How Solar Can Go Mainstream: A Webinar Presented by MAREA

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MAREA, or the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Association, is a nonprofit organization that has been around in Pennsylvania for 15 years. Based out of Kutztown, this organization fights to save the Earth from climate change by advocating for energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy in Pennsylvania. Their work includes extensive school and community-based education, renewable energy installation in the community, training and workshops, and hosting the Pennsylvania Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Festival. On July 28th, I attended one of their monthly meetings, now gone digital, called “Integrating Solar and Storage to Go Mainstream.” This meeting featured a talk by an experienced regional sales manager in the solar and storage industry. Bill Dougherty, representing Outback Power Technologies, talked about the importance of integrating solar energy production with the capacity to store this energy through residential battery systems. Dougherty argued that the combination of solar and storage as a consumer unit would result in making such renewable energy options mainstream. Bill Dougherty’s talk highlighted the technological barriers that have blocked solar energy from going mainstream, but also the consumer habits that we must also take into account when considering the implementation of renewable energy.

Solar + Storage: Why It’s Our Path Forward

Dougherty has worked in renewable energy for 13 years, and during that time, has seen considerable growth in residential solar and storage systems (or S+S). Dougherty sees battery storage to be the key to the future of any transition to renewable energy. The energy grid is incredibly unstable, and the introduction of renewable energies to that energy grid has proven to be one of the great technological issues of our time. The point of renewables is to reduce the fossil-fuel based energy that the grid depends on—often in the form of inefficient coal plants, crude oil, and natural gas. Reducing fossil-fuel dependence also reduces the amount of greenhouse gasses that our energy production puts into our atmosphere and which is contributing to climate change. However, because renewable energies are unreliable—the sun is not always shining—the issue of how to store the energy is crucial. This instability creates the risk of dangerous power fluctuations on the grid, which would cause energy companies to fall back on fossil fuels to stabilize the system. Battery storage of solar power would decrease the risk of this instability. In his talk, Dougherty argued for the increased use of residential solar and storage (S+S) as one way to support renewable energy and to address the technological problem of the stability of the grid.

“BTM” stands for “behind the meter” which refers to anything that happens on site of the energy consumer, where as front of meter refers to the grid side of the energy system. PV solar panels, and solar and storage combination energy systems, live “behind the meter” because they produce and store energy off-grid, at least initially. This graph indicates the state leaders in solar and storage through time, showing that California and New York are particular leaders.

In addition to the larger purpose of transitioning power companies and the world to more sustainable energy production, Dougherty highlighted three main reasons that S+S should be compelling for residential homeowners. First, Dougherty pointed out that homeowners with a linked solar and storage system could avoid having to pay time of use peak rates for their utility bill. With a S+S system, homeowners would be able to store energy—produced during the day, but saved in the battery—in order to use that energy between 4pm and 9pm, or the time that peak rates for utilities are often delegated. Essentially, Dougherty suggests that S+S is a financial investment that will save home owners money. Secondly, Dougherty noted that S+S allows for sustainable backup energy for both planned and unplanned blackouts. Typical generators use diesel, and so S+S systems present a much more sustainable alternative. Dougherty noted that energy resiliency concerns will increase as the effects of climate change continue to grow, especially in terms of increased flooding, fire, and extreme weather events. S+S systems would allow households to mitigate these climate events without adding to the growth of climate change. Finally, in some instances Solar and Storage can present ways for households to go entirely off grid, and thus bolster independence and resiliency.

After offering a survey of the types of batteries being offered in the field, data on the efficiency of these batteries, and the growth in sales of these storage systems, Dougherty provided hope that increases in S+S technology is starting to go mainstream and take root in substantial ways across the United States. Dougherty shared that there are incredible benefits to this field, projecting considerable job creation. In addition, by 2025, U.S energy storage is projected to be a $7 billion dollar annual market. He also shared that there is tangible evidence that S+S is being taken seriously by government agencies and tech companies.. First, he noted that every big tech company has a battery to sell. He cited examples like Tesla, Sunrun, and Generac, among others. Next, he noted that utilities and policymakers are starting to see the benefits of S+S, and have created incentives for homeowners to encourage the industry’s growth. In particular, he cited the 2 trillion dollar climate plan of presidential candidate Joe Biden, “The Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future,” which focuses heavily on clean energy innovation and infrastructure. Finally, Dougherty reported that one other sign that solar and storage has taken root is that safety is becoming standardized. 

This slide from Dougherty’s presentation shows his recommendations for how Pennsylvania would grow the residential implementation of solar and storage units. Those recommendations in bold are the most important in Dougherty’s eyes, and he includes examples in parenthesis to indicate where these initiatives have worked.

PA Has Room to Grow

What this means for everyday people is that S+S is becoming more cost-effective and becoming increasingly more safe and efficient as more companies get involved in producing S+S systems. Dougherty cited New York and Massachusetts for their progressive incentive legislation that has allowed for the growth of S+S systems in residential homes, but notes that PA has room to grow. Pennsylvania largely still has utility companies that charge through net metering, rather than time of use, which restricts the financial benefits homeowners can gain from transitioning to S+S systems. Time of use policies, combined with solar and storage systems, would increase grid efficiency, which would promote sustainable use of energy resources rather than waste. Dougherty also argued that the state of Pennsylvania could implement property tax exemptions, sales tax exemptions, low-income programs, and renewable portfolio standards (RPS), which would require utilities in the state to source a certain percentage of their electricity from S+S. In particular, reinstituting state-funded programs that create incentives for S+S growth, like the Sunshine Program, are crucial to supporting renewable energy. The Sunshine Program, running from 2008-2013, offered rebates to residential and small commercial residents that installed solar energy systems.

Takeaways

Doughtery’s presentation to the MAREA community illustrates the technological and social complexity of ensuring renewable energies are efficient and go mainstream. Many believe that mainstream use of renewable energy is the key to adapting to a world shaped by climate change. Dougherty offers policy makers insights into how PA, and even Bethlehem, can ensure that S+S can take root and tip the scales by pushing energy companies to adapt to sustainable energy. However, even with increased incentives and municipal and federal support, solar and storage are only accessible to middle class families. The next hurtle down the line, and perhaps the biggest challenge to seeing universal implementation of residential renewable energy systems, is the cost barrier for low-income families. Other considerations, like the fact that many lower-income households rent rather than own property, is also a factor. While the MAREA presentation addressed the barriers for low-income families to access S + S, it did not offer substantial solutions to this problem. The question of how renewable energy becomes mainstream needs to start with this question, rather than end with it. As Bethlehem moves forward with their own Climate Action Plan (CAP), I hope they will take their commitment to equity to heart.

2 comments Add yours
  1. Good story on MAREA & S+S, but it is important to note that many types of batteries, including lithium-ion batteries, use rare & hard-to-extract minerals. Any major expansion in battery production will lead to massive environmental degradation in the areas where these minerals are mined.

    People need to be doing research on how to make simpler energy-storage systems, such as electrolysis/fuel cell units and, where appropriate, thermal storage.

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