Posts Tagged ‘solar energy’

2015-10-15 Austin City CouncilThe Austin City Council voted today to approve an additional 100 to 150 megawatts of solar energy projects for Austin Energy for 2016 and directed Austin Energy to bring another 150 megawatts online by 2019. Together with the projects approved on October 1, Council has given the go-ahead for between 400 and 450 megawatts of new solar energy to be completed by the end of 2016.

At prices reported around 3.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, these solar energy projects are some of the cheapest ever reported. The prices will be fixed for contract periods of between 15 and 25 years.

This is a huge win for Austin Energy customers and the environment. It comes thanks to the dedicated efforts of many Austin residents and collaboration with our partners at the SEED Coalition, Climate Buddies, Texas Drought Project, Clean Water Action, the Faith Energy Action Team and many others.  We no longer have to choose between clean energy and saving money. The Council has made a decision that will keep bills low for years to come.

“When Warren Buffett received record-low solar prices, he proclaimed the victory to the world. Austin Energy received bid that are just as competitive, making this a golden opportunity,” said Karen Hadden of the SEED Coalition. “Mayor Adler and the City Council have taken a financially sound path.”

Austin Energy’s solar purchases also represent a significant step toward achieving the climate protection goals adopted by the City Council, which include achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the entire Austin community by no later than 2050 and eliminating all carbon dioxide emissions from Austin Energy controlled sources by 2030.

“Our best scientists are sounding dire warnings about the imminent possibility that climate change will accelerate in the next few years. We need to do everything possible to head of the possibility of runaway climate change,” said Jere Lock of the Texas Drought Project. “Action taken by City Council today are a step in the right direction.”

“400 megawatts of solar will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 620,000 metric tons, which is over 11% of all emissions from Austin Energy. That is significant,” ” said Joep Meijer of Climate Buddies. “Solar will also allow Austin Energy to use its expensive gas plants less, saving customers money and reduce local air pollution.”

Although it runs less than 5% of the time, Austin Energy’s natural gas-fired Decker Creek Power Station is a significant source of location air pollution in Austin and is located right next to neighborhoods and schools in East Austin.  Because it is so old and inefficient, that plant is only turned on when high demand for electricity drives up prices.  The solar farms approved by the City Council will produce large amounts of energy when electricity demand is high on hot afternoons, so this offers Austin Energy an opportunity to retire the Decker plant.  In addition to being a major source of air pollution, the plant loses money most years, according to Austin Energy’s own data.

The increased use of solar energy will also protect and preserve Texas’s limited water resources.

“Austin’s decision to go big on solar is great news for our state’s water resources. Unlike solar, gas and coal plants require massive amounts of water to operate,” said David Foster of Clean Water Action. The extraction of natural gas through fracking has been proven to contaminate groundwater, and coal plants create millions of pounds of toxic coal ash each year, much of which finds its way into our water.”

The Austin City Council have made a great decision that brings Austin Energy closer to meeting the goal of eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions from its power plants by 2030.  This process took eight months to complete and required two different Council resolutions before proposals were voted on in October.  Both of those resolutions were sponsored by Council Member Delia Garza and co-sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Members Leslie Pool, Greg Casar and Ann Kitchen.  The solar contracts approved today were also supported by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Sheri Gallo and Ora Houston.  Please send the Austin City Council members who voted “yes” an email to thank them for embracing solar energy.

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The Austin City Council voted 9-2 today to authorize Austin Energy to enter into contracts for up to 300 megawatts (MW) of new solar energy.  This decision comes as a result of the generation planning process that began in February 2014 and has included numerous studies, briefings, public hearings, and recommendations from citizen advisory groups and Austin Energy.  Those voting in support were Mayor Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Tovo and Council Members Garza, Pool, Casar, Kitchen, Gallo, Renteria and Houston.Go Green to Save Some Green - Affordable Solar for AustinAs consumer advocates, we cheer this wise decision by the Austin City Council because these solar contracts will provide energy at affordable rates for all Austin Energy customers.  While the utility will pay slightly more for this energy in the first few years than it would if it just purchased energy from the market, that dynamic will be short-lived and these solar contracts will offer more affordable rates than market purchases for most of the contract periods.  Solar contracts can be for up to 25 years and are at a fixed price of less than 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, offering an excellent opportunity to keep prices low and predictable for customers.

This addition of solar energy will bring the city and its electric utility closer to achieving the climate protection goals that Council has adopted.  Those goals are to achieve net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, or earlier, if possible and to make all Austin Energy-controlled electric generating assets carbon-free by 2030.  The later goal will require retirement of the utility’s coal-fired Fayette Power Project and the natural gas-fired generators at the Decker Creek Power Station (Austin’s single largest source of air pollution) and the Sand Hill Energy Center.  In order to protect customers against fluctuating prices in the electricity market, Austin Energy will need new carbon-free energy sources to replace those coal and natural gas-fired power plants.  These new solar contracts will help enable that transition.

Even before Austin Energy begins retirement of its fossil fuel fleet, these new solar farms will displace dirty energy from the Texas electric grid.  Because they have no fuel cost, solar farms will take the place of the most inefficient (and most polluting) natural gas plants that currently provide Texas electric consumers with energy when demand is high in the afternoons and early evenings.  By placing solar installations in sunny west Texas, the utility (and its customers) will benefit from high energy production that will continue even as solar intensity is starting to decline in central Texas.

Austin Energy and other utilities have been able to obtain exceptionally low prices for solar contracts recently because solar companies are eager to complete projects before the impending decline of the federal solar investment tax credit from 30% to 10% for commercial projects at the end of 2016.  Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that development of new utility-scale solar projects will decline from a high of over 11 gigawatts (GW) in 2016 to just over 3 GW in 2017.  Installations are projected to slowly increase after 2017, but Bloomberg doesn’t project a return to the boom levels we are seeing now and will continue to see through 2016.

2015-09-15 Bloomberg - Utility-scale solar build forecast with and without ITC extension

This boom is exciting, but it means that some proposed projects won’t be able to be completed by the end of 2016.  Several companies, including First Solar are running out of capacity to produce enough solar panels to keep up with demand.  That’s great for solar manufacturers to have, but it means that utilities wanting to benefit from low prices need to get contracts signed right away.

The Austin City Council also voted today to postpone authorization for up to another 350 MW of solar energy until October 15 to give Austin Energy staff additional time to negotiate more favorable prices on those contracts.  Although the prices for those contracts are already competitive, they are closer to 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour and can likely be negotiated to closer to the first batch of contracts that was authorized today.  That will result in additional savings in the years to come.  Just as no savvy consumer walks on to a car lot and pays sticker price, utilities can and should use proposed energy prices as a starting point for negotiations.  We applaud the City Council for acting on the most affordable contracts now and for employing this strategy to get the best possible deals on the second batch of solar contracts.

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Barilla Solar Project - Photo from First Solar

Barilla Solar Project – Photo from First Solar

The City of Georgetown announced yesterday that it will provide the entire city with clean, affordable renewable energy by 2017. This is thanks to new contract with Sun Edison to provide 150 megawatts of solar energy by the end of 2016 and the City’s existing wind energy contracts.

The primary reason cited by the City for choosing 100% renewable energy is to protect customers against volatile and rising fossil fuel energy costs and regulatory uncertainties. A recent Public Citizen report shows this is a wise financial move. That report demonstrates that shifting from coal power to alternative energy sources could result in significant savings for electric utilities and their customers. The switch will also save the Texas public in pollution-related health care costs and economic losses due to premature mortality.

Wind and solar are clean, safe, and financially sound energy options. As our report shows, it’s no longer clean energy that’s expensive. Now it’s coal that is too costly to continue.

Georgetown’s 25-year contract with Sun Edison will protect its ratepayers from natural gas price spikes and from costs associated with old coal plants. Wind and solar energy prices are predictable and affordable because they have no fuel costs and don’t pollute.

Switching to renewable energy also reduces water use. As water scarcity continues in Texas, drought-proof energy sources are increasingly important. Wind power requires no water and solar only uses a small fraction of what fossil fuel energy sources use. Water has been a limiting factor for energy production for fossil fuel generators and will likely continue to be in the future.

If more Texas cities follow Georgetown’s lead, our state will be in a better positions to tackle the challenges of reduced water supplies, unhealthy air pollution, and fluctuating fossil fuel prices. This is an exciting time, because utilities no longer have to choose between clean energy and affordable energy – they are one in the same.

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Solar energy has been used by humans for as long as there is recorded history. Check out some of these milestones in humanity’s use of Earth’s primary energy source.

Lighthouse of Alexandria (280 B.C.)

Lighthouse of Alexandria

Ancient Solar: The world’s first societies knew the importance of the sun. It provided them with food, warmth, as well as some more creative uses.

● Early societies bake adobe bricks with the sun – 5000 BC
● Greeks start fires with a magnifying glass – 450 BC
● The Lighthouse of Alexandria projects a beam of light 30 miles out to sea – 280 BC
● Romans design bathhouses to be passively heated by the sun – 100 AD
● Roman Emperor Justinian declares people have “sunrights”- 600 AD

Early Solar Tech: After a lapse of solar development in the Dark Ages (get it? No sun?), Enlightenment era inventors started to harness solar rays to do real work.

World’s first solar cookers cook at 230 degrees Fahrenheit – 1750
● The photovoltaic effect is discovered by Edmond Becquerel – 1840
● Charles Fritts creates first solar cell at <1% efficiency – 1883
● First solar hot water heater sold commercially, is a huge hit in California – 1891
● Single crystal silicon, the main material in solar panels, is lab grown – 1918

Modern Solar Emerges: In an era of big oil and combustion, solar carves out a niche as a useful energy source for the space race, and remote applications.

1st Solar Panels - developed in Bell Labs - photo from Green Energy Times

1st Solar Panels – developed in Bell Labs – photo from Green Energy Times

● Energy shortage from WWII causes passive solar homes in the U.S to go mainstream – 1945
● The first modern silicon photovoltaic (PV) solar cell is created in Bell Labs – 1954
● The Vanguard I space satellite uses PV cells as its primary energy source – 1958
● World’s largest PV array, at 242 Watts, is installed on a Japanese lighthouse – 1963
● Solar PV drops from $100 to $20 per Watt, terrestrial use becomes common – 1970’s
● First solar powered car crosses Australia in 20 days – 1983
● Silicon solar cells break 20% efficiency – 1985

Present Day and Future: Rapidly declining costs create a boom in solar, as the world strives for a clean energy future.

solar plane● Solar PV drops to an average of $0.74 per Watt – 2013
● Total worldwide installed capacity reaches 100GW – 2013
● Top solar cell efficiency breaks 43%, eclipsing coal & nuclear – 2014
● Solar powered plane aims for non-stop trans global flight – 2015
● Solar PV expected to meet 17% of the world’s energy demand – 2030

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Is Austin Energy joining the war on solar?

Bit by bit, our publicly owned, nationally renowned, supposedly green electric utility is trying to roll back programs that support customer owned solar.

Austin Energy is cutting the Value of Solar tariff, which compensates solar owners for the energy they produce, by 16 percent on January 1.

A lower solar tariff means fewer people will choose to purchase solar panels, which means our environment and local economy will suffer.

Tell the Austin City Council to stand up for clean energy and pass a resolution delaying reduction of the solar tariff.

Cutting the solar tariff isn’t the only attack under way. On January 1, Austin Energy will also confiscate all solar credits. Customers earned those credits by providing energy that the utility took and sold. Now Austin Energy is planning to take those credits away.

And just this week, the utility cut solar rebates for the second time this year. These cuts were reportedly made to keep the program from running out of funds, but Austin Energy could have asked for more funding for the solar rebate budget.

The Austin City Council governs Austin Energy, so it’s up to it to keep the utility honest.

Demand a resolution delaying the solar tariff change until after the public has had a chance to give input.

While other utilities are fighting to keep customers from generating their own electricity, Austin Energy should not play that game.

Austin Energy’s solar programs have given it and our city great publicity and helped to build a growing solar economy in the Austin area. Let’s not lose that momentum.

Our utility needs to start listening to us – the people who own it.

Send the Austin City Council an email right now.

We only have a few days to stop this attack before the City Council takes its winter break. Please help by sharing this post with friends, family and neighbors in the Austin area. If you work for a solar company, please forward this email to your customers.

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Many of you probably remember our concern when Austin Energy proposed slashing the solar budget by 42% for fiscal year 2014 – which we’re now in. But public outcry and our meetings with Austin City Council members made a difference. The budget was fully restored and we can expect to have another great year for solar in Austin.  That was back in September.

Sun-in-fistJust yesterday, Austin City Council passed a resolution that expands the city’s commitment to development local solar.  Of our existing solar goal of 200 megawatts (MW) by 2020, half will now have to be locally sited and half of that local solar will have to be distributed systems that are owned or leased by customers.

That’s great news for local jobs, because there’s no way to outsource installation of small, local solar systems.  Someone has to be here to do a site inspection, file the paperwork with Austin Energy and actually install the system on someone’s room or in their yard.

City Council also instructed the City Manager to consider adopting the 400 MW by 2020 solar goal put forth by the Austin Local Solar Advisory Committee (LSAC) into the Generation Plan update next year.

We have Council Members Chris Riley, Laura Morrison and Bill Spelman to thank for leading this effort, but the resolution was adopted unanimously, and I know that others on the Council are eager to see solar thrive in Austin.  Send the City Council a thank you note.

With the help of the many people in Austin who are concerned about climate change, air pollution, water use, creating good local jobs, and keeping electric rates affordable, we’re going to make sure the 400 MW solar goal is included in the Generation Plan in 2014.

In the meantime, we can turn our focus to ensuring that solar owners continue to be credited a fair value for the energy they put out on the grid for the rest of us to use and that more attractive solar financing options are made available.  Better financing, options for solar leasing and a community solar program are all essential for expanding access to solar for lower and middle-income families and all of us who rent.

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Solar Excellent Resource for Meeting High Demand for Energy

You’ve probably heard how solar and wind are intermittent energy sources that aren’t always available, but that’s not the whole story, or necessarily the most important part.

DoD Energy

DoD Energy

When an energy source is available is a critical piece of the puzzle.  We don’t need nearly as much electricity in the middle of the night as we do at 5 pm on a week day when people get home from work and turn down their air conditioning and start cooking dinner, watching TV and doing laundry – often all at the same time.

And now the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) – the entity responsible for keeping the lights on in most of Texas –  is officially recognizing that solar energy is available right when we need it the most – on sunny afternoons – and that wind resources are able to contribute far more than was once believed to meeting our energy needs at those times as well.

ERCOT has no special love for renewable energy – protecting public health and the environment isn’t a factor in its decisions – but it has studied the issue and decided to give solar and wind generators the credit they actually deserve.  Solar facilities up to 200 MW (that’s like a gas plant) will be given a 100% capacity value, although larger solar facilities will have a somewhat lower rating.  Coastal wind will have a 32.9% capacity value.  Coastal wind blows more during the day than West Texas wind, which blows mostly at night, but even non-coastal wind will now get a 14.2% capacity value.  Capacity value corresponds to how likely it is for an energy source to be available during peak energy demand – typically a hot, summer afternoon.

Wind has become a real contributor to the Texas energy portfolio and we can look for solar to make an even larger contribution in the years to come.  This policy change at ERCOT will help us move in that direction.

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A local group of Solar advocates in Plano Texas has worked to put together a group purchase agreement to help reduce the costs of adding solar to your roof top if you live in Plano TX.

So far they have gotten 24 locals to commit to the project and hope that they can reach at least 50 by the time this round of purchases is made and the installations begin. With the current tax credit, and a local rebate, now is a great time to lock in a low rate for electricity for the next 30 years.

“In collaboration with Live Green in Plano, Plano Solar Advocates is pleased to announce a pilot program to help “Solarize Plano” homes. This program will connect residential homeowners that are ready to install solar, with local, qualified installers and will take advantage of generous local utility incentives that are available for a limited time.”

Give the folks at solarizeplano.org a call and get in while the time is right.

Rooftop solar installation

Rooftop solar installation

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wind_turbine_aalborgProbably not overall, but the City of Houston has made a historic commitment – to buy half its power from renewable sources.

Houston was built around the oil and gas industries and has long suffered the consequences of being home to many of the nation’s most polluting refining and chemical manufacturing facilities.  Purchasing clean energy for the City’s facilities won’t change all that, but it does represent a significant change in mindset.

In the absence of federal legislation to address the increasingly pressing problem of climate change, local action has become essential.  At the very least, the energy used in public buildings – that taxpayers pay for – should be clean energy.  Houston is taking a huge step in that direction.

Wind energy is already one of the cheaper energy sources in Texas and solar energy is becoming competitive, especially as prices increase with higher energy demand.  These trends will be helped by large-scale investments like the one Houston is making.

Moving away from energy from coal-fired power plants will also help keep jobs growing in Texas.  Luckily, this isn’t an issue of jobs vs. the environment.  It’s an easy choice of supporting both.  Kudos to Houston to for recognizing an opportunity to take a leadership role.

Talk to your local elected officials about using clean energy to power your public buildings.

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The reason that the U.S. is lagging behind in solar energy isn’t because of the cost solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. Solar PV is becoming increasingly more affordable as technologies advance to increase efficiency and manufacturing costs continue to decline. However, the cost associated with getting a solar system actually installed up on your roof rather has not declined as quickly. “Soft costs” make up more than 50% of the entire cost of solar PV systems in the U.S.  This isn’t the case everywhere though.  The graph below demonstrates the difference between solar installation costs in the U.S. and Germany (currently leading the world in solar generated power).  Soft costs in for solar installations are just a fraction of what they are in the U.S.

US and Germany soft cost of solar graphThis is why the U.S. Department of Energy is enticing communities around the nation to focus their efforts on burning through the red tape that drives project costs up. $10 million in cash awards go to the teams that install the most PV systems in American homes. How these teams will do it is completely up to them. If they are clever enough, maybe they will get through to city and state officials where environmental organizations could not.

There is a maze of rules and regulations to get through, but $10 million is a good incentive to find a way through it.

Graph from Grist (http://grist.org/climate-energy/why-is-rooftop-solar-cheaper-in-germany-than-in-the-u-s/).

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Texas Capitol - north viewTwo bills have now been filed in the Texas House that would expand the state’s goals for renewable energy.  Representative Rafael Anchia‘s bill, HB 723, would establish goals for growing renewable energy installations other than large-scale wind through 2022.  Similarly, Representative Eddie Rodriquez‘s bill, HB 303, would establish a goal for solar installations and increase the existing goal (which was met 15 years ahead of schedule) for all renewable energy for 2020.

We applaud these efforts and the leadership that Rep. Anchia and Rep. Rodriquez are showing by filing these bills.  These proposals recognize that success is a good thing and something we want more of.  You wouldn’t think that would need saying, but when a state agency recommends tossing out a successful policy, I start to wonder.  Texas’s renewable energy goals have been extraordinarily successful.  Not only have the goals been met ahead of time, but they have spurred development of the wind industry in Texas, bringing economic benefits to rural parts of West Texas, as well as to manufacturing centers.  On top of that, wind energy is helping to keep electric bills lower.

A carpenter doesn’t throw away her hammer just because she finished building her first book shelf and Texas shouldn’t repeal it’s renewable energy policies, just because we’ve met some of our goals (remember, the non-wind goal was never enforced).  Wind energy does now makes a substantial contribution to meeting the state’s electrical needs – it contributed a record 26% this past Christmas day, but solar energy is still very underutilized (accounting for less than 1% of energy on the ERCOT grid, which serves 85% of the Texas population) and the geothermal energy industry is still getting off it’s feet.  As Rep. Anchia and Rep. Rodriquez’s bills show, this successful policy tool can be adjusted to keep moving Texas forward.

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Even Support from Businesses Like IKEA Is Not Enough for PUC

AUSTIN, TX – The Public Utility Commission delivered a slap in the face to the more than 6,000 Texans and 70 businesses and organizations  who have actively called on the Commission to implement and expand the non-wind renewable portfolio standard (RPS).  The non-wind RPS would establish a market for electricity from solar and other renewable energy resources in Texas, just as the State’s overall RPS did for wind energy.  The non-wind RPS was passed into law in 2005, but has yet to be implemented by the PUC.

Democracy and the rule of law may be important tenants of our society, but they are utterly lacking at the PUC, where Commissioners refused to engage in even a single minute of public discussion on the matter before striking it down today.

Instead of gathering current information on the price of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and other renewable energy technologies, the PUC staff recommended denial based on data that is more than two years old.  This illustrates a shocking lack of due diligence, given that solar prices have plummeted over the past two years and are now competitive with traditional energy sources, especially when demand is high.  David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, told participants at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit, “Solar is so cheap today that unless you tell me that you did a solar analysis yesterday, not last year or last month, then your analysis is out of date.

The Commission appears to be committed to willful ignorance on this issue, but we’re not giving up.  This is too important to the future of our state. The solar industry is going to continue to grow regardless of what the PUC does; it’s just a matter of whether it will grow in Texas and bring good jobs to Texans or if we will let other states and other countries leave us behind.

While misconceptions about the cost of solar energy persist, businesses and individuals who look at current prices have found an opportunity for energy savings by investing in solar.  IKEA, a major international retailer, supports implementing and expanding the non-wind RPS in Texas.  “While utilizing renewable resources for generating energy allows us to reduce our carbon footprint, it[s] also is good business since it significantly reduces operational costs,” states the company in its comments that they filed with the PUC.

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A survey done by Solar Austin at the beginning of 2012 shows there are at least 615 full-time solar energy jobs in Austin.  These jobs include manufacturing, R&D, solar installation, financial and engineering consultants.  Adding standard jobs multipliers the total direct and indirect employment supported by the Austin solar industry is 1,180 to 2,190 jobs.

The job figures in Solar Austin’s survey did not include the 240 local job years of employment created by the 30-Megawatt solar park at Webberville east of Austin.  The group says the job potential for rooftop solar is even greater.

In 2004, Austin Energy began a rebate program to promote rooftop solar panel installations.  It was the first program of its kind in Texas. Austin has since founded and funded institutions that develop new clean energy technology and businesses resulting in clean-tech start-ups, spin-offs, and expansions with many of the jobs at family-wage scale – solar electric system installers making $36,000 a year, solar manufacturing jobs averaging $50,000 a year, and solar engineering paying $75,000 and more annually.

In spite of the potential for job growth, the group pointed to Austin’s south where San Antonio’s public utility CPS, has begun funding solar rebate programs that have overtaken Austin’s and challenged the city to continue to capitalize on their previous commitment, taking it to the next level to make Austin a renewable energy industry cluster in the same way it has electronic manufacturing and software clusters.

We want thousands of jobs in renewable energy, not hundreds!,” says Public Citizen’s Texas director, Tom “Smitty” Smith.

Take a look at the 4 page flyer on the survey put out by Solar Austin – Jobs Survey 4-Pager.

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California solar energy company Solyndra had its offices raided  last week by federal agents as part of an ongoing investigation into their bankruptcy and federal loan guarantees they’d received form the Department of Energy. Some critics have cried foul, trying to show how federal money spent on emerging technology is a waste. Others  have tried to disparage solar energy itself, trying to show the industry is not ready for prime time. In fact, these allegations couldn’t be further from the truth.

However, it does bring up important questions about the Obama administration, ethics, and the influence of campaign contributions. This is entirely a self-inflicted wound, a bone-headed mistake if not an ethical problem, and is the type of landmine the White House needs to avoid. There is another, similar trap they need to avoid touching in the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, where Big Oil’s big money tendrils and the revolving door are even more frightening than those from Solyndra.

The first charge against Solyndra is the wastefulness of the federal loan guarantees that it received and the loan guarantee program in general.  Well, if solar was the only industry getting this aid, that might be something. But given the incredibly large amounts given in federal subsidies to fossil fuels compared to solar, that is not the case. Indeed, direct subsidies for nuclear in recent energy legislation adds up to over 13 billion (that’s with a b, kids) and recent loan guarantees for nuclear construction are over $60 billion, $18 billion of which have already been allocated in Georgia.  This amounts to a pre-emptive bailout of the nuclear industry, especially since the CBO estimates those loans will have a 50% default rate.

Other critics have gone after Solyndra because they say solar isn’t ready for prime time– while, in fact, it shows the opposite. Solyndra was pioneering a new method of making photovoltaic cells and got buried under the onslaught of cheap solar imports from China.  Their process, which you can see below, courtesy BusinessWire, is very different from traditional photvoltaic arrays.


Their technology just didn’t get cheap quickly enough compared to traditional PV manufacturing, largely from Chinese imports. But in the silver lining to that otherwise not as nice cloud, those same cheap Chinese imports have meant a huge boon to American manufacturing who provide many of the materials and heavy equipment needed to manufacture PV.

Meanwhile, because of that change, solar has reached grid parity in terms of its costs.  Grid parity means that the cost of producing electricity through a pv cell is less than or equal to the average cost of electricity.  Other companies are making huge solar breakthroughs. Solyndra, unfortunately, was not one of them. But this is market economics, and this is what we expect, nay, desire from our entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy, undeterred, has announced two more loan guarantee programs for solar innovation. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is getting on the solar train, too, with a Solar City program that will provide clean energy to the homes of 160,000 of our troops and their families. I can’t think of a better way to commemorate 9/11 than with true energy independence being given to some of the most deserving among us.  Now, let’s just do it for all of our military, veterans, firefighters, police officers, teachers, and other public servants. But 160,000 homes to start with is pretty darn nice.

But why Solyndra is troublesome is because it appears undue influence may have been exerted to get them these loan guarantees.  One of Solyndra’s top investors was also a bundler for the Obama campaign responsible for tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations.  A commitment to the highest ethical standards that the Obama Administration guaranteed when they took office meant they should have done extra due diligence on giving any loan guarantees to anyone with any sort of money connection to the White House. Every i dotted, every t crossed– special treatment, but special treatment to insure they weren’t receiving funds because of political donations. Indeed, they should have been held to a much higher standard than their peers.

This is an entirely self-inflicted wound on the part of the Obama Administration. It should have been avoided, and questions not only the ethics of those in charge but the rationality. Surely they should have seen this coming.

If they didn’t, here’s a warning sign for you: Keystone XL. The pipeline, proposed by Canadian company Transcanada, would bring the world’s dirtiest oil from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in the Houston area along the Texas Gulf Coast. They are currently doing their best to get the pipeline approved, including a slick PR campaign, push-polling in areas around where the pipeline would be and promising jobs if the pipeline is built, and using Washington’s revolving door of lobbyists, staff, and political consultants. Dirty money, dirty campaign, dirty tactics, dirty ethics. In fact, knowing that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be the final decider on whether the State Department issues the permit or not, Transcanada hired her former campaign operative Paul Elliot to be their chief lobbyist, among other hires with ties to the Obama campaign and administration.

Clinton and Obama approving Keystone XL would be another avoidable landmine for the White House. Unfortunately, this landmine has much more dire consequences if approved, as it would signal both Business as Usual in Washington with Big Oil getting their way, the end of any veneer of ethics or being serious about campaign finance by the Obama Administration, and. . .oh, “game over” for the planet because of runaway climate change.  More on this later.

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If you live in Austin, TX and put solar on your rooftop, you might be able to pay only about a quarter of the initial cost estimate, making this a viable option for many homeowners.  But for many Texans, there is still a good reason not to go with solar: the generous local incentives that Austinites have  for affordable panels that could provide about two-fifths of a home’s electricity use do not exist in most of the rest of the state.

We had hoped that Texas lawmakers would pass a bill this session to establish a statewide rebate for solar projects, financed by extra charges on electric bills. But it died without getting out of a House committee.

Texas prides itself on being the national leader in wind power, and many renewable-energy companies were looking to this big, sunny state as the next frontier for solar power, which California currently dominates as it did wind before the state provided incentives for wind development.  But solar technology remains expensive: while there environmental benefits, it can be more costly than coal or gas power on a nationwide basis before incentives. The recent fall in natural gas prices has made it even harder for solar to compete (although panel prices are falling fairly dramatically).

Despite the lack of incentives for solar on rooftops, some larger utility scale solar projects are emerging. San Antonio began getting power from a 14-megawatt solar farm late last year, and in May a developer started building a 30-megawatt solar facility in Webberville, a small community near Austin (the power will be sold to Austin Energy).

Oncor, a retail electric provider serving the Dallas area, will begin taking applications for a new round of solar incentives on Monday.  Last year the program sold out in a month. Additionally, electric utilities in El Paso and San Antonio also offer solar incentives. 

Two solar bills did pass this session. One will make it somewhat harder for homeowners’ associations to bar solar panels. Another clears regulatory hurdles to solar leasing and other third-party ownership arrangements, which for tax reasons will be helpful to schools and churches.

So while there is little in the way of incentives statewide, some communities are recognizing the benefit of supporting solar as a means to provide energy or reduce energy needed from the grid during peak periods (that sunny hot part of the day when air conditioning is running full out) and a way to help reduce the need to build new base-load (coal, gas, or nuclear) power plants that have significant upfront capital costs.

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