The expectation is that 2016 will be a roller coaster ride for solar and clean energy markets. This is certainly not a novel occurrence. Each past year can easily be tagged as one with its ups and downs. Recent events give us cause for optimism but with caution.
Going into this new year, we have big ticket items on the table: the sticky, mistaken and miscalculated label pinned on solar energy users being “subsidized by non-solar ratepayers;” the complexity of rate design; and other front-burner headlines.
But some less noisy areas can have a loud impact on how steep the vertical loop will be in the months ahead. Hardly sleeper issues, we take a look at five quieter topics. Gone unchecked, they could be “villains” with damaging consequences. With focused thought and coordinated action, they will be “heroes” resulting in constructive outcomes.
Interconnection – Easy hook up or long lines? The inconsistencies in interconnection procedures and practices among states can lead to deal-breaking delays and derailments for getting systems up and running. Take for example the case of Minnesota, where an innovative community solar gardens program prompted stacked-up reservations and interconnection applications without the policy and procedural backbone in place to absorb the demand. In a January 2015 study, NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) found that the median timeline for utility interconnection was 53 days, from the date a PV solar installer submitted an interconnection application to the date the installer received permission to operate.
By promoting standardization across borders, predictable and expedited processes will avoid long waits, reduce costs and make for positive consumer experiences, while maintaining the safety and reliability of the grid.
IREC’s work nationally and with states addresses interconnection obstacles. As a result, some states have adopted pre-application reports, reduced review timelines and improved availability and access to grid information. IREC will continue its work in 2016 on speedier interconnection studies, fast track and supplemental review processes, and streamlined processes for distributed energy resources.
Advertising – Fact or fiction? It’s definitely a bellwether signal that solar energy has gained market space as media ads and telemarketers are on the rise in certain areas of the country. But, free solar energy? Really? In a May ad in a Boston newspaper, the word “free” was highlighted six times and also included a signing bonus. Intrusive dinnertime phone calls ring with “hot” solar deals. More responsible ads and marketing strategies exist but the literal and figurative fine print is anything but fine. These misleading pitches could land an immediate sale or lease. They could also end with an installation that doesn’t deliver on promises or budget. These repercussions can travel far, wide and quickly through social media. Backlash is no longer local.
Hats off to SEIA for the release of their Solar Business Code. While trade associations have codes and ethical standards, SEIA’s principles go further by specifying transactional practices for the solar industry to follow to prevent unfair and deceptive practices. It’s thorough and well done.
IREC will soon be publishing a guidance document with a different slant. It addresses important consumer issues including safety, contractual transparency, warranties, advertising, privacy and other protective measures. Its purpose will be to empower consumers to have a positive experience with clean energy products, technologies, service providers, marketers, sellers and other market players, including their utility.
Certifications – Fast enough or slow to grow? We commend the clean energy sector for their emphasis on assuring a competent workforce. The sector has stepped up to the plate for quality workmanship. Credible certifications for key jobs in the renewable energy and home performance markets are built on valid credentialing practices. Their standards, requirements and assessments have been developed in the right way. But, the process to implement a full-scope certification, following established credentialing principles, is lengthy and expensive. This unintentionally hampers a more nimble response to market changes and slows down the release of certifications that better reflect new and changing occupational classifications, job descriptions and skill sets.
Two questions have been on our plate – Do all occupations need full-scope certifications? (We don’t think so.) Can a streamlined process be established without comprising quality and proof of competency? (We think it can be.)
Last year, we moved to introduce and define a micro-credential. Then, working with industry experts, we designed a stepped and timed process to develop one. A micro-credential could recognize practitioners in clean energy fields by identifying new specialty skills for a specific occupation, or it could recognize professionals in other fields that in some way touch clean energy. The first pilot is just about completed. We’ll be selecting a second pilot to fine tune the process. The goal is to have real time credentials responsive to changing clean energy market realities.
Community Shared Renewables – Open roof policy or just for some? A customer who doesn’t own their own roof (or without a solar-friendly one) shouldn’t be locked out of tapping into the sun. And, neighborhood housing stock and income levels shouldn’t be the deciding factor to go solar or not.
Shared renewable energy has the potential to provide customers of all incomes with beneficial clean energy resources, but only a limited number of customers are now able to participate. The challenge is to expand the playing field to low- and moderate-income customers who face financial and tenant/ownership barriers.
New IREC guidelines will be published soon which lay out financing tools and mechanisms to address the constraints faced by low- and moderate-income customers. The guidelines will offer policymakers and regulators language from which to build an independent shared renewable energy program or add a low- and moderate-income component to an existing one.
Guidelines author Erica McConnell says: “It is our hope the guidelines will be an important step towards making the promise of shared renewables—broad access to solar for all customers, including low- and moderate-income customers—a reality by providing relevant information about how it can be done and what has worked elsewhere.”
Labor Market – Supply or demand? The bar has been raised for clean energy training in the United States thanks to dedicated providers’ adherence to standards and pedagogical practices. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Instructor Training Network, weatherization training centers, community colleges and others commit to training to the best principles. We’ve seen success. However, one significant imbalance has been the lack or little used formal synchronization of training courses to job openings. Simply, if there aren’t jobs at the end of the course, then graduates are discouraged, enrollment suffers, and good training goes away.
Time for a reset by shifting the talent pipeline from training providers to employers. There are national and state efforts underway to re-engineer workforce structures, starting with demand (jobs) and designing training (supply) to support expressed employer needs. It is employer engagement through industry-sector partnership that drives the process. Sector partnerships allow for companies to come together, collaboratively solving common problems around skill gaps and workforce needs. Connecting the working and learning worlds makes for a delivery system that responds to hiring requirements and needed add-on skills. The result is a competent, competitive and employed workforce.
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