The Rooftop Solar Market

Local Solutions Crack the Solar Financing Nut

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted February 12, 2010

Distributed generation of renewable energy is off to a rocky start, but it's finally making some headway.

The research side is looking good. The $28 billion request in the president's FY 2011 budget for the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy includes large increases for programs including wind, weatherization, smart grid technologies, and solar — plus $58 million for National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) infrastructure and $50 million to stimulate clean energy education.

An additional $300 million would support the Advanced Research Project Agency — Energy (ARPA-E) initiative. Modeled after the DARPA program that resulted in the Internet, ARPA-E will fund the fundamental research to incubate the energy grid of the future, what Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe termed the Enernet.


Grid investment is coming along well, with $75 million allocated to it in the budget request, plus $40 million toward grid storage solutions. It's a relatively paltry amount, but it should be bolstered soon by major grid reform legislation making its way through Congress.

The production side has become a bit of a buyer's market, yet manufacturers are still building new capacity in anticipation of the boom ahead. Yes, China is building more capacity in the U.S. than American companies are, but as I have argued previously, that's fortunate given the urgency of our situation. Solar PV supply is high and prices are as low as they've ever been, which is constructive for new installations.

Overall, I would say we're making progress on the hardware front. But then it's easy to throw money at hardware.

The real problems now are in finance and policy. The big up-front cost has always been the main hurdle to distributed generation (and rooftop solar in particular), but now several ways to overcome it are available.

10 Million Solar Roofs

At the federal level, we have the "10 Million Solar Roofs and 10 Million Gallons of Solar Water Heating Act of 2010" bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, which was modeled after the California Solar Initiative (Ahnold's "Million Solar Roofs" program).

A direct rebate of $1.75/watt for PV systems and $1/watt for solar hot water would offset somewhere around a quarter of the project cost. Combined with existing 30% federal investment tax credit (ITC) and state incentives where available, it could bring the end-user's cost down to 25% of the actual retail price. The $2-3 billion price tag of the bill will be hard to swallow... but if it passes, it would be a major shot in the arm for rooftop solar.

The more interesting solutions, however, are at the local level.


Under a fairly new type of program called property assessed clean energy (PACE), local governments float bond issues secured by real property in their districts and use the proceeds to fund renewable energy and efficiency projects. The property owners then pay back the debt as special assessment included in their property tax bill over 20 years.

As an example, $12,000 in financing through the program would translate to roughly $75 a month in payments. If the property is sold, the energy systems and the tax obligation remain with it.

PACE is offered by Oakland-based Renewable Funding and has been implemented in three counties and three cities in California, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sonoma.

A statewide program expected to commence this year. San Francisco's program was approved this week and will offer $150 million in bonding capacity. Fifteen states have adopted PACE programs over the last year and a half, and interest continues to grow without discernable opposition.

Contributing to the popularity of PACE is that it's a voluntary program that only affects property owners who choose to participate, and that it applies to a wide range of measures in addition to rooftop solar.

Third-Party Financing

A different approach uses private third-party financing to front the cost of a solar PV system to end-users, who then pay it off over 15-20 years or more.

In the commercial sector, companies like Solar Power Partners (SPP) and SunRun of California assume the initial installation cost and own and operate the systems in exchange for a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the customer.

Power generated by the system is sold back to the customer, typically at or below grid rates. At the end of the PPA term, the customer can buy the system at fair market value or renew their PPA.

SPP's targets include water districts, wineries, universities, airports, and other large facilities. Their current portfolio stands at about 14 MW, which is tiny compared to a single 500-1,000 MW coal-fired plant... But I see potential for robust growth in such financing options.

Cutting the out-of-pocket expense to zero makes solar PV a no-brainer for any facility that wants to produce some of its own power and lock in fixed power prices. (If they know anything about the future of energy, they should).

The private capital behind the strategy gets a 5% annual rate of return (or better) at nearly zero risk by assuming the 30% ITC and taking ownership of a producing, hard asset.

When lines of credit shrunk or dried up altogether in the Great Credit Drought of 2008-2009, solar installation companies turned to private capital as well. Companies like Geoscape Solar of New Jersey and SolarCity of California offer financing options with zero upfront cost under PPAs and lease arrangements to the residential and small commercial market.



Feed-in tariffs, or FITs, have proved the world's most effective incentive for rooftop solar and distributed power, typically offering customers three to four times the grid price for kilowatt-hours they generate. FITs are financed by incorporating their cost into grid power prices across the board, resulting in a very modest price increase for all customers.

The FIT in Japan was so successful that it is already being phased out.

The German FIT captured half the world market for solar modules in roughly five years, reached its target early, and is now accelerating its schedule for declining tariffs. Studies have already shown that the program has actually reduced the fully-considered costs of delivering power to the country, and Green Chip International readers have tapped companies from both inside and outside of Germany that generate earnings as German rate-payers benefit.

Spain's FIT was fully subscribed in short order, then fell victim to a federal budget shortfall as Spain descended to become the S in PIIGS — the nations at risk of sovereign default that have been rattling world markets recently.

A new FIT for the UK has just been announced which will pay 41 pence initially — as compared with a standard grid price in the 10-12 pence range — for production from residential-sized generators including PV, wind, micro-hydro, and biomass. The tariff depends on the technology and is inflation-indexed.

In the U.S., the failure of the federal government to offer a FIT has prompted states and a few cities to try creating their own equivalents. Unfortunately, it's a regulatory path fraught with peril because the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) of 1978 forbids states from setting tariffs above the "avoided cost" of generation from other sources, like conventional natural gas-fired plants.

As the excellent summary by Paul Gipe explains, a new report (actually a long legal opinion) from NREL lays out two legal paths states can take.

One is to lard the tariff over and above the avoided cost with revenue from renewable energy credits (RECs), subsidies, and tax credits, which fall outside the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) jurisdiction.

Alternatively, in the handful of states where ownership of distribution and generation are split, utilities may offer higher tariffs for solar PV voluntarily... but the opportunities under this strategy are few.

The other practical path is for FERC to exempt generators under 20 MW from PURPA. The California Energy Commission has asked the state to seek a clarification from FERC on this point, and it seems likely that other state regulators will join that effort.

Since PURPA was written over three decades ago before the age of renewables began, this seems a reasonable fix to the problem. Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington has proposed the necessary changes to the law, but unfortunately they are tied up in the Waxman-Markey climate change bill, which is going nowhere fast.

The pieces are now — or will soon be — in place to enable an explosion of distributed renewable energy in the U.S. It has the technology, the financial mechanisms, the public sentiment, and the right cost of entry: zero. It will not be stymied by musty regulations, utility opposition, or even the recalcitrance of banks.

Solar manufacturers, smart grid players, progressive but risk-averse capital, and most of all the public stand to benefit handsomely.

Until next time,