Energy Managers Must Prepare as Changes to Solar Rules Accelerate

April 15, 2016 By Carl Weinschenk

Solar-energy-manageThis week, solar power provider Soltage LLC announced a deal with Quinsigamond Community College (QCC) in West Brookfield, MA. Under terms of the deal, a site in Worcester, MA – about 25 miles away from the school – will use 5,800 photovoltaic panels to generate about 2.4 megawatt hours (MWh) of energy for the school.

Such long distance relationships are becoming increasingly common. Jesse Grossman, Soltage’s Founder and CEO, said that there are two types of solar projects. In the simpler version, solar panels are co-located at the facility being powered. In others – such as the arrangement with QCC – the solar energy collected is not actually used by the customer. Instead, the energy is sent to the grid and the customer’s electric bill is reduced by an equivalent amount.

In many ways, the source of a facility’s energy is an afterthought to energy managers, particularly when it is generated elsewhere in a net metering arrangement and they don’t have to manage on-site infrastructure. It is inevitable, however, that the growth of solar  will make things a bit trickier and impact their jobs. Solar is being driven by three things: The regulatory and legal frameworks are growing more creative as federal, state and local legislators see the value – political and otherwise – of advocating solar, the technology is evolving and becoming less expensive and the public increasingly is aware of, and likes, solar options. This means that over time solar will be a bigger piece of organizations’ energy profile, and energy managers will have to make it work.

The changes are accelerating. Earlier this year, the NC Clean Energy Technology Center at NC State University released a report entitled “The 50 States of Solar.” The report found that 46 states took “some form of solar policy action in 2015.” Twenty-seven of those states considered or made changes to net metering policies and 24 states “formally examined or resolved to examine” distributed generation. Utilities took steps to protect themselves, according to the report: 21 utilities in 13 states proposed adding or increasing charges to rooftop solar customers and six took policy actions on third-party solar ownership or regulations, the report said.

A look at activity in New England is a good illustration of how much activity is focused on paving the regulatory path for renewables and innovative financial structures. Brook Detterman and Marc Goldstein, attorneys with the law firm of Beveridge & Diamond wrote at The National Law Review that just in April Massachusetts and New Hampshire enacted net meter legislation, a “novel” proposal was debated in Maine and a proposal was made to overhaul the system in Vermont. There is little doubt that similar activity is ongoing in other regions.

A related sign that energy managers need to be aware of the alternative energy industry is that community solar – parks that generate solar energy for use by more than one customer in net metering arrangements — is growing. Yesterday, Navigant Research released a report that found the market is expected to reach 1.5 GW by 2020. This, the report found, will represent a $2.5 billion market.

Grossman said that among the next two big things are storage and energy management systems. The ability to store energy for times in which the sun isn’t signing is developing — and quickly. He guesses that it will be a significant factor in five years. At that time, energy managers will need to house, maintain and manage the storage technology.

Another important element of renewables – and one that is here today – is the ability to use the data that that is produced to help manage the facility’s energy. “There is a display on a computer or kiosk in the facility that shows solar energy consumption – and potentially all energy consumption — over time,” Grossman said. “Through the information that is captured the facility manager has a 360 degree view of what their facility is doing at any time and can manage appropriately and perhaps avoid turning on a chiller or other machinery during peak times and moving a little off shoulder time. They can manage their energy appropriately. It is just a byproduct of getting solar in the facility.”

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