U.S. Utilities Advance Solar Projects

Solar PVSeveral major U.S. utility companies may accelerate plans to integrate solar power into their electricity mix following a fact-finding trip to Germany.

Twenty-three electric utilities were represented on the trip to Germany, the world's leading producer and installer of photovoltaic (PV) solar cells. All of them may now advance solar projects in the United States, a trip leader said, further expanding a growing solar market.

"Every single utility would decrease the time they said it would be before solar would be a significant part of their utility mix," said Julia Hamm, the executive director of the Solar Electric Power Association, which organized the trip, covered some participants' travel expenses, and conducted a poll on solar power upon the trip's conclusion.

The tour was an opportunity for utility executives and managers to speak with German utilities and address concerns about how expanded solar energy may affect grid reliability. The trip, which took place in June, was summarized in a Solar Electric Power Association report [PDF] released last week.

Roy Kuga, vice president of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), said his concerns about distribution were put at ease, although the intermittent nature of solar energy may still be problematic. "In a country where solar radiation is sub-par compared to many parts of the U.S., I have to hand it to the progressiveness and commitment [Germany] made to solar," he said. "Their technology advances will later help us."

In Germany, a feed-in-tariff law [PDF] requires utilities to pay customers a fixed rate for any renewable energy they feed into the grid, such as solar power generated from rooftop PV panels. While the policy sets the cost of renewable energy higher than traditional energy sources, the price decreases over time.

Mainly due to these fixed rates, Germany is home to nearly half the world's installed solar cell capacity. About 1,300 megawatts (MW) of new PV capacity was installed in 2007, bringing the country's total to more than 3,830 MW.

In the United States, solar PV is growing. The country ranks fourth for total capacity, with at least 450 MW installed. An assortment of rebates, grants, and low-interest loans is scattered across the states.

Utilities represented on the tour included two of the largest U.S. utility companies, Southern Company and Duke Energy. Represented utilities also included Southern California Edison and PG&E, the U.S. utilities with the most installed MW of solar power and the most overall solar capacity, respectively.

This year, utilities have already announced plans to expand rooftop PV capacity. In June, Duke Energy proposed a $100 million expansion of solar panels on 850 buildings in North Carolina. Southern California Edison plans to install 250 MW of distributed capacity over 65 million square feet (19.8 million square meters) of roofs in the next five years. PG&E plans to help California meet the state's goal of 3,000 MW of customer-installed solar power by 2017. "In the upcoming months, we should expect to hear more from PG&E activities in this area," Kuga said.

Several of the utilities on the tour were less experienced with solar power installation. "Half the utilities on the trip really had done nothing or little [solar installation]," Hamm said. "It was a complete eye-opener for them."

Jim White, a senior energy services engineer with a Washington state public utility, said he was most impressed with Germany's efficient methods of solar installation. For instance, when a PV system is set up, a new electric panel is placed inside homes with a separate meter for solar energy. "It's plug-in and play, literally. You buy a solar panel and put it on your roof...drop down two wires and call the electric utility," White said. "It's an order of magnitude faster than where we are today."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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