photo: Southern California Edison
When Southern California Edison unveiled plans to install 250 megawatts’ worth of solar panels on warehouse roofs back in March, it was hailed as a ground-breaking move. In one fell swoop, the giant utility would cut the cost of photovoltaic power, expand the solar market and kick-start efforts to transform untold acres of sun-baked commercial roof space into mini-power plants.
There’s just one problem: the solar industry is fighting the billion-dollar plan. In briefs filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, solar companies, industry trade groups and consumer advocates argue that allowing a utility to own and operate such massive green megawattage will crowd out competitors who can’t hope to compete with a project financed by Edison’s ratepayers. (In California, shareholders of investor-owned utilities are guaranteed a rate of return for approved projects, while utility customers bear a portion of the costs in the form of higher rates.)
The five-year plan “would establish SCE as the monopoly developer of commercial-scale distributed solar in its service territory,” wrote Arno Harris, CEO of Recurrent Energy, a San Francisco company that sells solar electricity to commercial customers. “This would irreparably impair the development of a competitive solar industry.”
Southern California Edison (EIX) is the first utility in the United States to propose such a “distributed generation” scheme and the dispute is being watched closely as a test case for the viability of producing renewable electicity from hundreds of millions of square feet of commercial rooftops. Such systems can be plugged directly into existing transmission lines and tend to generate the most solar power when electricity demand spikes – typically on summer afternoons when people crank their air conditioners. Having such green energy on tap would save utilities from having to build expensive and planet-warming fossil fuel-powered “peaker plants” that sit idle except when demand suddenly rises.
Even critics hail Edison’s move as “bold” and “visionary” and no one disputes that in California the development of big rooftop solar has lagged. For instance, the state’s $3.3 billion “million solar roofs” initiative is designed to put smaller-scale solar panels on homes and businesses and provides generous rebates for systems under 1 megawatt. At the other end of the scale, the state’s big utilities have been signing contracts to buy electricity from solar thermal power plants to be built in the desert. Left out of the subsidy game are incentives for the 1-to-2 megawatt arrays well-suited for commercial buildings.
Southern California Edison says it’s filling that gap and will energize the solar industry, not crush it. The utility plans to lease 65 million square feet of commercial rooftop space in the “Inland Empire” region of Southern California for solar arrays that would generate enough electricity to power 162,000 homes.
“SCE’s financial stability and business reputation will increase the probability that 250 MW of solar PV systems will be available to meet the state’s solar rooftop goals over the next five years,” the utility’s attorneys wrote in a brief filed with the utilities commission, which must approve the program. “In so doing, a solar PV program can improve efficiencies … to reduce costs and jump start the competitiveness of solar PV for widespread application on California roofs.”
There’s no doubt the program will be a boon for solar module makers. For instance, thin-film solar cell company First Solar (FSLR) is supplying 33,000 panels for the program’s first project, a 600,000-square-foot roof array in the inland city of Fontana. However, Southern California Edison intends to contract for union labor to install the solar systems and tap its own capital and a rate hike to finance the project. That won’t leave many opportunities for solar installers and financiers like SunPower (SPWR), SunEdison and MMA Renewable Ventures (MMA).
“Even though this program is kind of taking bread out of our own mouth, the demand for solar will keep going up,” says Mark McLanahan, senior vice president of corporate development at MMA Renewable Ventures, a San Francisco firm that finances commercial solar arrays.
“What they have announced is extremely visionary,” McLanahan tells Green Wombat. “It’s game changing and opens up whole new realms of what solar can do. That’s exciting.” On the other hand, he says, “It’s certainly possible that a young, growing industry that is pretty fragmented could be hurt by this rather than helped.”
A solution advanced by some solar industry critics is for Southern California Edison to open up the entire program to competitive bidding, not just the procurement of solar panels. The utility vehemently opposes the idea, arguing it would work against the economies of scale it says it can bring to the program.
Whether regulators will approve Southern California Edison’s request for a rate hike to pay for the initiative – and at electricity rates that are significantly higher than those set for other solar programs – remains to be seen. The commission’s own ratepayer advocate has questioned whether utility customers will get their money’s worth.
The utilities commission is unlikely to issue a final decision until next year. In the meantime, you can bet the state’s other big utilities – PG&E (PCG) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) – and solar companies will be watching to see whether the sky’s the limit for big rooftop solar or whether a ceiling is about to be placed on the industry’s ambitions.
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