Bright Future Seen for ‘Bite-Size’ Solar Power

Twenty-five solar industry and regulatory leaders shared data and forecast a positive future, especially for small-scale projects, at the third Solar Electric Utility Conferencehosted by PHOTON International Thursday in San Francisco.

Smaller Is Better

Keynote speaker Pat Wood III, former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and now with Wood3 Resources, summarized the dominant theme of the day. “As I was preparing my presentation, I was struck by the growth of ‘bite-sized’ solar projects and how that is an emerging trend and is based on solid economic data,” he said.

The other panelists echoed this observation toward smaller-scale, distributed generation projects in the range of two to 20 megawatts. These projects are on the rise compared to utility-scale projects because they are faster to approve, have high profitability, have shorter connection and permitting reviews, and have increased flexibility.

Panelists described an average time for project completion in the range of six to 12 months for smaller projects, compared with two to four years for large utility-scale efforts. Ric O’Connell of Black and Veatch referenced his 2006 report that documents the high rate of renewable contract failure, and describes the risk factors that can lead to long project approval times.

“Distributed generation projects represent a hedge or safety value as we work to develop our business portfolios and regulators work to meet renewable portfolio standard goals,” added Recurrent Energy CEO Arno Harris.

Utilities Will Increase Smaller-sized Projects As Well

Paul Douglas of the California Public Utilities Commission described the significant challenge in meeting California’s Renewable Energy Standards – and as a result, the need to pursue a more diversified procurement strategy. Details of this challenge are in the PUC report 33% Renewable Portfolio Standard: Implementation Analysis .

The trend today is to increase the number of smaller-scale, competitive bid projects approved by the PUC, Douglas said. “Utilities know they have a deep hole to fill. Solar can do it in some ways even easier than wind.”

Douglas also shared details of a new proposed program that could streamline the ability for the PUC to approve smaller-scale projects. This proposal recommends a renewable auction mechanism for distributed generation procurement. The auction method is a market-based procurement process that utilizes some of the components of a traditional feed-in-tariff program.

“Because the distributed generation market is growing so fast, we think there is sufficient competition in the market space to make this program viable and accelerate project adoption,” Douglas said.

Panelists also identified another trend: an increase in vertical integration and the offering of full systems and services in addition to initial company products. For example, Michael Rogol, head of PHOTON Consulting, said the opportunity for increased profits comes from the addition of value added services and sale of full solar systems, and not merely panel manufacturing.

Howard Wenger, President of Global Business Units at SunPower, explained how his company initially sold its cell technology, but is now a fully vertically integrated solar business that participates in all segments of the market from cell manufacture to project development and construction.

U.S. Can Be a ‘Massive, Massive Market’

Overall, the speakers were optimistic for the future growth of distributed and utility-scale solar. “I think PV will grow faster than almost anyone in this room would believe,” said Rogol. In 2004 the global market was less than 1 gigawatt. This figure has grown to 12 gigawatts in 2009, and Rogal predicts a potential for 46 gigawatts by 2012.

PHOTON Consulting’s research also forecasts, “The U.S. is a one-terawatt industry and this is 25 percent larger than all of Europe combined. It is a massive, massive market.”

Rogol was specifically positive about the opportunity for solar at the utility level, saying, “We believe the utility segment will fuel future growth. Two years ago, utility-scale solar was non-existent. We believe utility-scale solar can be as much as 50 percent of the total market.”

photo: Wayne National Forest