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Lisa Cohn been writing about energy for more than 20 years. Her stories have appeared in Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly. She began her career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times and first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, where she helped design and build a solar house.


Lisa Cohn

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Lisa Cohn been writing about energy for more than 20 years. Her stories have appeared in Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly. She began her career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times and first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, where she helped design and build a solar house.

Recent Posts

COVID-19 Stimulus Package: Where Does the Solar Industry Fit In?

Posted by Lisa Cohn on Apr 2, 2020 7:13:50 PM

On March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act—also known as the CARES Act—was signed into law. This $2 trillion stimulus package is the largest emergency aid passed in U.S. history, and though there are indirect benefits for the solar industry, it’s not enough.

COVID-19’s Impact on the Solar Industry

Due to the coronavirus, the solar industry faces the possibility of losing half its employees, impacting 125,000 families, said the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

That’s tough on the U.S. economy, given that the solar energy industry has been a major economic driver for the U.S., said Mona Dajani, a lawyer on the board of the American Council of Renewable Energy (ACORE) and the energy and infrastructure projects team lead for PillsburyWinthrop Shaw Pittman in an interview with Aurora Solar.

“With over $50 billion in annual investment over each of the past five years, the solar energy sector is one of the nation’s most important economic drivers—but that growth is placed at risk by a range of COVID-19 related impacts,” she said.

The CARES Act’s Benefits (Or Lack Of)

Solar companies will be able to benefit from the CARES Act’s long-term unemployment insurance, business loans and provisions that support employee retention and other employee protections, said SEIA.

Ashley Eusey, PE, a sustainability specialist at Hoefer Wysocki, an architecture, planning and design firm, told Aurora Solar, “Any relief specifically to solar companies will likely be due to the ripple effect of being a small business that is eligible for funding or to individuals in the solar industry that are laid off and can collect on the relief package’s unemployment offerings.”

One provision of the CARES Act includes $350 billion allocated for federally guaranteed loans to help keep payroll going for small businesses. Those that are able to continue paying their employees during the entire COVID-19 crisis would be granted loan forgiveness. This is good news for the solar industry.. According to the 2019 Solar Jobs Census Survey, 96% of solar companies are considered small business, and are eligible for these loans.

Unfortunately, the Act did not provide direct relief for the solar industry. Dajani shared that the industry’s most important concerns are supply chain disruptions that have the potential to delay construction timetables and undermine the ability of solar developers to qualify for time-sensitive tax credits. She also mentioned that another challenge is a sudden reduction in the availability of tax equity, which is crucial to monetizing tax credits and financing clean energy projects of all types.

The impacts have already been felt among businesses of all sizes. In an ongoing industry survey conducted by SEIA, as of March 16, 16% responded that they have had to let workers go due to the impacts of COVID-19.

What the Solar Industry Needs

The industry had hoped—and still hopes—that the federal government will ensure that the impacts on the supply chain and associated delays don’t impact the availability of the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC), said Sam Kamyans, partner at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in an interview with Aurora Solar. Second, the industry wants a system that provides a refundable tax credit for the ITC. That means that if taxpayers are eligible for an ITC in excess of their tax liability, they get a cash payment from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) equal to the excess of the ITC over their tax liability.

On March 23, more than 550 solar companies asked Congress to support solar workers as part of any stimulus package, said SEIA in a statement. The companies asked for paid sick leave, small business support, and changes to the administration of the ITC for faster cash relief.

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The Importance of the ITC to the Solar Industry

The ITC, the largest source of savings for solar installation, is now ramping down, meaning timing is critical for existing and future projects.

This year the solar ITC dropped from 30% to 26%, and is scheduled to drop to 22% in 2021, and 0% for residential and 10% for commercial in 2022, according to SEIA.

“As a result, even short delays of weeks or months in 2020 has the likelihood of pushing renewable energy projects into a lower, 2021 ITC tier, with significant economic impact. This likelihood is compounded by the expected disruptions in the financial and tax equity markets renewable energy projects rely on to meet project and ITC deadlines, and forecasted manufacturing and supply chain disruptions,” said Geoffery Underwood, founding partner at renewable energy developer Glidepath Ventures in an interview with Aurora Solar.

Meeting ITC Deadlines Will Be Tough

In order for a project to be considered for inclusion in a particular year’s ITC deadline, the project must either have (1) started physical work of a significant nature or (2) met the so-called Five Percent Safe Harbor Test, which is paying or incurring five percent or more of the total cost of the facility in the year that construction begins.

“Given the multiple uncertainties in the market...it will be extremely difficult for renewable energy project owners to allocate the significant resources or contractual commitments required to safe harbor current ITC values. As a result, a significant number of projects will be cancelled,” said Underwood.

A Fourth Phase of the Stimulus Package May Include Renewable Energy Support

This bill is the third aid package from Congress to help individuals and businesses stay afloat and to stimulate the economy. According to Underwood, phase four efforts are expected to be addressed in three to six weeks and may include ITC or other renewable industry support, but competition for government money will be fierce, with industries ranging from restaurants to movie theaters to airlines all requesting help.

"To ensure that we do not lose years of progress on clean energy and the source of employment for tens of thousands of renewable energy workers, Congress should look to previous relief packages as an example for how to support this sector and the broader American economy," said Dajani, quoting a letter from ACORE to Congress. “There is precedent for this kind of action to support major U.S. infrastructure. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included "over $90 billion in funding for clean energy and grid modernization,” she said.

Topics: policy

How to Read a Solar Panel Specification Sheet

Posted by Lisa Cohn on Mar 4, 2020 8:33:25 AM

A solar panel spec sheet provides valuable information about the operating parameters of a panel, and can help designers, engineers, and installers determine how to configure a solar PV system.

"The panel spec sheet will tell you about the panel's electrical power production, including its efficiency and how it operates with changing temperatures, as well as mechanical information like the dimensions and wind loads,” says Andrew Gong, research engineer for Aurora Solar. "This information is required to get an accurate performance simulation," he adds.

Understanding the Pmax Rating

The first value people should pay attention to is the maximum power point (Pmax) rating.

“Maximum power point is a combination of voltage and current,” he says. It’s the combination of volts and amps that creates the highest wattage.

“If you lower the current and increase the voltage, you move away from the maximum power point,” says Gong. 

Typically, solar panels are rated between 250 and 400 watts. Higher wattage generally means a system will be more efficient and require fewer modules.

Voltage is Important

Voltage is also an important consideration.

If, for example, a designer decided on 12 panels in a string, it’s important to make sure the voltage doesn’t exceed certain thresholds.

“You want to size the system so it doesn’t exceed 600 volts per string,” Gong explains. Above that, the panel won’t operate as well.

Solar Panel Efficiency

Installers, engineers, and designers should consider efficiency ratings. On average, solar panel efficiency ranges from 15% to 20%, with some panels as high as 23%. As cell technology improves, so do efficiency ratings. 

A spec sheet also provides information about the assumptions used to create a panel’s operating parameters. 

For example, SunPower's spec sheet provides a range of temperatures, from -40 C degrees F  to 85 degrees C. That’s listed under Operating Condition and Mechanical Data.

“In colder temperatures, panels operate a bit better,” says Gong.

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In Extreme Weather, Consider Temperature Ranges

The temperature ranges of modules generally are between -20 degrees C to +85 degrees C in the U.S. In areas with more extreme temperatures—such as Alaska—installers and designers should be aware of panels’ temperature ranges.

Another value is the operating cell temperature, says Gong. “Some panels run hotter than others. This value tells you how modules respond to various levels of sunlight.”

It’s also important to understand current in panels. Under the heading of electrical data, a spec sheet provides a rated current.

“If you exceed the current, you destroy the panel,” says Gong. “Maximum current depends on the panel and how many parallel strings in the system,” he says.

Ratings That are Important in Areas With High Winds

In areas of extreme weather—those susceptible to high winds or snow—installers should pay attention to the mechanical or static load ratings.

The front side rating focuses on the snow load, and the back side rating is about the wind load.

The load figures appear in Pascals, a unit of pressure. Higher numbers mean the panel is stronger.  

Warranties Can Vary

Spec sheets also mention warranties. Most have 25-year warranties, according to Gong. Some manufacturers offer a 90% warranty for 10 years, and decrease that amount as the panels age. Premium panels have better warranties.

Once you’ve gathered this and other data from a spec sheet, you can load the data into  Aurora Solar or other software and create a picture of how the panels will fare.

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Topics: solar design, solar installation

Module-Level Rapid Shutdown: New Requirements for Fire Safety

Posted by Lisa Cohn on Jan 28, 2020 11:07:22 PM

Working in the solar industry, you’ve likely heard about rapid shutdown requirements. But what are they, do they apply to you, and do you know how to comply?

Several states including California adopted newer rapid shutdown requirements starting in 2020, and many others had already adopted them prior to that point, so it’s important to understand what these requirements mean for your business.

In this article, we tackle this topic and what you need to know to design safe and legal PV systems in areas with these requirements. Specifically, we look at the requirements for module-level rapid shutdown in the U.S.

What Is Rapid Shutdown?

With the increased popularity of solar PV—especially on homes—the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) wanted to find a way to ensure firefighters could be safer when responding to fires on buildings with solar PV.

In response, the NFPA, which publishes the National Electric Code (NEC)—standards for electrical wiring that are adopted by states and municipalities in the U.S., introduced rapid shutdown.

Rapid shutdown requirements aim to provide a simple method for firefighters to de-energize the DC conductors in a solar system and ensure safe conditions on a roof if there’s a fire, explained Edward Harner, Chief Operating Officer of Green Solar Technologies.

In the 2017 NEC, NEC Section 690.12 was updated to reflect new rapid shutdown rules. The update calls for module-level rapid shutdown instead of the array-level rapid shutdown required in the NEC 2014 code. States and municipalities adopt different versions of the NEC over time, but as of January 1, 2020, the NFPA reports that 31 states have adopted the 2017 NEC.

To meet these module-level regulations, smart modules, microinverters, or other module-level power electronics are needed.

Protecting Firefighters From Live Wires

“On a typical string inverter system, even after the inverter is switched off, the DC conductors remain live as long as the sun is shining. To protect our firefighters from hacking any live wires while ventilating the roof during a fire, rapid shutdown was introduced to kill any power in the system conductors,” Harner said.

Rapid shutdown devices are designed to lower the voltage in the DC system conductors to 30 volts within 10 seconds after the inverter is disconnected, he said.

For standard string inverter systems, the NEC requirements also call for a rapid shutdown device for every section of the conduit run that is more than one foot from the array, he said.

MLPE Needed

That means that all buildings subject to the NEC 2014 or 2017 codes will need module-level power electronics (MLPE) such as microinverters and optimizers to enable the rapid shutdown, said Sean White, the author of several books about solar energy and the 2014 Interstate Renewable Energy Council Trainer of the Year.

One of the drawbacks of requiring module-level rapid shutdown—as opposed to array-level shutdown—can be the additional cost, said Harner.

Considerations for Systems with MLPE

Another consideration to be aware of is the maintenance required for MLPE. “You need things to be replaced more often,” said White, who has solar PV on his roof at home. “I have 53 microinverters on my roof. There’s almost always one I need to replace. The microinverters have a monitoring system and tell me when they need to be replaced,” he said.

In addition, the rapid shutdown requirements limit a designer’s product choices.

Before the rapid shutdown requirement, designers could wire modules and put control devices outside the arrays, which was easy to do. The only way to meet the new requirement is to install an electronic device at each module, and there are limited options for achieving this goal.

One way to avoid installing electronic devices at each module is to use smart modules, such as those from SolarEdge or Enphase, which have rapid shutdown equipment built into their systems. While solar systems with these kinds of components don’t require additional gear, most others do—with a few exceptions, White noted.

Wildfires Boost Need for Rapid Shutdown

The need for rapid shutdown has increased because wildfires are being sparked more often by climate change, especially in California and Australia.

Without the rapid shutdown requirements, firefighting in the age of wildfires and climate change would be more complex—and dangerous to firefighters who are already grappling with the challenges of bigger and more frequent fires, said Harner.

Supporting Firefighter Safety

“There have been many reports in the news about firefighters needing to change their tactics at the last minute when, upon arrival to the scene, they find solar on a building,” he said.

Firefighters are safer due to rapid shutdown requirements. More and more, they’re also safer because they’re taking precautionary steps such as maintaining a database of buildings with solar. And fire officials are providing special training on fighting fires in buildings with solar.

For example, the city of Portland, Oregon is providing training to firefighters about how to respond to fires in buildings that have microgrids consisting of solar and storage.

“Structures with solar only add more complexity to the challenge of firefighting,” said Harner. “We want our firefighters to be safe, and we want to also promote and accelerate the adoption of solar technology.”

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Topics: solar policy

How Solar Easements Provide PV Peace of Mind

Posted by Lisa Cohn on Jan 17, 2020 2:46:18 PM

A solar installation is a significant investment for your customers—and the last thing they want is to have that investment threatened. However, in some cases, future changes on surrounding property—such as a new building on their neighbor’s property or the growth of vegetation on adjacent land—could jeopardize the amount of irradiance their PV system receives, and thus how much energy it produces.

There are options for solar customers to avoid these kinds of unpleasant surprises, however. Solar easements give solar system owners the right to negotiate with neighbors for access to unobstructed sunlight on their solar systems, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

In today’s article, we delve into what solar easements are, how they work, and some of the considerations that solar customers should be aware of if they are interested in pursuing easements. If this question comes up, whether in the sales process or in your post-sale relationship with customers, you’ll be well prepared to help.

Protecting Against Shading of Solar Systems

“Solar easements are important in ensuring that a homeowner’s solar panel system is producing optimal levels of electricity. Shade plays a large role in solar electricity production, and easements protect [homeowners] against that happening,” says Ken Pedotto, CEO of Solar Simplified.

Specifically, solar easements restrict what your neighbors can build or grow on their property; they prevent neighbors from blocking sunlight to your solar panels, he says.

Solar Access Laws vs. Solar Easements

Easements differ from solar access laws. Solar access laws limit private restrictions on solar energy projects, says SEIA. For example, rules from homeowners’ associations are a common challenge that restrict how solar systems on homes or businesses are installed. Such rules are generally created to uphold a community’s aesthetic standard.

When a solar system owner is grappling with solar access challenges from neighbors or homeowners’ associations, it’s important to ensure that the owner’s rights are protected. “To put it simply, a solar easement allows homeowners to legally protect their access to sunlight,” says Pedotto.

There are two types of easements: affirmative easements, the right to use land owned by another entity; or a negative easement, which restricts a property owner’s use of land.

A solar easement is viewed as a negative easement because it prohibits property owners from using their property in a way that prevents sun from reaching a solar energy system on a neighboring property.

Potential Challenges of Obtaining Solar Easements

It’s not necessarily easy to obtain a solar easement. That’s because the easement must be granted by a neighboring property owner—and the property owner can refuse to negotiate or grant the easement.

It’s also important to recognize that negotiating easements can sometimes be costly. “Legal costs could exceed the cost savings of the system if neighbors are not willing to grant the easement for free,” says EPIC. “Depending on the density of houses in a neighborhood, a prospective solar energy system owner might have to negotiate with several neighbors to ensure access to sunlight.”

Different states have different policies and protections regarding solar easements. For instance, the California Solar Rights Act gives local governments the ability to require solar easements in subdivision developments under certain circumstances, according to the Energy Policy Initiatives Center (EPIC). We delve into a few key state-level policies below.

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New York State and Montana Laws

New York State is one of many states that protect a solar system owner’s right to ensure enough sun reaches the system. The state’s law states that solar easements should be created in writing. The document should include vertical and horizontal angles, provided in degrees, that identify the area that is the subject of the easement.

In addition, the law calls for terms and conditions under which the easement would be granted or terminated. New York State also expects the document to include any provisions for compensating the solar system owner if the other party interferes with access to solar.

Montana's law is similar to New York State’s, calling for a written document that includes the location of the easement.

California Solar Protection Laws

In California, two laws protect solar system owners: The Solar Rights Act and the Solar Shade Act, according to Go Solar.

The Solar Rights Act, AB 3250, passed in 1978, includes measures giving consumers access to sunlight and preventing shading. It also restricts efforts by homeowner associations and local governments to prevent solar system installations. The act gives citizens a legal right to a solar easement.

“Even though the law is more than 30 years old, the Solar Rights Act contributes significantly to California's strong policy commitment to solar energy, and the policy rationale for the Act is relevant today and continues to support California's solar energy policy initiatives,” says Go Solar.

California’s Solar Shade Act

While the Solar Shade Act (AB 2321) doesn’t create solar easements, it does provide some protection to solar system owners from shade created by trees on neighboring properties.

When trying to decide whether it makes sense to pursue a solar easement, it’s a good idea to look to the court system to uncover how such laws are implemented.

For example, one California court, in an unpublished portion of its opinion, held that a solar easement is only enforceable if it is in writing, according to EPIC.

A document that creates a solar easement should identify the location of the easement in “measurable terms,” the court said. It should also include “restrictions that would impair or obstruct the passage of sunlight through the easement” as well as “the terms or conditions, if any, under which the easement may be revised or terminated,” according to EPIC.

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Local Governments in California Can Establish Solar Protection Ordinances

An ordinance could establish solar easements designed to ensure that each parcel has access to sunlight, especially across adjacent parcels or units in a subdivision. In most cases, it’s critical that the parties create a written document.

In the unpublished portion of its opinion in the Zipperer v. County of Santa Clara (California) case, the court specifically discusses the need for written documentation of solar easements, says EPIC.

“The Zipperers built a home with solar heating and cooling systems in the mid-1980s. In 1991, the County of Santa Clara purchased an adjacent property containing a small grove of trees,” says EPIC. The trees grew “significantly,” and began to shade the Zipperer home, which hurt the solar system’s output.

“In 1997, the Zipperers requested that the County trim or remove the offending shading trees.The County did not respond to the Zipperer’s request, and instead passed an ordinance exempting itself from California’s Solar Shade Control Act.”

The Zipperers sued the county, arguing a breach of contract associated with an “implicit” right to a solar easement. The Zipperers argued that the county had implicitly entered into a contract to provide a solar easement because the county allowed the homeowners to build a home according to county requirements.

However, the court said that a written, not “implicit” solar easement was needed. “Therefore, because the Zipperers did not have an express, written instrument, the court held that no solar easement existed.” The Zipperer case highlights how important it is that a solar easement be in writing.

Deciding If a Solar Easement Makes Sense

A written solar easement can offer assurance that a solar installation will continue to produce electricity at its full potential—particularly valuable in cases where there is potential for changes on surrounding property that could affect the system’s irradiance.

However, the ease of getting one of these agreements in place is an important consideration. As Pedotto says, “Not only can solar easements be costly, but they can cause conflict with neighbors.”

Pedotto suggests that an alternative to pursuing a solar easement in these cases is for homeowners consider community solar projects, which help bring neighbors together with shared access to local solar farms.

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Topics: shading losses, solar policy

Opportunity Zones Explained: A Helpful Solar Incentive

Posted by Lisa Cohn on Dec 11, 2019 2:50:34 PM

Federal opportunity zones, which offer tax benefits to qualifying businesses, are little known and not always well understood. But they can offer important advantages to solar companies, adding to solar tax benefits such as the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC).

Opportunity zones were created to promote economic development in low-income communities by allowing companies to defer capital gains taxes, said Roman Petra, attorney for Nelson Mullins who specializes in commercial real estate transactions.

“The zones offer tremendous value for solar,” said Jim Spano, a managing partner of Spano Partner Holdings, who has been involved in the development of more than 300 megawatts (MW) of solar. “Having a tax break in areas where economics don’t support solar can provide lower cost of capital and opportunities for projects to pencil out.”

Pairing Solar Benefits with Opportunity Zone Benefits

Jeff Just, co-founder, along with Spano, of RadiantREIT, which provides financing for solar projects, added that locating a solar installation in an opportunity zone allows businesses to double dip on tax benefits.

“They get all the benefits of the zone—including permanent exclusion of future capital gains—while keeping all the tax benefits of solar...There are no limitations on pairing these two opportunities,” he said.

Developers who invest in economically distressed communities through the program are given three tax incentives: temporary deferral, step-up in basis, and permanent exclusion of capital gains. Let’s take a look at each in more detail below.

Deferral, Basis Step-up and Gain Exclusion

With temporary deferral, investors can defer tax on prior capital gains reinvested in a Qualified Opportunity Zone. Investors also receive a step-up in basis for capital gains reinvested in a Qualified Opportunity Zone.

A higher basis means lower capital gains. Under the program, the basis steps up by 10% if the investment is held for at least five years, and by an additional 5% if held for at least seven years.

The third incentive, permanent exclusion, says that if held for at least ten years, capital gains from the sale or exchange of an investment in an Opportunity Zone may be permanently excluded from capital income.

Creating A Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund

To qualify for the Opportunity Zones program, investors must establish a Qualified Opportunity Zone Fund. This fund holds Qualified Opportunity Zone property.

Many different types of taxpayers can establish an opportunity fund, including corporations, partnerships, limited liability companies, and individuals.

Different segments of the solar industry can take advantage of opportunity zones, including solar equipment manufacturers that produce panels, inverters, batteries, battery charge controllers and components, and equipment that moves DC energy produced by solar panels for conversion into AC electricity, said Petra. Solar installers and solar farms also qualify.

It’s important to understand where the zones are located—and identify whether a solar business can take advantage of the zones, said Spano.

The Importance of Consulting an Attorney

“As business people, we look at the definition of opportunity zones in geographic areas and the qualification requirements of the business,” he said. Because it’s not always easy to determine whether a business qualifies for the benefits, his company always consults attorneys. “Our attorneys advise us about how to present our applications for qualification,” he said.

The eligible tracts for the zones are based on economic indicators of median family income and poverty, said Petra. States are limited to establishing zones in 25% of their low-income communities. In other words, if a state has less than 100 tracts identified as low-income communities, 25 qualify, he explained. The tracts are chosen based on statistics from the U.S. Census.

Consider Focusing on Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico—which is rebuilding its energy infrastructure in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Maria—received special treatment, with 835 of 945 low-income tracts qualifying as opportunity zones.

“Of particular interest should be Puerto Rico, which after Hurricane Maria has made a concerted effort to promote alternative energy, especially solar energy,” said Petra.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Treasury certified over 8,700 individual census tracts as Qualified Opportunity Zones in 50 states, six territories and the District of Columbia, he said. About 35 million people live in these zones, which are established for 10 years.

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Look for Opportunity Zones in Rural Areas

“Most solar energy developments located in opportunity zones should qualify,” said Petra. He added that “Developers should consider rural areas, where over 23% of census tracts are located and land tends to be more available and cheaper.” Solar developers should also consider opportunity zones in the states with the most sunshine, he noted.

In order to qualify for the tax benefits, a Qualified Opportunity Fund must invest in a Qualified Opportunity Zone Business. A Qualified Opportunity Zone Business must be a trade or business in which substantially all (70%) of the tangible property is owned or leased in a Qualified Opportunity Zone, said Petra.

Fifty percent or more of the business’s total gross income must come from actively doing business in the Qualified Opportunity Zone. And at least 40% of the company’s intangible property must be actively used in a Qualified Opportunity Zone. Intangible property includes non-material assets such as bank accounts, copyrights, stocks, patents, bonds, insurance policies, retirement benefit accounts, plus customer lists or trade secrets, all of which have a dollar value.

Petra notes that the location of the business is especially important to qualifying for an enterprise zone. “The focus is on the location of the business, but a Qualified Opportunity Zone Business must meet other tests,” including the requirement that the company must derive 50% of its gross income doing business in the Qualified Opportunity Zone,” he said.

It’s important for solar businesses looking at the program to understand what’s needed to qualify as an Opportunity Zone Business, he said. Spano agreed, noting that the zones can be confusing, so it’s important to work with attorneys.

Offsetting the Step Down of the ITC

“In an ideal world, I believe the zones will be utilized and they will help offset some of the step down in the Investment Tax Credit (ITC),” Spano added.

The ITC is a 30% tax credit for solar systems on residential and commercial properties, and steps down to 26% in 2020, 22% in 2021, and in 2022, 10% for commercial and utility-scale projects and zero for solar.

“The final benefit of the Qualified Opportunity Zones program is if the investor holds the investment for more than 10 years, any subsequent gain recognized escapes federal tax entirely,” said Petra. (It is important to note, however, that a state may not follow the federal law and may tax the gain.) Overall, the tax benefits available to investors should translate to long-term, cheaper capital, he said.

To date, most of the qualifying transactions in the zones have been in real estate, said Petra. “Generally, real estate projects are well suited... but as folks have gotten more comfortable with the program, other industries [like solar] have gained interest in the program.”

Has your company been involved in solar developments in Opportunity Zones? Share your experience in the comment section below!

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Topics: Solar Incentives

How Gippsland Solar Won a Unique New Construction Solar Deal

Posted by Lisa Cohn on Oct 8, 2019 8:49:08 PM

For Andy McCarthy, founder of Gippsland Solar, integrating 666 solar panels into the design for the Penguin Parade Visitor Centre in Australia posed a big challenge. That’s because at the time Gippsland Solar was bidding for the project, the Centre’s new building had not yet been built!

The new building, which houses 1,800 square meters of interpretation and public spaces, replaced an existing building and featured an unusual roof shape for the internationally renowned center.

Using functionality in Aurora Solar software, Gippsland solar won the project. In this article, McCarthy shares the process and insights on how you too can put in place a winning system for designing solar for new buildings.

Gippsland Solar’s design for Penguin Parade Visitor Centre, a new construction solar project like the CA solar mandate requires. Gippsland Solar’s PV design for the Penguin Parade Visitor Centre in Australia as the building neared completion. Photo Credit: Kane Construction, courtesy of Gippsland Solar.

The Challenge of Designing Solar for a Building Not Yet Built

The challenge: All Gippsland Solar had to work with were the architectural plans. Because the building did not yet exist, it wasn’t possible to physically measure the roof and calculate how many panels would be required, or to measure irradiance to determine how it would affect solar production and where best to place panels.

What’s more, it was difficult to communicate to the client what the building would look like once the solar panels were added. With a building as high-profile as the Penguin Parade Visitors Centre, aesthetics were an important issue. “It was an interesting project because of the Centre’s global recognition,” says McCarthy.

In addition, without a physical building, it wasn’t easy to calculate how nearby trees or other buildings would shade the roof throughout the year.

In the case of the visitor center, the challenge was more difficult than most new construction solar projects.

A Unique Roof for an Internationally Recognized Visitor Center

“The roof almost looks like shards of glass cut in different angles; it’s spectacular,” says McCarthy. “The building has lots of innovation and design and has won sustainability awards.”

Viewed from above, the building’s shape is similar to an unwieldy star, with many different roof points and angles. “Due to the architecture of the building, it was a very complex roof to work with,” McCarthy says.

At first, McCarthy and his associates tried adding solar panels to the architectural plans. “It didn’t look good,” he says. It was back to the drawing board. McCarthy needed a tool that would communicate to the potential client exactly how the building would look with solar panels.

Finding a Solution to Design Solar for New Construction: Aurora Solar Software

Next, Gippsland Solar turned to Aurora Solar’s solar software and tried the design again. “We took the electronic version of the building plans and uploaded them into Aurora,” he explains. They took the measurement of the longest section of the roof from the architectural plans, then manually entered that measurement into Aurora program.

The software is smart enough to take that information and calculate the rest of the dimensions of the roof, McCarthy explains. In fact, from that information, Aurora’s SmartRoof technology created a 3-D model of the roof.

Next, based on the information in the roof plans, McCarthy and associates increased the roof pitch to 11 degrees. “That was the pitch of the roof,” he explains. “We didn’t see any financial benefit in using tilt frames to adjust the pitch, and the architects were very clear that they didn’t want the solar array to have a visual impact on the building itself,” he says.

What happened next surprised them. In the model, it looked like the building was being built. “I had never seen anything like that,” he says. “It almost looked like paper mache. In the model you see the building rise up.” The model allowed for a 360-degree view of the building.

It took about half an hour to build the model using the software, McCarthy says. He’s sure that using the program helped his company get the job.

Aurora solar makes it easy to design solar for new construction projects like this one by Gippsland SolarA top-down view of Gippsland Solar’s PV design for the Penguin Parade Visitor Centre in Australia. Photo Credit: Kane Construction, courtesy of Gippsland Solar.
 
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New Buildings Pose Challenges, Opportunities for Solar

Designing solar for new buildings like the Penguin Parade Visitors Centre poses challenges, and more and more solar companies are grappling with this challenge. But it’s not necessarily bad news.

Because states and cities are calling for solar panels in new construction, the market for solar is increasing. For example, beginning in 2020, California mandates solar panels on all new homes under the state building code. As a result, solar demand is expected to jump by more than 800 MW between 2020 and 2023.

Under the new California solar mandate, builders must either build homes with solar panels, or build a shared solar power system that provides solar energy to a group of homes.

Additionally, cities all over the U.S. are calling for solar on new buildings. Watertown, Massachusetts now requires solar on new commercial buildings larger than 10,000 square feet and on all new residential buildings with ten or more units.

With the market increasing for new construction solar, it’s a good idea to have a tool that speeds up the process.

3 Simple Steps to Designing Solar for New Construction (Buildings Not Yet Built)

1. Begin by Uploading Roof Plans

When designing a solar installation for a new (not yet constructed) building using Aurora software, the most important step is to upload the roof plans. With that as your starting point, outline the perimeter of the roof—just as you would draw over a satellite or aerial image when using Aurora to design solar for an existing building.

You’ll need to include a measure for at least one section of the roof as indicated in the plans. This data allows Aurora to correctly scale the 3D model and ensure accurate measurements for the remaining sections. It’s also important to indicate the pitch of different roof planes according to the architects’ plans, since there will not be 3D LIDAR data for Aurora to match the roof to if the building is not yet constructed.

From there, Aurora’s SmartRoof technology will extrapolate the 3D structure of the rest of the building. If your designers need to make tweaks the building model, the program will respond by re-calculating and re-modeling, McCarthy explains.

2. Simulate Shading During Different Times of Day, Year

Another important feature of the Aurora software is the Sun Path simulation, which can do an interactive shade simulation. “When you play the simulation, you can see how certain parts of the roof will be shaded during certain times of day and can play with the design and move panels to less shady areas,” McCarthy explains.

With a colorful irradiance map, the software will tell you how much irradiance will reach the panels at any given point on the roof.

Adding trees to see how they will shade the roof of new buildings is also important, he says. By creating multiple versions of your design with different tree heights you can virtually “grow” young trees to see how they will shade the roof as they mature.

How Will Other Buildings Affect Shading?

Along with modeling the effect of trees, designers should simulate how nearby buildings affect shading, McCarthy says.

For example, in another new construction solar project, Gippsland Solar added solar to a school that was built in two stages. To do this, the company used Aurora to model the second section of the building and see how it would affect the first section—and vice versa.

Company designers did all the modeling before designing the first building. “We ran a shade analysis of both the old and new buildings,” he says.

3. Close the Sale with Stunning Visuals

Such modeling saves time, impresses clients, and also saves money, says McCarthy. It makes sense to avoid trying to overlay solar panels on architectural designs--and to choose instead design software.

“Aurora is a fraction of the cost of 3-D simulations with architects’ software,” he says. “People need to build this into their sales pitches. It helped us get the job.”


As the market for solar on new construction grows, so too will the need for scalable, accurate solutions for designing solar for buildings that have not yet been built if your company wants to tap into this market.

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Topics: solar design, Solar for New Construction

How Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) Growth Can Boost Solar

Posted by Lisa Cohn on Sep 11, 2019 5:12:50 PM

Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) can create demand for renewable energy, presenting opportunities for solar developers. We explore what CCAs are, how they’re growing, and what that might mean for solar companies.

What Are CCAs and How Does Solar Fit In?

Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), also called Community Choice Energy, provides customers with an alternative power provider than traditional utilities.

The presence of CCAs is growing, especially in California, and—because they often offer more renewable energy than the incumbent utility, according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report—CCAs present opportunities for solar developers to help provide that power.

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How Do CCAs Work?

Generally administered by local governments—cities or counties—or sometimes third parties, CCAs acquire electricity for retail customers in a specific geographic area.

CCAs partner with local investor-owned utilities that provide billing, transmission, and distribution of the electricity the CCA provides. They can aggregate fairly large groups of customers, which provides economies of scale.

Scale (and Potential) of the CCA Market

About 750 CCAs acquired 42 million MWh of electricity for 5 million customers in 2017 in eight states where legislation allows for their existence—California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Virginia, said the NREL report.

Additional states are expected to pass legislation that allows for CAAs, according to NREL. In addition to the eight states that have CCAs, at least seven states have considered allowing CCAs—Colorado, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah, said NREL. Other states with restructured electricity markets could pass legislation allowing for CCAs.

California and New York CCAs Focus on Renewable Energy

California and New York are two states where CCAs currently source a lot of their energy from renewable sources.

California CCAs concentrate on acquiring in-state renewable energy more than other CCAs. In California, CCAs in 2017 offered electricity with renewable energy content ranging from 37 percent to 100 percent, with an average of 52 percent. Their rates are generally .1 percent to 2.1 percent lower than the incumbent utility’s rates.

In New York, about half the sales of the active CCAs are “voluntary” green power programs, which go above and beyond state renewable energy mandates. In these cases, the CCA offers green power to willing customers.

A solar power plant. Some CCAs are sourcing power from new solar projects.

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CCAs Present Opportunities for New Solar Development

Although, as of 2017, CCAs had largely acquired renewable energy from existing generators, that’s beginning to change as CCAs grow in numbers and size, presenting new business opportunities for solar developers.

One recent example is a 3-MW solar array in Napa County, California which solar developer Renewable Properties broke ground on in April 2019. The state’s first CCA, Marin Clean Energy (MCE), will purchase the power from the project through a 20-year power purchase contract. MCE’s feed-in tariff, called FIT Plus Projects, offers $80 per MWh for peak, baseload, and intermittent energy.

NREL’s report highlights the potential for CCAs to increase the supply of renewable energy from new projects. In regulated or partially restructured markets, CCAs may be required to acquire renewable energy from new projects, NREL said, adding that more research is needed about this topic.

Projects such a Renewable Properties’ solar plant are expected to become more common because CCAs generally have significantly higher percentages of renewable energy in their mix.

With higher renewable energy content and typically lower prices, CCAs are here to stay. For solar developers, that offers opportunities to provide the energy that CCA customers are demanding from these new, green alternatives to utilities.

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Topics: trends, solar policy, Solar Business Tips

SF Commercial Clean Energy Requirement Is a Boon for Solar

Posted by Lisa Cohn on Aug 14, 2019 8:30:00 AM

San Francisco—the first major city in the nation to require solar panels on the roofs of new buildings—now is requiring large commercial building owners to source 100 percent of their electricity from renewable energy by 2030.

That’s expected to be good news for solar contractors because it will expand the use of solar in the city and possibly nationally.

The San Francisco plan will be implemented in phases, requiring owners of the biggest buildings—500,000 square feet or larger—to take action first, by 2022. Buildings between 250,000 and 499,000 square feet must switch by 2024, and structures 50,000 square feet to 250,000 must source 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

Other Cities Expected to Follow, Increasing Solar Demand Nationally

The solar industry nationwide is sure to get a boost from the initiative, said Tony Clifford, chief development officer, Standard Solar, and a member of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)’s executive board.

“Such mandates are becoming ever-more common across the country, and we believe San Francisco will set the standard for commercial solar expansion that other cities will soon follow,” he said.

Sean White, a certified solar PV master trainer and the author of several books about solar, said that in San Francisco, there isn’t enough roof space on most commercial buildings to offset 100 percent of their usage.

“They will need to purchase clean electricity through their Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program or utility for a good part of their energy,” he said.

This will create opportunities for solar contractors to help meet the growing demand for solar in San Francisco, however. Much of the demand will be met with utility-scale projects, said White.

Expect an uptick in projects from Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s (PG&E) Solar Choice options, which are available to the large building owners.

Under the program, part of a statewide initiative, investor-owned utilities must procure their renewable energy following guidelines from the California Public Utilities Commission. PG&E provides details on its website about how it sources renewable energy for the program.

The city of San Francisco also gives businesses and residents the option of buying "SuperGreen" power.

San Francisco Aims to be Carbon Neutral

The initiative for large buildings is part of the city’s effort to use only renewable electricity by 2030 across the city and to become carbon neutral by 2050.

About 44 percent of San Francisco’s greenhouse gas emissions are released by buildings, and about 50 percent come from commercial structures. While the transportation sector produces higher amounts of greenhouse gases, it’s expected that it will be easier to focus first on buildings, because owners can switch to their utility’s green power options.

As Clifford says, with such efforts to reduce cities’ carbon footprints becoming more commonplace across the country, the solar industry is sure to benefit.

“The opportunity for the solar community – from contractors to financiers – is immense and it is up to them to meet this challenge head-on to build and fund these new projects,” he said.

 

Topics: solar policy, solar industry

What Is a Virtual Power Plant & Why Does It Matter for Solar?

Posted by Lisa Cohn on Jul 31, 2019 7:29:22 PM

The solar industry—and the energy sector more broadly—is changing fast. Virtual power plants are one example of how technology and policy developments are enabling new business opportunities.

Using software, a virtual power plant (VPP) combines power from a number of independent sources located at numerous sites, creating a network that supplies power 24/7.

Because much of the focus of virtual power plants is to provide clean energy, solar companies have opportunities in this market—which expected to yield a compounded annual growth rate of more than 20 percent during 2017-2023 according to one market research report.

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VPPs Depart from the Centralized Plant Model

Until recently, the U.S. has focused on large centralized plants, often fossil-fuel plants, to provide power to the grid. Power has flowed from the utility to the business or customer.

But now, small and independent producers are producing solar, wind, and other renewable resources from many different locations all over the U.S. and feeding some or all of that power to the grid. (As discussed in some other Aurora Blog articles, the energy produced by grid-tied solar PV systems can provide a valuable revenue stream for customers with net metering.)

The increased production of these distributed resources has disrupted the centralized power model (one reason utilities are changing their compensation policies for solar customers) and there is a need for new ways to integrate these distributed resources. A virtual power plant can do just that, often providing reliable power by utilizing renewable energy and batteries that store the solar.

How the Solar Industry Benefits

Virtual power plants are part of a future trend that will include solar energy. With a VPP, rooftop solar PV systems on homes and businesses, coupled with batteries, can be aggregated and deployed in an optimal way using software to meet energy needs on the grid.

“As subsidies for solar PV decline over time, customers will be seeking new ways to maximize the value from their solar PV systems. Being part of a VPP is a key way to achieve that goal,” says Peter Asmus, research director, Navigant Research.

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Important Milestones for Solar-Powered VPPs

Earlier this year, the solar industry experienced a notable milestone with regard to virtual power plants. Sunrun set a precedent for the industry when it became the first company awarded a contract to supply capacity to a wholesale power market from a VPP. Under the contract, Sunrun will provide solar energy and storage aggregated from a number of homes.

What’s exciting about this contract was Sunrun’s ability to compete with other power generators in ISO New England’s Forward Capacity Market, which is designed to ensure the New England power system has enough resources to meet its future demand.

Operators of energy resources such as solar compete in these markets to receive a commitment to supply capacity in exchange for a capacity payment. This VPP contract shows that local solar resources can compete with centralized power in price-sensitive power markets.

Independent system operators like ISO New England are independent, federally regulated entities created to coordinate regional transmission in a way that’s non-discriminatory while ensuring the reliability of the electric system. Sunrun garnered a contract to provide 20 MW of capacity from its home solar and battery systems to the ISO beginning in 2022.

Sunrun offered the power as a “hybrid” resource. That means it will aggregate solar from panels on thousands of houses, instead of from a single facility. New federal requirements calling for a level playing field for all resources made the breakthrough possible.

In another solar industry example, Tesla is working to establish a VPP in South Australia. The plan calls for installing Powerwall 2 battery units and solar panels in homes, and calls for 50,000 connected homes, each with a 13.5-kilowatt-hour (kWh) Tesla Powerwall 2 battery and a 5-kW rooftop solar system.

The Bottom Line for Solar Companies

“I would advise solar companies to do their homework about regulations in their specific territories and monitor policy and regulations, supporting changes that enable VPP deployments,” says Navigant’s Asmus.

Virtual power plants, while still in their early stages, can provide a valuable mechanism for aggregated energy from distributed solar PV systems to compete against traditional fossil fuel resources to meet energy needs on the grid. For solar companies with the resources to manage and aggregate many PV systems, virtual power plants can present new and exciting business opportunities.

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Topics: technology, solar industry

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