From the Field: I Need To Get Something Off My Chest

I’m in Long Beach, Calif., at the Renewable Energy World Conference and Expo North America, and I’ve noticed something here that I’ve seen at other conferences. I need to get something off my chest:

Why in the name of all that is holy do people still not turn off their cell phones during presentations? I attended two different solar sessions yesterday, and in both of them — in the middle of some riveting presentations — someone’s cell phone went off, thus stopping the momentum of the talk and distracting the audience.

Please, I’m making a personal plea: If you’re going to bother to spend all the money to come out to California for a conference, do yourselves and the rest of us a favor and shut your cell phone off. Thank you.

Now on to the highlights from the show’s second day (see my report from the first day here):

  • During a session on improving the return on investment for utility-scale projects, Brian von Moos, director of utility project management for Borrego Solar, that falling module prices have really been bad for utility-scale solar investment.”The falling prices have led some companies to bid PPAs that contain unattainable price goals,” von Moos said. “Those kinds of agreements ca be a great boon to help you get the project, but it’s risky. If module prices go up again, you won’t be able to deliver the price you’ve put forth in the PPA. Then your project is doomed.”
  • Seema Ghosh of Black and Veatch discussed the keys to lowering your Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE), including optimizing your design (which depends on good engineering), choose the proper technology and making sure you do proper operations and maintenance (which she says many people treat as as an afterthought instead of critical to a project’s success). But her most interesting comment — in my opinion — was this:

By undersizing the inverter relative to the DC capacity, you can have your inverter run more efficiently.

Something I saw on the show floor later made me think about her comment (more on that later).

  • Mark Rawson, distributed energy resources research-and-development program manager, SMUD Solar, talked about how his organization (based in Sacramento, Calif.), didn’t have any solar as part of their strategy at the end of 2010. That stance has subsequently changed considerably. SMUD is now looking to add a lot of solar in the coming years, but Rawson said one thing really needs to change for it to effectively use solar and wind — the industry really need to improve storage capacity for both solar and wind to make them truly viable.

    The peak production of solar systems in Sacramento (Rawson had a gorgeous animation in his PowerPoint slide that illustrated what he was talking about) does not match the same peak as utility usage, so Rawson says there are legitimate concerns about the variability of solar production (even for sunny California). SMUD is  looking at LI+ batteries and molten salts to solve the storage challenges.

  • Tony Clifford, CEO of Rockville, Md.-based Standard Solar (whose president, Scott Wiater, sits on Solar Power World‘s editorial advisory board), went through a state-by-state evaluation of the Mid-Atlantic/Northeastern states and assessed them as potential markets for solar developers. His assessment: Massachusetts will be a good short-term market over the next few years. New Jersey is the region’s biggest market, and Maryland is the second largest. Ohio and Pennsylvania are among the worst (Ohio because of low RPS, Pennsylvania because oversupply killed the SREC market). His sleeper? New York (New York was cited by several different speakers as a potential gold mine depending on the outcome of the New York Solar Jobs Act vote in Albany). Stay tuned.
  • Peter Olmsted, mid-Atlantic solar advocate for Vote Solar, picked up where Clifford left off, talking in-depth about the New York situation.New York is planning on putting in 5 GW of solar power by 2026, or 3% of the state’s total load. He says it will be pushed by SREC market creation, long-term contracts and balance of market opportunities. The state’s current capacity 100 MW-ish. He also said that if New York doesn’t allow long-term PPAs, there won’t be financing available to put projecst in the ground (a mistake that has plagued Pennsylvania).

    Lastly, Olmsted pointed out that the solar projects under development in the mid-Atlantic/Northeast region currently outpace — by a large margin — what’s already been completed. He says it shows a trend in the region: Solar is on the upswing.

  • Dan Berwick, director of policy and business development for Barrego Solar, argued that a RPS without a long-term contract is half a policy — it really doesn’t do what the states are hoping to do. Long-term contracts reduces the risk on solar projects instead of merely shifting the risk to others in the value chain.

    “Right now the states aren’t doing that,” Berwick said. “There doesn’t need to volatility in SREC markets, but the volatility is caused by bad public policy. The newest state incentives are combinations of FiTs and SRECs, which is the best of both worlds.

  • Quote of the day: “We can’t have feed-in-tarrifs (FiTs) — that smacks of socialism. That’s what you get when you talk to a lot of these state legislators. It would be much better for the industry if there was a national program — you could trade SRECs across state lines and push solar development. Right now, you can’t because they all have different values.” — Tony Clifford, CEO of Standard Solar

    [Editor’s Note: Solar Power World concurs with Clifford that a national policy is the way to go. Until then, however, the states will have to step up.]

  • Watch out for Rev1Renwables. I visited with company vice president Merritt Brown on the show floor yesterday, and I believe they have a bright future as they move into solar (no pun intended). They cut their teeth initially on the wind side of renewables, and they’ve developed the skills necessary to oversee projects as a third-party intermediary, representing the owners of the project. Rev1Renewables make sure everyone else in the project is doing what they’re supposed to be doing from the EPC and contractor side — a mediator, if you will, when conflicts arise. I believe you’ll be hearing more about them in the future — so stay tuned.

One more day to go — I’ll see you on Friday.