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Calif. Mulls ‘Smart’
Inverter Mandates

The solar sector in the western U.S. is bracing for a decision by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) on whether so-called “smart inverters” should be required for all new solar installations in order to counter voltage irregularities.

Most agree that some effort must be made to promote grid stabilization. However, the pending decision is prompting utilities, manufacturers and solar sector advocates to weigh in on whether immediate action or a more gradual approach is called for.

In February of this year, the CPUC formed the Smart Inverter Technical Working Group - also known as the Smart Inverter Working Group (SIWG) - to explore the performance of inverter technology. The SIWG is releasing updated recommendations from its testing program and discussions.

San Diego-based Western Electric Industry Leaders (WEIL), a group of regional utilities, released a letter on Aug. 7 urging governments and regulators to require smart inverters and that these requirements be fast-tracked. It also issued a documentation of what sorts of features smart solar inverters should have. Some of those features are as follows:

According to WEIL, these functions are available in inverters sold in Europe; however, they are not widely available or enabled in the U.S.

WEIL member San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) reports that over the previous 12 months, the number of PV generation systems in its area has increased by 33%, with an increase in MW capacity of 35%. According to the utility, these growth rates make it urgent for smart inverters to become a standard feature of all new solar power installations that connect to the grid and that this happen as soon as possible.

Michael Turner, principal engineer at SDG&E, tells Solar Industry that power quality and reliability are the utility’s primary concern and solar installations are having an impact.

“We’re already seeing effects on our grid,” Turner says. “Germany is a real good example of why we want to be proactive about smart inverters.”

Germany’s experience in its rapid adoption of renewable energy hangs over much of WEIL’s rationale for moving forward quickly on smart inverters. An excerpt from the WEIL letter reads: “This problem is a major concern not only for U.S. utilities and regulators, but has already caused the government of Germany, where renewable installations are particularly common, to order a mass retrofit of smart inverters on solar installations at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Turner is quick to point out that the suggested smart inverter mandates would apply to new solar installations, not existing ones. The idea is to start implementing them before grid irregularities from solar installations become a serious problem.

“The letter is spot on,” says Thomas Enzendorfer, director of sales and marketing for Indiana-based inverter manufacturer Fronius USA LLC. “Smart inverter features are an important factor of our grid performance.”

While many inverter manufacturers ship smart inverter functionality as firmware in their systems, such features are typically switched off. Activating these features could require manufacturers that have not been certified for operation with the features active to go through a certification and testing process. This process can be both expensive and time consuming.

Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA), tells Solar Industry that grid stability is a goal shared by all, but rapid mandates would disrupt many players in the solar sector.

“While we concur with a majority of the requirements needed to fully integrate PV into the utility grid for purposes of reliability, we believe the process should be inclusive of all stakeholders on a national basis; this is not just a California issue,” Del Chiaro says.

CALSEIA is recommending that the SIWG slow down its apparent move toward rapid adoption of smart inverter requirements until all the affected players in the solar sector have a chance to prepare for them.


Advocates Urge Colo.
To Reject Xcel Proposal

Renewable energy advocates, businesses and environmental groups including the Solar Energy Industries Association and the Vote Solar Initiative joined together to urge the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to reject a new proposal from Xcel Energy that they say would discourage rooftop solar growth in its territory.

Issued on July 24 as part of Xcel’s 2014 Renewable Energy Standard (RES) compliance plan is a request for the CPUC to identify clearly the incentives provided to solar customers associated with net energy metering (NEM). Xcel Energy says the RES compliance plan does not propose to change the amount of money paid to solar customers in 2014. However, the utility is requesting that the solar customers’ net costs - the benefits they receive weighed against Xcel Energy’s cost for incorporating their solar - be spelled out. The utility says NEM incentives ultimately are paid by non-solar customers.

According to Vote Solar, Xcel is using a “flawed study” as the basis of its request, which amounts to “backroom tactics.”

“While we understand that rooftop solar represents a change from the utility’s traditional way of doing business, this proposal is a non-starter for a needed conversation about the future of rooftop solar in Colorado,” says Annie Lappé, solar policy director at Vote Solar.

“Net metering is key to reaching Colorado’s Million Solar Roofs goal and has been a huge component to helping Colorado families and businesses afford to go solar,” says Edward Stern, executive director of the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association. “If we’re going to have a conversation about net metering, we need to make sure we’re using good, updated, accurate information.”

NEM is shaping up as a major bone of contention between utilities and solar sector advocates. A July 11 proposal submitted by the Arizona Public Service Corp. to state regulators calling for residential solar fees and a re-evaluation of NEM incentives produced a strong backlash.


EU Agreement On
Chinese PV Criticized

European Union (EU) Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht has announced he has reached a deal with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce over anti-dumping duties imposed on China-sourced solar panels to the enthusiastic reception of practically no one.

“After weeks of intensive talks, I can announce today that I am satisfied with the offer of a price undertaking submitted by China’s solar panel exporters, as foreseen by the EU’s trade defense legislation,” De Gucht says in a statement. “This is the amicable solution that both the EU and China were looking for.”

The deal shelves duties for what are termed “price undertakings.” According to the EU, price undertakings are an alternative form of trade-defense measures allowable under its laws and those of the World Trade Organization, where a duty on imports is replaced by a mechanism based on a minimum import price. The EU says exports from Chinese companies participating in the price undertaking would be subject to its mechanism and would be exempt from the anti-dumping duties. Those companies that do not participate would be subject to the duties as previously scheduled.

Despite the characterization of the agreement as “amicable” and “equitable,” parties on both sides of the tariff debate were swift to voice their opposition.

“The agreement endangers the very existence of the European solar industry, which has already lost 15,000 jobs due to Chinese dumping and illegal Chinese state subsidies and now is at risk of losing remaining producers in Europe,” says Milan Nitzschke, president of EU ProSun, a European solar manufacturing association that supports the tariff regime.

On the other hand, the Alliance for Affordable Solar Energy (AFASE), a trade association of installers and project developers opposed to import duties on Chinese solar panels, objects to the proposed agreement because the price undertakings would increase prices.

“We don’t want a price increase as this will contract demand in Europe,” says Denis Gieselaar, CEO of Oskomera Solar Power Solutions and board member of the AFASE. “An agreement based on unreasonable minimum prices would be a complete lose-lose situation, including for European manufacturers, at a time when Europe is so desperately looking to stimulate green jobs creation.”

The U.K.-based Solar Trade Association (STA), which has also opposed tariffs, says it is concerned about the impact of mandatory pricing on solar installations.

According to the STA, the proposed import deal would include a cap on the volume of solar imported from China at 7 GW per year. Since the European solar market was approximately 17 GW in 2012, the STA is concerned that Chinese market share under the proposed agreement would satisfy less than half the EU market.


East Bay Plan Cuts
Solar Permit Red Tape

The East Bay Green Corridor has rolled out a series of initiatives intended to streamline the permitting process for residential solar installations in the California region’s nine cities. The new process includes structural guidelines advocates say will cut red tape, decrease installation times and reduce costs.

Partnering with the East Bay Green Corridor on the solar permitting initiative were the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development and residential solar provider Sungevity Inc. The affected cities are Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Emeryville, Hayward, Oakland, Richmond and San Leandro.

According to the East Bay Green Corridor, details of the new permitting process include the following:

Carla Din, director of the East Bay Green Corridor, tells Solar Industry the origins of the permitting initiative can be traced back to a series of meetings the organization held with cleantech businesses in 2009.

“One of the key recommendations was to standardize and harmonize policies for promoting industry growth among the corridor cities,” Din says.

In developing the initiative, Din says the regional organization had a wide range of support from state government, research institutions and utilities. The East Bay Green Corridor was a part of the Governor’s Office of Policy and Research’s solar permitting stakeholders group that developed a solar permitting guidebook.

Due to its broad base of technical, government, utility and solar sector support, Din is confident the permitting reforms will be both effective and useful to other regions of the state and elsewhere.

“We are working in conjunction with the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development to promulgate our guidelines throughout the state as one of the ‘best practices,’” Din says. “We looked at a variety of permitting processes as examples and, in fact, modeled the standard electrical plan after the one recommended in the state’s guidebook. The structural guidelines are our own.”

Structural guidelines were developed by John Wolfe and Andrew Wagner of the Berkeley-based structural engineering firm Tipping Mar, with the assistance of Giyan Senaratne, principal and CEO of West Coast Code Consultants Inc.

“The regulatory challenge was that the industry’s solar support components manufacturers do a great job providing engineering assurance and evidence of code compliance for everything above the roof sheathing, as well as the anchorage to the roof, but ‘leave it to others’ to demonstrate that the roof itself can support the PV array,” says Tipping Mar’s Wolfe. “If we make the assumption that the roof is code compliant, then we can show the roof has the reserve capacity to carry the array, even when the array’s feet load some rafters and skip others. The result is a simple checklist for over-the-counter approval.”

Wolfe cautions that performing standard structural calculations still requires installers to keep technical challenges in mind, such as how the array concentrates loads on some rafters and not others. For this reason, the project produced a detailed and documented technical appendix for installers to use along with the checklist.

The collaborative effort was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, a program that seeks to make solar energy cost-competitive with other forms of electricity.


Study Says DOE Goals
Boost Utility Solar

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) SunShot Initiative funds research and sets goals with the overall objective of making solar power cost-competitive with other forms of power generation by 2020. SunShot’s magic number for utility-scale solar is $1 per watt, which the DOE says represents about $0.06 per kWh.

A study conducted by the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, finds attaining this goal would enable utility-scale solar to meet about a third of the electricity requirements of the western region of North America by 2050. The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, says SunShot’s target, if hit, would enable central-station solar to supersede natural gas generation and reduce the need for nuclear and carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

In the scenarios investigated, achieving the SunShot target was shown to decrease power costs by up to 14%, saving up to $20 billion (in 2010 dollars) annually by 2050, the study says. Of course, the study’s focus was on the implications of reaching the DOE’s cost targets and does not have any special insight into how such goals are to be achieved - only that getting there would seem to be a good idea. S

Policy Watch

Calif. Mulls ‘Smart’ Inverter Mandates




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