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Excellence in Renewable Energy Awards Winners: Innovation

The nominations have been reviewed; the editors votes are in and we are now pleased to announce the winners of the 2011 Excellence in Renewable Energy Awards. Over the next three days, we'll be announcing the winners in the Innovation, Leadership, Project and Readers' Choice categories. Today we announce the Innovation winners.

In the clean energy industry, innovation plays a key role in bringing about the mainstream adoption of renewable energy. From a more efficient solar cell to a better way to finance large-scale developments, renewables rely on the spirit of innovation. The desire to invent, implement and refine allows new opportunities to emerge and established technologies to flourish. Innovation is why we are here today, and in many ways it will define where we go tomorrow. 

Our innovation winners this year are pioneering efforts to help the renewable energy stand on its own – replacing incumbent fossil energy with energy generated by the sun and wind. Editors from the Renewable Energy World network, which includes five print magazines and four websites, selected the winners from among the five finalists in each category: innovation in technology, innovation in policy and innovation in finance.

The award winners were announced and recognized on Tuesday night at the Renewable Energy World North America Conference and Expo, in Long Beach, California. Video interviews will be conducted with many of the winners during the show and will be posted on in the coming weeks.

Technology Innovation of the Year
Wind Float

In North America, offshore wind represents massive potential, yet little project momentum. The nascent industry may be gaining a foothold in the shallow waters off Europe, but that has yet to translate into the first installed development off the coast of the U.S.

So far, the U.S.-based projects with the deepest roots in the industry are also facing the fiercest objections from coastal residents. Cape Wind on Horseshoe Shoal on Nantucket Sound continues to fight off legal challenges a decade after first proposing America’s first offshore wind farm.

The solution, as many see it, is to push these farms farther out to sea, where the wind is stronger, the resource is more consistent and the objections are more muted. For this to ever happen, the geographic push must coincide with technological gains. Aside from the transmission challenges that come with deep offshore wind, the biggest hangup is how to anchor these mammoth wind turbines without fixed foundations

Seattle-based Principle Power is charting the course into previously inaccessible waters with the deployment of its full-scale 2 MW WindFloat off the coast of Aguçadoura, Portugal. Accoprding to the company, this is the first offshore wind turbine in open Atlantic waters, and the first deployment of a semi-submersible structure supporting a multi-megawatt wind turbine.

The floating structure itself relieves many of the engineering and construction challenges posed by fixed structures assembled at more shallow depths. Because the deep water structure are designed to float, they can essentially be assembled on shore and towed to their final destination, with much less work performed on site.

If floating technology proves to be a cost-effective option, it will undoubtedly open up new markets in the U.S. Right now, offshore wind plans are concentrated along the East Coast, where the wider continental shelf allows for more shallow water options. The West Coast, with its deep offshore waters are large population centers, could have the most to gain with deep offshore wind. 

Finance Innovation of the Year
Project Amp

Before Project Amp came along, scaling up was a term used solely for large-scale developments. The innovative financing model introduced by Bank of America Merrill Lynch changed that and brought solar distributed generation back to the forefront.

Under Project Amp, which received a partial $1.4 billion loan guarantee by the Department of Energy in September, more than 750 MW of PV will be installed across about 750 rooftops owned and managed by Progolis. The sheer volume of PV included in the project spans 28 states and represents about 80 percent of the total PV installed in 2010. The electricity generated by the rooftop projects will be sent directly into the grid, and the four-year project is expected to create about 1,000 construction jobs.

The legacy of the project, though, may be in the financing template it has created. According to Bank of America Merrill Lynch, before Project Amp the market for solar distributed generation was fragmented and underserved by the financial markets, and projects were generally financed with equity alone. This model was the first to sell all of its power back to the grid, to raise long-term, fixed-rate debt financing and to obtain a credit rating on the debt. The result was a scaling and stable tool that could be replicated.

The Project Amp template was used by SolarCity’s Solar Strong program, which will bring rooftop solar to military bases across the country. Solar Strong initially received a conditional loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, but the loan did not close before the DOE’s Sept. 30 deadline. Without federal backing, the project was in jeopardy. But Bank of American Merrill Lynch and SolarCity revived the $1 billion, 300-MW deal late in the year, and the project is moving ahead.

Policy Innovation of the Year
Colorado's 'Fair Permit Act'

The Colorado chapter of the Solar Energy Industries Association saw a bottleneck that was stifling solar development in its state. In the U.S., permits alone for the average residential customer could exceed $2,500 and costs for large-scale projects could push upwards of $100,000. 

So the organization set out to change this through state legislation. The group developed a vision for a bill, it enlisted the support of key state legislators and it built a coalition that helped the measure get passed.

What we have now is Colorado’s “Fair Permit Act.” The bill caps fees at the local government’s costs to issue the permit. This means fees for residential installations won’t exceed $500 and commercial projects up to 2 MW won’t have to pay more than $1,000. The legislation also requires local governments to identify all the imposed fees and taxes in an invoice. Previously, these fees and taxes were lumped into one sum.

At a time of rigid political division, the measure passed both the Colorado House and Senate with near unanimous support. For supporters of clean energy, the bill removes a hurdle for those who want to make the leap to rooftop solar. For supporters of smaller government, it reins in costs and provides more transparency to the customer.

The question now is whether this model will be adopted by other states. The falling price of PV panels puts a growing focus on the other costs associated with rooftop solar.

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