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.

MD SUN parent, Community Power Network, named ‘One of the Best’ nonprofits by Catalogue for Philanthropy

We are excited to announce that MD SUN parent organization, Community Power Network, has been named one of the best small nonprofits in the D.C. area! After a careful vetting process, the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington selected Community Power Network (CPN) to be part of the Class of 2017-18. The Catalogue has a rigorous review process to ensure that every nonprofit it chooses is worthy of donors’ support and will handle donations responsibly. CPN met the Catalogue’s high standards, and will be highlighted for the next four years.

“We are honored to have been selected by the Catalogue for Philanthropy as one of the best nonprofits in the D.C. region,” said Anya Schoolman, founder and Executive Director of Community Power Network. “We are excited to have the Catalogue’s support take our fundraising efforts to the next level, and power our mission with.”

“People want to know where to give and they need trusted information. Based on our in-depth review, we believe that Community Power Network is one of the best community-based nonprofits in the region,” said Barbara Harman, founder and president of the Catalogue for Philanthropy.

The Catalogue’s mission is to create visibility for the best community-based charities, fuel their growth with philanthropic dollars, and create a movement for social good in the greater Washington region. Since its inception 15 years ago, the Catalogue has helped nonprofits in the region raise $38 million, and has provided numerous trainings and engagement opportunities for nonprofits and individuals.

CPN is one of 34 charities that are new to the Catalogue this year. The network now includes more than 400 vetted nonprofits working in the arts, education, environment, human services, and international sectors throughout greater Washington.

How energy storage can improve solar economics for businesses and non-profits

Utility companies charge residential customers for how much energy they use. This is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh) by the customer’s meter. Non-profit, commercial, and large industrial customers are charged for their energy usage as a well. And, they are charged for how much power they demand at their location. Power demand is measured in kilowatts (kW). These “demand charges” are also measured by the customer’s meter at regular intervals. The utility typically charges a rate based on the highest (or peak) demand for that customer during the month. These rates vary by utility and customer type.

Solar reduces energy costs (measured in kWh) but demand charges (measured in kW) are not always reduced by the addition of a solar array. Whether these charges are reduced depends on how close the solar array’s production matches up with the time of day when the customer needs the most power from the grid. Adding energy storage can save these customers even more money.

Energy vs. Power

The terms energy and power are often mixed together and used interchangeably when talking about electricity, but they are different. Energy is the measurement of (electrical) work being done over time. Power is the instantaneous measurement of how fast that work is happening. An analogy to this is a bathtub filling up with water. The amount of water in the bathtub is the energy. The rate the water is flowing into the tub is power. If the water comes out of the faucet quickly you are using more power than if the water comes out of the faucet more slowly. Either way, when the bathtub is completely full, you’ve used the same amount of energy.

Storage can generate savings

When a business or non-profit is being charged for demand the utility company is measuring at regular intervals how much power the customer is drawing from the grid. At the end of the month, whatever the peak power demand was becomes the basis for calculating the demand charge. If the maximum power demand in a month were 100 kilowatts (kW) and the demand charge were $10/kW than the demand charge would be $1,000 for that month.

When there’s an energy storage system on site, equipment connected to the storage releases stored energy at the right times to keep the equipment on the property from demanding more power from the utility grid. In the diagram below the red areas show where storage reduced demand during a day. Over a billing period this kind of activity “shaves” the peak demand a customer needs from the grid and reduces the demand charges.

Credit: Resilient Power Project (www.resilient-power.org)

In areas where demand charges are high, storage can make economic sense, reducing the peak need for power and saving the customer money. The non-profit Clean Energy Group in work done through their Resilient Power Project, estimates that broadly, demand charges of $10/kW or more can make adding storage a good idea.

Solar + Storage

Because commercial and non-profit customers are charged for energy usage ($/kWh) and power usage ($/kW) solar plus storage becomes a great combination. Solar reduces the amount the customer pays the utility for energy by generating kilowatt-hours (kWh) on site. Storage reduces the amount the customer pays the utility for power (kW) by reducing the instantaneous need for energy from the grid.

 

Chestertown residents form solar co-op to go solar together, get a discount

Neighbors across Kent and Queen Anne’s Counties can join a solar co-op to save money and make going solar easier, while building a network of solar supporters. The group is seeking members and will host two information meetings Thursday, June 1, 7 p.m. and Saturday, June 3, 11 a.m. at the Chestertown Town Hall to educate the community about solar and the co-op process.

Chestertown residents interested in joining the co-op can sign up at the co-op website. 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.

 

Information sessions

June 1, 7 p.m.
Chestertown Town Hall
118 North Cross Street
Chestertown, MD 21620

RSVP Here

 

June 3, 11 a.m.
Chestertown Town Hall
118 North Cross Street
Chestertown, MD 21620

RSVP Here

Rooftop solar can create 34,000 Maryland jobs over the next decade

by Will Driscoll

Solar energy not only helps homeowners save money on their electric bills, it also creates jobs. New data show just how many jobs that could be in Maryland. A report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) found that Maryland could produce 39 percent of its electricity needs by installing 19,300 megawatts (MW) of rooftop solar capacity. Installing that much rooftop solar in Maryland would yield about 34,000 jobs for ten years.

The NREL figure represents Maryland’s technical potential for solar. Technical potential refers to what is physically possible, tempered by common sense—e.g., no panels where they would be shaded for much of the day. NREL calculated the amount of solar that could be produced on unshaded roof planes that are either nearly flat, or that face east, southeast, south, southwest, or west. If any such roof plane could accommodate at least 1.5 kilowatts of solar panels, NREL modeled solar on that roof plane. Adding these areas together yielded a technical potential of 19,300 MW of rooftop solar in Maryland.

NREL assumed an average solar panel efficiency of 16 percent, and noted that if panels averaging 20 percent efficiency were used, the solar potential would be 25 percent greater (because 20 is that much greater than 16).  At least three firms make solar panels exceeding 20 percent efficiency.

The technical potential is just a theoretical concept. Yet the economic potential—that is, the rooftop solar installations that would save building owners money—may not be far behind. This will be especially true over the next decade, as solar costs keep falling due to technology improvements and economies of scale. In the coming years, solar’s economic potential will keep rising.

Maryland’s estimated job potential from rooftop solar is based on the Solar Foundation’s count of 260,077 U.S. solar workers in 2016, and the Solar Energy Industries Association’s reported 2016 U.S. solar installations of 14,626 megawatts. Dividing the two yields almost 18 workers per megawatt of solar installed.

Finally, spacing out the installation of NREL’s 19,300 megawatts of Maryland rooftop solar over ten years would mean 1,930 megawatts of rooftop solar installed annually. Multiply that times about 18 workers per megawatt and you get 34,000 jobs—for a ten-year period.  Jobs from utility-scale and community-scale solar would be additional.

For rooftop installations, the number of jobs per megawatt installed would arguably be higher than the U.S. average in 2016. This is because rooftop jobs are smaller and more labor-intensive than utility-scale solar projects, which were included in the average. On the other hand, with a big increase in the size of the rooftop solar industry, economies of scale should also come into play. On balance, a potential 34,000 rooftop solar jobs in Maryland for ten years is a reasonable ballpark estimate.

Will Driscoll is a writer and analyst. He previously conducted environmental analyses for EPA, as a project manager for ICF Consulting. He earned a master’s degree in economics and policy from Princeton.

The PJM, the lesser known, but important player in the electric system

You are no doubt familiar with your utility as the entity that delivers your electricity. But there is another important player in getting electricity from a power plant to your home, the RTO or Regional Transmission Authority. For Maryland, the RTO is PJM. PJM is responsible for managing the transportation of electricity from power plants to the various utilities in its territory. Understanding PJM’s role in the electricity system is important to understanding how electric markets work and in turn what the development of solar means for these markets.

PJM is an abbreviation of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland after the territories where the first utilities joined together. Today, the PJM includes all or parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, West Virginia, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. It manages electricity distribution for more than 60 million people and $42 billion worth of electricity.

To understand what PJM does, it is helpful to think of the process of getting electricity from a power plant to your home as having three parts: generation, transmission, and distribution. Generation is the production of electricity at a power plant, distribution is a utility routing that electricity to your home. Transmission then, is the middle portion of the process and involves sending electricity from power plants to utilities, sometimes over long distances.

PJM manages the market where power plants bid to provide electricity to utilities within PJM territory. It monitors the transmission system to ensure that the right amount of electricity is being supplied at all times. Auctions are conducted three years in advance to determine the price for base generation based on forecasting models for capacity needs. Base generation is the largest portion of the electricity generation market and historically includes big power plants using coal, natural gas, nuclear, and large hydroelectric dams.

To function properly, our electricity system must be in balance at every moment between what is being used (consumption) and what is being produced (generation). Because of that requirement, PJM also holds energy market auctions to meet additional and precise demand. Some auctions trade as frequently as every five minutes.

Wind and solar are increasingly playing a role in these auctions. The most expensive power is during peak demand loads that are frequently in the height of summer. Solar helps offset the power needed during many of those peak periods. This means the utility is buying less expensive electricity and all ratepayers save money.

Maryland Legislature passes first of its kind storage tax credit

[Updated 5/10/2017)]

Maryland may soon boast the country’s first energy storage tax credit. The bill (SB0758 and HB0490) passed at the close of the 2017 Maryland Legislative session by wide margins. The governor approved the bill on May 4. This new tax credit could help to make Maryland a leader in distributed storage across the country.

What’s in the law?

The law offers a state income tax credit for commercial and residential storage projects on a first come, first serve basis. The Maryland Energy Administration will issue tax credit certificates with a maximum program-wide allocation of $750,000 per year for projects installed starting after January 1, 2018 and before December 31, 2022. The maximum allocation of credit per project is 30% for the total installed cost for the energy storage system with a cap of $5,000 for residential systems and $75,000 for commercial systems.

Eligible energy storage systems are defined in the law as any “system used to storage electrical energy, or mechanical, chemical, or thermal energy that was once electrical energy, for use as electrical energy at a later date or in a process that offsets electricity use at peak times”. This means that the credit will support a wide variety of technologies, from traditional sealed lead-acid battery systems that have been around for decades to new lithium-ion batteries like the Tesla Powerwall and other offerings. It also supports non-electrical storage methods like compressed air storage and pumped water storage.

What can you do with storage anyway?

Storage provides electricity when the electric grid goes down through technologies like battery backup systems. These devices also offer what are called “ancillary services” to the electric grid. These services are currently offered at larger scales by third party providers who are compensated to provide help to the utility company at key moments to maintain the grid within the required ranges for system voltage and frequency.

Our electric grid is transforming. More distributed, renewable, and resilient energy resources are coming online. Utility grid operators, energy producers, and energy service providers will all need to coordinate to ensure that the grid continues to provide reliable electricity service. This means the value of distributed storage will continue to grow.

What does this have to do with solar?

Solar and storage is an ideal combination. Solar charges the storage at a fixed cost and keeps it ready for action when the grid is operating. If the grid goes down, energy storage takes over to provide energy. This could be for a home, a business, or a critical location in the community like a hospital, shelter, or community center. Larger storage installations can also provide other services to the grid and be paid for doing so. In the future, when smaller providers like homeowners are allowed to participate, they could too.

Installing a system for future storage connection

Pairing solar installations with battery storage is an attractive idea for many people who are thinking about going solar. Battery storage provides piece of mind that even if you are unable to get electricity from the grid (e.g. during a storm) you will still have power.

Despite this benefit, battery storage remains an expensive proposition for many. At the same time, the market for batteries is growing rapidly. This rapid growth is coupled with quickly declining prices. So, even if battery storage may not pencil out for solar customers today, it is possible it will in the near future. Fortunately, solar systems can be built with the addition of a future storage system in mind.

When building a system for future storage, it is important to make sure your grid-tied inverter’s power rating doesn’t exceed that of a future battery. Battery sizes range from 4,000-7,000 watts. So, let’s say you have a 9,000 watt system, you would want to purchase two smaller inverters, say 6,000 and 3,000 watt ones rather than one 9,000 watt inverter. This will allow you to rewire the electricity from the smaller inverter into your future battery system.

This can be accomplished through AC coupling. AC coupling refers to the interface between the solar array and the inverter. This takes place physically in your home’s circuit panel. The battery installer will add an additional breaker panel that covers the outlets that can be powered with the electricity stored in your battery system. These outlets will be the ones connected to critical loads such as a refrigerator.

There is an added cost to having two smaller inverters, rather than one larger inverter. The cost will vary, but expect to pay between $500 and $1,000 for the two smaller ones.

It is also possible to connect systems that use micro inverters to batteries. The key is to arrange the strings in a way that a portion of your system is set up to send electricity to a future battery system.

If you are thinking about adding battery back up, let your installer know before they install the system. This ensures they will design your system to be storage compatible and to minimize the additional work that would have to be done to install batteries when you do decide to add storage.

Baltimore residents form co-op to go solar together, get a discount

Neighbors across Baltimore have formed a solar co-op to save money and make going solar easier, while building a network of solar supporters. The group is seeking members and will host an information meeting on April 25, 7 p.m. at 2640 Space (2640 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21218) to educate the community about solar and the co-op process.

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. 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, each participant generally saves up to 20% off the cost of their system.