BusINess Weekly

Solar ready Northwest Indiana

2014-06-22T07:00:00Z Solar ready Northwest Indiana nwitimes.com

Reliable and affordable power helps grow local economies. The challenge today is getting all the power that’s needed while producing less of what we don’t need – carbon pollution.

Earlier this month, President Obama – with the support of US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy – outlined what has been called an ambitious but achievable plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent of 2005 levels by 2030 – the equivalent of taking two-thirds of the nation’s cars and trucks off the road, according to the EPA.

Indiana, which gets more than 80 percent of its energy from coal-fired plants, would need to figure out how to reduce carbon pollution by 20 percent. According to the EPA, Indiana power plants produced 1,923 pounds of carbon pollution per megawatt hour of electricity in 2012. Based on the proposed regulations, they could only produce 1,531 pounds of carbon per megawatt hour by 2030.

As part of this national plan to combat global warming, the EPA identified four commonly used, technically sound and affordable measures that states, cities and businesses across the country focus on to reduce carbon pollution from the power sector. These include: improving efficiency at existing coal-fired power plants, increasing utilization of existing natural gas fired power plants, expanding the use of wind, solar or other low- or zero-emitting alternatives, and increasing energy efficiency in homes and businesses.

Taken together, the EPA determined this to be the best system of emission reduction, as that term is defined in the Clean Air Act.

In Northwest Indiana, NIPSCO is improving air quality and has already reduced Nitrogen Oxide and Sulfur Oxide emissions by 70 percent since 1990. The company is also working with the EPA under the Clean Air Act and continues to invest in environmental control technology for their coal-fired generating facilities to further reduce emissions.

NIPSCO customers also routinely receive information on programs designed to lower their bills, become more energy efficient and conserve natural resources, with several currently available to customers interested in supporting renewable energy. These include net metering, feed-in tariff and the green power program.

The net metering program allows customers to generate their own electricity from renewable energy to offset their individual usage each month. The program is available for projects up to 1 megawatt (MW). NIPSCO installs one meter capable of measuring energy consumption as well as generation, with “energy credits” applied to future usage.

Similar to net metering, the feed-in tariff program is for projects up to 5MW and provides a sell back opportunity for the customer.

With the green power program, NIPSCO customers can designate 25, 50 or 100 percent of monthly electric usage to power generated by renewable energy sources including wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and hydroelectric power. Commercial and industrial customers have the added flexibility to designate 5 or 10 percent of their monthly usage.

NIPSCO is also part of a new “Solar Ready” initiative being spearheaded by the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC) in partnership with the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC), the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC), Meister Consultants Group, the Council of State Governments and eight regional councils on the US Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Initiative Rooftop Solar Challenge.

“Last October the US Department of Energy SunShot Iniative Rooftop Solar Challenge II awarded $2.575 million to the Mid-America Regional Council and its partners to help make it easier for residents and businesses to use solar energy,” NIRPC Director of Environmental Programs Kathy Luther said. “This funding award is one of eight given nationwide totaling more than $12 million. The goal of the MARC project is to build on the efforts of Solar Ready I, an initiative that helped streamline the local government permitting and planning process, explored financing options and identified best practices for implementing solar energy in the Kansas City region.”

Nationally, MARC will partner with the National Association of Regional Councils to replicate its successful model in nine other regions, working with regional councils representing central New York, northwest Indiana, southwest Florida, and the metro areas of Philadelphia, Phoenix, Dallas, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and Washington, DC. Other award partners include the Council of State Governments and Meister Consultants Group, Inc.

“Through this award, NIRPC is working with support from our local governments – a total of 41 cities and towns within Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties – to achieve more streamlined and standardized solar practices, resulting in measurable improvement to Northwest Indiana’s solar market conditions,” Luther added. “We are very fortunate to have the Fronius USA headquarters in Portage. As a world leader in the field of photovoltaics (PV) - the use of panels composed of photovoltaic cells that can convert solar radiation into direct current (DC) electricity - they are also encouraging solar in our region to support these jobs.”

Martin Beran, Head of System Support at Fronius USA - where the company manufactures grid-connected PV inverters, including those that convert DC energy from solar panels to AC that can be used by companies like NIPSCO to power homes and businesses – as well as system monitoring equipment, is also a member of NIRPC’s solar ready committee.

“Fronius began as a family owned company in Austria in 1945 and now has 3,500 employees in divisions across the globe,” he explained. “We relocated our US headquarters from central Michigan to Northwest Indiana in 2012 for the quality of life and skilled workforce plus the great transportation infrastructure. Our customers include Tesla Motors on the west coast and Solar City in Buffalo, New York, where one of the largest solar panel production plants in the world is being built and is expected to be at capacity by 2016.”

In a world of ever-changing technology, Fronius has established itself as an innovative leader.

“Solar technology is proven and solid,” Beran added. “While it’s our job to think about the future, we also want to prove that it makes sense now. We are here to support local communities – government and schools - in developing it. To pave the way, an 150kW extension to our own test array will be up and generating data later this summer. We’re looking forward to sharing that information through this initiative.”

With the goal of dispelling common myths such as “It’s not sunny enough where I live for solar energy” (in reality cold and cloudy Germany gets less sun than every state in the US “lower 48” and is the world leader in solar power) or “The technology is just too expensive” (in fact, the cost of solar PVs has dropped significantly.)

According to the DOE, the total installed cost per watt was $12 in 1998 and is now just slightly more than $5, with the biggest drop - 25 percent – from 2010 to 2012.

For comparison, the cost of solar in Germany is just over $2.50 per watt. Looking more closely at the numbers, the actual hardware cost is lower in the US, while non-hardware costs (profits, taxes, overhead and soft costs such as installation labor, customer acquisition, financing costs, permitting and inspection plus other paperwork) are markedly higher at well over 50 percent. In Germany, non-hardware costs are approximately 20 percent.

Much of that can be attributed to a difference in installation time – from inception to completion. Compared with 8 days in Germany, the average time to permit a solar installation in the US requires 7.2 times more man-hours and costs 21 times more per watt. So, while the costs of hardware in the US decreased from $3.28 to $1.90 per watt in just two years, there was no change in soft costs during that same time period.

Citing the potential for economic growth and job creation, NIRPC is showing Northwest Indiana’s major stakeholders how solar energy can be a smart investment for government, business and homeowners.

Currently, according to The Solar Foundation, Indiana ranks 25th in the US with 1,500 jobs that involve solar installation and manufacturing – 960 of those jobs were added since 2012. The state is home to 50 solar companies, while approximately 421 Indiana homes are powered by solar.

With Germany leading the world in solar operating capacity at 32 percent, the US is third (behind Italy and just ahead of China and Japan) at 7.2 percent. That translates to 400 watts per person in Germany and 23 watts per person in the US. Consider this, total installed solar capacity in the U.S. is 7.7 GW, while Germany installed 7.6 GW in 2012 alone.

Just as the targeted efforts of Rooftop Solar Challenge I teams resulted in 12 percent lower permitting costs and 40 percent faster permitting times, NIRPC and its partners are hoping to enable local governments to replicate these successful solar practices - reducing soft costs and expanding local adoption of solar energy across the country.

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