US utilities seek sun as Trump sides with coal, fossil fuels

February 5, 2017 by Emery P. Dalesio

The plunging cost of solar power is leading U.S. electric companies to capture more of the sun just when President Donald Trump is moving to boost coal and other fossil fuels.

Solar represents just about 1 percent of the electricity U.S. utilities generate today, but that could grow substantially as major electric utilities move into smaller-scale solar farming, a niche developed by local cooperatives and non-profits.

It's both an opportunity and a defensive maneuver: Sunshine-capturing technology has become so cheap, so quickly, that utilities are moving to preserve their core business against competition from household .

"Solar growth is so extensive and has so much momentum behind it that we're at the point where you can't put the genie back in the bottle," said Jeffrey R.S. Brownson, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies solar adoption. "You either learn how to work with this new medium, solar energy, or you're going to face increasing conflicts."

The transition away from coal-burning power plants now seems unstoppable, even if Trump scraps rules requiring utilities to reduce . The average lifetime cost for utility-scale wind and solar generation in the U.S. is now cheaper than coal or nuclear and comparable to natural gas, according to financial advisory firm Lazard, which compared the fuel costs without their federal tax subsidies.

Wind and solar were expected to account for about two-thirds of the new electricity generation capacity added to the nation's power grid in 2016, outpacing fossil fuel expansion for a third straight year, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

And even though big investor-owned utilities operate as legal monopolies in many states, the bill-lowering appeal of rooftop solar for many homeowners could eventually threaten their ability to finance and manage the power grids.

These trends help explain why utilities are increasingly adopting a model called "community solar," or "shared solar," which involves customers agreeing to buy or lease solar panels on large arrays built for the utility, or to buy the power they produce. That electricity is then credited off utility bills under contracts that can lock in power prices for 10 years or more.

Utility-run shared solar also can address competition from independent solar companies that install and operate , harvesting and providing the energy at a fixed cost to the individual consumer or some other buyer.

These projects also could appeal to the roughly half of American households that can't install solar panels because they don't own their homes, lack the good credit needed to finance an installation, or lack sufficient roof space where the sun shines consistently, the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory reported.

Like the much larger solar operations covering large rural tracts with dark photovoltaic panels slanted toward the sky, electricity from the utilities' smaller-scale arrays feed into the local power grid, not directly to individual homes or businesses

Membership-based electric cooperatives, municipal utilities and even non-profit groups run most of these "solar gardens" around the country, but utilities are moving in. In California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Minnesota, they've been pushed into the space by state law.

Investor-owned utilities now back about 20 percent of the country's community solar programs across 32 states, and represent about 70 percent of the potential output, said Dan Chwastyk of the Smart Electric Power Alliance, a group providing utilities information about shifting into clean-energy technologies.

Charlotte-based Duke Energy Corp., the largest electricity company in the United States, this year plans to launch a community solar program in South Carolina and seek regulatory permission to do the same in North Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, utility vice president Melisa Johns said.

Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy Inc., Topeka, Kansas,-based Westar Energy, and California's three largest investor-owned utilities are among other power companies moving into community solar.

Duke Energy's plan "just opens it up for a lot more people to go solar," said Sara Hummel Rajca, chairwoman of the South Carolina Solar Council, which brings local cooperatives, solar installers and academics together with the state's three major utilities.

Duke Energy's South Carolina residential customers would pay $70 upfront for each subscribed kilowatt slice of power potential from a solar array and get credit for their share of what's produced, an investment that should pay for itself three years into the 10-year program.

These households would continue paying conventional power prices for any electricity they consume beyond what their share generates, spending to keep the transmission lines and backup plants working when the sun doesn't shine.

"We do have customers that want (community solar) and customers who are willing to pay for it, but it's not like we have every single customer that wants that," Johns said.

At the moment, switching from coal-fired power plants to natural gas is a cheaper way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Stanford University economist Frank Wolak.

But utilities also need to hold onto their customers as becomes more popular, said Wolak, who directs Stanford's Program on Energy and Sustainable Development.

Utilities think: "If a customer signs up for community solar, we get the money. With rooftop solar, that money is going to the solar installer," he said.

Explore further: Storing solar power increases energy consumption and emissions, study finds

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17 comments

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gkam
1.9 / 5 (14) Feb 07, 2017
"The average lifetime cost for utility-scale wind and solar generation in the U.S. is now cheaper than coal or nuclear and comparable to natural gas, according to financial advisory firm Lazard, which compared the fuel costs without their federal tax subsidies."
------------------------------------

That's it.

Even the bought politicians and the political extremists cannot stop renewables from making Dirty Power obsolete.
Tom_Andersen
3 / 5 (4) Feb 12, 2017
The problem with your statement is that its simply not true. Solar power - even in a sunny place like a US desert is $0.25 /kWh when interconnection and other costs are factored in. A cut by another half would make them work for peak shaving in A/C dominated sunny states like AZ and NV, but the rest of the power needs to come from gas. So overall getting power from solar is far more carbon/pollution intensive than nuclear.

There are zero un heavily (>2x) subsidized grid solar installs in the US.
gkam
1.7 / 5 (11) Feb 12, 2017
Tom, my $12,400 PV system saved me $3000 this last year on power for the house and EV. With prices going up on gasoline and electricity, this year will be better. PV prices are still going down. Not a good vision for polluters.

manfredparticleboard
2.6 / 5 (9) Feb 12, 2017
solar vs fossil argument:
solar prototype: It'll never replace coal
solar production: Coal is cheaper and still uses coal to make them
solar early growth: Coal still is better for base load.
solar 20% implementation: just because it's cheaper to produce than coal power doesn't make it reliable
solar80% implementation: We need coal to give us emergency back up
solar 100%implementation: Coal was better.
FactsReallyMatter
1 / 5 (2) Feb 13, 2017
solar @ 80 &100% = candles at night and seasonal industrial capacity, unless you want to start another list on super duper battery technology.

I am glad gkam has a fantasy personal set-up, he obviously has enough cash to feel smug about his greenness while others freeze in the dark.
gkam
1 / 5 (8) Feb 13, 2017
Why does "AlternativeFacts" have to make personal attacks? Got no facts?

My "setup" is not special, it is right off the shelf, and a normal activity around here, the Land of the Future. Where do you squat?

We had to cash in long-term savings to get the $12,400, but it was worth it, because we now have electricity for car and house essentially forever. Send me a temporary email account, and I'll send some pics, and show you how you can do it, too.

It is now practical, since mine pays off in just over four years, then free power for life. Nothing "special" about it.

gkam
1 / 5 (8) Feb 13, 2017
Here is another reason to expedite the installation of renewables.

https://independe...ed,10019

http://akiomatsum...hi.html?
KelDude
2.2 / 5 (5) Feb 13, 2017
All the bombastic "coal will live forever" talk completely ignores the fact that by each home becoming an "electrical island" using solar panels and some of the newly developed batteries for off-peak (ie: night time) the public can take complete control of their own electrical needs and costs. By working "with" the utilities to build solar farms (or nuclear) the public will always be under the thumb (and pricing) of the large utility. We need to break that mold and become self sufficient and control our own costs. Lastly, we've passed the limit in atmosperic CO2 that will make temperatures unbearable very soon and continuing the burning of coal will only guarantee that the earth quickly becomes unlivable like Venus. Goodbye humanity. Too stupid to see it's own destruction.
FactsReallyMatter
1 / 5 (4) Feb 13, 2017
...we've passed the limit in atmosperic CO2 that will make temperatures unbearable very soon and continuing the burning of coal will only guarantee that the earth quickly becomes unlivable like Venus. Goodbye humanity. .....


Fear Monger much?? Plus, CO2 has been much higher in the past, several thousand PPM and the plants and animals all seemed to do just fine. At least until a real threat like an asteroid came round.
Solon
1 / 5 (2) Feb 13, 2017
"Tom, my $12,400 PV system"

I hope you are in an area that never experiences really large hailstones.
manfredparticleboard
2.3 / 5 (6) Feb 13, 2017
" CO2 has been much higher in the past,"
Live in the past much?
It's the rate of climate change...Rate!, The speed the climate is changing and the temperature extremes it's reaching, among other variables, are driving the planet to dangerous places. Oh unless you think a planet with the biodiversity of a carpark is a good thing for you and your economy worshipping buddies?
And there are cheaper ways of storing energy than batteries; local network of underground compressed air storage...ahh but america wants individuals to buy everything. God help us should anyone share a cost or benefit?
gkam
Feb 13, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.9 / 5 (7) Feb 13, 2017
We had to cash in long-term savings to get the $12,400, but it was worth it, because we now have electricity for car and house essentially forever. Send me a temporary email account, and I'll send some pics, and show you how you can do it, too
Instead of sending out pics of other peoples roofs to select shills, why dont you post pics of your PV/EV house on your website? That way everybody can see them and nobody will be able to call you a liar any more.

Or perhaps you enjoy being called a liar? Is that why you lie so much georgie?
FactsReallyMatter
1 / 5 (2) Feb 15, 2017


It's the rate of climate change...Rate!, ...Oh unless you think a planet with the biodiversity of a carpark is a good thing for you and your economy worshipping buddies?


Oh, the rate - yes because that is well modeled also (obvious sarcasm). Do we even have any past data with the same temporal resolution as we have now (i.e. c02 year by year, precisely)?? The answer is no, obviously?

Keep fearmongering though!!
manfredparticleboard
2 / 5 (4) Feb 15, 2017
Since facts don't matter; prediction- heat waves will become more common and their intensity more extreme. Fact-Australia has had temperatures of 47C over areas that have been unprecedented, localized temps of this magnitude usually occur on a 50km radius, now it's 500km radius for a week. Prediction-Rainfall will become more unpredictable and intense. Fact- changes in the intensity of rainfall have resulted in flooding at levels and frequencies around the globe that are not just outside local norms, but increasing year by year.

And it can continue like this for pages; you look for model accuracy at the third decimal place while the facts are inescapable.
I suppose telling you not to put your hand in boiling water will be met with accusation of fearmongering!
manfredparticleboard
2 / 5 (4) Feb 15, 2017
If you're not concerned by the changes in extreme weather, what the hell do you recommend for a tornado warning; a cheery smile and a sense of optimism? Should being surrounded by tinder dry bushland with ferocious temperature and winds be met with a beatific disposition? While the prospect of these occurring more frequently and intensely, should also be taken with a zen like inner calm?

What sort of mouthbreathing decerebrate thinks a response to what IS happening is fearmongering?
gkam
1 / 5 (7) Feb 27, 2017
As usual, Trump is last century. Ignorance is his excuse. Fortunately, I do not have to be a part of it, since I make my own electricity during the day, and take most of it back at night.

If Trump thinks he is going to resurrect coal, he is wrong. The high-quality coal is mined out, the stuff which takes much manpower. The new coal is gotten by removing mountaintops, leaving a disaster. It takes much fewer men.

Coal is the fuel of the 1700-1900s, not the 21st Century.

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