Solar as an Everyday Tool

November 3, 2016 By Carl Weinschenk

Solar-energy-manageThe solar industry has a lot of energy. Driven by incremental advances in the technology, creative financial approaches and a public that likes renewable energy, solar has become a vast market. Today, inclusion of solar as a central element of a big project simply is no big deal.

A good example of this is a project recently was completed in Connecticut. Scott Wiater, the President and CEO of Standard Solar, told Energy Manager Today that the company just finish a 3.4 MW, three-site solar installation in the town of Stafford. The project features about 11,780 panels at three sites. Two are at the Stafford Middle School and one at a capped landfill, which Wiater says is an ideal locale for solar projects. A nice side benefit is that the school incorporates irradiance and other data from the onsite solar panels into the science and math curricula, Wiater said.

He says that two elements continue to evolve. The first is the technology. It is changing, though not radically. “The technology has been around for a long time,” Wiater said. “There are no major changes except in efficiency, and the racking systems are better in different site situations. From the technical perspective there is no game changer, but things are getting better over time, which is driving down cost. The biggest change is that cost reduction over the last eight years or so has been tremendous.”

The other change is financial. Stafford used a Tax Exempt Lease Purchase (TELP) to buy the system. This, Standard Solar press release said, makes a Zero Emission Renewable Energy Credit contract (ZREC) a good approach for the locality. ZRECs and Low Emission Renewable Energy Credit (LREC) are Connecticut programs under which utilities Eversource and The Illuminating Company (a FirstEnergy company) procure energy credits under 15-year contracts to developers of qualifying projects.

Other options, such as power purchase agreements (PPAs) and energy performance contracts (EPCs) and Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing exist for solar and other projects. On top of that, utilities offer grants and rebates and various local, state and federal programs provide help. The bottom line is that solar and other energy efficiency projects are being encouraged. “There are a lot of different [financial] tools being used,” Wiater said. “You can get very creative to make projects work.”

Wiater says that non-residential customers and prospect with which he deals are growing more knowledgeable as time moves on. Misconceptions still exist, however. The biggest is that projects that add solar to grid-supplied electricity generally are not equal on a dollar to dollar basis to pure grid supply. In other words, people believe that while integrating solar into the mix is a laudable thing, a premium will be paid to do it.

That isn’t so, according to Wiater. “They think that solar is way too expensive,” he said. “The first thing we have to get across is that it is a cost savings, not a premium, to be green. Ninety-five percent of the projects have [saved money for our] customers. The green element is an extra benefit. The misconception is that solar is very expensive.”

Perhaps the most interesting element of the Stafford project simply is that it is mundane. Solar is mainstream and, according to Wiater, will become even more useful when storage solutions become deeply embedded in platforms. There are signs that this is beginning to happen as well.

The solar industry seems to be at an inflection point. Projects increasingly are accepted as more than nice add-ons. They are central elements that are significant energy producers. At the same time, it is on the verge of teaming with storage platforms to move to the next level.

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