The ‘Carportunity’: How our electric vehicle future means big things for solar carports

California’s Franchise Tax Board complex

Electric vehicles taking over the road is no longer a question. Sales of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and all-electric vehicles have surged recently. So now the question is where are all of these things going to get their juice?

A new study from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) quantifies how much charging infrastructure would be needed in the United States to support various market growth scenarios for plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). NREL notes that most PEV charging occurs at home, but widespread PEV adoption would require the development of a national network of non-residential charging stations. Strategically installing these stations early would maximize their economic viability while enabling efficient network growth as the PEV market matures. NREL says about 8,000 fast-charging stations would be needed to provide a minimum level of urban and rural coverage nationwide.

No one asked us, but we think carport developments have a big opportunity (a carportunity!) to lead the way. The segment is seeing notable reductions in system costs and installation timelines that only make more projects viable.

Quest Renewables

The Value of Expertise

There is enough institutional knowledge among the chief carport construction companies now to give developers and larger investors confidence. Feast your eyes on California’s Franchise Tax Board complex, for example (pictured above). Developed by DGS-Building Property Management and installed by Ecoplexus at one of the largest business campuses in northern California, it is the state’s largest carport installation (10,400 PV panels), covering 1,276 employee parking spaces, spanning over 622,000 sq ft and generating 3.6 MW.

The project was made possible because of Baja Carport’s specialization in pre-engineered, pre-fabricated high-tensile, light gauge steel structures. And in chatting with its team at SPI this year, we’ve learned the company has been able to further streamline the costs of its system.

Then there is 4 S.T.E.L. and its standardized processes. Carport projects involve a ton of engineering and civil approval. 4 S.T.E.L.’s staff of engineers, project managers and drafters can design and erect a carport in their sleep at this point, but the big value comes in swift preapproval of its designs with the California Division of State Architects among other strict jurisdictions and building departments. Design preapproval can literally shave months off certain project timelines.

Park-onomics: Best practices for constructing cost-effective carport projects

Carports are certainly spreading beyond California too. At Michigan State University (MSU), Inovateus Solar is nearing completion of a 14-MW solar carport project spanning five parking lots and 700 sq ft on the East Lansing campus (pictured below). Using Schletter’s Park@Sol concept, the design is a maintenance-free, lightweight aluminum system with canopies standing 14-ft tall at the lowest point to provide enough room for recreational vehicles to park during football season. The carport install is expected to generate 15,000 MWh of electricity annually for MSU with projections showing a savings of $10 million in electricity costs over the next 25 years.

Schletter

Disruptive Designs

Key to the Schletter approach is its Micropile foundation, a hollow metal rod installed deep into the ground (pictured to the right), that requires less concrete material to accomodate even high wind and snow loads.

“The technology innovation of using Schletter micropiles as foundations and precast concrete pads, in addition to the engineering design, cut the construction schedule in half and minimized the risk factors in a rainy environment like Florida,” said Javier Latre Gorbe, VP of Technical Operations for ESA Renewables.

A newer entrant into the carport system space, Quest Renewables, has an especially exciting concept. Hatched as project at Georgia Tech Research Institute in 2011, the design received a work grant from the DOE’s SunShot Initiative and was commercialized in 2014. The hook here is a triangular support structure that requires less steel and allows for most of it to be assembled on the ground (pictured above).

Solar carports will spread across the country as costs decline

A vehicle auction company in Elkridge, Md., put in a 304-kW system and selected the Quest Renewables QuadPod to reduce foundation counts by 50 percent (using 50 percent less steel) to mitigate the poor soil conditions. From site survey to powering up, the system was completed in 45 days with minimal interruption to the parking lot. Another project in Portland, Maine, needed to minimize disruption of the work area. The 90 percent ground-level construction allowed it to be built in just eight days from start to finish. This first parking garage canopy install in Maine will sustain 112 mph winds and 50 psf of snow.

There’s a long way to go to fill in that void NREL is talking about, but it’s a start.

— Solar Builder magazine

Solar for All: How to incentivize community solar projects to benefit low-, middle-income customers

Geronimo Energy

Geronimo Energy celebrating another community solar install in Minnesota.

Community solar has taken off within the renewable energy development leagues, melding the interests of residential and commercial or industrial customers, as well as the local utilities. While the inclusion of low- and middle-income (LMI) residential customers are widely enabled by state legislation on community solar, specific carve-outs or percentage requirements for LMI customers are less common. At times, solar developers have focused heavily on anchor commercial or industrial customers and paid little attention to residential participation, much less the LMI segment.

While the LMI customer segment may present something of a credit challenge in developing a project, anchor tenants can readily compensate for the project risk. Indeed, a 2016 study by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) found that economically viable community solar programs could include 40 percent LMI customers.

When there is local, state or federal funding for LMI customers, like HUD Block Grants, developers have added inspiration to include the segment, but such funding is not always readily available, or the lengthy paperwork may seem to outweigh the potential benefit of the revenue stream.

To help remedy this practice of under-weighting LMI customers in community solar development, local housing authorities have stepped up to bring their resources — if not regulations — to bear, early in the planning process. Developers also have found that the housing authorities and other social institutions can be valuable partners in locating and enrolling customers in a project well ahead of ground-breaking.

Local Leadership

As of August, 14 states had passed legislation to enable community solar, according to one recent analysis. Among these, Minnesota is ground-zero for community solar evolution in the United States and leads the nation in community solar projects. An estimated 400 MW of community solar is in the pipeline in Minnesota, which is now grappling with how to provide interconnection services for such a groundswell. One early developer of community solar in the state is Edina-based Geronimo Energy.

“For our new 50-MW Nordic portfolio of community solar projects, we approached the St. Paul Public Housing Authority and they got involved in the process, learning how much they could save and pass on to their residents. As a result, they were very helpful in the pre-sales stage,” says Lindsay Smith, the director of marketing and communications for Geronimo, which recently sold a 100-MW community solar portfolio in Minnesota to Berkshire Hathaway.

Community Solar Legal Primer: From project structure to consumer protection

Since housing authorities generally subsidize the cost of energy for LMI residents in their programs, lower-cost energy translates into savings. “There is a huge economic advantage for these authorities to subscribe,” Smith says.

Other states also are tuned into the LMI segment too.

  • In Colorado, where there is a five percent LMI carve out, the Denver Housing Authority has been active in the facilitation of a 1.95-MW LMI project next to a landfill in Fort Collins. The project is being developed in collaboration with Oakland-based GRID Alternatives, Boulder-based Namasté Solar and a local electrical cooperative.
  • Maryland’s community solar statute requires that about 30 percent of project generation serves LMI households.
  • In New York, the initial stage of a state community solar program requires a 20 percent LMI customer participation. The state does not wield the stick without a carrot. NY Green Bank offers developers soft loans for the inclusion of LMI customers in solar developments.
  • A more local area initiative is underway at the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) in southern California in which IID is developing a new community solar project of up to 20 MW and working to establish a community storage project of up to 10 MW. The district says, to ensure all customers have access to the benefits of solar power, it is also working to create a separate low-income solar program specific to income-qualified customers.

GRID alternatives at work

Finding Financing

The potential for growth in community solar is enormous. Third-party-led solar — a.k.a. community solar — added about 85 MW in 2016, twice the 2015 total, and is expected to add 1.8 GW by 2021, according to a recent forecast by GTM Research. An even more optimistic forecast by the Rocky Mountain Institute suggests that community-scale solar could amount to 30 GW by 2020.

Perhaps the key limit to community solar growth with an LMI component is financing. One institution seeking to foster new financing approaches is the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Electricity Innovation Lab (e–Lab), which set up teams in June to develop new business models. One team included support from the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC).

A more altruistic approach has been taken by Glenwood Springs, Colo.-based Alpine Bank, which bought shares in a Summit County community solar project and donated them to the Family & Intercultural Resource Center (FIRC), an agency that provides services for low-income residents. The organization managed solar credits on participants’ monthly bills.

The bank’s purchase was in part motivated by a low sign-up response from the LMI community, making it difficult to meet the 5 percent LMI carve-out. Alpine Bank worked with Clean Energy Collective to arrive at the donation solution. CEC has a portfolio-plus-pipeline of 175 projects with 33 utility partners across 15 states with over 400 MW of community solar capacity.

SunShot Support

DOE puts taxpayer money where its mouth is. “The enormous opportunity to expand solar electricity access to LMI households is why the SunShot Initiative launched the Solar in Your Community Challenge … building on the [Obama] White House’s Clean Energy Savings for All Initiative,” the agency noted in 2016. The initiative goal was to enable 1 GW of LMI solar by 2020.

This year, the SunShot program took applications in January for $5 million in award money to form a team to design and deploy scalable community-based solar projects or programs up to 5 MW in 18 months that serve at least 20 percent LMI households or 60 percent non-profits, according to its website. Teams began work in May and are scheduled to have their community solar projects completed in October 2018.

The SunShot Initiative is a founding member of the National Community Solar Partnership that works to expand access to community and shared solar throughout the nation, especially in low- and moderate-income households. The partnership is a collaboration with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and key representatives from solar companies, non-profit organizations, state and community leaders and financial institutions, the DOE states.

The U.S. Department of Energy has lofty aspirations for the LMI segment in community solar.

“Community solar projects are gaining popularity as they allow the almost half of U.S. households that may not have access to a solar-ready roof to take advantage of the sun’s energy and do it at a lower cost. This can make solar accessible to more LMI communities,” the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy opined in November 2016. “Between 2010 and 2015, community solar installations grew rapidly, reaching almost 100 MW, and this business model has even greater potential. The U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates community solar could comprise up to half of the distributed PV market in 2020.”

Charles W. Thurston is a freelance writer covering solar energy from Northern California.

Solarize This: Nexamp adds more community solar in the northeast

Nexamp adds more community solar in the northeast

Nexamp completed a 700-kW community solar project in Fitchburg, Mass., through its Solarize My Bill community solar program. Participating Unitil Corp. customers, many of whom were previously unable to install solar panels on their own property, are now seeing reduced electricity charges through their subscription to the Fitchburg Solar project. In addition, the neighboring Town of Lunenburg will realize substantial energy cost savings through a long-term agreement to purchase discounted energy credits generated by the project. Fitchburg Solar is one of 17 community solar facilities that Nexamp has constructed and expects to achieve operations in the coming months.

“Lunenburg has enjoyed a very beneficial relationship with Nexamp,” said Phyllis Luck, Board of Selectman, Town of Lunenburg. “In addition to the town’s net metering agreement, which is expected to generate over $600,000 in utility cost savings over the next 20 years, Nexamp has extended the partnership to include our town’s residents, who remain keenly interested in community solar. In fact, Nexamp enrolled nearly 40 Lunenburg households in two weeks’ time to their Solarize My Bill community solar program, and these residents should save over $275,000 in electricity costs over the term of their subscriptions with Nexamp.”

 

— Solar Builder magazine

Department of Energy to fund projects to reduce soft costs of solar installs

department of energy funding

Discussions on further large reductions in solar installation prices start with soft costs. Knowing this, the Energy Department is pumping $21.4 million in funding for 17 new projects to help reduce these soft costs, such as installation, permitting and connecting to the grid.

“Soft costs have been a pervasive barrier to widespread solar energy in the United States,” said Dr. Charlie Gay, Director of the Solar Energy Technologies Office. “Finding new ways to cut these costs remains critical in accelerating solar deployment nationwide and making solar affordable for all Americans.”

Nine of the awards will focus on how the solar industry can sustain and accelerate its growth by understanding the motivations and factors that influence the technology adoption process, particularly in low- and moderate-income communities. The other eight awards will focus on tackling solar market challenges at the state and regional levels through better strategic energy and economic planning.

Here are the two broad areas of focus:

Solar Energy Evolution and Diffusion Studies (SEEDS)

The SEEDS program leverages decisions based on science and solar datasets to improve our understanding of how and why homeowners and businesses choose solar energy.

Nine of the 17 projects will partner researchers with data and energy practitioners to create, analyze, and use solar data and other information in order to examine how solar technologies, the electric grid system, and the institutions that create the solar business marketplace support or inhibit the evolution and diffusion of solar technologies.

RELATED: Obama wants to give your community $100,000 to build community solar 

This second round of funding under SEEDS introduces two new areas of research interest: low- and moderate-income (LMI) solar adoption and institutional decision-making.

Projects focusing on LMI communities will focus on identifying solar adoption barriers other than cost, while identifying ways to more effectively engage these communities in the growing solar marketplace. Projects examining institutional decision-making aim to reveal the factors driving change within institutions as they relate to solar, and how institutions within a given system—for example, one university within a state university system—can influence such change. View the list of awardees.

State Energy Strategies (SES)

Through SunShot’s SES work, project teams from state energy offices, regional energy providers and their partners have the opportunity to gain the planning insights that can support their individual goals to maximize solar’s benefits within their various communities. Eight new projects announced today will help to better inform states how to more effectively adopt solar by providing technical and analytical assistance to help them meet their renewable energy goals.

These projects will benefit states at two phases in the solar energy planning process: during the creation of solar deployment targets and identification of strategies to achieve these goals, and then during the implementation of these strategies. For instance, teams may seek technical and informational assistance from DOE to better understand system performance projections, transmission and distribution constraints, or the economic and environmental benefits of various solar programs and projects.

Teams participating in this program will work to support solar planning efforts in 17 states plus the District of Columbia: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. View the list of awardees.

— Solar Builder magazine

Pika Energy awarded SunShot Initiative funding to expand Islanding Inverter capabilities

pika energy

The U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative has been an extremely successful program that has funded a ton of renewable energy innovation. Under the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s (EERE) SunShot Initiative, the Department will fund 40 projects with a total of $42 million to improve PV performance, reliability, manufacturability and to enable greater market penetration for solar technologies. In addition to the new projects announced today, the Department intends to make up to $65 million, subject to appropriation, in additional funding available for upcoming solar research and development projects to continue driving down the cost of solar energy and accelerating widespread national deployment.

Announced at the Solar Power International conference in Las Vegas as part of this $107 million in new funding, $875,000 has been awarded to Pika Energy, Inc., which will use the funds to add new hardware and software features to its model X7601 Pika Islanding Inverter, enabling the inverter for demand response, aggregation and other grid services aimed at evolving the U.S. electricity grid. The enhanced communication and software capabilities will allow utilities to remotely dispatch distributed energy systems in periods of peaking demand.

“The Pika Energy Island, with its high voltage bus electronics, has the high efficiency and smart operational features necessary to offer utilities a truly distributed path to the smart grid,” said Pika Energy president and co-founder Ben Polito. “We’re thrilled to work with the U.S. Department of Energy on this exciting project, which will leverage Pika’s technology to take a big step toward a smarter, cleaner grid.”

Pika Energy is becoming a leading provider of smart power electronics for solar-plus-storage. The company’s Pika Energy Island system uses a patented 380V direct current bus to integrate solar and batteries on the same bus, enabling building-scale nanogrids using a single islanding inverter.

— Solar Builder magazine

Up On The Rooftop, DOE Seeks More Solar Savings

A $12 million, second round of Rooftop Solar Challenge funding by the federal government is intended to drive down the cost of residential and small commercial PV installations.

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