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Solar power is contagious

 Installing panels often means your neighbors will too

A solar neighborhood in Oakland, California

Solar power still generates just 0.4 percent of America’s electricity. But it’s expanding at a shocking rate, with a new rooftop system installed every four minutes. There are lots of reasons for that, from lower costs to federal subsidies to innovative financing schemes.


But here’s another unexpected factor: Solar power appears to be contagious. Yes, contagious. If you install solar photovoltaic panels on your roof, that greatly increases the odds that your neighbors will, in turn, install their own panels.

That’s the upshot of a fascinating new paper in The Journal of Economic Geography looking at the growth of rooftop solar power across Connecticut. Rooftop solar took hold in a few initial spots back in 2005 — when the state first started offering solar subsidies. Rooftop systems then spread out from those clusters over time in a “wave-like centrifugal pattern”:

The growth of solar power in Connecticut, 2005-2013

(Graziano and Gillingham, 2014)

The researchers, Marcello Graziano of the University of Connecticut and Kenneth Gillingham of Yale, tried to figure out why solar power would expand in this way. Maybe solar power was just concentrating in large population centers. But this turned out not to be true — in fact, solar power was growing more rapidly in small- and medium-sized population areas.

Another possibility was that solar power was just proliferating in the rich parts of the state, among the households who could afford it. But that wasn’t true either. Households of all income levels are adopting solar power — there wasn’t a strong relationship between income and adoption rates.

After more careful examination, the researchers concluded that the evidence points in one direction — there are “neighbor effects.” Specifically, adding one rooftop system on a block increased the average number of installations within a half mile radius by 0.44. This builds on previous researchfinding similar effects in California.

How solar power contagion works

This makes some intuitive sense. Most people still don’t know much about solar power. They don’t know how the subsidies work and don’t know if it makes much financial sense for them personally. But if you see that your neighbor is putting up panels, suddenly the possibility becomes more concrete. You can talk to the neighbors, find out more, think about whether it makes sense for you.


It’s also possible that there’s a competition effect — green-minded households don’t want to be one-upped by their neighbors installing panels. So they go buy their own.

Now, granted, neighborhood effects certainly aren’t the only reason solar power is spreading. In Connecticut, there are a bunch of key factors. The state began offering financial incentives for people who install rooftop systems in 2005. Crucially, the state also has very high electricity costs (which means that solar panels make more sense for some people). Connecticut also had a number of “Solarize” programs, starting in 2012, that spread the word among select towns and let those towns engage in “group pricing” — essentially letting communities buy in bulk. Those programs were very good at spreading word of mouth.

But neighbor effects — the contagious aspect — seem to be important, and they’ve been seen in other places, as well, including Austin, Texas and all across California. (Indeed, this latest paper wasn’t the first to find neighborhood effects for solar, but it’s possibly the most detailed yet.)

Solar analysts have suggested that this bodes well for the future of the technology. In a recent interview, Shayle Kann, senior vice president of GTM Research, told me that one of the biggest costs for solar installers was simply finding new customers. Companies like SolarCity — which allow people to lease panels for no upfront cost and pay monthly fees — typically camp out at places like Home Depot.

But as solar power grows, word of mouth spreads, and referrals increase, those sign-up costs should come down. And, indeed, this reduction in “balance of systems” costs — all the costs of solar power that aren’t the panels themselves — is a big reason why the price of solar power keeps declining.


Innovation key to solar advancement


Posted by Zeshan Rajput 

A new study from UK-based GlobaData reveals that energy storage innovation will be essential to the advancement of solar power generation.

Unfortunately, the study also found that there is little renewable energy storage innovation and few firms focusing on it. “Currently, there are no effective storage systems for megawatt scale solar power plants,” said GlobalData analyst Pavan Vyakaranam.

Concentrated Solar Power uses molten salts to produce power for a short period after the sun goes down, Vyakaranam said. But, while that technology is being used in large-scale solar projects, it’s not efficient enough to be applied on a larger scale.

Ideas for innovation include adapting the processes involved in the generation of thermal energy to solar and other intermittent renewable sources. Pumped hydroelectric storage is currently used as a grid energy storage mechanism. It stores power during off peak hours when energy is cheaper and can be used during peak hours.  “Pumped hydro storage is being used on large scale and it does hold hope for application on a larger scale,” Vyakaranam said.

There is little innovation happening in the renewable energy storage field, according to the report. Of 162 US patents issued for solar energy in the first quarter of 2012, only two dealt with energy storage. But there are likely other companies working on solutions, Vyakaranam said.

“Apart from solar energy companies with R&D facilities, storage innovation could also be expected from companies with pioneering research in other areas,” Vyakaranam said. “Companies dealing with advanced batteries and ultra capacitors are the important examples. There are a number of universities and research organizations with extensive research on fuel cell technology and Hydrogen-based energy storage systems, both of which can complement a solar power plant if there is a breakthrough in efficiency and cost.”

He said major energy companies like GE Energy and several battery companies are also doing research to see if battery storage could become more efficient and affordable.

“Currently, as solar energy is close to achieving grid parity in some locations, solar adoption is already increasing steadily,” Vyakaranam said. “However, a commercial storage technique would boost solar adoption in countries where there is excessive and intermittent generation of energy due to renewable energy sources like solar and wind.”


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An article from the LA Times published in February 2012 follows below


United States Solar | Year 2011 Review

Central Valley’s Solar Farm Rush

Tracie Cone, Associated Press

Thursday, November 10, 2011 

Fresno — Don’t call a photovoltaic power station a “solar farm” in front of Chris Scheuring.

“We all do a little spin, but calling it a ‘crop’ is like bad poetry in a sophomore English class,” says the California Farm Bureau attorney. “I should know what a crop is, and it doesn’t fit my definition of a crop.”

The question of when a farm is a farm is coming up often these days in California’s agricultural heartland, where the sunny days and wide open spaces that make it America’s most productive agricultural land are proving an irresistible mix to developers seeking to get in on the U.S. push for renewable energy.

Developers say that solar panels “harvest” the sun’s energy to turn into electricity, and that their 35-year life span is about the same as an almond orchard.

“I view this as a temporary use,” said developer Al Solis, as he made a pitch to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors last week to allow farmland planted in Asian vegetables to convert to solar.

The land rush is on, and to critics it looks like the leapfrog housing boom of the late 20th century that chopped up some agriculture regions into too-small pieces.

State laws to protect prime soils are being set aside by local governments eager to transform farm economies into the next big thing. And developers are finding it easier to persuade county boards of supervisors to tear up contracts designed to keep land in farming than to overcome obstacles placed by endangered species on undisturbed land that might be more suitable, like the non-protected portions of California’s expansive Mojave Desert.

The state needs an estimated 100,000 acres of solar arrays with today’s technology to meet its mandate that 33 percent of all energy be renewable by 2020.

“We are definitely on the leading edge of a wave of proposals for industrial solar energy on tens of thousands of acres of land,” Scheuring said. “It’s a real good time to get our signals straight about how we are going to do this on California’s landscape.”

A joint policy paper released Oct. 24 by the law schools at UCLA and UC Berkeley says that California must balance food security and energy production by identifying marginal farmland and guiding solar development to it or risk consequences. The state lost 200,000 acres of irrigated farmland to development between 2006 and 2008, and 1.3 million acres since 1984.

In Fresno County alone, where the $5.8 billion in annual agriculture production is often the highest of any U.S. county, the stakes are high. At least 32 applications for utility-scale solar projects are on file since the first one was approved in July, and four more are planned here by Pacific Gas & Electric, which gets its approval from the state. The result would be a patchwork of solar collectors scattershot across prime farmland.

Planners say they can’t recall ever having so many permit applications pending for one type of development, even in the heydays of the home-building boom.

“This is unique, and it’s pretty new,” said Will Kettler, Fresno County’s principal planner.

A bill signed in October by Gov. Jerry Brown could make marginal land far more attractive for development. The law will expedite the process by which poor soil can be developed with solar by allowing owners to more easily end their Williamson Act contracts, which grant lower tax rates in exchange for keeping the land in agriculture for 10 years.

The law should expedite development of the 30,000-acre Westlands Solar Park 60 miles southwest of Fresno, one project that has the support of the major environmental groups. All of the land is either of marginal quality or without a reliable water source, but is covered by hundreds of contracts that would have had to be undone individually.

“We can now move forward without any of the underlying risks associated with guessing how we are going to remove … private land under the Williamson Act,” said Daniel Kim, a principle in development.

Last week Scheuring filed a first-ever lawsuit hoping to close a loophole in the act, which says prime land can be developed only if no other suitable land is available. His immediate target is Fresno County, where the Board of Supervisors last month allowed the owners of 156 acres planted in melons and tomatoes to develop solar.

Critics of the supervisors’ decision point out that the region has 200,000 acres of retired land contaminated with selenium perfectly suited for sun energy.

Scheuring was motivated by an opinion from the California Department of Conservation, which advised Fresno County not to approve the project.

“There are 100,000,000,000 acres in the state and the sun shines abundantly on most of it,” the department wrote. “Electrical generation facilities do not necessarily have to be located on land with the best quality soil; however agricultural crops can only be grown on land with the best quality soil, which is a scarce and nonrenewable resource.”

Scheuring’s intent is to follow the case to the appellate level to force a statewide policy on solar development.

“It would be a strong signal to the solar industry to think more creatively about the task of siting these things within the existing mosaic of California land uses,” Scheuring said.

ReneSola and China Sunergy to ship more product this year

Fri Mar 16, 2012


ReneSola and China Sunergy  forecast higher shipments for the year as they pin their hopes on emerging solar markets such as China and India, but these less lucrative markets may not help lift up prices of solar products.

Most solar companies have indicated that they are moving to emerging solar markets to offset steep subsidy cuts in top markets Germany and Italy, but competition and paltry demand in markets such as China and India are squeezing margins.

Investors cheered ReneSola’s strong revenue and shipment forecast on Friday, sending its shares up as much as 23 percent on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock, which has lost 71 percent of its value in the last one year, touched a 4-week high of $3.02 on Friday.

China Sunergy shares reversed course to trade down 5 percent on theNasdaq after the company forecast a weak first quarter. The shares have lost 82 percent of their value in the last year.

The broader MAC Global Solar Energy Index .SUNIDX, which has fallen 61 percent this year, rose 1.4 percent on Friday.

For 2012, ReneSola expects total shipments at 1.8 gigawatt (GW) to 2 GW, up from 1.2 GW last year.

“We will maintain our position in Europe and expand our market share in high-potential markets including India, China and Australia,” China Sunergy Chief Executive Stephen Cain said in a statement.

China Sunergy estimates total shipments at about MW to 550 MW, up from the 420.3 MW it shipped last year.

“China Sunergy confidently expects that the Chinese market will make up 15 percent to 20 percent of our shipments in 2012,” a China Sunergy executive said on a call with analysts.

Peers such as Suntech Power Holdings (STP.N), JinkoSolar Holding Co (JKS.N), Canadian Solar Inc (CSIQ.O) and Hanwha SolarOne Co (HSOL.O) have also forecast higher shipments this year.

For the first quarter, ReneSola expects revenue of $180 million to $190 million, compared with analysts’ estimates of $155.5 million, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.


Bigger peers such as First Solar (FSLR.O), Trina Solar (TSL.N) and Suntech have sought to reduce production costs to make the renewable power source less reliant on subsidies that make it competitive with fossil fuels.

On Friday, ReneSola said it will continue to invest heavily in production of polysilicon, the main raw material in the solar industry, in a bid to keep costs low and cope with pricing pressure.

To reduce the cost of making solar products, a number of companies have started in-house production of polysilicon.

ReneSola expects to spend $100 million this year to increase polysilicon production, a company executive said on a conference call with analysts.

China Sunergy said it expects prices of polysilicon to decline in 2012 and it will “stringently control costs.”

China Sunergy, which expects a net loss for the first quarter, believes weak demand and oversupply will continue to hurt its business in at least the first half of the year.

“The second quarter could be the worst quarter of the year,” a ReneSola executive said on the call.

He said the company expects prices to stabilize and even rise in the third quarter, leading to positive margins.

However, ReneSola expects an over-supplied market to last until 2013, pressuring prices.

Reporting by Vaishnavi Bala and Swetha Gopinath in Bangalore

Editing by Don Sebastian and Gopakumar Warrier

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