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Trends in Onsite Solar: An Interview with Cassidy Kors

Cassidy Kors 400pxCassidy Kors is Coho’s distributed solar expert, with over a decade in the industry. We interviewed Cassidy to learn about trends in onsite solar and what they mean for renewable energy buyers.

Why would a large company or facility decide to install onsite solar? What conditions make onsite solar attractive?

Cassidy: Like with most renewable energy solutions, there are two key factors motivating this decision: economics and sustainability.

The economics for onsite solar are good for companies that have big electricity needs, high electricity costs, and lots of physical space on which to put solar panels. Onsite solar can substantially bring down their electric bills, especially for companies that are in markets with higher rates for electricity.

Switching to renewable energy in general has major sustainability benefits, but onsite has the added advantage of really showcasing the company’s sustainability commitment in a very visible way. You can publish climate commitments in a sustainability report or issue a press release, and plenty of people will see that, but it’s not the same as your customers or employees showing up to your facility and seeing a commercial-scale solar installation in real life.

Are there any common misconceptions about onsite solar among potential buyers?

The biggest misconception is that having onsite solar lets a commercial operation go “off-grid” or disconnect from the utility. Today, most onsite solar systems in a commercial setting do not include battery storage, so those systems can only provide electricity to the operation when the sun is shining. If the grid is down, those systems won’t even turn on because their inverters (which convert electricity from DC to AC) rely on grid inputs to operate. So, if the grid is down, your system is down.

Another big misconception is that onsite solar systems require a lot of maintenance. Facility managers often overestimate the maintenance needed, assuming upkeep is like other systems they manage. But solar is really low maintenance. Usually, the company will retain a third party to monitor the system and provide basic maintenance twice a year.

That being said, it is a new system that facility managers need to learn. It’s different than typical electrical equipment. You’re working with a lot of DC (direct current) electricity and other unique components.

How does battery storage change the equation for companies considering onsite?

Battery storage changes the operation of onsite solar considerably. First, it improves resiliency, just like a backup generator does. If the power grid goes down, batteries can power critical systems. It takes a facility closer to achieving energy autonomy, a.k.a. going “off grid.”

Batteries also change the economics by allowing onsite solar to offset the fluctuating price of facility electricity in certain markets. For example, let’s say your company is on a time-of-use (TOU) rate structure that charges more for electricity during peak hours. Batteries can be used to offset those higher costs with cheaper electricity generated by your solar and stored in your batteries. Unfortunately, in most cases today, the cost of battery storage outweighs these economic benefits. It’s just too expensive to set up without significant incentives.

There is a ton of research and development going into batteries for this reason. It’s unclear which battery technology will win out, but for now lithium-ion is the front-runner. Lithium is therefore in very high demand, largely due to the increasing demand for electric vehicles, which also use these batteries. This high demand coupled with supply constraints will keep storage costs high in the near-term.

One thing that could drive storage costs down is a substantial domestic supply. There actually is a large source of it in California, but we need the political will and market incentives to capture it.

How has the technology evolved over the years? What are the biggest technology factors impacting onsite solar use?

One thing I’ve noticed in my ten years in this field is that the systems are getting much bigger. When I started, the largest onsite solar installation you’d see might be one megawatt. Now you see four, five, even six megawatt systems.

The modules are becoming more efficient, and the module wattage is gradually increasing. Inverter manufacturers are making bigger inverters—100 kilowatts compared to just 30 kilowatts a couple of years ago. We are even beginning to see advances in system monitoring with companies developing technology that uses big data to diagnose issues and forecast production.

Even the underlying mechanical components are getting better. For example, rooftop racking manufacturers have engineered their components to reduce the amount of mechanical attachments you have to install, which means fewer roof penetrations and lower overall costs.

What policy trends are impacting the onsite solar market?

First, it’s important to understand that net metering is the policy that impacts whether you can do onsite solar. Net metering allows owners of solar systems to export to the grid when their system produces more than they are consuming and receive a 1:1 credit from the utility that they can use later when their system isn’t producing. Without this policy, the economics rarely work out for the solar system owner. This is what has had the most impact in driving distributed renewables. States that have good net metering policies are the states that have lots of distributed generation. Not every state has a net metering policy and some net metering policies are better than others.

Even states with traditionally good net metering policies are considering changes to the rules that would change the way utilities compensate producers of renewable energy. For example, here in California, net metering as we know it—which has helped California grow into the biggest distributed renewables market in the country—might totally change.

As I mentioned earlier, right now, net metering gives you a 1:1 credit for energy you produce and export back to the grid. You’re exchanging at a retail price. In other words, the electricity you sell to the utility is worth the same as the electricity you buy from it. But utilities are pushing for a different way of compensating distributed generation that would not be as favorable to the solar owners. It would mean solar owners would sell closer to the wholesale price, but still buy at the retail price.

This is clearly in the interests of utilities but significantly worsens the economics for solar owners. Whether this net metering policy will be adopted is hard to say. Net metering policy is murky, with many stakeholders and entrenched interests pulling the issue in different directions. The same can be said in other states across the country.

The bottom line: if you are wondering if you can do onsite solar, the first thing we would look at is whether you have a net metering policy in your state, and what direction that policy seems headed in.

What’s on the horizon for onsite solar? What’s the next big challenge or opportunity for the industry?

Decommissioning is becoming the next big issue. We are about a decade into solar really being a big commercially viable market, but a lot of the oldest systems are coming to the end of their useful lives. There have been enough technological advancements that in some cases it makes sense to upgrade modules or inverters before they even get to this point.

So, many solar owners are now figuring out what to do with their old solar installations. Solar panels can’t just be tossed in a landfill because, like other e-waste, they can have lead and other dangerous materials in them. Thankfully the whole system has the potential to be recyclable. Aluminum, copper, silicon – the materials that make up most of the system – can all be reused.

But first, we need to build our domestic capacity to recycle this large volume of solar material.

It’s a huge opportunity. Companies just need to step up and create the systems for recycling these panels and sourcing that recycled material for new production. We can close the loop on the lifecycle of these solar modules, and we can do it domestically.

It’s totally possible to have these modules built in the US, deployed in the US, and recycled in the US.

CustomerFirst Renewables Onsite SolarWhat’s your favorite part of working in this industry?

My favorite part about working in this industry is coming together with many different groups to overcome obstacles so we can achieve a common goal, which is to deploy more renewable energy. Every project I have been involved with has had challenges in one form or another. At the end of the day what matters most and brings me a great sense of accomplishment, is that we were able to come together and get something done that has tremendous benefits now and into the future.