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Reports from Solar 2007

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/14/07 @ 4:01pm

In the race to establish a renewable energy economy, Ohio has moved from back of the pack to a middle-weight contender with recent decisions to allow 'net metering', aka spinning the meter backwards when we someday produce solar or wind power at home or the office. Ohio also joined 40 states in establishing 'interconnection' or rules about feeding self-generated power back to the grid.

The missing ingredient to a robust renewable economy, say presenters at the national Solar 2007 conference going on in Cleveland this week, is a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which will require power companies to offset a slice of their mostly coal-fired power with renewable resources like solar, wind, or biomass-just as 28 states already have done.

"No other policy has as much impact as an RPS," says Jeff Deyett, Energy Analyst, Union of Concerned Scientists.

Ohio may soon join them, that is if a big utility objection-premiums to produce and deliver renewables-is finally cleared by the newly announced Renewable Energy Credits program. With 'RECs', we volunteer to pay the premium, which could be as much as a two cents per kilowatt hour.

With the announcement that Ohio's big three investor-owned electric companies ? AEP, Duke and First Energy-will offer RECs (in that order), we take a big step toward an RPS. In other words, if the market (you and me) are willing to fork over a premium for green power, producers should reciprocate and agree to buy a certain percentage of renewables. Akron-based First Energy is already buying green power for its customers in Pennsylvania because the state has an RPS on the books (incidentally, the Keystone State's RPS lured Gamesa, a Spanish company that makes wind turbines, to open a manufacturing plant in two abandoned steel mills).

Bills to create an RPS are being considered in the Ohio General Assembly, and Governor Ted Strickland is taking steps toward the energy efficiency and renewable energy ideas put forth in his campaign. Strickland passed an executive order to make all government buildings energy efficient, and he pledged this week to renew his commitment to electricity deregulation reform.

At Solar 2007, a recurrent theme among the hundreds of electricians, solar equipment manufacturers and policy makers is that economic opportunity flows from a progressive regulatory environment. Much is made here of California's Million Solar Roofs Initiative, where the state is using its RPS (passed in 2002) to get the ball rolling on a goal of 3,000 megawatts of solar PV installations in ten years. Half of their new homes will have solar panels, and at least 10% will be for lower income.

Put in perspective, 350 megawatts serves the needs of 500,000 people, and California has 71 megawatts (101 megawatts is the total U.S.) solar installed. 100 megawatts offsets 191,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions and takes up 1 square mile.

Money for California's solar initiative will come from its RPS which is expected to generate $3.2 billion in rate-payer rebates, says Bernadette Del Chiaro, Clean Energy Advocate, Environment California. The biggest challenge will be to train the estimated 34,000 electricians needed to install hundreds of solar projects, like Google's 1-megawatt solar campus or the 1-megawatt arrays at each of nine state colleges.

In Colorado, RPS lost by one vote in 2003, but advocates eventually not only got it passed but also doubled the amount to 20% by building a coalition among labor and agriculture, passing a statewide ballot initiative despite the power companies outspending them, and providing a new governor with everything from market studies to polling data.

"We didn't start with the best possible policy, but what would work here," says Matthew Baker, Executive Director, Environment Colorado. "We based it on the price of energy and because Colorado is a low tax state we wanted to have a systems benefit charge where we reap from wind power and put back into solar."

Then there's the emerging private market with business models to match the innovation of the tech itself. Citizenre is leasing solar panels to homeowners who sign a multi-year contract, thus eliminating the financial risk-they even install and maintain them. The company manufactures the panels by taking the rate-payer rebate from Renewable Energy Credits and through production tax credits. They offer a 25-year price fix guarantee on the electric bills of their current 1,800 customers. When are they coming to Ohio?

"Since Ohio now has interconnection and net metering, we're preparing to offer our service in the state," says Erica Morgan at Citzenre Corporation. "In fact, we have 350 signed agreements, so now it depends on our manufacturing capacity" which cannot keep up with demand.

More tomorrow.

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