Duke Energy gets go-ahead for solar + storage microgrid in North Carolina’s Madison County

duke energy microgrid

Madison County will soon be home to an innovative microgrid installation after the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC) approved Duke Energy’s renewable energy project.

In the town of Hot Springs, the company will proceed with a solar and battery-powered microgrid system that will help improve electric reliability, provide services to the overall electric system and serve as a backup power supply to the town of more than 500 residents.

“Duke Energy’s research work on microgrids has led to a large-scale effort that will better serve, not only these customers in a remote area, but also help us gain experience from this pilot project to better serve all customers with additional distributed energy and energy storage technologies,” said Dr. Zak Kuznar, Duke Energy’s managing director of Microgrid and Energy Storage Development. “Projects like this will lead to a smarter energy future for the Carolinas.”

The Hot Springs microgrid will consist of a 2-megawatt (AC) solar facility and a 4-megawatt lithium-based battery storage facility. The microgrid will not only provide a safe, cost-effective and reliable grid solution for serving the Hot Springs area, but the microgrid will also provide energy and additional bulk system benefits for all customers. This will include reliability services to the electric grid, such as frequency and voltage regulation and ramping support and capacity during system peaks.
The project is part of Duke Energy’s plan to meet power demand by balancing public input, environmental impacts and the need to provide customers with safe, reliable and affordable energy.

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Another component of that plan is in the city of Asheville where Duke Energy will connect a 9-megawatt lithium-ion battery system at a Duke Energy substation site in the Rock Hill community – near Sweeten Creek Road. The battery will primarily be used to help the electric system operate more efficiently and reliably for customers.

Together, the two projects will cost around $30 million and should be operational in early 2020.

Also in the region, Duke Energy is closing a half-century-old, coal-fired plant in Arden by January 2020 – and replacing it with a new 560-megawatt cleaner-burning combined-cycle natural gas plant.

Duke Energy has a smaller microgrid project in North Carolina already operating. In Haywood County, N.C., Duke Energy has a 95-kilowatt-hour zinc-air battery and 10-kilowatt solar installation serving a communications tower on Mount Sterling in the Smoky Mountains National Park that has been operating since 2017. It is also currently working on proposed projects in South Carolina.

— Solar Builder magazine

Countdown to California 2020, part III: Would you like solar with that?

solar panel food tray illustration

As we hit the halfway point in our Countdown to 2020, the residential solar market in the here and now is showing signs of stability. The residential solar market grew 7 percent in 2018 following a 15 percent market contraction in 2017, according to the U.S. Solar Market Insight 2018 Year-in-Review Report from Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). That’s five consecutive quarters of modest growth with Q4 2018 being the largest quarter for residential solar in two years.

Of course, California’s new build solar mandate that we are obsessing over in this six-part series plays a part in that — a stroke of government influence that guarantees “an additional gigawatt of residential demand from 2020-2024E.”

“With a pivot toward more efficient sales channels, both national and regional installers exceeded expectations in California and Nevada, which drove the lion’s share of residential growth in 2018,” states Austin Perea, senior solar analyst at Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.

Perea doesn’t see this as a random blip though, noting signs of structural market stability being built across the country, such as the diminishing influence of net metering. Up until now, any changes to NEM or rate structures would have created “demand pull-in,” but despite anticipated changes to incentives and NEM in 2019 to 2020, the major Northeast markets collectively saw no growth in installation volumes. As stated in the report:

“This suggests that while changes to NEM policy and other incentives have greatly impacted growth in years past, 2018 marks a year of market maturation. While strong NEM policy remains an essential foundation for rooftop solar adoption, future growth across legacy markets will require technology and business-model innovation to tap into new customer demographics.”

This is a great segue into Installment III of the Countdown to 2020, our year-long news series covering all the implications of the California Energy Commission’s solar mandate. We started by examining the language of the Building Energy Efficiency standards (Installment I). Then, we explored the direct impact of this rule on homebuilders and new home PV systems (Installment II). Now, we ripple out further to explore those “technology and business-model innovations” that could ride this wave beyond California’s borders.

The Roof is on Fire

In Installment II, we relied on results of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s “Cost-Reduction Roadmap for Residential Solar Photovoltaics, 2017-2030” technical report to understand new home PV pricing possibilities. The report pegged new home solar as the No. 1 pathway to the lowest cost residential PV at 5 cents per kWh. The No. 2 pathway was roof replacement, which NREL analysts pegged in a range from 8.1 cents per kWh to 5.5 cents per kWh. That most aggressive outcome is 0.5 cents per kWh more than the most aggressive new home solar pricing pathway, but what roof replacement PV loses on potential pricing per system, it gains back by not needing an entire new home to be built with it.

The potential for solar within the $30 billion residential roofing industry is mind-blowing. NREL estimates there will be 3.8 million roof replacements in California between 2017 and 2030, conservatively 1.21 GW of potential annual capacity (2.44 GW if you want to get aggressive). Here are some roof replacement + PV system pricing reduction ranges calculated by NREL:

  • Labor cost reduction of 28 to 50 percent in cents per Watt versus the Q1 2017 benchmark
  • Structural BOS cost reduction of 64 percent in cents per Watt versus the Q1 2017 benchmark
  • Customer acquisition cost reductions of 24 to 74 percent versus the Q1 2017 benchmark

Roofing companies have the potential to turn legacy customer lists and their steady roof replacement inquiries instantly into a pile of solid solar customer leads.

Clearly, if it was this easy for roofing companies to tack on solar installation services, they’d have done it by now. Solar technology isn’t exactly plug and play (although it is getting close), and the solar sales process is a different beast than roof replacement sales. There are obstacles to be sure, but heading into California’s 2020 world, roofing companies bundling solar installations into their product offering seems like a no-brainer. Do leaders in the segment agree? Are we headed down this pathway?

Would you like solar with that?

GAF Energy

GAF Energy rendering

GAF is one of the largest roofing suppliers in America, with over 6,000 GAF-certified roofers across the country — many of whom are already partnered with similarly sized homebuilders. The company debuted its own roof-integrated solar mounting system in 2017, DecoTech, and is now dramatically expanding its solar product and service offering via a new sister company, GAF Energy, to make a dent in supply chain, customer acquisition, labor and permitting costs.

“If you look at solar, soft costs are a greater percentage of the overall costs than the hardware,” says Martin DeBono, president of GAF Energy. “We determined that to get the scale to make a meaningful impact, we had to attack both, so at GAF Energy we have a full organization whose focus is to make every roof a solar roof. It’s not just about the product but the complete experience for the homeowner to get solar on a roof, commissioned and generating energy.”

The big production homebuilders operate at such scale that they need a complete solution for solar from the likes of Sunrun and SunPower. The GAFs of the world on the other hand are building out services for the mid-tier, long-tail contractors.

“The production builders have so much purchasing power, they drive our parts down really low in solar by placing large RFPs to start a pricing competition,” DeBono says. “But with the services we are now offering, we will be much more valuable to mid-market and smaller players. On the completion of install, we will provide electrical services and PTO services [permission to operate]. Contractors won’t want to deal with the utilities if they don’t have that expertise, so we will provide that.”

David Jenkins, director of development with Beacon Roofing, a $7 billion roofing and building supplier with more than 100,000 individual customer accounts across the United States and Canada, thinks roofing contractors already established in any market can meet and drive this demand much quicker than national solar installers (with the help of Beacon, of course).

“The pitch of Sunrun and SunPower is ‘hey builder, let us take all of the difficult solar stuff off your hands,’” says Jenkins, who sees Beacon making this business model possible for solar and roofing contractors of all sizes. “We kit the system for them and deliver it to the jobsite, and we help them drive down the cost of a standardized solar array that they can scale and keep consistent within a new construction community. We’re going to be the go-to solution for custom homebuilders and folks that want to have a say in how they specify the solar that’s going on their homes.”

These are the types of business model innovations NREL was factoring into its pricing outlook. Beacon launched its solar division back in 2008 to carry leading brands in solar products just as it does roofing and building supplies. The solar division is now primarily focused on long-tail residential installers and roofing companies, and Jenkins tells us they are expanding their service offerings like GAF Energy with stuff like logistics, just-in-time delivery, credit and cash flow support.

“Because of our scale and presence in these markets we can benefit when a new solar market gets stronger and suddenly starts growing rapidly whether it’s Florida or Illinois or any state with a new interest,” Jenkins says.

Both DeBono and Jenkins note that the solar sales disconnect is a very real barrier, but both Beacon and GAF Energy have built tools to simplify things. GAF Energy plans to remove that friction by appealing to homeowners at the same time they are getting a new roof with the help of a quick estimating and design tool for both homeowners and roofers.

“We’re going after people who want a new roof with a would-you-like-fries-with-that approach,” DeBono says. “We need to be sure our customers are prepared to have that conversation, and our roofing partners are ready to have that conversation, so that’s what we’re rolling out right now.”

Solar switcheroo?

petersendean

Solar installers should seriously explore making use of the roof replacement pathway too, either through channel partnerships or by offering in-house roof replacement services. Gary Liardon, president and COO at PetersenDean Roofing & Solar, tells us they are driving a blend of the two industries.

“We have invested in cross training that will provide for efficiencies in new construction installations where the roofer and PV installer will divide tasks,” he says.

In the State of California, PetersenDean employs its own install teams and self-performs the work, but on a national level it has a combination approach using both direct employees and preferred installation subcontractors.

Beacon’s new 3D+ platform, pitched as an “Amazon-like purchasing portal for B2B contractors” is a slick new tool for estimating a roof replacement job and could be a perfect entry point for solar installers looking to grow their customer list. Contractors can order and get delivery of the solar materials and roofing materials that they need at their warehouse or jobsite. With its Pro+ product, contractors can automate customized order workflows, get access to live pricing, send material orders directly to their Beacon Roofing Supply location and track deliveries from theirsmartphone.

“Having homeowner-facing salespeople is one of your highest costs in the solar business, and when you can increase your closing ratio by several percentage points and can sell a roof and not turn away those potential projects, that’s where you get the dramatic return on investment — at the contractor level,” Jenkins says. “We’ve got pros trained on how to coach installers to improve their roofing business, or if you’re in the trade and want to get into roofing, we have excellent people and tools to do that.”

DeBono also believes, no matter the tools used, customer interest in solar has hit a tipping point, which is really what’s causing all of these new divisions and software tools to launch in the first place.

“The big change I’ve seen among homeowners and consumers is the awareness of their impact on the environment and their desire to actually do something,” DeBono says. “As long as I’ve been in solar people have always been aware of the benefits of solar, but now we are seeing the expansion of that potential customer base.”

One other thing to consider as the years roll is the combination of more efficient homes and no sell-back shrinking the average residential solar system size right along with solar installer margins.

“With TOU rates, our analysis shows, for most customers in California, a smaller system provides a higher ROI,” DeBono says. “Contractors used to 7-kW systems will be selling 4 or 5 kW. I think they will need other offerings for their customers to maintain their same business.

“Think of it this way,” he continues. “All roofs will be this way in 20 years. So, there will be a conflict at some point because the largest roofing companies in the world will be doing this. Solar installers have the skills to do [roof replacements], and it could be an additional amount of business. If you’re only going to install solar, your life can be dictated by policy and tax code and things outside of your control. But if you have a business that’s both roofing and solar, it certainly mitigates the risk and there’s a hell of a lot more demand.”

****

New homes requiring solar. The largest roofing and building materials distribution companies launching whole new divisions to serve solar sales. Everyone we talk to says there will be plenty of solar business to keep everyone busy, but we can’t shake the feeling that the business of the retrofit solar installer in California will shift much more dramatically than people expect, dictated by the approach of long-established homebuilder and roofing channels.

One thing all of these new product procurement and installation service channels lack is a plan for dealing with PV systems post-installation. They can make a PV system as easy to install as a roof, but the PV itself, its combination with storage and its ever-growing importance within smart homes will require a much greater level of service throughout its lifetime.

Therein lies a key for today’s solar installers to stay an integral part of home energy in 2020 and beyond. We will explore the opportunity for storage, monitoring and smart home services in our next installments.

— Solar Builder magazine

Six more solar installers added to Panasonic Premium Installer Program

Panasonic HIT panels

Panasonic Solar Group announced several key additions to its Premium Installer program in strategic markets. This has been a big year for the Panasonic Solar Installer program, originally launched in 2016. In total this year, Panasonic has promoted 42 installers across the country to premium status (to go along with 150 Authorized installers), enabling more residential homeowners access to the Panasonic Solar Modules HIT portfolio.

Meet the new installers

Elevation Solar: Gilbert, AZ
Hot Purple Energy: Palm Springs, CA
Infinity Solar: Orange, CA
RA Solar: San Francisco, CA
Same Sun: Rutland, VT
Solar Works: Albuquerque, NM

“As consumer demand for renewable energy solutions increases across the country, installers are tasked with providing efficient and cost-effective solar panels to the homeowner,” said Mukesh Sethi, General Manager, Solar & Storage Division, Panasonic Solar Group “By extending our Premium Installers networks in the Central, Eastern and Western regions, we can reach more homeowners with energy needs.”

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Details on the Installer Program

The Panasonic Solar Premium Installer program provides value-added benefits and business opportunities to partners who meet Panasonic’s high standard of excellence. The Panasonic Solar Installer program is comprised of “Authorized” and “Premium” installers, and Premium installers are involved in ongoing efforts with Panasonic to promote the HIT brand.

These installers receive leads generated from Panasonic’s website as well as the new educational blog “Green Living”. In addition, Premium Installers are the beneficiaries of cooperative marketing funds provided by Panasonic and are also granted access to Panasonic’s robust Installer Portal that offers additional benefits such as a library of tailored marketing materials and training programs designed to help installers enhance communication with consumers, and ultimately grow their businesses.

“By expanding our network of committed installers, we are furthering our mission to assist potential and existing customers in their decisions to ‘go solar’,” said Yessica Castillo, National Marketing Manager, Solar & Storage Division, Panasonic Solar Group.

— Solar Builder magazine

The Fronius Symo Advanced inverter is the first to achieve SunSpec Rapid Shutdown Certification

Fronius symo

The Fronius Symo Advanced is the first inverter on the market to receive the official SunSpec Rapid Shutdown certification, according to the Indiana-based inverter manufacturer and the SunSpec Alliance. The three-phase inverter comes with an integrated Power Line Communication (PLC) transmitter based on the SunSpec Rapid Shutdown communication standard.

What’s this mean?

The SunSpec Certified program for Rapid Shutdown (RSD) verifies compliance to the SunSpec Communication Signal for Rapid Shutdown Functional Specification to meet the requirement established by National Electrical Code (NEC) 2017. 29 members of the SunSpec Alliance defined an open industry standard for communication between modules, inverters and string combiners to support module level rapid shutdown requirements.

This multi-vendor industry standard went through 34 iterations and was published in September of 2017.

“Adoption of the SunSpec Rapid Shutdown specification is continuing to mature,” said Thomas Tansy, Chairman, SunSpec Alliance. “The foundation was set by a large quorum of solar industry firms dedicating time to the development of a SunSpec open source communications interface to meet NEC 2017 requirements. Firms have moved product into the market with the RSD spec incorporated on a compliant basis. The next maturation phase is now underway with the Fronius product certification. SunSpec Certified Rapid Shutdown is a strong signal to installers, first responders and local authorities that solar power systems with this mark meet NEC 2017 communications requirements.”

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Fronius has been a driving force in developing this industry standard and was among the first ones to announce a product based on the standard. “We are excited to offer the first inverter that is officially certified for SunSpec Rapid Shutdown,” Richard Baldinger, Head of Marketing at Fronius USA says. “We believe in driving industry standards and supporting industry innovation to drive down cost and allow customer choice.”

In conjunction with SunSpec based components such as the Tigo TS4-F module-level electronics, solar installers get a simple and cost-effective solution for Module Level Shutdown. Featuring ten models ranging from 10 kW to 24 kW, the Fronius Symo Advanced is the ideal compact three-phase inverter for commercial applications. The light weight design, the SnapINverter mounting system and true field-serviceability allow for easy installation and highest reliability over the lifetime of a system.

— Solar Builder magazine

This new silicon discovery could make solar cells more efficient

Dr Hieu Nguyen and Mr Thien Troung

Over the past decade, the cost of a solar panel installation has been falling at a considerable rate. The renewable and solar energy industry of today looks much different. For comparison, installation back in 2009 would cost an average of $8.50 per watt, whereas today the price is closer to $3.05 per watt. That’s a decrease of over 60 percent, and prices are still falling.

The biggest reason for the change is that solar cells and the related technology are becoming more efficient, yet cheaper to produce thanks to new materials and methods. But with the right solution, those costs could be minimized completely — maybe even pushed below the costs of fossil fuels.

An international research team, with researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) at the helm, just may have discovered a way to achieve lower costs. They’ve created a new type of silicon that will absorb more sunlight, therefore, producing more energy than current solar cells in use.

What is the new silicon?

The current generation of solar cells rely on silicon as a raw material not just because of how it absorbs sunlight, but also because of its additional properties. It’s abundant and cheap, available in many forms, and also non-toxic. Despite all of this, it’s not entirely efficient and does not make use of all the available sunlight — it absorbs yes, but not necessarily in ideal amounts.

The researchers from ANU, however, have found a way to alter silicon in order to boost its absorption capabilities. They have done this simply by poking holes in the silicon with a hard tip which creates “more complex silicon capable of absorbing more sunlight” than the standard form of the material used in current gen cells.

Lead researcher Dr Hieu Nguyen said when hydrogen atoms are injected into a solar cell’s skin, rather than the cell body, the performance of the entire structure is boosted significantly. Dubbed r8-Si by the team, the atoms of the new silicon are shaped more like diamonds on a playing card, except in a three-dimensional form. Standard silicon has square or cubic shaped atoms.

This structure helps the material absorb more light, which can ultimately produce more energy when used in cells. The end result is, of course, something that is remarkably more efficient yet retains the same abundant and low-cost properties.
Before the material is available for commercial and mainstream use, the team must continue to measure and understand how it behaves electrically. In addition, they’ll need to find a way to scale up production if they have any hope to mass produce the material.

Senior researcher and ANU Professor Jodie Bradby says that the additional work “will take another three to five years.”
Five years out or not, it’s still an exciting development and will have sweeping implications for the solar industry.

What does this mean for the solar industry?

The use of silicon in conventional solar cells is a given, especially this new type that offers higher energy production. So, typical applications from large-scale solar farms to solar carports to traditional residential rooftop systems will be even cheaper and more ubiquitous. But it’s the alternate applications of solar technology that are really going to change the market. This much thinner silicon could be used in smaller, consumer-grade applications like solar wearables and devices, lighting, and even integrated auto roof panels. The low-cost high abundance nature means there’s so much potential, the surface has barely been scratched.

What does this mean for everyone else?

The average cost of solar panel installation is already dropping, which is nothing to scoff at. However, this new solution — and it won’t be the only one — could further enhance that change making renewable energy solutions viable for more people.
One of the reasons we don’t see solar applied more openly is because of that buy-in price, coupled with the efficiency of the system.

Although, the new silicon material is still five or more years out, the promise is that it will encourage other similar solutions, as well. Solar adoption is growing and it’s thanks to innovations like what the ANU team has achieved.

Kayla Matthews writes about green tech and energy for publications like Interesting Engineering, Blue and Green Tomorrow, Planetizen and GreenBiz. To ready more from Kayla, please visit her personal tech blog at productivitybytes.com.

— Solar Builder magazine