Cheh, the chair of the DC Committee on Government Operations and the Environment said that, “we will be the greenest city in the whole United States...[and for solar power generation] On a per capita basis we're number two, but we have to keep moving.” While Graham, the author of the law requires new D.C. owned buildings and private construction projects to be LEED certified said proudly of Skyline that, “It's not only a DC company, it's not only a ward 1 company, it's a Columbia Heights company” It is always great to see new renewable energy generation capacity go online and start-ups get lots of press and start getting off the ground. But, we must ask ourselves why has solar thermal been able to get a foothold in DC and generate this much attention while it is typically considered the ugly stepsister of solar photovoltaic elsewhere.
Many people have asked the question, if solar thermal is cheaper than PV, easier to instal than PV, has a faster payback than PV, more popular internationally than PV and is a more mature technology than PV, then why is it not as popular as PV? I think the answer for this discrepancy in popular perception lies in the fact that solar thermal hot water heaters rely on the basic idea that water gets hot if you leave it in the sun while PV panels make energy through a recently discovered physical phenomena that requires no movement. With cardboard, tinfoil, glue and a pot, you can (and I have) bring water to a boil in your backyard- neat but not cool. While PV panels are high-tech, space age technology that are based in a secret that Einstein in the same year he came up with E=mc2 (he won the Nobel Prize for his work on the photoelectric effect, not relativity).
But the reason why solar thermal has not taken off for business and government buildings to the same extent that PV has is that it is hard to monitor. If you cannot monitor the service you provide, you cannot charge for it. PV systems make electricity measured in kilowatt hours that your meter measures and your utility understands. Solar thermal systems make heat measured in British Thermal Units which are harder to measure in a system and harder to valuate. Financing solar thermal projects involved asking and answering questions like, How much water do you use? How much hotter is it than the base heat? What is the water flow rate? How many BTUs are we producing for you? How much do I owe you?
Thankfully, Skyline Innovations has developed a device to monitor and measure heat gain in the water system and various other metrics so they can properly valuate their services and craft the necessary financing packages to help get their products out there. However, Skyline's innovation is not the only reason this project was able to get off the ground credit must be given to DC's particularly solar-friendly Renewable Portfolio Standard.
29 States including DC have a Renewable Portfolio standard, 16 of which (including DC) have a solar carve out and five states (including DC) allow solar thermal installations to count towards the solar carve out. RPS enables the creation of Renewable Energy Credit (REC) markets where firms with renewable energy generation capacity can sell the credits they have made to parties that are required to have them (like utilities). With a solar carve out you create a special Solar Renewable Energy Credit (SREC) market that gives some extra help to the solar industry so it can be on a more level playing field and compete against the heavily subsidized coal and oil industries. But unless you are in one of the five states (including DC) that allow solar water heating systems to count towards the solar carve out, you cannot generate extra revenue through the SREC market.
Thankfully, the DC city council pass
good legislation and solar thermal is a qualifying technology for the
solar carve out which means that this environmentally-friendly,
proven and affordable technology which is provided by innovative
companies like Skyline should gain greater market share in the city.
This new installation is good news and more importantly a harbinger
of good things to come. Now that market forces and local policies
have lined up, expect to see more solar thermal arrays going up all
over the city.
Also, notice that the DC legislature has demonstrated itself to be a responsible global citizen in its rational promotion of renewable energy (as opposed to some states I could name) and that the 600,000 people (including myself) that live here should have the right to vote in both the Senate and the House. No taxation without representation!
And next post will continue the series on Rural Electrification of India.