The top 25 companies in the United States installed 28 percent more solar capacity this year over last as the costs for doing so continue to decline and fossil-fuel prices increase and become more volatile, according to a new report from a solar trade association.
Since 2012, the top 25 companies have doubled the amount of capacity installed on their facilities, from 279 MW in 2012 to 569 MW as of August.
Among more than 40,000 businesses, nonprofit and governmental locations throughout the country, there was over 4,500 MW installed as of mid-2014.
The third annual “Solar Means Business” report was done by the Solar Energy Industries Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. The rankings only counted photovoltaic systems connected directly to a company’s facility.
“Without question, continued cost declines and attractive financing terms are driving solar growth nationwide,” SEIA spokesman Ken Johnson said in an email. “But effective public policies, like the 30 percent solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), are critically important, too, because they’re helping to bring down the cost of solar, making it more competitive with traditional energy sources.”
The report features some of the largest companies in the U.S., with several Midwest-based companies — such as Target, General Motors, Kohls and Walgreens — cracking the top 25 in the amount of capacity installed.
Walmart leads the country in capacity (105.1 MW) and number of systems (254) installed. Ikea, meanwhile, leads in the number of states where it has installed PV systems on its buildings (20) and the percentage of its buildings that include solar installations (87 percent).
Retailers in general lead among sectors of the economy.
“Long-term cost savings make solar an attractive option for businesses. Larger companies, like Walmart and Target, have hundreds of buildings that use a tremendous amount of energy,” Johnson said. “Simply put, they are saving real money on their utility bills — while helping the environment, too.”
Volkswagen leads the auto industry with slightly over 10 MW of solar installed at its U.S. facilities, which includes the 33-acre system next to its plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
As average electricity rates have increased for commercial users, the report says the costs for installing on-site solar are declining. For businesses sampled in the report, average electricity prices have risen 20 percent over the past 10 years while the average price of a PV project has dropped by more than 45 percent since 2012.
Midwest states ‘gearing up pretty quickly’
While companies in California and the East Coast continue to dominate the commercial market, southwest Ohio and southeast Michigan lead the Midwest in the number of installations, according to SEIA data. But favorable policies are leading to increased output elsewhere in the region.
“The Midwest hasn’t seen a huge amount of solar activity but Minnesota, Illinois and Missouri are gearing up pretty quickly,” Johnson said.
He added that growth is occurring “mostly in places with the right mix of forward-looking public policies, higher utility rates and, to some extent, days of sunshine. This translates mostly into coastal or high-population density states with transmission constraints that make utility rates higher.”
The report also recognizes third-party ownership — while more popular in the residential sector — as “a dominant force in the solar market.”
“Third-party ownership has been the clear leader in residential financing in recent years, but it has been more evenly split in commercial,” Johnson said. “That said, one challenge is financing small commercial systems since the companies that would host them often times do not have credit ratings or have other issues that complicate lending.”
Sustainability and economics
ConEdison Solutions, a New York-based energy services provider and subsidiary of Consolidated Edison Inc., started looking into installing solar systems for business and residential consumers around 2008, according to Michael Perna, ConEdison Solution’s vice president of marketing and business development.
At the time, solar manufacturing was rising in Europe, states were starting to set renewable portfolio standards and the federal government was providing a 30 percent tax credit for solar installations. By 2010, the company was installing systems for businesses.
“Now is a good time to get into solar,” Perna said of the time.
Now, he sees big businesses — such as those highlighted in the SEIA report — increasing their capacity for two reasons: Because it’s part of a bigger sustainability plan and because it makes financial sense to do so.
“While some customers may be doing it for a sustainability benefit,” Perna said, “a majority of sales are being done because the price point is cheaper than or competitive with the grid.”
As Iowa faces a potential surge in distributed generation, advocates and some legislators are concerned the state isn’t prepared.
In recent comments to state regulators, MidAmerican Energy, one of the state’s two largest investor-owned utilities, says that to date this year inquiries about interconnections for distributed generation are coming in at twice the rate they did in early 2013.
However, the utility forecast that substantial growth in distributed power will cause a raft of problems, at least in the current policy environment.
The Iowa Utility Board, sensing a growing interest in renewables, in January invited feedback about where the potential and the pitfalls might lie. While dozens of people expressed a desire for more distributed energy in the state, they also identified significant issues that stand in the way.
In its comments, MidAmerican voiced concerns common among utilities: that customers who don’t generate their own power may be bearing an unfair proportion of the system-wide costs of transmission and distribution services – on which small generators rely just as much as customers who don’t produce power. Bills need to reflect the cost of services used by customers who generate at least some of their own power, the utility said.
MidAmerican roughly estimated that, should 25 percent of its customers install solar panels, costs for the other 75 percent of its customers might increase by about 8.5 percent.
Those concerns, however, were part of a raft of comments supportive of expanding distributed renewable power.
‘Part of the solution’
Since the board issued its notice of inquiry on Jan. 7, comments have come in from 208 people and organizations — including a man trying to build a net-zero house, a collection of 66 farmers and rural business-owners, the state’s large power utilities and 25 state legislators.
David Osterberg, founder of the Iowa Policy Project and a professor in the occupational and environmental health department at the University of Iowa, said the key is providing utilities with proper incentives.
“Climate change is a reality and the investor-owned utility companies must adjust their business model to contend with it,” he wrote. “The question for the board should be, ‘How does the state of Iowa procure more distributed electric generation installed in a way that gives the utilities a way to be part of the solution?’”
One recurring theme in the comments to the board concerns the need to determine the costs and benefits of distributed energy.
Utilities and advocates agree on the need for an objective assessment that has a chance of putting to rest questions about how distributed energy impacts utilities. Studies have been done in several states, yet the debate rages on about whether distributed energy is a net benefit or a net cost to the companies that move power from one point to another.
“We need to base decisions on actual data, rather than on fears or blanket assertions,” said Josh Mandelbaum, who submitted comments on behalf of seven environmental organizations including the Environmental Law & Policy Center, where he is a staff attorney.
The enthusiasm expressed for distributed energy comes just weeks after the Iowa legislature opted not to move ahead on three bills that would have advanced solar energy in the state. One of them proposed a new renewable energy standard requiring 105 megawatts of solar by 2017. Another would have doubled the amount of state tax credit funds available to subsidize installation of on-site renewables.
In a phone interview, Rep. Charles Isenhart said the utilities board, with the information gleaned from this information-gathering exercise, could add considerable heft to legislation aimed at fostering more distributed generation.
In the general assembly, he said, “It’s easier for us to move legislation that comes from agencies.” Proposals from the IUB that favor distributed energy “are going to get more serious consideration than if they came from a different direction.”
In comments submitted to the regulatory agency, Isenhart and two dozen legislative colleagues proposed:
• Establishing a solar renewable energy standard,
• maintaining the existing net metering law, which allows some utility customers whose systems produce excess power to earn credits against future bills,
• allowing several new financing methods, including third party power purchase agreements,
• and avoiding extra charges on small generators, at least until a cost-benefit analysis has been completed
Those who submitted comments addressed many other issues. Several parties wanted the state to extend existing incentives to industries for the development of combined heat and power, a largely untapped technology with substantial potential in Iowa to reduce industrial power use by generating both heat and electricity with a single fuel source.
Others urged the board to extend net metering, which now is available primarily only to customers of large investor-owned utilities, to customer/owners of rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities.
Still others pointed to a need to update interconnection standards. Moving ahead with a distributed generation project requires an interconnection agreement with the local utility. And while the state’s large investor-owned utilities must comply with interconnection standards, “The customers of the cooperatives and municipal utilities in Iowa do not have that same level of predictability,” said Steve Guyer, president of GWA International, an Iowa designer and installer of solar systems. “In fact, many of the cooperatives and municipal utilities have policies in place that unduly increase the costs of interconnection.”
James L. Eliason, who identified himself as a retired scientist, expressed a common view that the transition to distributed energy is inevitable.
“I think the future of nearly all technological issues is decentralization,” he wrote. “The internet has decentralized information generation and transmission, and energy generation and transmission will not be far behind.”
Iowa is well established as a national leader in wind energy and biofuels. And now the state is poised for serious growth in solar as well.
“The market is exploding in Iowa,” says Tim Dwight, a former Iowa Hawkeye and NFL star who has become one of his home state’s most visible solar energy advocates.
Homeowners, farmers, businesses and at least one school district in Iowa are going solar. Also, over the past year, several municipal utilities and rural electric co-ops have put up solar arrays, inviting customers to buy a share of the power generated.
“Solar growth in Iowa is where wind was in the first decade of the 2000s,” says Bill Haman of the Iowa Energy Center. “We saw an explosion in wind.”
In Frytown, just outside Iowa City, the Farmers Electric Cooperative has been steadily adding on to a community solar project established on its property in 2011. And a few weeks ago, the co-op announced plans to put together a 750-kilowatt solar farm, which would be the largest solar-energy project in the state. It’s projected to meet about 15 percent of the co-op’s demand for power.
In September, the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities put an 18-kilowatt array on the roofs of several buildings at its headquarters in Ankeny.
And in November, several organizations snagged a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy to streamline local permitting and zoning codes, and improve standards for connecting solar generation to the grid. The aim: to cut the time and costs of adding solar generation. State lawmakers who attended a recent solar tour have pledged to help.
Incentives high, costs low
Iowa’s solar capacity remains a tiny fraction of its overall energy mix — at the end of 2012 the state had only about 1 MW of solar installed compared to more than 5,000 MW of wind.
But the same market forces driving solar growth in other parts of the country are being felt in the heartland, too.
The biggest factor driving all of the fireworks, according to Haman, not surprisingly, is money.
“Incentives are at an all-time high, and costs are at an all-time low,” he said. The cost per watt is between $3 and $3.50 now, compared with a range of about $7 to $10 several years ago.
Systems typically pay for themselves within a decade now, given federal and state tax credits and, in much of central and eastern Iowa, a subsidy available to customers of Alliant Energy. A decade ago, Haman said, recouping the costs of a solar installation could take 30 to 50 years.
Haman says money is not the only factor, though. He said Iowans have been waking up to solar power – an observation shared by Warren McKenna, the general manager of the Farmers Electric Co-op.
Finding himself on sort of a solar-energy lecture circuit of late, McKenna gets to listen to lots of people. And he says they’ve been taking notice of solar panels in other places – Minnesota, Colorado, California — and have been pressing their utilities to get on board.
Traer Municipal Utilities installed a 40-kilowatt community solar project a few months ago, said manager Pat Stief. All 106 panels have been purchased by 42 customers. They paid $530 per panel, rated at 305 watts, and will see a credit on their monthly bill for 20 years.
The Hawkeye Rural Electric Cooperative in northeast Iowa intends to put 25 kilowatts of panels on its property in Cresco, and also will invite members to invest in a share of the power. Ted Kjos, manager of marketing and communications, is looking ahead to a possible second phase.
“We’ve done a survey of our membership. A significant amount of our membership is interested in the co-op providing this,” he said.
Utility incentives coming to an end
Solar in Iowa has gotten probably its greatest single boost from Alliant Energy. In 2008, when Alliant put together its efficiency plan, designed to outline efficiency efforts through 2013, it proposed to subsidize small, on-site renewable energy projects.
For the first few years, there were very few takers. But the story’s changed dramatically in the past year.
Haman, from the Iowa Energy Center, manages a state revolving loan fund that provides interest-free money to help people pay the upfront costs of installing renewable energy systems at their homes or businesses.
He said there’s been “a steep rise” this year in the number of people seeking loans for solar panels.
“They’ve all come in in this past quarter,” he said, and nearly all of them – at least 40 out of 45 solar projects that have been processed – are from within the Alliant territory.
Installer Michele Wei concurs that there’s been a mad dash of late.
Her business with Alliant picked up a little steam in 2012, but this year, she said, “It was like, ‘Oh boy – it’s ending!’”
The Decorah Community School District, interested in putting panels atop several schools, has scurried to get its application in before the program expires. Superintendent Michael Haluska said the district will start small – probably about 24 kilowatts atop three or four schools.
It would be just enough to “max out the Alliant rebate,” he said. “We don’t want to lose the opportunity for that rebate.”
And while there’s nothing like a deadline to organize the mind, several people familiar with solar matters in Iowa said that Alliant Energy could – and should – have made a greater effort to publicize the subsidy for on-site renewables, which it will be terminating as of Dec. 31. The utility claimed that not many people were taking advantage of it.
Haman suggested that might have been because Alliant’s effort to publicize it “wasn’t a very aggressive marketing campaign.”
Wei went a bit further, characterizing the solar rebate as a “best-kept secret. If you don’t go on their web site, you don’t know about it.”
Jennifer Easler, an attorney with the Iowa Office of Consumer Advocate, said that an outside committee convened to review Alliant’s efficiency programs recommended “a stronger outreach effort.”
Justin Foss, a spokesman for Alliant Energy, said that the company routinely informs customers of efficiency benefits, like the on-site solar rebate, through articles in a company newsletter that goes out with monthly bills.
The network of solar dealers working in the state is “the best collection point” for getting such information out, he said.
But when Alliant has changed procedures and moved up deadlines, Wei said, the utility has failed to keep installers up to date.
“There’s a lack of knowledge that the rebate is out there,” said Dwight, who is president of the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association. “There’s not very strong advocacy of solar from the utilities. They don’t do a good job of educating customers.”
Meanwhile, business remains brisk for installers like Wei.
“We (installed) seven systems in the last month,” she said. “That’s definitely much more than we did last year. Since April or May, we’ve been installing nonstop.”
The Notice of Funding Availability for the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) was published in the Federal Register on Monday, May 5, 2014. The deadline for submitting grant applications is July 7, 2014. The NOFA containing details and additional information is available here.
Click on read more to View the issue
While solar advocates didn’t get everything they wanted in the Iowa legislature this year, a nearly-unanimous vote to triple the state’s tax-credit fund for rooftop installations is expected to have a major impact.
Provided the bill is signed by Gov. Terry Branstad, it also could be a prelude to bigger developments next year, according to two lawmakers.
“I think this will give an enormous boost to an already rapidly-growing solar industry,” said Sen. Rob Hogg, one of the measure’s sponsors. Increasing the available tax credits “will allow us to keep up with the growth and boost it further.”
In addition to tripling the available tax-credit funds from $1.5 million to $4.5 million annually, the measure increases the maximum credit. For residential projects, the cap has been hiked from $3,000 to $5,000. For commercial projects, it’s been increased from $15,000 to $20,000. The law also enhances the total allowable claim from the current 50 percent of the federal solar tax credit to 60 percent of it.
Hogg thinks perhaps the bill’s most potent provision is the one allowing businesses with multiple locations — like retail chains, for example — to receive a separate tax credit for each facility. Businesses are the leaders in adopting solar in Iowa, according to Hogg, and allowing them to apply for a separate credit for each location puts a whole new spin on investing in solar energy.
“A lot of businesses have taken advantage of solar energy,” he said. “It’s being spread through the business community.” With the possibility of a $20,000 credit for each location with a solar installation, he said, “The day is coming when it will be the norm to put solar into a business project. I think we’re getting very close to that point.”
State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, who also advocated for the tax-credit expansion, expects “a lot more projects to be deployed” as a result. “There’s been a lot of interest in the credit.”
In fact, applications for the credit in 2013 far exceeded the $1.5 million available. A revenue department spokeswoman said that as of April 15, applications for about $755,000 in state tax credits were on a “waiting list” because last year’s $1.5 million pool was exhausted. Once the governor signs the bill, the agency will have the funds to resume processing those.
Bolkcom said he’s confident Gov. Branstad will sign the bill.
“He told advocates at a recent forum that if it got to his desk, he would sign it,” Bolkcom said
‘Keep the momentum going’
If the bill becomes law, installers generally expect the expanded benefits to add fuel to the solar fire.
“It will help keep the momentum going on solar,” said Roger Garde, who sells and installs solar systems in southeast Iowa. “People ran into the cap last year. Businesses maxed out and some homeowners did too. There were people who would have put in a bigger system, but they stopped because they ran into the rebate limit.”
People who run businesses out of their homes, and farmers – many of whom power their farm operations and homes on one residential meter – would gain from a higher cap, Garde said.
Michelle Wei, a solar installer based in Des Moines, predicted that more generous tax benefits “will definitely give some push to solar.” In particular, because of the $5,000 increase in the commercial solar cap, she believes that “on the commercial side it will pick up.”
Mike Haman isn’t so convinced. As the industrial program manager of the Iowa Energy Center, he closely monitors solar installations statewide. Lately, they’ve been concentrated in the part of Iowa served by Alliant Energy, which offered an extremely generous solar benefit last year. The Iowa Utilities Board allowed the company to terminate it last Dec. 31.
After those projects are completed later this year, Haman said, “I’d expect the activity will start to decline. If I saw more of a balance between MidAmerican [territory] and Alliant [territory], my conclusion would be different.”
Alliant’s solar rebates typically ranged between $7,000 and $10,000, Haman said. Even with state tax credits boosted to $5,000, he said, solar is now much less profitable for customers of Alliant without the rebates.
The flip side of that, Hogg pointed out, is that only about one-quarter of Iowans get their electricity from Alliant. So for the other three-fourths of the state’s electric customers, this expanded tax credit will be a gain.
‘Next year we’ll be back’
Hogg and Bolkcom expect to see more solar policy advancements during the 2015 legislative session. Given the overwhelming and bipartisan support for the tax credit bill – 46 to 0 in the Senate, and 90 to 4 in the House – Hogg thinks there’ll be support for more solar moves next year.
“Next year we’ll be back addressing the regulatory framework for solar,” he predicted. “The utilities need to find a way to make solar work for their customers.”
He’s spoken to the state’s major utilities, and believes they “are ready to embrace solar.”
Bolkcom, too, expects some further developments next year.
“We have some interim work to do, to see what it might look like,” he said. “There’s going to be some effort by utilities and advocates on how we can work together on building a renewables agenda.”
Hogg thinks that history could provide a way forward. About a decade ago, he said, wind was at the stage of development that solar is now. The legislature passed laws permitting utilities to own wind farms, and allowing for major changes in the way rates are set. As a result, he said, wind energy took off. It now generates about 27 percent of the power produced in Iowa.
“We made that work for everybody,” he said. “I think we can make solar work for everybody.”
Solar installations have been taking off in many areas of the Midwest, but perhaps nowhere more so than in farm country.
“It’s a huge buzz now throughout the agriculture industry,” said Todd Miller, sales director for CB Solar in Ankeny, Iowa.
In Washington County, Iowa, for example, farmers with access to an unusual and lucrative combination of federal, state and utility incentives were anticipating payback periods of as little as two years, according to Ed Raber, director of the county’s economic development corporation.
Consequently, he said, “There are more solar panels in Washington County than in any other county in Iowa.”
The heat in Washington County, just south of Iowa City, has dissipated a bit, largely because the local utility – Alliant Energy – terminated its subsidy as of Dec. 31. However, solar panels continue to make inroads on farms in Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest.
‘A ripple effect’
In Ohio, EcoJiva Solar has seen growing interest from farmers since its founding six years ago, according to sales director Jess Ennis. Of the more than 100 systems the company has installed, he said, the vast majority have been on farms.
At the outset, the company envisioned bringing solar energy to manufacturers, he said, but they were too financially squeezed for a big capital investment. Agriculture, on the other hand, was thriving – and quite receptive to the idea of going solar.
Take, for example, the panels that EcoJiva installed on a farm outside of Huron, Ohio.
“Within several months,” Ennis said, “we developed three systems north and south of there. Within a three-mile stretch of road, we now have four systems.
“Generally speaking, when we install a system, it creates a ripple effect.”
Minnesota installer Curt Shellum also has found that, in farm country, solar arrays tend to breed more solar arrays.
“You get systems out there, people see them and drop by,” he said. In the agricultural region of southeast Minnesota, where he does most of his work, Shellum said, demand among farmers “is definitely growing for us. We’ve done maybe a dozen installs. In the last month, we’ve done enough farm proposals to equal the number of kilowatts we installed last year.”
In Illinois, solar developer Michelle Marley agrees that word of mouth is important.
“It’s just now starting to get a foothold,” she said. “The greatest obstacle is getting the word out.”
A long-term investment
Solar panels are a natural fit on a farm, a few installers observed. Shellum said that, for several reasons, they’re his “favorite type of installation.”
For one, farms tend to use a lot of power, with monthly electric bills sometimes running into the thousands of dollars. They need electricity to run fans, to heat and cool barns for dairy cows, to cool milk and produce, to dry grain and move it around.
Many farms also have barns with roofs that lend themselves to holding up solar panels. And if there’s not a suitable roof, there’s usually plenty of space for a freestanding array.
In addition, farmers are accustomed to thinking long-term and investing in their business. Many of them have maintained the farm in their family for generations, and expect it to continue as a family-owned enterprise that will reap the benefits of investment in solar energy for decades to come.
And they tend to be an independent lot who like the prospect of producing their own power.
Like Tim Ridgely, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat along with his son in central Illinois. In 2012, the Ridgelys put up a 17 kilowatt system in a field by their house and cut the electricity bill by about 40 percent, according to Tim Ridgely. Then, in 2013, they added 22 kilowatts, at a cost of 59 cents per watt after accounting for all credits, grants and subsidies they received.
Although he won’t have the full picture until next summer, Ridgely said, “We hope to be close to self-sufficient.”
Phil Rich had five systems totaling 110 kilowatts installed last spring on his farm in Washington County, Iowa. He’d purchased some used wind turbines earlier, and found they were costly and not as productive as he’d anticipated. His solar panels have been quite a different story.
“My last electric bill – and I did a lot of welding – was $600,” he said a couple months ago. “And normally it would be around $1,500 to $2,000.”
Subsidies a key factor
Michelle Wei, the installer who put panels up at Phil Rich’s farm and at numerous others in Washington and Henry counties, said many of her customers tried wind energy, and then opted to try solar.
Regardless of the technology, she said, “farmers are really interested in renewable energy.”
“We try to do things that are environmentally friendly,” said Linda Gent, who had three systems totaling 96 kilowatts installed on her house and two hog units in Wellman, Iowa. But there’s no denying that subsidies played into her decision to go ahead, she said.
Alliant Energy’s benefit covered about 25 percent of the cost, she said. State and federal tax credits lightened the burden on her even further. Many Midwestern farmers also have tapped into the a USDA grant (Rural Energy for American Program) that can cover up to 25 percent of a project’s cost.
“When you put it all together, it makes great financial sense,” said Illinois developer Marley.
Without quite so much financial encouragement, Gent said, “We would have had to give it more thought.”
Businesses received 97 solar energy tax credits in 2013 worth $987,830
Iowa awarded $1.36 million worth of tax credits to individuals and businesses in 2013 for installing solar energy panels and related equipment, almost hitting the annual cap of $1.5 million for the green energy tax breaks.
The Iowa Department of Revenue, in an annual report released Thursday, reported it awarded 264 tax credits for solar energy systems through Dec. 27. The agency said that number could still grow as not all applications received in 2013 were processed at the time of the report’s release.
The solar energy credits awarded in 2013 were substantially more than the $621,100 awarded in 2012.
The Department of Revenue, in its forecast of potential future tax credit liabilities, expects $817,403 worth of solar energy tax credits in fiscal year 2014, $1.3 million in FY 2015, $1.4 million in FY 2016 and $1.5 million in FY 2017 before the total falls below $1 million in FY 2018.
Iowa businesses received 97 of the solar energy tax credits in the last year worth $987,830. The other 167 credits were given to individuals for a total of $368,329.
Companies on average were awarded $10,184 for each tax credit, while individuals on average were awarded $2,206 for each credit.
Iowa’s solar energy tax credit was was enacted in May 2012, but was retroactive to solar energy systems placed in service on or after Jan. 1, 2012.
The Iowa tax credit for individuals cannot exceed $3,000. The tax credit for a corporation cannot exceed $15,000.
The third quarter of 2013 was another big one for the U.S. solar industry. 930 megawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) were installed across the country — the second largest quarter in the industry’s history — and it was the largest quarter ever for residential PV installations.
As the solar industry continues its remarkable growth, “2013 is likely to be the first time in more than 15 years that the U.S. installs more solar capacity than world leader Germany,” according to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
By the end of the year, more than 400,000 solar projects will be operating across the U.S. and installations will have grown 27 percent over 2012, with a 52 percent growth rate in the residential sector alone, according to GTM’s forecast.
Read more at ClimateProgress