As the Cost of Panels Plummets, Energy Utilities Rethink Solar

By Patrick Di Justo / Published by Dwell

Tech breakthroughs are bringing solar power to the people, and upsetting electric utilities' business models.

It has been the "power source of the future" for at least the past 40 years. It’s one of the few things on which people agree across the entire political spectrum. And thanks to the development of more efficient and inexpensive solar panels and intelligent infrastructure like smart meters and inverters, it looks as though solar power’s time in the sun has finally arrived. The amount of solar photovoltaic power generated in the United States has increased from 16,000 megawatt hours in 2007 to 15,874,000 in 2014. That thousandfold increase has caused electric utilities across the country to either panic or seriously rethink their business model. 

"In the near future, the question won't be if you have solar, but what kind you have."—Scott Franklin, CEO of Lumos Solar, a solar module company

The chief reason for the disruption is that, unlike most other renewable sources of energy, solar can be controlled at the homeowner level. Lennar Corporation, a major American homebuilder, has been looking at integrating "no brainer" solar—photovoltaic  installations that require next-to-no customer involvement—into their houses since around 2006. Now, when you build or buy in any of their 100-plus SunStreet communities, every single home is designed from the ground up with an integrated solar generating system, which produces 70 percent of their estimated energy needs. 

Bright Side of History

Recent innovations in solar technology have made photovoltaics drastically more affordable and accessible to individuals. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a U.S. trade group, the cost of installing residential solar panels decreased 45 percent between 2010 and 2014.

This much generating capacity in the hands of individuals creates an entirely new energy landscape, one that many utilities aren’t ready to handle technologically or logistically. From Wisconsin to Hawaii, utilities are taking what some call punitive action against small-scale solar power, ranging from monthly surcharges to a complete moratorium on new photovoltaic hookups. Michael Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services at the American Public Power Association (APPA), an electric utility service organization, says, "We have an inkling that many utilities will need to review their rates and how they have charged for electricity over the past hundred years." One positive change the APPA sees is the development of what it calls community solar: putting photovoltaics on publicly owned land—near landfills, airports, parking lots—that can be utilized by the entire community. The utility will benefit by not having to deal with multiple owners and installers, and the homeowners will benefit by not having to front the cost of their own solar installation.

Sun Spots Some homebuilders have already committed to making solar panels standard in all new homes. Lennar Corporation has put photovoltaic installations on thousands of rooftops in more than 100 SunStreet communities in California. The company plans to extend the program to Colorado and Nevada soon.

With social and technological innovations like these, the power source of the future may finally be ready for the present. Or as Hyland puts it, "Electricity drives the economy. It is sometimes thought of as the eighth wonder of the world. So this is really a juicy time to get into the industry." 

On the Beam

Acknowledging the capacity for individuals to generate their own electricity, Xcel Energy recently unveiled a proposal to add 2,400 megawatts of combined large-scale and residential solar energy to its Upper Midwest system. If enacted, it would cut emissions 30 percent by 2020, and 40 percent by 2030.

LikeComment
Suggested

PROMOTED

Hal Harvey, the head of clean energy think tank, Energy Innovation, shares his vision for the future of solar power.

When fashion meets technology, the results can be electrifying.

Sometimes difficult design dilemmas have simple solutions. More times than not, that solution is the quiet…

How do you remake a city that's already been made? That's the question a group of students at the Boston Architectural…

Your garage, laundry room, basement, and other nonglam support areas: These are the silent killers of energy-efficiency…

Because I have been told time and again that disposing of batteries in the garbage is a terribly destructive thing to…

We received 132 total entries that featured 118 individual landmarks deserving of preserving. We posted the entries for…

Perfect for storing those fruits and vegetables that are happier outside the refrigerator. The steel mesh ventilates so…

Bees have always been admired for their industrious nature and intricate honeycomb architecture; Charles Darwin called…

Knockoff furnishings may be cheap, but for the design industry, they come with a heavy price.

A natural takedown of the traditional train rack, this design offers a warmer spa-like feel with its wooden birch…

Czech architects unveil a floating, modular living concept.

An architect and his wife roll up their sleeves and create an affordable family residence in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.…

The colorful steel rack features 8 wooden planets which are ideal for keeping your space tidy. Not only a practical…

Dwell hosts a Q&A with Mike Landau, solar water heating program manager for SoCalGas and Nurit Katz, chief…

These Waka Waka solar-powered lights are high-tech, efficient products with a practical, handy design. Providing 80…

Apparently the average home has 40 devices plugged in drawing constant energy, even when they're turned off (this is…

An all-in-one, heavy-duty power pack.

It’s become increasingly common to hear the term“zero energy” or “zero carbon” used to describe buildings that achieve…