Intersolar North America Day 1: Solar Goes to War

Woven through the opening session of this year’s Intersolar North America trade show was a theme of conflict. Speaker after speaker addressed not only the rapid growth of the solar industry, but the forces that are pushing against that growth, including a public advocate who is suing to stop fossil fuel projects, and the CEO of perhaps the most combative distributed solar company in the industry.

“We are inherent disruptor of the status quo, and that has caused some to push against us,” noted California Solar Energy Industries Association (CalSEIA) Executive Director Bernadette del Chiaro.

Del Chiaro is a veteran of these conflicts, which are neither abstract nor distant. And while this last year’s regulatory battle over net metering was largely a victory for the solar industry in California, the same cannot be said of other states, most notably Nevada, where net metering was dismantled.

And while the overall market impact of Nevada was relatively small, the danger that other states could invoke sever retroactive changes to net metering has rocked investor confidence, leading to broad financial troubles in the industry.

This is not the only thing that has the solar industry in a fighting mood. This fall’s presidential election is weighing on the minds of many Americans, and the possibility that Donald Trump could occupy the White House has many concerned about the future of renewable energy policy.

Intersolar Champion of Change Award Winner and California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León, who is Latino, took a swipe at Trump during his keynote speech. “We will send a message to Donald Trump that we don’t build walls here, we tear them down!” exclaimed de León, referring to Trump’s controversial plan to build a massive wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

California is both steady supporter of President Obama’s Democratic Party and the national leader in renewable energy, which De León says is symptomatic of its larger role in the nation. “California is America before America is itself,” mused de León. He also stated that he expects that California will reach its 50% renewable energy target, the third most-aggressive in the nation, “way before 2030”.

Conflict with utilities and regulators is far from unusual for Sunrun CEO and co-founder Lynn Jurich, who also spoke during the session. Through The Alliance for Solar Choice, Sunrun has fought for maintaining net metering and against alternative solar policies in multiple states, with a combative style and line on policy that has at times pitted the company against other players in the environmental movement and in the solar industry.

At Intersolar Jurich’s speech was more nuanced than her company’s record may suggest, and warned instead of the possibility that if utilities shut down policies to allow PV system owners to export to the grid, that these individuals may disconnect from the grid entirely, creating duplicate and redundant infrastructure.

“You’re not going to stop consumers from wanting this,” warned Jurich. She notes that in states like Hawaii, solar and energy storage are already cheaper than grid electricity, which creates an incentive for grid defection.

Ultimately, these conflicts point to a changing terrain, with new and yet unsolved technical and economic issues. White House Office of Management and Budget Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy and Science Ali Zaidi touched on some of these points in his speech, the last of the evening.

“What happens when distributed energy resources (DERs) get aggregated, and what happens when they start selling into the wholesale market?” asked Zaidi.

Ultimately, this will require new thinking on behalf of both utilities and the solar industry. “To say that we have to keep with these (old systems) is a failure of imagination,” noted Sunrun CEO Jurich.