May 052014
 

top us solar cities[Editor’s note: This post, by Kristine Wong, originally appeared on SolarEnergy.net.]

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the amount of sunshine that drives solar energy growth. Instead, smart local and state policies, utility leadership and strong state renewable portfolio standards are key to that growth, according to a recently released report analyzing solar capacity in 57 U.S. cities.

The total amount of installed solar capacity for all 57 cities currently exceeds the amount installed across the entire U.S. at the end of 2008.

“Solar power is growing much faster than many would have imagined, thanks in great part to local officials who have recognized the environmental and economic benefits,” said Rob Sargent, the energy program director at nonprofit organization Environment America and a lead author of the report titled Shining Cities: At the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution.

And the top 20 cities with the greatest solar capacity — an amount that collectively weighs in at over 890 MW — is greater than the entire U.S. capacity just six years ago, the report found. Here’s another tidbit from the report: Though its combined geographic area comprises 0.1 percent of land in the U.S., its total installed solar capacity represents 7 percent of U.S. capacity.

Researchers drew from a variety of data sources — including utilities, city and state governments, grid operators, nonprofit organizations and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Open PV database to rank the 57 cities as of the end of 2013. Only cities where more than a negligible amount of solar had been installed were eligible to be included in the analysis.

The report ranked the top U.S. solar cities as follows:

Principal City State Cumulative Solar
PV Capacity (MW)
Cumulative Solar
PV Capacity Rank
Los Angeles CA 132 1
San Diego CA 107 2
Phoenix AZ 96 3
San Jose CA 94 4
Honolulu HI 91 5
San Antonio TX 84 6
Indianapolis IN 56 7
New York NY 33 8
San Francisco CA 26 9
Denver CO 25 10

Source: Shining Cities: At the Forefront of America’s Solar Energy Revolution.

While each city’s path to solar has varied, the report breaks down common factors that has helped facilitate growth, such as:

  • Commitment to specific solar installed capacity goals, such as what San Jose, Denver and Portland are doing by installing solar on their public buildings
  • Passing building codes that require new structures to be “solar ready,” thus making installation easier
  • Implementing policies that reduce the “soft costs” of solar, such as
    • Chicago residents can get solar PV permits in under a month, thanks to its Green Permit Program
    • Portland and San Francisco residents can apply online for permits
    • San Jose has cut down its permit application to one page and reduced the permit application fee
    • Philadelphia reduced its permit fees down to the cost of labor (cutting out the costs of labor in the process)
  • Partnerships with local utilities, such as in Seattle’s partnership with Seattle City Light, where renters and apartment dwellers can participate in virtual net metering through buying solar panels in community solar gardens located off site
  • Strong state, local and federal policies (among states, Hawaii, California and Delaware are the strongest)
  • States can streamline permitting, and set rates that make installing solar attractive
  • The federal government can continue to use tax credits and other incentives

Even cities located in states with no renewable energy standards can emerge successful with the right combination of supportive local and state policies. Such is the case of New Orleans, ranked by Environment America as No. 11 nationwide.

The city’s investor-owned utility, Energy New Orleans, turned things around from zero installed capacity in 2007 to a total of 22 MW over seven years — in part from reducing the amount of paperwork needed to apply for a solar permit from 50 pages to two pages, as well as requiring that net metering be allowed. Louisiana also passed solar tax incentives in 2007.

New Bedford, Mass., is one city that’s linked solar growth to more than just a healthy economy. With a low income population, one might guess that the city would not prioritize renewable energy. Yet in 2010, it established an Energy Office tasked with installing 10 MW of solar power by 2015.

“New Bedford’s renewable power program is strengthening our city’s economy, our education system, and our environment, while saving taxpayers considerable money in the years ahead,” said Mayor Jon Mitchell.

How did it do this? The city shrewdly linked its solar development goals to progress on other socioeconomic issues it wished to improve on, including brownfields use, education, job training and local industry growth. Specific projects included:

  • Creating a program to promote solar farms development on brownfields land
  • Setting up a solar farm on brownfields land next to a school where teachers will take students out to the land to learn about renewable energy, as well as solar industry job skills
  • Installing solar on a group of public buildings, including a gym, three schools and a government agency

As a result of this multi-pronged approach, the city is now on track to accomplish its goal over a year ahead of time.
“Every city in America should be doing what we are doing here in New Bedford,” Mitchell concluded.

The post Top US Solar Cities Made Possible by Policy as Much as by Sunlight appeared first on Solar Power.

Apr 292014
 

solar farms[Editor’s note: This post, by Scott Thill, originally appeared on SolarEnergy.net.]

Consolidating precious natural resources in a warming world is a must. Which is why literal solar farms make sense — and maybe dollars — to Stanford scientists recently researching a colocation approach for simultaneously creating solar power and biofuels. It’s a simple idea, really: Grow some agave plants beneath vast solar farms across Earth’s increasingly arid regions, and voila! You’ve got a potential agritech solution for decreasing lethal emissions, and perhaps a reliable source of domestic fuel.

More microcosmically, the solar sector could reduce its water footprint by relying instead more heavily on agave, and what Stanford’s colocation announcement called “other biofuel crops,” to capture runoff and moisture to keep our photovoltaic panels cleaner in inhospitable climates. It sounds good on paper; specifically, the new issue of Environmental Science & Technology wherein Stanford’s scientists explain their collocated energy concept.

“It could be a win-win situation,” said Stanford postdoc Sujith Ravi in a press release. “Water is already limited in many areas and could be a major constraint in the future. This approach could allow us to produce energy and agriculture with the same water.”

Ravi and Stanford earth science professors David Lobell and Chris Field sound like they have their hearts and minds in the right place. But the science and math are eventually where this battle for the next generation of energy will be fought and won, and the numbers on biofuels are crunching more complicated these days. A recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change argued that transforming corn into ethanol (“and other biofuels”) degrades soil carbon and releases more greenhouse gas than gas itself. “It’s final,” Forbes wrote, “corn ethanol is of no use.”

“Unlike corn or other grains, most of the agave plant can be converted to ethanol,” Ravi explained in the Stanford announcement. “Of course, creative solutions don’t always work in the real world, but this one at least seems worthy of much more exploration,” added Lobell, perhaps not forcefully enough.

Because although the colocation approach is a brilliant idea, water is growing quite scarce and biofuels emissions, whether from corn or agave, are what we need to be moving away from, not toward. Maybe we should just skip that stage and just grow agave to keep the solar farms company.

Solar farm photo courtesy of Stanford News Service.

The post Turning Solar Farms into Actual Farms, Too appeared first on Solar Power.

Feb 072014
 

dan river spillWe spend a lot of time talking about the many positive benefits of solar energy, but the flip side of the discussion is at times just as important: The reason that solar isn’t taking off as fast as it could is because of the many incentives that serve to lower the cost of fossil fuels and make them seem like the only viable option.

However, that reliance on fossil fuels carries a heavy price, and sometimes the only way to see that high price is when there are major fossil fuel disasters stemming from our reliance on oil, gas and coal.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of these disasters, and it’s been a terrible couple of weeks for transporting fossil fuels — compounding an already-terrible seven months, since the Lac-Megantic oil train derailment and explosion last July that killed 47 people and destroyed the town.

• North Carolina: On Monday, a pipe under a Duke Energy coal-ash storage pond ruptured, sending as much as 82,000 tons of the highly toxic byproduct of coal-fired power plants into the Dan River. (Photo above, courtesy of Appalachian Voices.) While Duke Energy and state water officials originally said that the water is safe to drink, the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources early on Wednesday warned that the water is not safe. And the effects are devastating: The AP reports seeing “gray sludge several inches deep, coating the riverbank for more than two miles. The Dan had crested overnight, leaving a distinctive gray line that contrasted with the brown bank like a dirty ring on a bathtub.”

• West Virginia: In early January, a little-known industrial chemical used for coal processing polluted the water supply of 300,000 West Virginians; a new report out of Charleston suggests that the spill caused $61 million in economic losses over the next four days, as businesses closed down, hitting particularly hard the lodging and service sectors.

And late last month, the West Virginia-based Mountain Institute released a report showing how solar could benefit the state’s environment and economy without competing with coal.

• Minnesota: In what is at best a near-miss for a large-scale disaster, a train carrying crude oil leaked 12,000 gallons of oil near Winona, Minn., along about 68 miles of railroad tracks. While that sounds like a lot, and spilling that much crude is no joke, 12,000 gallons is just half of one tanker car’s payload; and because the spill is so dispersed, the state has no plans for a cleanup at this time.

The Minnesota leak came even as federal regulators fined three firms for mislabeling the oil they shipped by rail — since some kinds of oil, particularly the oil out of the Bakken shale oil formation in North Dakota is likely more prone to explosion in an accident.

The post Another Reason for Solar: Fossil Fuel Disasters in N.C., W.V. and Minn. appeared first on Solar Power.

Feb 072014
 

dan river spillWe spend a lot of time talking about the many positive benefits of solar energy, but the flip side of the discussion is at times just as important: The reason that solar isn’t taking off as fast as it could is because of the many incentives that serve to lower the cost of fossil fuels and make them seem like the only viable option.

However, that reliance on fossil fuels carries a heavy price, and sometimes the only way to see that high price is when there are major fossil fuel disasters stemming from our reliance on oil, gas and coal.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of these disasters, and it’s been a terrible couple of weeks for transporting fossil fuels — compounding an already-terrible seven months, since the Lac-Megantic oil train derailment and explosion last July that killed 47 people and destroyed the town.

• North Carolina: On Monday, a pipe under a Duke Energy coal-ash storage pond ruptured, sending as much as 82,000 tons of the highly toxic byproduct of coal-fired power plants into the Dan River. (Photo above, courtesy of Appalachian Voices.) While Duke Energy and state water officials originally said that the water is safe to drink, the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources early on Wednesday warned that the water is not safe. And the effects are devastating: The AP reports seeing “gray sludge several inches deep, coating the riverbank for more than two miles. The Dan had crested overnight, leaving a distinctive gray line that contrasted with the brown bank like a dirty ring on a bathtub.”

• West Virginia: In early January, a little-known industrial chemical used for coal processing polluted the water supply of 300,000 West Virginians; a new report out of Charleston suggests that the spill caused $61 million in economic losses over the next four days, as businesses closed down, hitting particularly hard the lodging and service sectors.

And late last month, the West Virginia-based Mountain Institute released a report showing how solar could benefit the state’s environment and economy without competing with coal.

• Minnesota: In what is at best a near-miss for a large-scale disaster, a train carrying crude oil leaked 12,000 gallons of oil near Winona, Minn., along about 68 miles of railroad tracks. While that sounds like a lot, and spilling that much crude is no joke, 12,000 gallons is just half of one tanker car’s payload; and because the spill is so dispersed, the state has no plans for a cleanup at this time.

The Minnesota leak came even as federal regulators fined three firms for mislabeling the oil they shipped by rail — since some kinds of oil, particularly the oil out of the Bakken shale oil formation in North Dakota is likely more prone to explosion in an accident.

The post Another Reason for Solar: Fossil Fuel Disasters in N.C., W.V. and Minn. appeared first on Solar Power.