Sorry, We Have No Solar Today

sunpower hqBy Peter Galuszka

If you are a homeowner in Virginia interested in installing solar panels at your house, you might consider moving to New Jersey.

Why?

Because a subsidiary of your very own utility, Dominion Energy Solutions, is partnering with SunPower, a California-based company that makes solar systems for the home, to move into the New Jersey market.

“New Jersey is one of the fastest growing solar markets in the U.S. To serve that demand, we’re pleased to offer high-efficiency SunPower solar power systems to qualified homeowners in the state,” said Mary Doswell, senior vice president of Dominion Energy Solutions in a press release. “With financing options including lease, loan or cash purchase, this program makes it easy for homeowners to go solar, maximizing electricity cost savings while reducing the family’s carbon footprint.”

Sounds great! But why not in Virginia?

To find out, I called SunPower and asked them if they had a similar program with Dominion In Virginia. The lady didn’t seem to know, but added, “Wait, give me your zip code and I’ll see if we have an installer in your area.”

“23838,” I said.

“Sorry, but it doesn’t appear that we have anyone there, but keep looking, we should be there some day,” she said.

Hat tip: Glen Besa

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27 responses to “Sorry, We Have No Solar Today

  1. Simple question: Why is Dominion “pro” solar in New Jersey and “anti” solar in Virginia? Surely, there must be a reason. What do you think it might be?

    • If you buy electricity from PSE&G in New Jersey you pay a lot more for it than from Dominion. Distribution charges are higher too. So the price to beat, for solar, is much higher in NJ, and that makes an investment in solar an easier sell to the homeowner. Also, I suspect PSE&G has been more aggressive in accommodating solar interconnections than down here in Dominion country, in the sleepy Southland.

      One thing about Dominion Energy — they are required by FERC, and the SCC I believe, NOT to coordinate what they sell and where they sell it with the electric utility, Dominion, even though they have common ownership. It makes sense to me that they would start selling solar where east coast sales are already highest and, if anything, avoid Dominion’s territory until they have a proven track record elsewhere, so they and Dominion Power aren’t subject to talk of favoritism.

      • Re: ” One thing about Dominion Energy — they are required by FERC, and the SCC I believe, NOT to coordinate what they sell and where they sell it with the electric utility, Dominion, even though they have common ownership. It makes sense to me that they would start selling solar where east coast sales are already highest and, if anything, avoid Dominion’s territory until they have a proven track record elsewhere, so they and Dominion Power aren’t subject to talk of favoritism.”

        Not sure I’m understanding this.

        are there no utility companies that deal with SOLAR under their own corporate banner and they all have separate companies that do the solar and it’s a FERC requirement?

        but even then – if the second entity is a wholly-owned subsidiary – I don’t think I’m buying the “no coordination” idea…

        I’ll be the first one to admit – electricity is a big complex subject of which I know I have much ignorance.

        I guess folks remember ENRON, eh? now those guys- THEY – UNDERSTOOD! … unfortunately the law did too.

        FERC Oversight of Enron Ranged from “Naive” to “Negligent”

        http://www.hsgac.senate.gov/media/minority-media/ferc-oversight-of-enron-ranged-from-naive-to-negligent

      • The rules for separation of utility and non-utility functions had a small start – a reaction against potential unfair competition in selling non-utility products. Many utilities offered interest free financing for their customers who bought stoves or water heaters – something not available when customers bought from competitors. The same logic applies to solar panels, etc., in my mind.

        And, yes, I’d go to New Jersey if it is a higher priced market as it would give me more pricing freedom for my solar panels. Acbar has got this one nailed.

  2. Dunno. Ask your sponsor

  3. Technically, Dominion Energy Solutions is a subsidiary of Dominion Resources, which makes it a sister company to (or brother company, if you don’t want to be sexist) to your very own utility, Dominion Power. No big deal. I’m just sayin’…

  4. hmm… what’s this, I don’t remember seeing this before.. is it new?

    ” Dominion Virginia Power Ways to Save Renewable Energy Programs Solar Purchase Program”

    Getting Started

    As a participant in the Solar Purchase Program, qualifying homeowners and businesses generate and sell electricity and solar Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) directly to Dominion. The program is designed to help customers cover the cost of installing solar generation while also promoting more local solar energy production.

    How It Works

    The Solar Purchase Program is available to eligible customers for an initial five-year period. As a pilot, the program is currently limited to 3 megawatts, or 3,000 kilowatts total. Interested customers can reserve their spot in the program using our online reservation form. We will enroll eligible customers on a first-come, first-served basis.

    Participating customers install and own the solar generation system located on their property, but sell the electricity and solar Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) back to Dominion at a premium rate of 15 cents per kilowatt-hour. Participating customers purchase all of the electricity for their home or business from the company on their current rate schedule.

    The Dominion Green Power® program directly supports these solar projects through the purchase and retirement of the Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) produced through the Solar Purchase Program.”

    https://www.dom.com/residential/dominion-virginia-power/ways-to-save/renewable-energy-programs/solar-purchase-program

    oops.. all but 100 kilowatts has been reserved…

  5. Limited to all of 3 megawatts. Hmmm

  6. Peter, I suspect 3MW is Dominion’s threshold for distribution system reliability concerns; if they go over that there may be substation or even transmission issues, particularly if it’s concentrated in one general location, and the siting concerns start to ramp up too. I also suspect they want to get some experience with how VA residential customers do solar before they ramp up to higher numbers.

  7. “To find out, I called SunPower and asked them if they had a similar program with Dominion In Virginia. The lady didn’t seem to know, but added, “Wait, give me your area code and I’ll see if we have an installer in your area.”

    “23838,” I said.”

    Do you really think your area code is 23838? Not 804 or something like that? No wonder the lady was unable to find an installer.

  8. Groveton,
    Nice catch. I fixed it. Where is a copyeditor when I need one?

  9. It’s potentially somewhat space and dollar intensive. Looking at SolarWorld’s site the cost per watt is generally a bit over $1/watt. One of their offerings has 30 panels on a pallet (you gotta hook all this stuff up, mount it and allow sunny space for it). The 30 panels on the pallet produce 8100 watts and the price is (to me) jaw dropping at $10,260. I didn’t add it to my cart.

    I wonder if anyone here has actual experience with solar.

    • You have to do the payback over time… It’s very similar to looking at the price of a high EER heat pump or for that matter an LED.

      It is in the interest of ALL ratepayers for the electric utility to help them finance solar panel installation.

      the choice is – does the utility spend more money to buy peak power on the market when they have insufficient generation of their own.. or is it better for them to build plants that will often sit idle except at peak demand.. or is it cheaper for them to essentially buy down “demand” with less consumptive equipment?

      REC – offers free water heater repairs – in exchange for putting a box that limits electricity to the water heater during peak demand periods.

      the thing is – when people use more electricity – especially during peak demand – all ratepayers are paying for the premium cost of it – either firing up additional generation or buying it through PJM.

      either way – the actual cost of peak demand electricity can be twice or three times what the base rate is. Everyone is paying for peak power – whether they are using more or not.

  10. LG, I understand all that econ 101 stuff, but space, mounting, wiring for the 11,100 panels??? I’ll let you calculate the total purchase cost alone and see if your jaw drops. This is not in the cards for most homeowners I know.

    Peter says: “Limited to all of 3 megawatts. Hmmm” I can agree.

    • @JohnB – I agree on SOLAR – for some folks.. for others.. with land.. and space.. maybe doeable..

      but most pay a 30-year mortgage for things like insulation… windows.. heat pump, etc… and that was my point… if you could cut your electric bill by 25% but it would take 15 years to come out ahead – would you front the money?

      Most folks would not or would not have enough financial reserves to do it but would with a embedded pay-back loan in their bill.

      think about it like a student loan!

      would you front the money for college?

  11. oh.. and no I’d not do SOLAR panels either unless it was embedded in my electric bill and I came out ahead financially… 😉

  12. LG, I think this was a good discussion. My only point above was to inject a bit of financial realism where I perceived it was somewhat lacking.

    Incidentally, I might like the investment you proposed; just have to it think though with regard to my marginal tax rate.

    • @John B – I have a retired friend in New Mexico..

      he dropped 15-20K for a solar system on his barn in his pasture.

      every year he never fails to brag to me how much he has come out ahead.. on his electric bill. He’s convinced he’s saved money.. .. and I think he probably has.

      He has full electronics and can see at any point in time how much his system is generating…

      Some of this is culture. Most of us will drop 20-40K for a car – which is a financial loser…. but we can’t seem to squeeze the trigger on energy spending.

  13. I used to live in NJ, and spent much of my time fighting coal-fired power plants that the state wanted to encourage. When I lived there, NJ elected officials viewed utilities/power generation as a business enterprise run by the state, and they liked the fact that the state could force plants to be built to create jobs and spur the economy. The chemical industry was leaving NJ in droves, but the state at least had control of power plant construction. Although I am very pleased that NJ finally got off their coal “kick”, I gotta think the current solar “kick” is just the next chapter in the story about a state body politic that views electric power as a jobs (and campaign donations, etc) maker.

  14. LarrytheG | July 23, 2015 notes:
    “… the Solar Purchase Program, qualifying homeowners and businesses generate and sell electricity and solar Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) directly to Dominion.”

    This is a special power purchase program, not the normal residential solar program. It is designed for independent power producers, but homeowners could use it. It was a pilot program for Dominion. I thought they might be trying to show that no one was interested in developing solar in Virginia because Dominion would only guarantee a price ($0.15/kWh) for only five years. Most solar developers would balk at a deal like this. In other states, power purchase agreements normally go for the economic life of the project (at least 20 years) otherwise the person putting up the money to build it has no guarantee they will be repaid. This program is to sell all of the power produced by the solar panels at a fixed rate to Dominion (plus REC’s). Any electricity used by the home or business would be metered separately and billed at the regular rates.

    The normal solar programs for houses involve “net-metering”. A homeowner hires a solar contractor to install a system on their roof. Most Virginia solar companies will arrange financing so your payments for the solar panels would be offset or more than offset by savings on your electric bill. Depending on the efficiency of the panels and the orientation of the roof (how much of the available sunlight is actually captured) the systems pay for themselves within 5 – 15 years and after that the electricity is free (lifetime maintenance is often priced in the original contract).

    The savings comes through net-metering. When the panels are generating electricity, it powers your household needs and any extra goes back into the utility’s grid. Your smart meter detects this amount and you are paid a “high wholesale” price for it. At the end of the month, all of your usage from the utility is billed at retail and this “wholesale” credit is subtracted from that amount to give you your net bill – which is lower than it would have been if you didn’t have the solar panels. Over time this savings pays off your loan from the solar company. Utilities that are actively trying to promote solar development will often add your solar loan payment to your bill and pay the solar company directly. This security makes the interest on your loan cheaper and helps more people afford solar systems.

    Dominion opposed net metering programs in Virginia, although they were eventually adopted by the legislature. Residential solar can cause problems for a utility. In the west, where a majority of homes in a neighborhood can have solar panels; the peaks and dips in electricity flow in the local distribution system can be hard for a utility to manage. Investments must be made in a more intelligent grid system (the “smart grid”) so these fluctuations can be rapidly dealt with.

    The current net metering program in Virginia is not necessarily fairly priced (perhaps that is why Dominion opposed it). People with solar use the grid like a battery when the sun is not shining and all residents share the costs of paying for grid improvements needed to provide stability when the sun does shine and electricity flows spike in the local grids. Utilities actively promoting residential solar are coming up with innovative rate structures to make the pricing more fair for all customers.

    Large solar installations (“utility scale”) are considerably less expensive than residential units (per kWh), but are often ground-mounted rather than on a rooftop, so there can be land acquisition costs involved. Dominion is considering developing a large solar array on the site of one of its new gas-fired power plants under development in Southside Virginia.

    • thanks … and appreciated…

      so apparently SOLAR is also planned (in addition to Remington) for the new gas plant in Southside?

      my view on the variability issue is that Natural gas “peaker” plants should be distributed such that they can run in tandem with the solar/wind inputs – varying their generation in response to the wind/solar generation then on the other side of the gas plant – they would feed a stabilized/modulated/clean voltage into the grid.

      The other thing the utilities could do – is two-step:

      1. – install smart metering
      2. – using the smart metering – control the amount of solar allowed into the
      grid based on aggregate inputs from other residential sources.

      in other words- if the grid can’t use the power – then don’t buy it.

      that strategy will last until some kind of residential battery systems can effectively harvest the excess for later use.

      the thing about solar is that it’s not going to go away and it’s only going to get better and sometime far off into the future – we’ll be deciding why use fossil fuels if SOLAR is competitive on price and way better on pollution?

      Solar is the ultimate distributed grid…once we cure the variability issue.

  15. Peaker plants are used that way today. Unfortunately, they can’t be turned on fast enough to respond to rapid variations in solar or wind inputs. Utilities have to use something called “operating reserve”. This comes from units that are already running and synched to the appropriate frequency or from units such as peaking units that can be turned on quickly. The normal dispatch window for these resources is 10 minutes.

    The advantage of wind and solar is that they can be distributed. The wind is blowing somewhere, the sun is shining somewhere in the service territory so the variations tend to balance out.

    Up to now most of the solar has been installed on residential rooftops so the variations are felt in the neighborhood distribution grid where there aren’t as many ways to deal with the variations (which is why we need a smarter grid).

    Smart meters only measure the flow of electricity (and often the time of day that it is used), they cannot turn it on or off. Solar units must have an outlet for their electricity when they are generating. You can’t switch them on and off.

    You want to use it whenever it is available, either as a homeowner or a utility because its marginal cost is free. Utilities that have a substantial amount of solar have installed large battery systems (about the size of a semi-trailer) usually located at one of their substations to deal with variations.

    Tesla has announced their Powerwall home battery systems, originally targeted at Australia and Europe but many in American seem interested. But they are expensive.

    They make sense in areas with very high electricity rates, or places with frequent loss of power. Utilities make you put in an automatic isolation switch to your solar, so when an outage happens you won’t feed electricity out to the grid and jeopardize the safety of their repair crews. A battery gives you power when others don’t have it.

    Solar is definitely coming in larger amounts. Over 50% of all new generation added in the U.S. in Q1 2015 was solar. Two utility scale solar facilities underway in Texas and Nevada will generate power at $0.04 /kWh much lower than the cost from the new gas-fired plants that Dominion has planned. Forecasts are for prices to fall another 50% in the next 5 to 6 years.

    But Virginia is not the Southwest. The sun doesn’t shine quite as much. But there is a place for solar right now when used in the right way. States and their utilities that embrace a new way of looking at meeting our energy needs will be the one that attract the leading companies in the future. If we want a vibrant economy in Virginia we need to be having the serious conversations that are going on in other states.

    • My understanding is that gas plants CAN be ramped up or down fast…

      and here is an example of one that does just that:

      Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center
      The Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center is the second largest solar facility in the world and the largest solar plant of any kind outside of California. The facility is the first hybrid facility in the world to connect a solar facility to an existing combined-cycle power plant, providing 75 megawatts of solar thermal capacity in an innovative way that directly displaces fossil fuel usage. The project consists of up to about 200,000 mirrors over about 500 acres at the existing FPL Martin Plant site.

      http://www.nrel.gov/csp/solarpaces/project_detail.cfm/projectID=267

      keep in mind that at such a plant – that the solar and wind do not have to be accepted until the plant is ready. The wind/solar is harvested as it can be – it’s not forcing the system to operate no matter what the inputs are.

      re: ” Smart meters only measure the flow of electricity (and often the time of day that it is used), they cannot turn it on or off. Solar units must have an outlet for their electricity when they are generating. You can’t switch them on and off.”

      that’s no correct –

      “Water Heater Control

      When demand is high, the cost of electricity is also high. Pariticipants in the Free Water Heater Repair program allow REC to manage the energy use of their electric water heaters so that demand is reduced during peak times. In exchange, your Cooperative provides free repairs to the electrical components of the water heater.”
      goo.gl/nLof2p

      they control the device at your home remotely..

      again – I’m not someone who advocates wind/solar because of green energy ideology… I see it as a resource that can be harvested and when harvested – it reduces the peak demand on the grid and it also reduces the need for more plants.

      it’s a cost-effective efficiency thing..

      wind/solar will never be base load power generation.. but that does not mean they can’t provide valuable power to the grid – once you figure out how to harvest it – and that’s why I think we should be installing it .

      and if the electric company can cut off your water heater or keep you solar from feeding into the grid – during grid outages – it certainly can not accept power when they don’t want or need it.

      this is common sense as far as I am concerned. To say that we can’t use wind/solar at all – because it’s variable is just not reasonable.

      we’re not going to have natural gas in abundance and capacity that we have now – forever – and we’re not likely to go back to coal when natural gas start to dwindle.

      if we learn how to harvest wind/solar – we make natural gas last a long time – perhaps twice, three times as long – perhaps 50-100 years.

      to not learn how to properly harvest wind/solar – on the premise that it will always be variable make no sense. It’s a valuable resource that can save us money and squeeze the most we can out of a limited natural resource.

      • My understanding is that gas plants CAN be ramped up or down fast…

        and here is an example of one that does just that:

        Martin Next Generation Solar Energy Center

        Yes, this is what I was saying about operating reserves. It assumes that the plant is running (the generators are already synched to the transmission frequency) and once they receive a request to dispatch more power they can respond within minutes. In this case, with the solar thermal component feeding to the steam turbine, either with a burst of sunshine or heat coming from a thermal storage device (more expense to add) the response could be even quicker.

        Unfortunately, solar thermal plants are more expensive than solar Photovoltaic (PV) and can only be economically sited in high-intensity sunlight areas such as the southwest.

        Water Heater Control

        Yes, you are right they are a great idea, but they are typically triggered by a signal from a dispatch center not automatically from your smart meter. The power control people are monitoring system peaks and will usually do rolling shutdowns across the customer segment that has signed up for the program. Demand response programs like this are excellent and are some of the best ways to lower customer bills and reduce costs for utilities.

        There are so many win-win opportunities like this to take advantage of, but utilities don’t get a return to investors like they do when they build something. They just avoid a cost. Regulators must revise rate structures to reward this type of behavior so the utility can win too.

        Studies on large wind farms and large residential areas with substantial solar use show that because of the distributed nature of the generation, the overall output is relatively stable. Individual units have rapid changes but the law of large numbers applies and balances things out. The grid in Europe has a significant percentage of solar generation and they got through a solar eclipse that occurred during their peak without any problems.

        The nice thing about wind and solar is the sun shines in the daytime and the wind blows more at night so you can have a more reliable contribution from renewables.

        The southeast is just not a very good wind resource area though. Power from wind is a cube of the wind velocity. That is, if the wind speed doubles you get eight times more energy. The only good places in Virginia are the shoreline and the ridge tops, places most people don’t want to see tall wind turbines.

        The most expensive and difficult issue a utility has to deal with is the “peak” time of use; usually in the afternoon and early evening. Anything that they can do to reduce load then is of great benefit – thus, your water heaters turning off etc. Fortunately, this is the peak output time for solar, especially if it is oriented to the west or southwest. All of the generation doesn’t have to be base load. You need enough of that to cover night time and early morning times when the sun is not shining. We also have the world’s biggest “battery” here in Virginia. It is a pumped hydro storage facility that Dominion uses a great deal. They pump the water up at night when energy is cheap and let it flow down to generate electricity when prices are high during the peak. It’s much cheaper than using actual batteries.

        • good comments!

          and yes.. Dominions pump-storage facility in Bath County actually uses more power than it generates … but it uses excess power at night then generates power during peak demand.

          and you’re right about the water heaters.. it’s not a per house control – it’s a signal sent to all homes.. but my understanding is that if they can directly access your meter to read it – it means they can also send other signals to your specific location and if there is a receiver unit – it can process that signal to do what is instructed like restrict solar feeds.

          This technology exists – the question is – does it exist in Dominion’s grid …

          but again – none of these things – directly financially benefit Dominion so why would they be interested in doing anything that could actually decrease the amount of electricity they sell ?

          • In Bath Co. there are two reservoirs: one in the valley and one at the top of the mountain. For every unit of energy used to pump the water up you get less than a unit coming back down (it’s about 75% efficient which isn’t bad). But you use the cheapest base load power (North Anna) to pump it up and you get power back during peaks for which you can charge a higher price.

            Dominion has about 250,000 smart meters installed in about a half dozen communities. Innovations like home energy networks , smart thermostats, etc can help manage household loads and reduce costs. They are developing intelligent controllers for water heaters and air conditioners that can help deal with peak demands. All of this is still in the early stages. Studies have shown that homeowners are more likely to adopt these kinds of systems, which help them lower their bills, if they have a high degree of trust with their utility.

            These things do help Dominion save money, but if the SCC could adopt the more innovative programs being used in other states, they could give Dominion powerful incentives to save energy in this way. This is by far the easiest and least expensive way to create more energy – “don’t use it”. Studies have shown that with aggressive energy savings, better building design and appropriate use of distributed renewable energy the U.S. could support a 158% larger economy without using oil or coal. All without the need for new inventions, laws, or subsidies – by businesses for profit.

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