Elon Musk wants to sell you a better-looking solar roof amid slowing growth for panels

LA Times - Like some kind of 21st century Willy Wonka, audacious entrepreneur Elon Musk chose a prime spot on the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot tour to unveil his latest attempt to energize an industry — roofs that generate solar power but look like no other. 

Musk, the chief executive of Tesla Motors and chairman of SolarCity, showcased a line of high-design solar roof tiles that would replace clunky solar panels and tie into an upgraded version of the Tesla wall-mounted battery for those times when the sun doesn’t shine. The glass solar shingles resemble French slate, Tuscan barrel tile or more conventional roofing materials with a textured or smooth surface. 

“The key is to make solar look good,” Musk said during the product introduction staged on the old set of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” series, where he had re-roofed four of the Wisteria Lane houses. “If this is done right, all roofs will have solar.”

The move comes as California’s solar industry grapples with slowing growth and other challenges despite aggressive state mandates to boost the use of renewable energy.

Nationwide, sales of residential solar panels have held fairly steady in the year ended June 30, according to the Solar Energy Industries Assn.

In California, solar photovoltaic panel sales rose 12% in the first nine months of 2016 compared with the same period of 2015, state data show. But that pales compared with the 66% jump in the first three quarters of 2015 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Experts attribute the slowing to depletion of the pool of early adopters as well as to policy changes in California and other states governing how solar owners are compensated for electricity they produce and sell to utility companies.

In addition, many homeowners were worried whether Congress would renew a 30% federal tax credit set to expire at the end of 2016. Congress extended the credit through 2019 at 30%, after which it gradually phases out for residential solar customers.

The California solar industry still expects 2016 to finish with an expansion.

“We’re seeing a slowdown in the market but it’s not a downturn,” said Bernadette del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Assn. “We’re going to install more rooftop solar this year than we did in 2015.”

A significant driver in the solar market is the continued drop in the price of solar panels. The typical residential solar system runs about $8,000 with government incentives, including the 30% federal tax credit.

The supply of solar panels for residential and other uses almost doubled from 32 gigawatts in 2012 to 60 gigawatts in 2015, according to Navigant Research of Chicago. That’s enough to power roughly 45 million homes.

But capitalizing on the falling price of solar panels has been difficult for an industry that continues to struggle with other high costs such as labor.

Technological advancements in rooftop solar will help push overall industry sales from $3 billion in 2016 to $38 billion by 2025, Navigant projects. And by offering consumers a variety of solar system options, industry executives believe they will have an increased ability to compete with the price of electricity produced by utilities.

But Musk, with his flamboyant style, did not stop there. Instead, he is looking to one-up his competition.

Musk is working to build a personal alternative energy ecosystem connected by software and harmonious design, all under the Tesla brand name. The idea is that green-minded homeowners will mix with performance-oriented automotive geeks at Tesla retail stores to shop for electric cars, charging stations, solar rooftops and wall-mounted batteries for energy storage, available separately but designed to work best as a system.

Friday’s solar roof unveiling also included an upgraded Powerwall, Tesla’s sleek wall-mounted home battery, which can store roof-generated solar energy for household uses and recharge the Tesla in the garage.

During an August conference call with analysts, Lyndon Rive all but bet the announcement would trigger growth in SolarCity sales as the company lures homeowners off the sidelines with its new design. Rive noted that 5 million U.S. homes get new roofs each year — “a really big market segment” that won’t cannibalize sales of SolarCity’s traditional product.

Revenue during the first six months of the year almost doubled that of the same period in 2015, but the company’s net loss for 2016 was more than $230 million higher.

SolarCity’s value is far from its February 2014 high of $84.96 per share. The company’s stock price hovers around $20 a share now.

Julien Dumoulin-Smith, an analyst with UBS who focuses on electric utilities and alternative energy, said new products and flashy presentations are less important to SolarCity than the fundamentals.

“What they need to do is bring down the costs,” Dumoulin-Smith said. “The meat and potatoes issues for this company are much more pressing.”

In an effort to curb costs, SolarCity and home-sharing company Airbnb this month announced a partnership under which Airbnb hosts and renters are eligible for a rebate of up to $1,000 on solar panels through SolarCity. In addition, SolarCity customers who become Airbnb hosts receive a $100 travel credit.

With this kind of partnership, solar firms reduce the cost of customer acquisition, a large expense.

Solar firms also have been adding financing options other than the leasing model that was a signature strategy of SolarCity.

In June, SolarCity said it had begun offering 10- to 20-year loans to customers that would allow homeowners to gain the benefit of government incentives the leasing programs did not offer. The loan program allows homeowners to own the panels without huge upfront costs and receive the 30% federal tax credit — an incentive SolarCity and other solar leasing companies claimed themselves since they still owned the solar panels.

For Musk, who just reported a surprise quarterly profit at Tesla, design has always been supreme.

The company had fashioned its Powerwall home storage batteries with lines that complement the silhouette of a Tesla Model S; but to Musk, SolarCity’s solar panels looked like the same commodity products every other solar installer was selling.

He pushed the company to make the product not only cheaper and more energy efficient, but also better looking.

"This needs to be an asset to your house,” he said, repeating it in public appearances over the past few weeks. “It needs to be so good that when it's done you call your neighbors over to show them how proud you are.”

The new Tesla-SolarCity roof tiles will be available next summer, Musk said Friday, with rollout starting in California. He didn’t give details about cost or efficiency.

Musk says he spends most of his time on engineering and design, and on Wednesday emphasized the essential relationship between the two in a conference call with stock analysts.

“It’s important to have tight control over the production of solar panels … to have a beautiful roof product,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to iterate rapidly and have them made exactly how we want them.”

A 2014 survey by home-solar power provider Lumeta found that slightly under a third of respondents considered appearance very or extremely important, while slightly over a third said the look was slightly important or not important at all.

“People spend a lot of time trying to create an attractive home,” said Andy Ogden, chairman of the industrial design graduate program at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. “They don’t want funny glass boxes stuck on one side of their roof.”

Making solar roofs more attractive, he said,  “increases the number of people who will install solar.

California launches plan to align grid transformation efforts

Through the Distributed Energy Resources Action Plan, regulators will attempt to mold several disparate dockets and initiatives to meet long-term goals.

In terms of policy moves to integrate more behind-the-meter energy resources like solar and energy storage, as well as to better value these, two U.S. states are clearly in the lead: California and New York. But while New York has attempted to address transformation of the distribution grid in one sweeping effort, through the Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative, California has addressed this issue with piecemeal policy moves.

That is, until now. At the end of September the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) published a draft of an effort to align the various efforts to advance deployment of distributed energy resources (DER) – distributed solar, energy storage, electric vehicles, demand response and “behind the meter” solutions – under a single plan.

The demand for this plan appears to come largely from California’s legislature, which has played a very active role in pushing for greater integration of DER. Specifically, Senate Bill 350 required CPUC to implement an integrated resource plan process to “identify optimal portfolios of resources” to achieve the state’s greenhouse gas goals, including DER.

But as many of the policies are already either being developed or are in place, CPUC has its work cut out for it.

“The scope and structure of this DER Action Plan are necessarily limited,” notes the document. “Because of the sheer breadth of issues touching DER, this Action Plan may not necessarily include all affected major policy areas.” CPUC also warns that “many worthy intermediate goals and milestones may be omitted.”

CALSEIA Policy Director Brad Heavner says that he expects that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will take this as a “guiding document that impacts how fast the different pieces move”.

“It won’t contain any decisions in itself, but Commission staff will take it as the President’s direction on where to spend their time and the types of questions to consider,” Heavner told pv magazine.

In terms of policy directions, CPUC notes that a primary focus is on “DER strategies that are controllable by grid operators and/or can be targeted to geographic areas”. The document plans state-wide reviews of utility rate structures in terms of their impact on DER, and advancing implementation of time-of-use-rates.

The need to consider both locational and time-based elements in setting rates and compensating DER is driven again by legislation. And while time-of-use rates are typically not favorable to PV system owners in areas with high penetrations of solar, like California, locational payments can ensure that solar is deployed where it provides the most benefit to the grid, while being profitable to homeowners and developers who deploy resources in those areas.

In terms of critiques of CPUC’s approach, CalSEIA warns against a potential over-reliance on utility procurement of DER through solicitations from aggregators. “If that is the only mode for sourcing DERs it will be very difficult for solar and storage companies to manage project flow,” stated Heavner. “The CPUC also must continue to maintain DER tariffs that can be used by individual customers.”

California Regulators Reject Utility Challenge To Solar NEM 2.0

The California Solar Energy Industries Association (CALSEIA) is promoting another solar policy victory, as the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has approved a resolution denying all legal challenges to the recently adopted net energy metering (NEM) rules for solar customers.

In January, the CPUC issued a decision to create the NEM “successor tariff,” known as NEM 2.0, which CALSEIA says did not include the new fees and lower compensation rates proposed by the state’s three investor-owned utilities. The decision made significant changes, with increased assessment of non-bypassable charges and mandatory time-of-use rates for residential customers, but it left in place the fundamental structure of NEM, CALSEIA adds.

The utilities responded by filing “applications for rehearing,” which alleged the decision contained legal error by ignoring many of the utilities’ arguments. Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) application challenged the decision as a whole, and the application from Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric challenged certain aspects. A ratepayer group, The Utility Reform Network, and a coalition of utility unions also challenged parts of the decision.

The CPUC resolution rejects those legal challenges, and although CALSEIA notes the CPUC made two minor tweaks to the language of the decision, it did not change any elements of the order.

“This was a frivolous legal maneuver by utilities, paid for by ratepayers, and the commission has put an end to it,” charges Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of CALSEIA.

The utilities have the option to appeal to state court, but CALSEIA believes it is unlikely they will do so because the chances for success are low. “Hopefully, the utility harassment of the CPUC is over,” added Del Chiaro. “They didn’t get everything they wanted, and it’s time to move on.”

In a statement to Solar Industry, a PG&E spokesperson said the utility “strongly supports the continued, sustainable growth of private solar.”

“With their final decision on NEM, the CPUC did not make the smart energy reforms that are needed to ensure a sustainable market for solar in California,” said the spokesperson. “While we are disappointed the CPUC decided to not move forward with a rehearing, PG&E is committed to working with all parties to find the right balance to support continued growth of solar.”

According to CALSEIA, attention is now focused on the precursor activity to creating the next version of NEM. The CPUC has again hired the E3 consulting firm to build the next version of a solar cost-benefit model, and the methodology will likely be debated for two years. CALSEIA says themain question at issue is the extent to which utilities can incorporate distributed generation into their forecasting and spend less money on the distribution grid. The CPUC will take up NEM again in 2019.


Sunvapor Receives Award from U. S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative for Green Solar Collector

Sunvapor announced today that it is the recipient of a $2.2 million total cooperative award from the U. S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative. The award will enable Sunvapor to reduce the cost of concentrating solar collectors while greening the supply chain.

"This award will help us demonstrate that the cost of solar can be drastically cut by taking advantage of renewable fiber-reinforced composite materials," said Dr. Philip Gleckman, Sunvapor's CEO. "Our digitally optimized designs look different and have a simpler construction because we are liberated from the rules that apply to steel," he added. Fuel for process heat represents nearly half of all the primary energy used by manufacturers in the USA, contributing a fifth of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. "Solar process steam is the Sleeping Giant of renewable energy," said James Valenti-Jordan, formerly with Campbell Soup Company and now a Sunvapor Advisor. "Sunvapor's breakthrough collector will enable food processors to purchase steam at lower prices than natural gas," he continued.

About the SunShot Initiative
The U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative is a collaborative national effort that aggressively drives innovation to make solar energy fully cost-competitive with traditional energy sources before the end of the decade. Through SunShot, the Energy Department supports efforts by private companies, universities, and national laboratories to drive down the cost of solar electricity to $0.06 per kilowatt-hour. Learn more at energy.gov/sunshot.

About Sunvapor
Sunvapor, Inc. develops technology solutions to sustainability challenges. In addition to SunShot, Sunvapor participates in the ARPA-e program as an industrial partner with Arizona State University. Sunvapor is based in Livermore, California.

For more information: www.sunvapor.net

Media Contact: Dr. Philip Gleckman, Sunvapor, Inc., Email, mobile (650) 625-7818

Source: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/sunvapor-receives-award-u-department-123000516.html