Winning the Midwest: We look at how a new solar market is forming in the Midwest

Solar in the Midwest Map

You’ve probably heard, but more solar is being installed than ever before. As the cost of solar dropped the last decade, the economic case in areas of the country with high electricity prices was simple. This isn’t the case in the Midwest, where energy costs are lower, which keeps everyone mellower about the fossil fuels being mined and fracked in their backyards (we say this lovingly as Ohioans).

So, sure, most of the action is on the coasts, but even the Midwest is now starting to emerge from its cave, rub the soot from its eyes and see (and harness) the light.

Here’s what solar industry onlookers are buzzing about in the Heartland.

This article appears in the May/June issue of Solar Builder magazine. Subscribe here for FREE.

Midwest Means MW-scale

Cheaper electricity and a less demanding public means the case for solar in the Midwest mostly starts with policy incentives, and with little public demand for action, the balance of political influence over the shape of those incentives is tipped a bit more to utilities and any other interested stake holders (legacy fossil fuel companies?).

Utility-scale projects represent a little over half of the installations to date in those Midwestern states and about three quarters of the 2016 installations, according to data sent our way by GTM Research. The distributed generation markets in each state are all quite small still — sub 10 MW per state in each of the residential and non-residential markets for all of 2016.

The latest legislative triumphs in the region all seem to support this trend too with renewable energy portfolio standards (RPS) being raised in Illinois and Michigan and unfrozen in Ohio (for now). The Illinois bill in particular was two years in the making and has solar developers excited.

“It creates an adjustable block schedule similar to the successful California Solar Initiative model,” says Owen Goldstrom from Alta Energy, an analytics and procurement company that identifies and executes opportunities for renewable energy. “It’s an opportunity that we are closely tracking, and communicating to our customers with property in Illinois.”

Emerging Opportunities

chicago illinois solar

RPS standards don’t necessarily directly translate to DG solar projects unless there is a way for a smaller scale distributed system to benefit from the renewable energy credits (RECs), Goldstrom says. So, it is worth noting that these RPS bills did come with DG benefits too. The legislation in Michigan helped preserve net metering rules going forward, and GTM Research’s Allison Mond says they are classifying Illinois as an “emerging residential market.”

“The Future Energy Jobs Bill passed in the state mandates that a quarter of the 675 MW of DG required for the new RPS standard consists of sub-10-kW systems,” she says. “Though the market is still quite small, we expect residential installations in the state to double in 2017 over 2016 capacity and then continue to grow by between 100 and 200 percent each year through 2021.”

Illinois also allows for third-party ownership (leases or PPAs) of systems.

Implementation of Illinois’ RPS bill is the top issue of SEIA’s Midwest Committee, which has been working with the Illinois Power Authority to “get the regulatory language that allows the intent of the bill to move forward,” says Sean Gallagher, VP of state affairs for SEIA.

Perhaps the biggest exception to all of our Midwest generalizing so far is in Minnesota, where community solar has grown to become the third largest community solar market in the country after California and Massachusetts.

“It went from a cute idea to big business in two years, and now community solar is really picking up,” says Jake Rozmaryn, CEO of Eco Branding, the agency that represents the Midwest Solar Expo, now in its fifth year. “Large-scale development in Minnesota was over 300 MW in 2016 and is expected to be over a 1 GW in five years. Traction is there.”

midwest-solar-installations-chart

Lingering Problems

We start in Indiana, which is ground zero for problematic energy legislation right now. The much-discussed SB 309 would phase out net metering in tiers: Early adopters would be able to keep net metering for 30 years; those who install between July 1 and 2022 can keep it for 15 years. Anyone installing after that date would be under the new rules.

What are the proposed new rules? Essentially it would be a “buy all, sell all” arrangement where solar customers sell their power back to grid for the wholesale rate (~3 cents per kWh), and then buy it back at the retail rate (11 cents per kWh).

The carrot in the bill for the solar industry is that power purchase agreements (PPAs) would be made legal.

UPDATE: That bill is no longer proposed — the Governor signed it into law.

Gallagher also pointed to Iowa, which doesn’t have a huge rooftop market yet, but has an important DG proceeding happening that will set rate terms and compensation structure going forward “and perhaps set some precedent in the Midwest.”

“We’re also paying attention to a bill in Missouri that would be harmful to rooftop solar,” he says. “We’re just trying to keep those markets open. It’s not a giant market, but we don’t want to see bills that just squash it.”

Arguably worse than the specific inhibitory policies is the general uncertainty lingering over much of the region. For example, we chatted with a developer based in New York who has been eyeing Ohio as a next great opportunity. Well, with the state passing a bill to freeze its RPS, which the governor vetoed, only to have a new, even more limiting bill be passed — how can anyone get a feel for how to proceed over the long term?

Political Will of the Midwest

Getting to this point was definitely not easy, and maturing the market from here will require even more work. Relaxed Trump-era carbon regulations might defibrillate the fossil fuel industries. Longer-term environmental and social arguments in general seem to carry far less weight than short-term costs, politically. Plus, Midwestern utilities have had the benefit of seeing net metered residential systems deployed on a large scale on the coasts, and some are trying to nip it on the bud. For example, ComEd tried to get a demand charge put into that aforementioned bill in Illinois, even though the net meter market in the state at the time was around 800 total customers. The Public Utilities Commission in Ohio is also considering proposals by several utilities in the state to double fixed rates for all customers.

But despite it all, the momentum is real. SEIA and the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) formed a Midwest coalition about two years ago thinking there were opportunities on the horizon for new markets to develop. It was a baby step. SEIA took a larger step this year and formed a Midwest Solar Committee.

“We recognized that there’s been some activity toward the end of last year that’s starting to bring those potential new markets forward, which provides justification for SEIA and its members to devote more attention to those states,” Gallagher says.

“Utilities in the Midwest have a lot of political clout,” Goldstrom says. “However, solar companies and industry organization have demonstrated a significant capacity to drive change and work with legislators on policy relating to both utility scale and distributed scale generation. I have been pleasantly surprised by the success of a lot of these lobbying efforts.”

By the way, ComEd’s demand charge request didn’t make it into the final version of the bill.

“I think the biggest success solar has had in the Midwest is becoming a competitive form of generation, and as solar prices continue to come down, the cost for electricity in general continues to go up, even in the Midwest,” says TJ Kanczuzewski, president of Inovateus Solar, based in South Bend, Ind. “Even in places that have some cheaper electricity from coal or hydro or even nuclear, electricity prices continue to rise by an average of 5 percent annually while solar continues to become more cost competitive.”

Residential Solar IllustrationROOM FOR Residential

As we wrote about the lagging prospects of residential rooftop solar in the Midwest, Sunrun became the first large national residential rooftop solar company to expand into the Midwest, setting up shop in Wisconsin.

Customers in Wisconsin can either own their system outright with Sunrun BrightBuy or own and finance it with Sunrun BrightAdvantage, using a loan arranged by Sunrun.

“We see a demand for solar that has been underserved in the state and look forward to giving residents a choice to reduce their electric bills with solar, while providing value to the grid,” said Lynn Jurich, CEO of Sunrun.

This highlights Sunrun’s ability to enter new markets in a low fixed-cost way through collaborating with local partners in the state. Sunrun’s economic investment is adding job opportunities in Wisconsin, and it is currently hiring for several positions for its solar team in Southeast Wisconsin.

Chris Crowell is managing editor of Solar Builder.

— Solar Builder magazine

1,500-volt systems to trend in 2017: Here’s what you need to know

SolarBOS-cutline

SolarBOS combiner

Large-scale solar projects are heading into yet another sea change: the 1,500-volt PV system (Vdc). The idea behind the voltage increase is the same now as it was during the move from 600 volts to 1,000 volts — further reduce installation costs and increase profitability by reducing the number of inverters and other BOS components required.

“But there is a difference this time,” notes TJ Kanczuzewski, president of Inovateus Solar located in South Bend, Ind. As a solar EPC and distributor, Inovateus Solar was one of the first solar companies to be introduced to 1,000 Vdc from 600 Vdc and has seen these types of technology transitions before. “Today’s 1,500 Vdc are more sophisticated systems than we’ve ever had before.”

Advanced Intelligence

Kanczuzewski relays his experience designing projects with Schneider Electric’s new Conext SmartGen 1,500-Vdc inverters, which can record and store operations and service history, as well as upload all of this data and self-diagnostics to the cloud.

“The Conext system also offers 30-year service life and a minimum of 15 years before the first major service,” he says. “So, this time, these systems are very intelligent as well as powerful.”

And this is just the beginning as all of your favorite inverter brands start to launch and ramp up production on their product lines. At the 2016 Solar Power International, Yaskawa-Solectria Solar, one of the most widely installed brands, pre-announced its 1,500-Vdc, utility-scale string inverter, the SLX 1500 line. These inverters will be available at various power levels and AC voltages, but adding in its Wireless Mesh network eliminates the need for communication wiring, reducing communications and BOS cost.

“In addition, the Wireless Mesh proves to simplify commissioning, has robust/secure networking, advanced grid functionality, superior asset management and improves response time,” says Natalie Holtgrefe, senior marketing manager for Yaskawa-Solectria Solar.

RELATED: How optimizers bridge the gap to 1,500-volt PV systems 

But is it safe?

Regardless of ancillary benefits, being an early adopter to such a step up in voltage carries risk.
“There is a lack of understanding in the industry concerning incident energy and arc flash risk. This is true for 1,000-Vdc systems and clearly becomes more important in 1,500-Vdc systems,” says SolarBOS CTO Coel Schumacher.

BOS equipment provides overcurrent protection and disconnecting means used for system operation and maintenance and must be accessible to personnel. Due to the nature of photovoltaic installations, there are a significant number of sources that aggregate in BOS equipment, and a series of devices are typically used to achieve this.

“While it is possible to isolate these devices, the long runs between them make it inconvenient as well as difficult to isolate a device by a means within line of sight,” Schumacher continues. “If the device is not completely isolated, portions of the equipment remain energized. This poses an arc flash risk and yet there is no consensus on how to evaluate that risk, much less how much risk there truly is.”

SolarBOS offers BOS equipment including combiners and recombiners with various options for circuit count, current ratings, OCPD and disconnecting means. On the AC side of the inverter, SolarBOS offers configurable switchgear that is necessary for string inverter implementation.

Yaskawa-Solectria Solar’s DISCOM 1500 string combiners offer various options that make design and safety easier for installers, including MC4/H4 connectorized wire whips, compression lug studs and heavy gauge bus bars.

Eaton, which has extensive experience in managing DC circuits in other high voltage DC environments such as battery storage systems, rail systems and steel mills, reminds us that the call for 1,500-volt safety extends to the equipment, too.

“At 1,500 Vdc, there is substantially higher voltage stress on the solar modules, which can make modules more susceptible to potential induced degradation (PID),” says John Vernacchia, segment manager for renewable energy at Eaton. “Only a few years ago, PID had a disastrous effect on many solar projects. As developers look at using this higher voltage technology, caution should be taken to use PID-resilient solar modules and to use grounded arrays. Past experience has shown that floating arrays are significantly more sensitive to PID due to the negative voltage bias placed on the solar modules.”

Eaton’s 1,500-Vdc inverters will employ a new proprietary DC design concept that replaces manual DC disconnects with DC contactors to improve both control and enhance operator safety.

Eaton’s 1,500-Vdc inverters will employ a new proprietary DC design concept that replaces manual DC disconnects with DC contactors to improve both control and enhance operator safety.

Reducing BOS costs

As dazzling as the new capabilities are, the potential BOS cost reductions are just as enticing for an industry constantly having to prove its economic worth. GTM Research estimates that overall project costs can be reduced by three to five percent by moving to 1,500-Vdc systems, realized mainly through reduced installation time and fewer components.

SolarBOS’s Schumacher says the 1,500-Vdc projects they’ve done are acting as flagship installations to prove the benefits of higher voltage systems. In general, he says, BOS equipment becomes more energy dense and cost effective at 1,500 Vdc.

“In addition 1,500-Vdc systems lend themselves to higher AC voltages [600 Vac or more], which helps to reduce AC conductor and switchgear cost,” Schumacher says.

Eaton developed its Crouse-Hinds series DC collection system, Sunnector, to reduce costs and installation time in these utility-scale solar projects. This system can help reduce labor and material costs by 15 percent on average, according to Vernacchia, in 5 MW and larger-scale, grid-tied solar projects that use fixed-tilt ground-mount racking designs.

A key here is using aluminum for long-distance runs, but still incorporating copper connections to the PV modules. This way contractors are able to use standard copper connectivity and tools, while project owners are able to reduce costs by taking advantage of lower cost aluminum wire.

Yaskawa-Solectria’s SLX 1500 line and Wireless Mesh network eliminates the need for communication wiring, reducing communications and BOS cost.

Yaskawa-Solectria’s SLX 1500 line and Wireless Mesh network eliminates the need for communication wiring, reducing communications and BOS cost.

So, where are we?

Holtgrefe says Yaskawa-Solectria Solar is seeing considerable demand for 1,500 Vdc in utility-scale projects. However, 95 percent of demand in the C&I space is still for 1,000-Vdc products. Her expectation is for the C&I space to move toward 1,500-Vdc systems at a slower rate of adoption than utility-scale.

“We’ll need to educate our customers about this new offering and help them understand the value,” Kanczuzewski says. “Code standards will need to be revised in some areas, and different utilities may have their own guidelines, so installers will need to make sure that 1,500 Vdc is compliant or show how 1,500 Vdc is becoming the new standard. We can always go back to 1,000-Vdc systems if our customers require it, but we hope we’ll be able to transition quickly.

“Inovateus went through the same type of customer education and standards review with the transition to 1,000 Vdc, but we expect that 1,500 Vdc will overcome any hurdles and become the norm within the next two to three years.”

Chris Crowell is the managing editor of Solar Builder.

— Solar Builder magazine

Inovateus Solar installs two arrays for Hoosier Energy

Inovateus Solar, a national provider of solar energy services, is installing two solar arrays for electric cooperative power supplier Hoosier Energy. The arrays will serve utility customers in central and southern Indiana. The project is part of Hoosier Energy’s plan to add 10, 1-MW arrays across member service territories.

Inovateus SolarThe first project was completed in August and sits on a nine-acre site near mile marker 122 on Interstate 70 in New Castle, Ind. The second is located along Interstate 69 near Bloomfield, Ind., in Greene County and was completed in September. Each 1-MW solar array consists of 4,320 solar panels designed to increase power production by following the sun as it rises and sets.

“The solar program is part of Hoosier Energy’s all-of-the-above strategy to provide the best balance for an affordable power supply,” said Heath Norrick, Manager of Renewable Energy for Hoosier Energy.
Inovateus Solar is now collaborating with other cooperative and municipal utilities across the country.

“Solar now works in Middle America and is truly coast-to-coast. We now have a model where utility-scale solar is affordable everywhere. Co-ops and municipalities represent their members and are giving the power back to the people. After all, the sun shines on everyone,” said Inovateus Solar President TJ Kanczuzewski.

— Solar Builder magazine

Everyone won at this year’s Solar Battle of the Bands #Intersolar

The fifth annual Solar Battle of the Bands, a solar industry party and musical competition presented by Quick Mount PV, took place Wednesday, July 15, during the 2015 Intersolar North America trade show and it rocked our asses off. Attended by an overflowing and enthusiastic crowd of nearly 1400 solar professionals, the after-hours event at the Mezzanine featured bands from SolarCity, Inovateus Solar, Sungevity and Quick Mount PV. Attendees voted for their favorite band in four unique categories, allowing each band a chance to be recognized for certain aspects of their performance.

In a Solar Battle of the Band’s first, every band wrote and performed an original song. But the prize for Best Original Song went to SolarCity’s, PV Wonder, for their fun, ska-inspired, “We’re SolarCity”, which got the crowd dancing. The award for Best On-Stage Costume went to the always creative and good-humored Inovateus Solar’s, Rev. Ray and the Everlasting Incentives. The band went with a country-themed set, complete with light-up cowboy hats and leather chaps. Returning champions Sungevity’s, The Killa Watts  won the well-deserved award for Best Solo Performance, as well as Best Overall Performance. The night’s official line-up ended with Quick Mount PV’s energetic, Northerner and the Rafters, featuring an impressive horn section.

To finish the evening, musicians from each band got on stage together to perform a multi-band encore.  A cherry on top of what was truly a Solar Battle of the Band’s all-star event!

Solar Battle of the Bands was made possible by our generous company sponsors Inovateus Solar, Wiley, AEE Solar, Mounting Systems Inc., SolarEdge and media/nonprofit sponsors SolarPro, Solar Power World, Solar Energy International (SEI), Intersolar North America, and NABCEP.

— Solar Builder magazine

Inovateus Solar to install 2.5-MW, ground-mounted solar project for Indiana Michigan Power

Inovateus Solar

Indiana based Inovateus Solar was awarded the installation of a 2.5-MW AC, ground-mounted solar array project for Indiana Michigan Power (I&M) an operating unit of American Electric Power (AEP). The future site of the new I&M solar array is in Marion, Ind., adjacent to the company’s Deer Creek substation. Groundbreaking for the new project took place July 24 at the site. This solar project with Inovateus marks the first for I&M. The Deer Creek solar array will encompass over 17-acres near the substation.

Inovateus Solar, which has provided solar integration and installation services to a myriad of projects worldwide, is especially excited about this Indiana installation in its own back yard. The President of the firm, T.J. Kanczuzewski, explained at the groundbreaking event on July 24 that this is the biggest local project provided by his firm.

“Inovateus Solar is extremely happy to be working with I&M and AEP on this groundbreaking project for our region,” said Kanczuzewski. “We applaud I&M’s commitment to solar energy and we are dedicated to making this project a success for everyone involved.”

Once completed, the 2.5 MW array will provide the grid with the equivalent energy to power over 350 homes for one year. The system consists of 9,972, 310-watt solar panels and 11 Nextronex 250 inverters.

“The environmental offsets of the Deer Creek array are significant,” stated Senior Account Executive and Project Manager for Inovateus Solar, Nathan Vogel. “It’s equivalent to the energy of over 7,600 barrels of oil per year, 43 tankers of gasoline per year, or burning almost 18 rail cars of coal per year. We are so pleased to be working with our own Northern Indiana utility, Indiana Michigan Power, on this project.”

— Solar Builder magazine