Solar Power Northeast takeaways: Solar’s Catch-22 options for navigating politicians, utilities and the public

solar power northeast 2019

The Northeast is a mature solar market already, but how can it keep on growing from here? Solar Power Northeast in Boston last week offered some ideas, but to me, mostly highlighted the complex utility-politician-public dynamic that leads to a lot of Catch 22 solutions. See if you can follow my scattered notes (and logic) here.

  • SEPA listed a focus on changing regulatory process to keep up with the pace of innovation as one of its goals going forward. This would be our top goal too, if we could vote. Even though it inherently sounds impossible, it also sounds like a “duh” idea. You mean the ways in which we govern and build society should match the tools and industries of the moment, and not those from 100 years ago? I don’t know. Let’s deliberate this for the next 10 years first. 

 

  • From the stage in the opening session, Representative Thomas A. Golden Jr., Massachusetts House of Representatives, explained how to best approach a representative when advocating for solar energy. He noted just how many people a representative is hearing from, all day every day, from a wide swath of industries, which means every meeting must provide a quick 101 of the issues at hand. But my main takeaway: Even if an idea is no-brainer common sense, if the representative doesn’t think there will be a groundswell of votes from their constituents, then they won’t be that interested.
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  • But the thing is: the populace does seem interested! SEIA’s numbers show that even 74 percent of GOP voters want government to do more with solar. During the opening session, Lynda Tocci, Principal at Dewey Square, an advocacy group, echoed this. From her view, solar should be a pretty easy sell because there is a message in solar for everyone – libertarians, conservatives, liberals.

 

  • But back to what Golden was saying, it is easy for someone to have interest in solar as a concept, but still be misinformed about its actual value here in 2019. This is Golden’s point. He understands that the value proposition of solar has changed so much over the last few years because this is an area he focuses on, but he knows it is not common enough knowledge among everyday people.

 

  • So, how does it become common knowledge? Tocci suggested the opportunity here is for solar installers to bridge the gap and tie advocacy efforts into their sales and marketing. Maybe providing a kit or an easy way for customers to advocate on solar’s behalf after they install a system. Or maybe mailers that show how regulatory decisions are tied to energy bills. “Making an investment in advocacy is business development,” she says.

 

  • I like Tocci’s idea, and I get Golden’s point. But here’s my question is: why should it still be on solar installers to be the main group pushing along this ground swell of support for distributed, proven clean energy? Knowing all we know about solar technology and its value now, isn’t this like asking plumbers to advocate for the value of indoor plumbing? When do representatives have an obligation to make informed decisions in everyone’s best interest from their more informed vantage point? Or better yet, utilities. Proactive utilities play a huge role, if they choose to, in helping to drive renewable energy demand, which would not just lower customer bills but also CAC costs. More solar adoption is tied to lower solar costs.

 

  • Radical changes are easy for me to type and obviously much harder to bring about, especially when our current grid works so seamlessly for most people. Why fix what ain’t broke? Well, SEPA is playing a role in this effort to fix what ain’t broke. Gregory Dudkin, President, Electric Utilities for PPL Electric Utilities in Pennsylvania, is an example of this. He mentioned that at a SEPA conference years ago, he heard about the problems Hawaii ran into when it connected a ton of PV without a plan in place at the utility level to deal with it. From then on, PPL Electric became proactive. Pennsylvania isn’t known for its solar industry yet, but PPL Electric realized its responsibility anyway and is ready to not just deal with large amounts of PV, but to encourage it. Thanks to its new automated system, it is now responding to 75 percent of residents’ solar project approval in 24 hours (soon to be 85 percent.)

 

  • But there are certainly challenges when trying to be a visionary. Dudkin also said Pennsylvania floated legislation for EV infrastructure, but, despite how needed this may be in the not too distant future, it received a lot of pushback from the public feeling it was “just subsidizing rich people getting Teslas.” Which is a sentiment you can certainly understand.

 

So, there you have it. We all just need to figure out how to get public utilities, politicians and people all on the same page. Shouldn’t be that hard, right?

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