything you need to know in preparation for installing a commercial solar power system on your building.

First things first - before you ever even call a solar power company - and we will explain how to find the good ones in Part 3 - you need to start with something more mundane: your electric bill.  When was the last time that you really looked at your electric bill?  For many business or building owners the answer is never.  Oh sure, you certainly know how much you are paying - but do you know why you are paying so much?  What horrors are hiding in your bills?

The Shocking Facts Hiding in Your Electric Bill

The Basics - Usage & Demand

There is probably a very good reason why neither you, nor anyone else at your company has ever looked closely at your electric bill - it is terribly confusing.  Let’s start with some basics.  Almost every commercial user pays for at least two major components on their electric bill: usage and demand.

Usage is the more familiar component as it is the basis for your residential electric bill.  It is based on the total amount of energy that you used over the course of the billing cycle (usually one month for commercial customers).  Usage is measured in total kilowatt hours (kWh). Usage charges are based on some specific cost per kWh which is defined in the rate schedule that applies to your utility account (more on rate schedules in a minute).

Demand is a bit more complicated - it is usually defined as the greatest amount of power that the utility has to provide to you over a measured period of time during the billing cycle.  For SCE customers, demand is the peak power required during any 15 minute period over the month.  That means that if your building has multiple HVAC units and they all come online during the same 15-minute window, your demand will spike much higher than it would if those units came on in a staggered fashion (since the power demand of an HVAC unit is highest when the compressors are running as they will be when the unit is first started.)  Demand charges are billed per kilowatt (kW) of power.

Rate Schedules

Every utility has a variety of rate schedules that might apply to a commercial building and you could pay vastly different amounts - that is to say you could save a lot of money - by switching to the most economical rate schedule for which you qualify.

GS-2 rate structure model
SCE’s GS-2 Rate Schedule Model (click for larger)

Case in point - SCE has two rate structures that commonly apply to small to medium size commercial buildings: GS-1 and GS-2.  (For those ready to get into the details, here is a link to the GS-1 rate schedule and here is a link to the GS-2 rate schedule.)  The beauty of the GS-1 rate schedule is that it has no demand component.  But here’s the catch - your peak demand must not exceed 20 kW in any three of the past twelve months.

We had one potential customer who was paying under GS-2.  When we analyzed their bills - the first step in preparing a proposal for installing a commercial solar power system - it was apparent to us that based on their bills, they were entitled to actually be billed under GS-1.  When we met with their facilities manager to discuss our proposal, we pointed out that they could have saved over $2,000 the past year if they had been on the right rate schedule and we encouraged them to contact SCE about getting switched to GS-1.  (No, SCE had not suggested that to them.)  Strangely, none of the other solar companies that they had talked to had explained that to them, yet once they called SCE, they were switched over immediately.  (Oh, and they hired us to handle their commercial solar installation!)

Here’s another example.  PWP generally has low rates, but their mid-level commercial rate schedule (M-1)  has one of the most significant “gotchas” we have seen anywhere - and we are yet to speak to a single customer who was aware of this before we pointed it out.  The M-1 rate structure includes a demand component (labeled “distribution"), but unlike SCE’s demand component described above, PWP charges you for the peak demand in any 15-minute window for the past 12 months! That means that if on one unlucky day, everything in your building comes online all at once during the same 15 minutes, not only will you pay for that peak demand that month, you will pay for that peak demand for every month for the next year (unless a higher demand comes along to take its place)!  For one of our customers, they had a peak demand one month that spiked at 82 kW, yet their average for the next 12 months was only 36 kW.  Under the M-1 rate schedule, they paid $5,300 more than they would have if they only paid for their monthly peak demand.

Models Matter

At Run on Sun we have devoted a lot of time to mastering the intricacies of the various rate schedules used by the utilities in our service area.  We have turned that understanding into a series of rate schedule models that allow us to accurately model your prior utilities bills and then make accurate predictions regarding your potential savings from a host of measures - changing rate schedules, reducing your usage or peak demand, or installing a solar power system. Some companies simply assign a fixed amount of savings per kWh that their proposed solar power system will produce and call that your potential savings.  Such an approach ignores the complexities of how your electric bill is actually calculated and can mask other steps that you could take to save money.

We firmly believe that energy efficiency is way more cost effective than energy generation and we will share with you our ideas and observations on how you can save money long before you throw the switch of (or even sign the contract for) your commercial solar power system.  So before you pick up the phone, pick up your electric bills and check out what is hiding there - it is the first step in getting the greatest value from your commercial solar power system.

Up Next: Part 2 of Our Series - Understanding Solar Rebates and Tax Incentives as they apply to a Commercial Solar Power System.

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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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