RMI Solar Program Live Chat: Questions and Answers

If solar equipment, installation and other costs continue to drop, solar energy will be increasingly competitive in more markets after the scheduled end of solar tax credits in 2016, RMI experts told participants in a live web chat last week.

More than 1,400 participants joined the RMI chat, asking 160 questions of solar team members Ned Harvey, who is RMI’s chief operating officer; Senior Consultant Daniel Seif; and myself.

We were able to address many questions during the hour-long chat, which can be found here. Because of the limited time and wealth of excellent questions, we weren’t able to get to all of them. We’ve selected more questions to answer below.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is get a handle on the really hard questions,” Harvey said. “The live chat last week was a great opportunity to engage with our constituents and get a sense of their hot buttons.”

Q: From MaryBeth: “It seems today that most of the focus on residential is on solar photovoltaic itself and not on storage. Is that mainly due to cost/inefficiencies of residential storage systems, the wide availability of utility rebates, or just a lack of interest from residential customers in buying and maintaining storage systems?”

A: Currently, residential storage solutions are cost prohibitive in most markets. However, one area to watch is electric vehicles. A number of businesses now offer combined products where PV systems and charging stations are installed as one package. This, in combination with smart charging software, can allow extra electricity from car batteries to be partially discharged at night to meet demand when the sun isn’t shining.

Storage is an important technology that we at RMI include in our vision of a reliable, affordable, carbon-free electric system. However, storage isn’t necessary for PV solar to become mainstream. As we pointed out in the live chat, I’d like to once again highlight how PV can contribute to the U.S. electricity landscape today—without storage. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory analyzed U.S. rooftop space and determined that in 2006, existing commercial and residential rooftop space could generate about 819 terrawatt-hours of electricity, or 22 percent of total U.S. electric demand in 2006 (see the study here).

Q: From Claudette: “There is lots of news out there about how energy intensive it is to make current solar panels and the amount of pollution created in the production, specifically with gas emissions and wastewater containing high levels of fluorine. What new technologies are being worked on to reduce these challenges?”

A: As the industry matures and an increasing number of panels are manufactured on an annual basis, the PV industry will need to address technological and process-oriented challenges regarding hazardous waste management and disposal. However, regarding emissions, energy industry life cycle analyses have become quite advanced in their level of detail, and paint a fairly optimistic picture of PV solar. Generally, the findings from these more detailed LCAs is that PV systems generate far fewer life-cycle emissions per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced than conventional fossil fuel-based electricity generation technologies (see one example here).

Q: From EmShay: “Solar module costs seem to be going down at an encouraging rate, but installation costs aren’t — is this an appreciable barrier for widespread deployment of PV systems?”

A: Much of our work at RMI is focused on reducing “balance of system” costs, which cover everything from racks that hold panels to permitting costs. As mentioned in the question above, these components and processes have not experienced the drastic cost reductions associated with PV modules. If BOS costs are left unaddressed, they could restrict the widespread deployment of PV systems. For more information on our approach to reducing these costs, check out this page of our website.

Q: From David Kaufman: “Why the focus on PV? Thermal is used widely in markets comparable to the USA such as Austria. Does (or can) RMI support thermal in the same way as PV?”

A: Our focus on PV was a strategic decision since we are positioned to help move the needle in the PV market more than in the realms of wind, solar thermal or geothermal energy. Many of the challenges associated with widespread deployment of PV can be solved through industry coordination, state and municipal level regulatory reforms, and utility collaboration. These are avenues of change that RMI has traditionally explored with significant success. Since our goal is to help transition the U.S. electrical system from its current state to one based on efficiency, renewables and distributed generation, we have decided to dedicate most of our efforts in the solar program on PV.

Q: From CR: “Are there examples, even business plans, supporting community investments in distributed PV? I am imagining neighbors pooling capital to invest in a PV system that ties into the grid. Something between individual homeowners and utility-owned generation.”

A: Yes. There are currently a number of such business models, from virtual net metering projects in California to Clean Energy Collective, a “crowd-funding” model here in Colorado that allows homeowners and businesses to invest in solar panels that connect to the grid at off-site locations.

To everyone who participated, we very much appreciate your interest. We will continue to host live chats on a variety of topics, so stay tuned. If you have suggestions or ideas for further chats please feel free to post a comment below.