Ohio’s first Solar Congress brings community of solar supporters together

More than 50 solar advocates from across Ohio joined together earlier this month in Zanesville. Zane State College served as the Solar Congress host. Attendees gathered to learn, share stories, and celebrate solar’s impressive growth in Ohio.

The day began with opening remarks from Zane State College Dean Randy Wharton. Wharton discussed the College’s solar training program and how solar was creating good local jobs.

The Congress then broke into workshop groups to learn about a variety of solar-related topics. This included sessions about joining the solar industry as a career, solar policy, the role the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio plays in solar, and a ‘solar 101’ tutorial.

After a networking lunch, Dean Wharton took attendees on a tour of the College’s Alternative Energy Training Lab. Other attendees listened as solar co-op members shared their experiences going solar with a group.

The final series of workshops included a screening of the film Catching the Sun, a discussion about electric vehicles, and a conversation about the National Solar Tour.

The day ended with a plenary solar forum discussion. Attendees shared ideas about ways to grow Ohio’s community of solar supporters.

Rooftop solar can create 83,000 Ohio jobs over the next decade

by Will Driscoll

Solar energy not only helps homeowners save money on their electric bills, it also creates jobs. New data show just how many jobs that could be in Ohio. A report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that Ohio could produce 35 percent of its electricity needs by installing 46,800 megawatts (MW) of rooftop solar capacity. Installing that much rooftop solar in Ohio would yield about 83,000 jobs for ten years.

The NREL figure represents Ohio’s technical potential for solar. Technical potential refers to what is physically possible, tempered by common sense—e.g., no panels where they would be shaded for much of the day. NREL calculated the amount of solar that could be produced on unshaded roof planes that are either nearly flat, or that face east, southeast, south, southwest, or west. If any such roof plane could accommodate at least 1.5 kilowatts of solar panels, NREL modeled solar on that roof plane. Adding these areas together yielded a technical potential of 46,800 MW of rooftop solar in Ohio.

NREL assumed an average solar panel efficiency of 16 percent, and noted that if panels averaging 20 percent efficiency were used, the solar potential would be 25 percent greater (because 20 is that much greater than 16).  At least three firms make solar panels exceeding 20 percent efficiency.

The technical potential is just a theoretical concept. Yet the economic potential—that is, the rooftop solar installations that would save building owners money—may not be far behind. This will be especially true over the next decade, as solar costs keep falling due to technology improvements and economies of scale. In the coming years, solar’s economic potential will keep rising.

Ohio’s estimated job potential from rooftop solar is based on the Solar Foundation’s count of 260,077 U.S. solar workers in 2016, and the Solar Energy Industries Association’s reported 2016 U.S. solar installations of 14,626 megawatts. Dividing the two yields almost 18 workers per megawatt of solar installed.

Finally, spacing out the installation of NREL’s 46,800 megawatts of Ohio rooftop solar over ten years would mean 4,680 megawatts of rooftop solar installed annually. Multiply that times about 18 workers per megawatt and you get 83,000 jobs for a ten-year period. Jobs from utility-scale and community-scale solar would be additional.

For rooftop installations, the number of jobs per megawatt installed would arguably be higher than the U.S. average in 2016. This is because rooftop jobs are smaller and more labor-intensive than utility-scale solar projects, which were included in the average. On the other hand, with a big increase in the size of the rooftop solar industry, economies of scale should also come into play. On balance, a potential 83,000 rooftop solar jobs in Ohio for ten years is a reasonable ballpark estimate.

Will Driscoll is a writer and analyst. He previously conducted environmental analyses for EPA, as a project manager for ICF Consulting. He earned a master’s degree in economics and policy from Princeton.

Huntington Solar Co-op seeks installer

The 23-member Huntington solar co-op today issued a request for proposals (RFP) from area solar installers. The group members created the co-op to save money and make going solar easier, while building a network of solar supporters. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the Marshall University Sustainability Department, the Huntington League of Women Voters, Ohio Interfaith Power & Light, WV SUN, and OH SUN are the co-op sponsors.

Local installers interested in serving the group can download the RFP here and the response template here. Huntington residents interested in joining the co-op can sign up at the co-op web page.

Joining the co-op is not a commitment to purchase panels. Co-op members will select a single company to complete all of the installations. They will then have the option to purchase panels individually based on the installer’s group rate. By going solar as a group and choosing a single installer, participants can save up to 20% off the cost of their system.

The PJM, the lesser known, but important player in the electric system

You are no doubt familiar with your utility as the entity that delivers your electricity. But there is another important player in getting electricity from a power plant to your home, the RTO or Regional Transmission Authority. For most of Ohio, the RTO is PJM. PJM is responsible for managing the transportation of electricity from power plants to the various utilities in its territory. Understanding PJM’s role in the electricity system is important to understanding how electric markets work and in turn what the development of solar means for these markets.

PJM is an abbreviation of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland after the territories where the first utilities joined together. Today, the PJM includes all or parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. It manages electricity distribution for more than 60 million people and $42 billion worth of electricity.

To understand what PJM does, it is helpful to think of the process of getting electricity from a power plant to your home as having three parts: generation, transmission, and distribution. Generation is the production of electricity at a power plant, distribution is a utility routing that electricity to your home. Transmission then, is the middle portion of the process and involves sending electricity from power plants to utilities.

PJM manages the market where power plants bid to provide electricity to utilities within PJM territory. It monitors the transmission system to ensure that the right amount of electricity is being supplied. Auctions are conducted three years in advance to determine the price for base generation based on forecasting models for capacity needs. PJM also holds energy market auctions to meet additional and precise demand. Some auctions trade as frequently as every five minutes.

Electricity from wind and solar is increasingly playing a role in these auctions. The most expensive power is during peak demand loads in the height of summer. Solar helps offset the power needed during those peak periods. This means the utility is buying less expensive electricity and all ratepayers save money.

Appalachian Ohio Solar Co-op selects installer

The Appalachian Ohio Solar Co-op has selected Appalachian Renewable Power (ARP) to install solar panels for the 40-member group. Co-op members selected Appalachian Renewable Power through a competitive bidding process.

Co-op members selected ARP because of their competitive pricing, quality components, and proximity to the group.

The co-op is open to new members through the end of June. Greater Athens-area residents interested in joining the co-op can sign up at the ohsun.org/appalachian.

Joining the co-op is not a commitment to purchase panels. ARP will provide each co-op member with an individualized proposal based on the group rate. By going solar as a group and choosing a single installer, participants can save up to 20% off the cost of their system.

Installing a system for future battery connection

Pairing solar installations with battery storage is an attractive idea for many people who are thinking about going solar. Battery storage provides piece of mind that even if you are unable to get electricity from the grid (e.g. during a storm) you will still have power.

Despite this benefit, battery storage remains an expensive proposition for many. At the same time, the market for batteries is growing rapidly. This rapid growth is coupled with quickly declining prices. So, even if battery storage may not pencil out for solar customers today, it is possible it will in the near future. Fortunately, solar systems can be built with the addition of a future storage system in mind.

When building a system for future storage, it is important to make sure your grid-tied inverter’s power rating doesn’t exceed that of a future battery. Battery sizes range from 4,000-7,000 watts. So, let’s say you have a 9,000 watt system, you would want to purchase two smaller inverters, say a 6,000 and 3,000 watt one, rather than one 9,000 watt inverter. This will allow you to rewire the electricity from the smaller inverter into your future battery system.

This can be accomplished through AC coupling. AC coupling refers to the interface between the solar array and the inverter. This takes place physically in your home’s circuit panel. The battery installer will add an additional breaker panel that covers the outlets that can be powered with the electricity stored in your battery system. These outlets will be the ones connected to your “critical loads” such as your refrigerator.

There is an added cost to having two smaller inverters, rather than one larger inverter. The cost will vary, but expect to pay between $500 and $1,000 for the two smaller ones.

It is also possible to connect systems that use micro inverters to batteries. The key is to arrange the strings in a way that a portion of your system is set up to send electricity to a future battery system.

If you are thinking about adding battery back up, let your installer know before they install the system. This ensures they will design your system to be storage compatible and to minimize the additional work that would have to be done to install batteries when you do decide to add storage.

Mid-Ohio Valley residents forming solar co-op to go solar together, get a discount

Neighbors in the Mid-Ohio Valley have formed a solar co-op to save money and make going solar easier, while building a network of solar supporters. Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action, the WVU Parkersburg Ecohawks, the Wood County League of Women Voters, OH SUN, and WV SUN , are the co-op sponsors.

The group is seeking members and will host an information meeting on Tuesday, March 21, 5:30 p.m., at the WVU Parkersburg College Theatre, 300 Campus Drive, Parkersburg, to educate the community about solar and the co-op process.

Mid-Ohio Valley residents interested in joining the co-op can sign up at the co-op website. Joining the co-op is not a commitment to purchase panels. Once the group is large enough, WV SUN and OH SUN will help the co-op solicit competitive bids from area solar installers.

Co-op members will select a single company to complete all the installations. They will then have the option to purchase panels individually based on the installer’s group rate. By going solar as a group and choosing a single installer, participants can save up to 20% off the cost of their system.

New report shows solar creating Ohio jobs

Solar energy continues to drive job growth in Ohio. A recent report by the Solar Foundation found that more than 5,800 Ohioans are employed in the solar industry. This figure represents a 21% jump over just the previous year. Jobs in solar accounted for one in 50 new jobs in the US last year.

A separate U.S. Department of Energy report shows that jobs in solar have now surpassed jobs in coal and natural gas. Solar jobs are a major part of the workforce. The national median wage for installers is $26 per hour.

Ohio ranks 11th nationally in terms of the total number of solar jobs.

Solar employs workers in a variety of occupations with a range of skill sets. This includes everything from factory workers and installers to build the panels and put them into place, to marketing and financing professionals to sell and make solar more affordable.

The solar co-ops have been a strong contributor to this year’s growth in Ohio. The economic development created by solar co-ops last year sustained or created an estimated 37 jobs.

Click here to learn more about how you can get involved in the solar industry.

Project allows installer to give back

We know solar can help homeowners save money on their electric bills, but solar also has the power to bring electricity in places where electric service is hard to come by. This is particularly true in less economically developed countries where the electric grid is either unreliable or non-existent. This forces communities to either use expensive fuel generation or go without electricity.

A team of five volunteers, including Ohio-based installer Gary Easton of ARP-Solar, recently spent a week in the Dominican Republic installing a 69-panel system on a school in Punta Cana. The school complex can serve up to nearly 2,000 students and provides housing for about 100 teachers. The panels are connected to a bank of 48 batteries that store the electricity generated by the system and ensure the school has 24-hour access to power.

“They had a system that was powering the school,” Easton said. “But it had been installed in a place where obstacles were obstructing it.” This meant they’d often have to shut the system down because its voltage production was too low to store. They were without a generator, leaving them no way to charge the battery to maintain a constant stream of power.

Easton worked through an organization called Sonlight Power. The organization has helped install solar systems in Africa and Latin America.

While these donations provide vital electric service, off-grid systems like the one Easton helped install need someone to help maintain them after the installers leave. “One way to improve the program is if we had a group of local people who could be trained to install the systems themselves,” Easton said. “I’d like to be a part of that.”

Peaker plants, solar, and the changing realities of the electric market

Electrical demands on the grid fluctuate throughout the day, and in different times of year. This presents a challenge for utilities, as generation capacity costs money. Having more generation capacity than is needed is an expensive waste of ratepayer money.

Utilities purchase power from ”peaker” plants to meet times of increased demand. The electricity produced by these power plants is more expensive than non-peak electricity because the plants themselves are not in continual service, so the marginal cost of operating them is higher.

It is also expensive because many peak demand periods are weather related and utilities are bidding against each other for the power at the same time. The need for these plants is based on a centralized model of electricity distribution by which customers receive their electricity from generation stations.

Electricity demand drops with the sun, as peak demand is strongly related to air conditioning. The time of peak demand for utilities is the end of the traditional workday in the heat of the summer.

Distributed solar energy provides a solution to the problem of peak demand. Utilities are already using solar to shave off peak demand and therefore lower the need for “peaker” plants.

The next generation of utility solar plants in Ohio are incorporating trackers which allow the arrays to follow the sun. While, historically the added production value has not justified the additional cost of trackers, that is changing. Utilities are now seeking to broaden the “shoulder” of the production curve. This is all about shaving peak load expenses.

Pairing rooftop solar with battery storage would enable individual customers, and grid operators, to smooth out electricity demand. It allows them dispatch electricity where and when it is needed most. In this way, the move to a more distributed electric system can benefit solar and non-solar owners alike by saving everyone money.