California legislation requires utilities and other retail electricity providers to disclose sources of the power supplied in their service areas. These fuel content laws were enacted to verify the claims of various retail providers about the mix of their power sources and to help consumers determine the potential environmental impacts of choosing one service over another.

Pursuant to legislation, the California Energy Commission introduced a Power Content Label, sort of a nutritional label for electricity, to delineate power sources. Issued annually, it displays the mix of electricity purchased by a provider, primarily utilities, broken out by resource type, ranging from natural gas and coal to renewable sources, such as solar and wind.

The problem is the Power Content Label provides too little information about the fuels powering the grid and no information at all about what fuels are being used at any given time. This leaves electric power providers less than fully accountable for the power purchase and delivery decisions they make.

Although customer choice of retail providers is now quite limited, the current label fails to help customers who do have a choice to make well-informed decisions, and it fails to properly reveal the greenhouse gas implications of their power use decisions. Further, it does not delineate the times at which various sources are being used to power the grid, an increasingly important detail as regulators make decisions about when to encourage people to use power for such purposes as charging electric vehicles.

Knowing Our Power: Improving the Reporting of Electric Power Fuel Content in California
This report provides the history of the Power Content Label, explains the problems with the existing approach, analyzes reasons for current limitations and offers suggestions for improving the process.

An “unspecified” problem

Electricity retailers are allowed to characterize a portion of their power as coming from “unspecified” sources. Statewide, that represents more than 14 percent of the delivered electricity; and for Southern California Edison, unspecified power has exceeded 40 percent. Power in this category is not just any electric generation – the unspecified category is dominated by imported power that likely includes output from the dirtiest generators serving California markets.

In addition, the law only requires retail providers to tell their customers about annual average usage of each fuel type – not by hour, or even by season. Perhaps equally important, the Energy Commission does not perform an audit to ensure the accuracy of the information it is providing.

Arguably, retailers don’t want to be required to account for all their power purchase decisions, dirtier out-of-state generators don’t want to identify themselves as it could lead to lower sales and none of the market participants, including the California Independent System Operator, want to take on the added work of creating accurate, detailed accounting for each transaction. Further, retailers have successfully argued that any disaggregation of the annual fuel averages by season, month or day would enable generators to gain a business advantage by allowing them to infer the marketing strategies of competitors.

Improving reporting

How could policymakers and stakeholders improve the Power Content Label reporting process and help achieve California’s ambitious decarbonization goals? It would require designing an emissions accounting framework that incorporates more accurate power source disclosure, reduces unspecified power as much as possible and breaks down usage by hour. This would provide information that is more complete and reliable.

California power customers deserve to know what they are buying whether the electricity source is clean or dirty, so that they can evaluate the climatological consequences resulting from the release of air pollution emanating from some types of power plants.

The fuel choices made by load-serving entities have consequences. Those companies should not be able to deflect responsibility for such consequences by claiming that they cannot know what emissions they are enabling. Would consumers want to buy a food product if the label stated that 14 percent of the contents was unspecified?

Next steps to take

Fortunately, we can get closer to the truth about fuel choices. It requires action on the part of retail providers, power marketers and the operators of organized markets. In addition, it requires resolve and tenacity on the part of regulators. The California Energy Commission and California Public Utilities Commission can clarify the power content mix and require the utilities to account for the origins of all the power that they schedule onto the grid.

As the role of electricity in reducing greenhouse gas emissions becomes greater, the ability to fully understand the consequences of power choices and to hold retailers accountable becomes even more critical.

Although California far exceeds all other states in solar electric capacity, it’s falling short in efforts to support community solar programs that can make accessing solar more equitable and allow distributed solar systems to better support the electricity grid.

Community solar can describe various business models, but we specifically mean programs that enable individual consumers to receive utility bill credits for generation from a photovoltaic (PV) system that they share with others. Program participants may either contribute to part of the system’s upfront costs or pay a rate that finances their portion of the power produced.

Community solar offers electricity to users who may not be able host PV panels and allows developers to locate solar at places of greatest cost-effectiveness and best benefit to the stability and reliability of the grid.

Read the white paper — Community Solar in California: A Missed Opportunity

In general, dedicated rooftop solar systems provide a good economic proposition for residential and commercial consumers. The downside is these individualized systems disproportionately benefit homeowners and businesses and lead to PV systems sited without regard to grid-level or community needs – preventing solar from reaching its potential technical and societal benefits.

Community solar program

California’s community solar program, named the Enhanced Community Renewables (ECR) program, was created by the state legislature as part of the larger Green Tariff Shared Renewables program in 2013 and implemented in 2015.

ECR program rules allow consumers to enter into agreements directly with third-party, private developers to purchase solar and other clean energy generated by projects with their community. However, the program’s overly complex regulations combined with inflated and fluctuating retail energy pricing have discouraged private developers from partaking with participation so far limited to the state’s major investor-owned utilities.

The ECR must be reworked. Otherwise, community solar will remain a second-tier option for PV development with continuing inequitable access to solar and other renewables and while perpetuating random placement of rooftop solar that stresses grid distribution operations. Although California is behind on community solar deployment, the state can still burnish its image as an energy innovator by developing creative approaches to compensation that incorporate the technical and social value of PV.

Successes in other states

In contrast, state policymakers across the country are realizing the potential benefits of community solar and designing programs to boost participation.

Colorado built a low-income carve-out into its state community solar regulations. Minnesota takes a value-of-solar approach to determining appropriate compensation structures for community solar. Massachusetts offers rate incentives (adders) for power acquired from community solar projects and projects providing other valued benefits, such as serving low-income customers. New York has prioritized community solar projects that are explicitly designed and sited to benefit the grid and/or serve low-income electricity users.

Program needs to be fixed

California has an opportunity to build on the successes in other states. The first step is to retool or replace the existing ECR program, working with stakeholders to design improvements. It should be modified to create an attractive economic proposition for community solar developers and program participants. It should offer a meaningful option for low-income customers and nonprofit organizations to benefit from renewable energy. And community solar systems should be strategically sited to serve both customers and the grid, while providing adequate and sustainable revenues.  A promising development is a proposed decision currently before the California Public Utilities Commission which, if approved, would enhance the likelihood of developing a limited number community solar projects in disadvantaged communities.

Community solar in California can be an important tool to promote social and environmental equity and contribute to the state’s ambitious build out of renewable generating resources to meet our energy and climate action plan goals. The ECR program just needs to be fixed so that we can realize the benefits community solar offers and provide those benefits to customers throughout the state.

Not too long ago, electricity worked as a one-way street—utilities produced energy and people consumed it. Solar energy has changed that model, enabling people who install solar panels on their rooftops to consume the energy generated and sell the rest of it back to utilities. This turns consumers into prosumers—people who both produce and consume energy.

Here are four fast facts about what it means to be a solar prosumer.

1. Prosumers don’t need to produce 100% of the electricity they consume

The solar panels on a homeowner’s rooftop might not produce all of the energy a home needs to function each day. Energy generation also depends on the season. For example, homes consume more energy for cooling in the summer and heating in the winter than they do in the spring or fall. This means that the solar energy being produced doesn’t have to equal the demand at all times; the solar may cover a portion, all, or more than a consumer’s load. This is especially true for people who have smaller rooftops. That’s why solar prosumers still connect to the grid and rely on utilities to balance supply and load just like other electricity consumers.

2. Prosumers don’t sell solar energy to other consumers

When prosumers produce more energy than they can use, the excess is sent back to the grid to be managed by the utility.  However, not all the excess energy is captured back on the grid because the grid was initially built for power to go only one way.   The U.S. Department of Energy’s Grid Modernization Initiative is working to change this by enabling power to flow on a two-way superhighway rather than a one-way street. This includes funding the development of new transformer technology that will allow larger volumes of solar-generated energy from rooftop installations scattered across a utility’s territory to be utilized efficiently onto the grid.

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Consumer vs Prosumer: What's the Difference?

3. Businesses can be considered prosumers, too​

Solar panels aren’t just made for homes. Businesses can use rooftop or on-site solar energy arrays to help offset a variety of expenses. Solar can also be used in conjunction with combined heat and power, which is useful for industrial and large commercial facilities. This technology allows businesses to use the heat that would normally be lost in the power generation process to be recovered for use in heating or cooling, taking business prosumer cred to the next level.

4. Prosumers can save money

Switching to solar can help balance a budget, making the prosumer lifestyle a worthwhile choice. In fact, SunShot-funded research from the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center found that in 42 of America’s 50 largest cities, going solar is less expensive than only relying on a utility to generate your electricity. As more financing options become available, solar energy will become even more affordable in cities across the country.

Are you thinking about becoming an energy prosumer with solar? Check out our Homeowner’s Guide to Going Solar to learn more.

*Graphics by Sarah Harman | U.S. Department of Energy

A new solar collector is starting a trend when it comes to concentrating solar power (CSP) technology. For the first time ever, “ganged heliostats” could be a viable option for new CSP systems.

Skysun, a startup out of Bay Village, Ohio, developed the new design that could help cut the cost of a CSP system by more than 30%.

Ganged Heliostat Technology

CSP technologies use mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight onto receivers that collect solar energy and convert it to heat. The mirrors, also known as heliostats, typically require their own base, foundation, and motor.

Skysun’s solar collector groups together heliostats through shared motors and support structures, which has the potential to cut the total installed cost of CSP systems in half. While other ganged heliostat concepts have previously been proposed, none of them have shown to be cost competitive or viable—until now.

Ganged heliostat prototype installed at Sandia National Laboratories' National Solar Thermal Test Facility.

SkySun partnered with Sandia National Laboratories through a $275,000 Small Business Vouchers project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Initiative. Sandia reported that Skysun’s ganged heliostats can achieve an average price point around $80/m2. That’s 33% lower than the lowest average cost for today’s conventional heliostats ($120/m2) and close to the SunShot Initiative’s goal of lowering the cost of solar collectors to $75/m2.

Path to Market Adoption

Skysun’s biggest barrier was showing that the technology is not just comparable to current heliostats in terms of performance, but more affordable. They used a grant from Innovation Fund America to build their first lab-scale prototype, then worked with Sandia to model and optimize the system. Alongside Sandia, Skysun designed custom codes for mirror positioning to reduce shading from other mirrors within the system, making its peak efficiency comparable to those deployed today. So far, modeling on Skysun’s solar collectors show that its mirrors achieve CSP industry accuracy standards with winds up to 15-20 miles per hour.

Skysun founder Jim Clair believes he will be able to leverage the outcomes from Skysun’s collaboration with Sandia in his search for a strategic partnership to prepare this technology for market adoption. Describing Sandia as “the mecca for CSP,” Clair said Sandia’s support in demonstrating the ganged heliostat’s stability, performance, and cost will be instrumental in showing the technology’s viability to potential partners.

Learn more about the SunShot Initiative and Tech-to-Market program within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. 

Read More

Learn more about Tech-to-Market’s Small Business Vouchers program, which opens the national labs to qualified small businesses by making the contracting process simple, lab practices transparent, and access to the labs' unique facilities practical. 

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