August 21’s solar eclipse and the solar industry

The earliest recorded eclipse in human history occurred during the 22nd Century BCE. Legends state that two Chinese court astronomers were executed for their failures to predict and prepare for the eclipse, as eclipses were believed to be omens foretelling the health of kings. Since then, eclipses repeatedly have been associated with kings and their nations, with legends and superstitions linking eclipses to the deaths of King Henry I and Queen Anne Neville.

While it’s unlikely the upcoming eclipse on August 21 will result in the overturning of any kingdoms, it pays for the solar industry to be prepared nonetheless. The last time a total solar eclipse was viewable on the continental United States was in February of 1979, a time when the state of the American solar industry was very different than today. The totality of this eclipse will be passing in a line from Charleston, South Carolina to Salem, Oregon, but its impact will be felt across the entire continent.

With 10% of California’s generation coming from solar (representing 50% of solar production nationwide), the upcoming eclipse promises to be a challenge. California Independent System Operator (CAISO) estimates a loss of over 6,000 MW of generating power during the eclipse. Experts estimate 70 MW/minute will be lost as the shadow approaches, and then solar production is expected to ramp up at a rate of 90 MW/minute afterward.

Fortunately a similar eclipse crossed Europe in March of 2015. This will give California utilities insight into how to prepare for the drop in production. Electricity reserved from gas-fired and hydro-electric plants should be enough to offset the loss, particularly given California’s glut of snowfall this year. In the future, storage resources like batteries could also play a role. Similar plans to those in California are in place for North Carolina, where the solar industry is smaller but still a presence. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), a nonprofit corporation formed to “ensure the reliability of the North American bulk power system,” expects no major disruption to the grid’s reliability but does recommend utilities prepare and study the eclipse for the future.

{This article contributed to MD SUN by Cal Kielhold}

Baltimore co-op selects Advanced Solar Technologies to serve group

The Baltimore Solar Co-op has selected Advanced Solar Technologies to install solar panels for the 34-member group. Co-op members selected Advanced Solar Technologies through a competitive bidding process over six other firms.

Co-op members selected Advanced Solar Technologies because of their extensive knowledge of both Baltimore City and Baltimore County codes and permitting processes, competitive pricing, and direct contact with the company’s owner.

The co-op is open to new members until October 31. Baltimore County residents interested in joining the co-op can sign up at the co-op web page. Joining the co-op is not a commitment to purchase panels. Advanced Solar Technologies will provide each co-op member with an individualized proposal based on the group rate. By going solar as a group and choosing a single installer, participants can save up to 20% off the cost of their system.

Solar co-op member profile: Thom Boone

Thom’s interest in solar is rooted in its economic viability, social responsibility, and its contribution to resource conservation. For Thom, solar has an invaluable positive social and ecological impact. He emphasized how it’s our job in the United States to learn how to harness infinite energy sources such as sun and wind.

Before going solar through the Frederick County Solar Co-op, Thom had been investigating his solar installation options for years. He was not able to fully dedicate to solar until he heard of the Frederick County Solar Co-op. Through this co-op, Thom was connected to an installer that was affordable as well as flexible to the type of roof he had.

On top of a great financial deal, Thom was impressed with the co-op’s ability to answer all questions he had throughout the process, ‘they answered all of our questions, they answered them honestly, correctly, and quickly.’ After receiving a proposal from the co-op’s selected installer, Thom signed a contract and installed a 5.3 kW system on his home.

Mountain Maryland Co-op member receives Historic District award for solar

Solar co-op member Skott Brill recently earned the Frostburg City Historic District Commission’s 2017 Project of the Year design award in the residential category. He was honored at a May city council meeting.

Brill recently had a 12-panel PV solar array installed on his garage rooftop in part of the Frostburg’s Historic District. The 3.9 kW array will generate approximately 4,700 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of Brill’s electricity each year and save him approximately $470 per year in electricity costs.

The project had to receive approval of the City’s Historic District Commission. The commission considers the relationship of the exterior architectural features of a building to the remainder of the structure and surrounding area, the general compatibility of exterior design, scale, proportion, arrangement, texture, and materials proposed for use, and the appearance or view of proposed changes from the street.  It also considers the design guidelines set forth by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation and the City of Frostburg’s Register of Historic Places Guidelines.

A Building Permit was also required and the project was subjected to a Plan Review and Inspection process.  More information regarding the Frostburg HDC and the Building Permit process can be obtained on the city’s website or by calling City Hall at 301-689-6000.

Cumberland’s Big D Electric, the company selected through the co-op process installed the system. The co-op covered Allegany and Garrett Counties and was facilitated by MD SUN.  In Frostburg, the Mountain Maryland Solar Co-op was co-sponsored by the City of Frostburg’s Mayor & Council and FrostburgFirst.

The City of Frostburg, population 9,000, is the home of Frostburg State University and the western terminus of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad and is a Great Allegheny Passage Trail Town.  Also known as Maryland’s “Mountain City”, Frostburg leads Allegany County in residential solar PV installations.

This article was prepared by Woody Getz and Laura McBride.
City of Frostburg

Co-op partner profile: Matt Weaver

Matt Weaver has spent a decade working on renewable energy, hydrogen and solar. He approached MD SUN for help to start a solar co-op in Baltimore City.  “I was very impressed by the track record of MD SUN and the success of the Baltimore Interfaith Solar Co-op, which MD SUN organized,”, Weaver said, referring to the co-op MD SUN organized in partnership with Interfaith Power & Light in 2015. “I want to bring the opportunity of going solar to more Baltimore residents and meet more people interested in working on solar in Baltimore,” Weaver said.

“My primary motivator is to reduce the suffering brought by the ever increasing BGE and Exelon electric bills.” This led Matt to contact MD SUN about starting up a co-op for himself and for his community. “I want to help families reduce their future utility expenditure and enjoy cleaner air in Baltimore City.”

“Maryland just passed a veto-proof fracking ban and we must strike while the iron is hot and transition to renewables,” Weaver said. “Going solar is one way to push back on burning sources like coal and trash in Baltimore City.”

Weaver noted that groups like United Workers’, Free Your Voice and the students at Benjamin Franklin High School in Curtis Bay who recently helped shut down plans for a new trash incinerator in the Curtis Bay neighborhood are working to wean Baltimore off these energy sources. Increasing distributed renewables like solar is an important part of this transition he says. Forming a solar co-op is one way to bring a community together around a common need. “The Waverly Farmer’s Market and the interest from the community have been integral to setting up the solar co-op.” Weaver said. In April of this year the Baltimore Solar Co-op launched through his efforts and is currently seeking members.

BRESCO Wheelabrator Baltimore, 3 x 20MW, 52.6 lbs. of Mercury per year according to the 2014 Maryland Department of the Environment Emissions Report

The group is open to any homeowner in Baltimore City or Baltimore County. Signing up is not a commitment to go solar but just to indicate active interest to install solar. Once the group gets to critical mass MD SUN will solicit bids from area installers on behalf of the group. Learn more about the Baltimore Solar Co-op and join the group at www.mdsun.org/baltimore.

Baltimore co-op seeks installer

The 23-member Baltimore Solar Co-op today issued a request for proposals (RFP) from area solar installers. The group members created the co-op to save money and make going solar easier, while building a network of solar supporters. Several Baltimore City community members and MD SUN are the sponsors of this group.

Local installers interested in serving the group can click to download the RFP and response template. Baltimore residents interested in joining the co-op can sign up at the co-op web page.

Joining the co-op is not a commitment to purchase panels. Co-op members will select a single company to complete all of the installations. They will then have the option to purchase panels individually based on the installer’s group rate. By going solar as a group and choosing a single installer, participants can save up to 20% off the cost of their system.

Montgomery County passes tax exemption for community solar

In May, Montgomery County enacted a law that puts community solar on a more level playing field with rooftop solar. Bill 9-17 exempts the energy generated by community solar facilities from the county’s fuel-energy tax. Councilmember George Leventhal was the bill’s lead sponsor and it received broad support from the council.

The fuel-energy tax applies to “every person transmitting, distributing, manufacturing, producing, or supplying electricity, gas, steam, coal, fuel oil, or liquefied petroleum gas in the County” but makes exceptions for renewable energy. Previously, this tax exempted net energy metered systems like rooftop and ground-based solar to offset some or all of the energy used by a property on site.

Community solar implements “virtual net energy metering” (off site) to provide the same effect to subscribers as if the solar were on their property. The shared array is located elsewhere but enables renters, homeowners with shady roofs, and others to subscribe to solar electricity and see corresponding credits applied to their utility bill.

Because of the previous limitation to on-site renewable energy, the fuel-tax would have applied to community solar-generated energy, increasing cost of providing that energy to the consumer. The act, which takes effect July 1, 2018, fixes this issue by also exempting virtual net energy metering, like the community solar program, from the tax.

The result is a more level playing field for all county residents who want to participate in the solar economy. If residents install solar on their home, the fuel-energy tax does not apply to them. If they decide to go solar by subscribing to community shared solar instead, they will now also be exempted from the tax.

How solar takes the heat off

Reducing the amount of electricity you need to buy from your utility isn’t the only way going solar helps you save money. Installing panels on your roof may also reduce your energy demand. This is because rooftop solar can help regulate your roof’s temperature. A study from the University of California San Diego found that solar panel installations can reduce roof heat by as much as five degrees.

Solar panels are typically attached to your roof using a racking system. Most rooftop systems are installed so that there is a gap between the roof and the panel. This separation allows for air to flow under the panels and sweep away some of the heat. Solar panels also absorb heat that would otherwise be absorbed by the roof itself. Researchers calculated that solar’s temperature reduction amounts to an additional five percent return on investment due to lower energy costs due to reduced usage. In the winter months, solar panels can prevent heat from escaping, leading to lower heating costs.

High energy costs a burden for many Marylanders

Defining energy affordability

So what is affordable? The Home Energy Affordability Gap study, a multi-year, nationwide analysis of energy costs defines affordable energy as 6% of gross household income. According to the study, in 2016 “more than 106,000 Maryland households live with income at or below 50% of the Federal Poverty Level and face a home energy burden of 36%. More than 110,000 additional Maryland households live with incomes between 50% and 100% of the Federal Poverty Level and face a home energy burden of 19%.”

So, more than 200,000 Marylanders have energy costs that make up between 19% and 36% of their gross household income. If you expand that to Marylanders making less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Level ($49,200 for a family of four) there are more than 500,000 Marylanders for whom energy is unaffordable.

What happens when energy is unaffordable?

For many Maryland residents, energy is simply unaffordable. More than half a million (PDF) Marylanders struggle to pay their monthly energy bill. Solar energy can provide a solution.

Paying for energy, whether it’s for electricity or heat, is a critical expenditure for households along with the cost of housing, food, and medicine. When income doesn’t stretch to cover all of these expenses for a month, people are forced to choose which bill does not get paid. If a homeowner needs electricity for medicines or other on-site medical equipment, losing electricity is potentially a life and death issue. Expensive energy also contributes to the instability of household finances that sometimes lead to evictions.

When energy is unaffordable it contributes to the societal costs we all bear in dealing with health care costs, eviction proceedings, and other poverty-related circumstances. In effect, we all pay twice for energy. We pay once on our bills and again through public programs to support those directly impacted by energy they can’t afford.

How solar can help

Solar is not the entire answer, but it can make a real impact. Dealing with energy affordability means applying public and private means to help those affected pay their bills with such programs as LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) and Maryland’s Electric Universal Service Program. It also means proactively lowering the demand for energy through initiatives like the Maryland EmPOWER program that helps residents and businesses improve energy efficiency by retrofitting their buildings and replacing inefficient appliances.

In addition to these measures, access to rooftop solar and community solar can reduce the cost of some or all of a home’s energy for the long-term by fixing the cost of that energy at or below the current utility cost of electricity. When community solar offerings become available in many parts of Maryland later this year state residents will have one more option to make energy more affordable for them and their families. One key question is whether this program will work for all Marylanders.

The community solar pilot program is structured to encourage projects that include Maryland low- and moderate-income residents. Unfortunately, it’s a challenge for developers to include low- and moderate-income customers for a number of reasons including financing due to the perceived credit risk they represent. Because of these challenges, it remains to be seen whether Maryland’s low- and moderate-income residents will be able to fully access the savings many expect community solar to deliver to participating customers.

Town of Indian Head residents consider forming solar co-op to go solar together, get a discount

Neighbors in the Town of Indian Head and greater Charles County are forming a solar co-op to save money and make going solar easier, while building a network of solar supporters. The Town of Indian Head and MD SUN are the co-op sponsors. The group is seeking members and will host an information meeting on June 27 at 7 p.m. at the Indian Head Senior/Community Center (Front Room, 100 Cornwallis Square, Indian Head, MD 20640) to educate the community about solar and the co-op process.

Town of Indian Head residents interested in joining the co-op can sign up at the mdsun.org/indianhead. Joining the co-op is not a commitment to purchase panels. Once the group is large enough, MD SUN will help the co-op solicit competitive bids from area solar installers.

Co-op members will select a single company to complete all of the installations. They will then have the option to purchase panels individually based on the installer’s group rate. By going solar as a group and choosing a single installer, participants can save up to 20% off the cost of their system.