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John Farrell's Posts

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What is Solar Worth to a Utility?

It’s an issue of national debate, but one unexpected state – Minnesota – is engaging a formal process for determining the methodology for setting the value of solar. As the first multi-utility process, it’s likely to set a precedent nationwide for what the “value of solar” will mean and whether it will aid the continued growth of distributed solar power. So what’s happening with solar in Minnesota? Starts with a Standard It starts with the recently adopted solar energy standard, which requires investor-owned utilities to get 1.5% of their energy from solar by 2020, establishes a standard, long-term contract for …

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A Community Solar Gold Standard?

Joy Hughes was living in the San Luis Valley of Colorado, a place with a “tremendous amount of solar potential,” so good that the valley’s residents were being overwhelmed by proposals for large scale solar power plants. One had a “field of things like radar dishes” and another included a “600 foot tower.” The influx of outside companies seeking solar profit led Joy to ask, “Why not just set up solar arrays that can provide power for people in the local community and offset their electric bills?” The Solar Gardens Institute was born, with a vision of helping community members …

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Utility Agrees: (Their) Solar Should Supplant Natural Gas

Five months ago, one of the country's ten largest electric utilities told regulators in Minnesota that it needed three new natural gas power plants to handle peak energy demand.  This week, the same company's Colorado division announced plans to use more solar power because it is cost competitive with gas. Maybe they need a memo to share the news: solar is cheaper than gas.  A lot cheaper.  Big or small. The city of Palo Alto, CA, recently signed contracts to buy solar energy from utility-scale projects for 7¢ per kilowatt-hour. This is on the heels of solar contracts signed by …

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5 Barriers to and Solutions for Community Renewable Energy

Community renewable energy has significant political and economic benefits, but is often hindered by five major barriers.  Read on for a summary of the five barriers, watch them in a 17-minute presentation, or check out the vividly illustrated slideshow. Barrier one is tradition. Utilities are simply used to operating a grid in a 20th century model, where large-scale power plants are connected in a top-down, one-way grid to power consumers. Policies that have allowed for on-site solar and wind generation, for consumers to be instead producers, have nibbled at the margins of this tradition.  It's only in the past year …

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Buying Local Solar Makes Florida City a World Leader

“It’s the only time I’ve done a rate increase when nobody was opposed,” says Ed Regan of the Gainesville utility’s feed-in tariff for solar power.  The program, launched in 2009, has resulted in nearly 15 megawatts of new, local solar energy generation on or near buildings in the northeast Florida town, enough to make it one of the leading communities in per capita solar worldwide.  The program is open to participation by anyone in Gainesville, with the utility buying all solar energy in the program on a fixed price, 20-year contract. It all started about ten years ago, when Pegeen …

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Non-panel costs make a bigger difference as solar energy gets cheap

Last week’s graphic on the impact of local permitting on the cost of solar power was a big hit, so here’s a follow-up on “soft costs,” the expenses in a solar installation (including permitting) that are not the solar module.  The chart compares the soft costs in the U.S. to Germany (thanks to LBNL’s analysis), where these cost are much lower.  The soft costs reductions attributable to the much larger solar market in Germany have already been accounted for and the chart shows those that are the result of other factors.

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Local Permitting Makes a Bigger Difference as Solar Gets Cheap

Going solar keeps getting cheaper, but most of the cost savings have come from less expensive solar panels.  “Soft costs,” like permitting and inspections, are a rising share of the cost of a solar installation.  Several years ago, these permits could increase the cost of a residential solar project (then around $8.00 per Watt) by 5-10% , highlighted in a 2010 study by Sunrun. But as solar gets cheaper, permitting is going to be a much bigger problem. A recent analysis by Lawrence Berkeley Labs [pdf] illustrates the benefits of streamlining solar permitting rules: it can cut the cost of …

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600 Investors in South Dakota’s Premier Community Wind Project

In this episode of Local Energy Rules, ILSR's Director of Democratic Energy, John Farrell, speaks to Brian Minish, CEO of South Dakota Wind Partners about a community wind project that attracted over 600 local investors.  The project was the brainchild of four state organizations rooted in rural South Dakota–the East River Electric Cooperative, South Dakota Farm Bureau, South Dakota Farmers Union and South Dakota Corn Growers. Hoping to broaden ownership in a wind farm project proposed by Basin Electric in Crow Lake, these groups worked with Brian to figure out how to add local investors to the mix. Podcast (Local …

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Uncovering the Cultural Barriers to Sustainability: a Eulogy for Jim Farrell

I spent the past two weeks saying goodbye to my father, Jim Farrell, so instead of my usual discussion of good policy and practices for distributed renewable energy, I’m taking time to explore how my dad’s work on sustainability fits  with how I approach it in this blog (and elsewhere) in my work for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. My dad was a professor of American History and American Studies at St. Olaf College, in Northfield, MN (where I did my undergraduate work).  He wasn’t a lobbyist for environmental policies or a political activist, but in his courses on “Disney’s America,” …

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The Community Solar ‘Holy Grail’?

Has a Carbondale, CO, company found the 'holy grail' of community renewable energy projects? In this podcast with with Paul Spencer, President and founder of the Clean Energy Collective (CEC) in Carbondale, CO, we explored how CEC is pioneering the process of delivering clean power-generation through medium-scale (mostly solar) facilities that are collectively owned by participating utility customers. Local Energy Rules podcast, Ep. 6: Play in new window | Download | Embed “From the outset, we really strived to find something that was going to be widely applicable,” Paul says in the interview. It’s no easy task. Many other community solar …

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