Rank #1: Environmental Entrepreneurs with Bob Keefe
Entrepreneurs are the job engine in the United States. Many of the companies founded by today’s entrepreneurs have products or services addressing environmental needs. New technologies almost always gain traction through the work of stubborn entrepreneurs, including solar, wind, electric vehicles and energy storage.
Public policies that encourage these new technologies are critical to their success in the market. Without policies such as the solar investment tax credit, net metering, renewable portfolio standards and the wind production tax credit, the solar and wind industries would be a fraction of their current size. And when these new technologies gain traction with customer economics better than previous energy technologies, adoption of these new technologies accelerates. Just look at how wind, solar and batteries are surpassing fossil fuel energy sources.
These public policies generally do not sprout spontaneously from the minds of politicians. Instead, they are suggested, developed and advocated by public policy organizations. And when it comes to environmental policies for entrepreneurial companies, Environmental Entrepreneurs, or E2, is one of the leading voices. E2’s members have founded or funded more than 2,500 companies, created over 600,000 jobs, and managed over $100 billion in venture and private equity capital.
Please listen to this week’s Energy Show as we engage with Bob Keefe, E2’s Executive Director, to learn about the genesis of E2, their successes working at the intersection of jobs, economy and the environment; and their plans for the future.
Sep 25 2019
Rank #2: Fracking
Jul 22 2015
Rank #3: Whole House Electrification with Howard Wenger
To slow the global warming trend, a number of states have committed to the aspirational goal of 100% carbon-free energy. As a species that literally evolved from burning wood and hydrocarbons, how can we possibly run our modern lives and economy without fossil fuels?
We can indeed achieve this transition quickly and economically. First, by converting all power generation to renewable, non-carbon sources. And second, by converting all fossil-fuel burning vehicles and appliances to electricity. Steady progress towards these conversions is being made. For example, 32% of California’s retail power came from renewable energy in 2018. The state is well on the way to converting to 100% renewable electricity. Use of EVs is growing steadily, and new building codes mandate the use of rooftop solar and electric appliances instead of natural gas.
The challenge is with the existing stock of residential and commercial buildings. Homes and businesses predominantly use natural gas for space heating, hot water heating and cooking. That’s where the concept of Whole House Electrification (WHE) come in. WHE is conceptually simple: replace gas appliances with electric appliances. In reality, one needs an energy audit to prioritize these conversions, then hire five different specialty contractors to do the work: insulation, solar, HVAC, plumbing, electrical and pool. It can be a daunting task.
Fortunately there are some pioneers out there - one of whom is my friend Howard Wenger. Howard was also a pioneer in the solar industry, with stints at AstroPower, PowerLight and SunPower. Please listen up to this week’s Energy Show as Howard discusses his experiences as he converted his house to 100% electricity, supplied — naturally -- by solar.
May 08 2019
Rank #4: Which Solar Panels Should I Buy?
The most common questions that prospective solar customers ask is “Which solar panels should I buy?” That’s a tough question to answer, and arguably maybe not the most important question (more about that later).
I initially got into the solar business for altruistic reasons -- save the planet and all that. The planet still needs saving, perhaps more than ever. But I quickly realized that the vast majority of customers were interested in saving money first (the planet could wait). So I am biased towards finding the most cost-effective system for customers. To that end, people want an inexpensive system that is reliable, high efficiency (especially if they have limited roof space), and looks good on their roof.
When it comes to the solar panels themselves (also called solar modules), all solar panels generate the same amount of electricity on a per watt basis. A 300 watt panel from Manufacturer A will generate the same amount of energy as a 300 watt panel from Manufacturer B. 24 panels with a 275 watt output will generate the same amount of energy as 22 panels with a 300 watt output (6,600 watts). Your appliances can’t tell the difference if they are using electrons from a super high efficiency panel or from a less expensive system. Nevertheless, there are clear cut differences among solar panels in terms of efficiency, aesthetics, cost and availability. On the other hand, some of the sales pitch distinctions are subjective, such as brand, quality, durability, and long term energy output.
To learn more about critical decision factors in purchasing solar panels for your home or business, listen to this week’s Energy Show. For those of you who have read to the end of this summary, the most important question to ask is: “which contractor will install the best solar power system for my home or business?”
Apr 17 2019
Rank #5: Are Fuel Cells Better Than Batteries?
A fuel cell car is pretty much just like a battery-powered EV...except the fact that fuel cells are neither clean, cheap nor efficient. All practical fuel cell cars run on hydrogen. When you combine hydrogen with oxygen you get energy (heat in an engine or electricity in a fuel cell) and water. Pretty clean and elegant, so far.
But we currently get 95% of our hydrogen by “reforming” natural gas. The natural gas is combined with steam (essentially H2O), with the end products being hydrogen gas and CO2. So “reforming” is kind of like a school for bad fossil fuels. Fuel cell cars using reformed natural gas are about 50% efficient, so they release even more CO2 that would be released if we burned natural gas directly. Moreover, fuel cell cars requires an entirely new hydrogen infrastructure of reforming plants, hydrogen pipelines, hydrogen filling stations and vehicles.
One good thing about fuel cell vehicles is that they can be “filled up” in a matter of minutes, not the several hours it takes for today’s generation of plug-in EVs. But at the current rate of improvement in cost and performance of batteries, I doubt that fuel cells will ever catch up. For more about the comparisons between fuel cell and battery EVs, please Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show.
Sep 29 2015
Rank #6: Net Metering and Future Solar Electric Rates
Sep 29 2015
Rank #7: Energy Investments with Shawn Kravetz
The yield curve for certain types of debt is inverted, suggesting that there may be a recession on the horizon. Economists are worried, and their fears trickle down to mortals like us.
BTW, the yield curve plots the interest rate on the vertical axis and term of the debt on the horizontal axis. Normally, long term interest rates are slightly higher than short term rates because, as Yogi Berra said, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” In other words, uncertainty about the future implies higher interest rates. But when the yield curve slopes downwards in the future, that implies that rates in the future will be lowered to counter a nearer-term recession.
So there is a lot of volatility in the stock market…not only due to interest rates, but also related to uncertainty about trade, an upcoming presidential election, and the overall state of our economy. Many of our listeners to The Energy Show invest in what they know the best: energy -- including solar, EVs, wind and fossil fuels. So if you are investing in the energy industry, or just depending on it for your career, what are our prospects?
My guest on this week’s Energy Show is Shawn Kravetz, President of Esplanade Capital, LLC. Shawn and I have crossed paths many times, going back to at Akeena and Westinghouse Solar. His firm is based in Boston, and manages capital for families, private investors and institutions with a focus on superior long-term capital appreciation, especially in the energy industry. Please Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show for Shawn’s insights into energy investments and our overall economy.
Mar 20 2019
Rank #8: The Path to Energy Independence with John Farrell of the ILSR
The threat isn’t new solar technology, but the ways in this technology is being deployed and paid for. Historically, utilities generate and distribute electricity, and charge customers for their usage. Indeed, about 5 GW of utility solar will be installed in 2015 -- more than the commercial and residential sectors combined. But the price of electricity to residential and commercial customers continues to increase. Even though utility scale solar is the cheapest new generating source of electricity, customers are not benefitting. To make matters worse, customers can install their own solar power plants and generate their own electricity for less than the utility charges.
The centralized monopoly utility business model must change because electricity can now be generated, consumed, stored and even distributed on a local level. John Farrell, senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR), focuses on issues surrounding renewable energy, utility power, and energy-generation. Please join me on this week’s Energy Show on Renewable Energy World as John shares with us his insights on how utilities are trying to adapt to the new world of distributed generation.
Dec 29 2015
Rank #9: Politics Of Clean Energy
We have a lot of recent material to work with. There is Obama’s Clean Power Plan, Candidate Clinton’s plan for 500 million solar panels by 2021, and plans from various Republicans reflecting their view of energy and the environment. As usual, the parties are diametrically opposed regarding both the problem and the solution.
Both parties are in favor of the environment (apple pie, too), more jobs, cheaper electricity and better economic conditions. But that’s about all they agree on. Republican politicians are adrift on that long river in Egypt when it comes to global warming; hence, their solutions are unlikely to solve the real problem. Democratic politicians are swimming upstream against another river - a river of fossil fuel money. For two different perspectives on our clean energy future, please Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show.
Dec 15 2015
Rank #10: Ten Utility Electricity Myths
This week were talking about ten utility electric company myths and were going to debunk these myths, but first a little background. Electric utilities started in the U.S. in the 1880s. Thomas Edison came up with a way of generating DC power, and then George Westinghouse came up with a concept of AC power, which ultimately became the industry standard and grew rapidly. The fundamentals of the utility industry are you generate power in a central location with big power plants; originally coal fired, then oil, then gas, then nuclear, now solar. You then have transmission lines that transmit the electricity at high voltages over long distances. Then you have local distribution networks –those utility wires above and underground, and transformers that look like tin cans on utility poles, and these local distribution lines send lower voltage power to businesses and homes in the area. It’s a terrific industry, many innovations and it’s been a key part of our industrial economy’s growth. They deliver power safely, and relatively inexpensive in relation to what it used to cost –it is pretty affordable when you consider the alternatives, such as putting in your own wood burning generator --crazy.
But the thing is, the way we generate power and the way we can now store power, and the way we are using the technology is changing rapidly. The way we would store power even as little as ten years ago was we would build dams to store water, then run turbines to generate electricity as the water in the dam goes down. We can still do that but it is easier to store power in a battery.
Now that we have solar and wind power, as well as affordable energy storage we have to reconsider the role of utility companies. Because of changes in technology, we have less need for big utility companies that generate power centrally and transmit that power over long distances to our homes and businesses.
So where all this going is and what does it mean for homeowners and businesses? Listen up to this week’s Energy Show as we cover the top ten myths about utility companies that they use to justify their actions to ratepayers and competing industries like solar.
Aug 02 2018
Rank #11: Redesigning the Electric Grid for the Future
Our electric grid is one of the most complicated systems that has ever been built. We have confidence that our electrical system is generally meeting the needs of people throughout the U.S. — unlike our electoral and election systems, which are beset by hackers, hanging chads and foreign interference. Nevertheless, new technologies such as solar, wind, battery storage, EVs, control systems and software present opportunities to improve the effectiveness and reduce costs throughout our electrical grid.
The traditional electric grid design depends on centralized power generation, sending power to customers in two stages: first over long distance high voltage transmission lines, and second over lower voltage local distribution lines. Power flowed from the generator to the customer using a top-down communication system. This centralized electrical grid, managed by public utilities, has served us well for over 100 years.
With rooftop solar, customers are generating their own power and sending the excess back to the grid (consumed by their neighbors). With batteries, customers can store their daytime-generated solar energy and use it at night, or use their batteries to meet peak power loads. And now, with the right software and communications, these local solar generators, batteries and control systems can be aggregated into a Virtual Power Plant, or VPP.
These new technologies are cheaper, more flexible, more reliable and cleaner than the traditional grid. But they function more as a network of billions of devices – similar to the way our telecommunications systems operate. Moreover, this combination of new grid technologies and a networked architecture is antithetical to the “top down” way that traditional utilities operate. Please listen to this week’s Energy Show to learn about the design of this networked electric grid of the future — and why the traditional utility business models must change as VPPs become more commonplace.
Feb 20 2019
Rank #12: Solar Safety
Proper safety procedures can prevent tragedies like this. If you do rooftop installation work, we have three specific suggestions. First, install two or more permanent roof anchors on every job. These anchors are inexpensive (about $15 each), leak-proof, and easy to install. With these anchors installed there is no excuse for your workers not to use ropes and harnesses. Second, follow all of the applicable OSHA procedures for solar contracting, including ladder safety, protective gear, electrical safety, and emergency procedures. Third, consider getting a free OSHA safety inspection audit. Although inconvenient, these audits will help identify gaps in your company’s safety procedures.
Solar safety does not end when a system is installed. Homeowners must also be aware of the proper way to clean their panels and check for debris or problems with wiring. Although we're not aware of a serious fire from a properly installed rooftop system, there have been incidences of squirrel or bird damage to wiring, and occasional arc fault problems. By design, rooftop PV systems have many built-in safety features to prevent injury or property damage -- and local jurisdiction inspections are a good final step to help ensure the system is installed safely. For more on homeowner and installer solar safety, please Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show.
Oct 27 2015
Rank #13: Solar Incentives In 2016
As a result of the hard work at solar advocacy groups SEIA, Vote Solar and CALSEIA, the ITC is good through 2021 (30% in 2016-2019, then 26% in 2020 and 22% in 2021). And unlike their brethren in Nevada and Hawaii, the California Public Utilities Commission has made a preliminary decision to extend retail net metering, albeit at a slightly reduced rate.
But there is still real urgency to go solar: the sooner your installation is complete and you flip that switch to “on,” the sooner you’ll reduce your electric bill. Granted, installation costs are likely to be a little lower in future years, but electric rates keep going up and the “cost of doing nothing” will only grow as you pay your monthly electric bill. Many states still have rebate programs and caps on net metering – so check with your local installer to find out the status of incentives for your home or business. For more about the extension of the ITC and local net metering programs, please Listen Up to the Energy Show on Renewable Energy World.
Jan 18 2016
Rank #14: Solar Installer Business Code
There are about half a million homes in the U.S. with solar, 200,000 people working in the U.S. solar industry, and 10,000 solar companies. Unfortunately, as in every big industry, there is a small percentage of companies that take advantage of consumers in order to make a bigger buck. Not surprisingly, complaints about unethical and fraudulent business practices in the solar industry are adding up.
Fortunately, the solar industry has been proactive with its efforts to reign in companies that are taking advantage of consumers. For many years several state solar organizations have published ethical and business practice guidelines. Most recently, the Solar Energy Industries Association published their Solar Business Code. This Code provides detailed principles for companies in the solar industry -- specifically focused on protecting consumers.
Please Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show as we go over some of the real-world problems that consumers experience, the solutions specified in the Solar Business Code, and the caveat emptor realities that apply to all big purchases and investments.
Oct 12 2015
Rank #15: Gigawatt Scale Solar Installations with Mark Cox & Shola Ashiru of New Energy Fund II
When I started doing PV installations back in 2001, the biggest projects were about 5 MW. Just over the past couple years I’ve seen 500 MW installations go in here in the US and there is several 1,000 MW (a gigawatt) installations in India and China.
Now there is gigawatt plant construction underway in the US and to put these projects in perspective, it’s twice the capacity of most natural gas plants, it covers about ten square miles, have over three million solar panels, and employee thousands of people during construction.
So to talk about projects of this size, my special guests on this week’s Energy Show are Mark Cox and Shola Ashiru of New Energy Fund II, a private equity investment company.
Apr 22 2018
Rank #16: PACE Financing Explained With Cisco DeVries
PACE stands for Property Assessed Clean Energy. A PACE loan is repaid as part of a homeowner’s annual property tax assessments, and is automatically transferred to the new owner as part of the property. For example, a $20,000 rooftop system could be repaid in 15 annual tax bill payments of about $1,500. If the home were sold after ten years, the new owner would simply take over the remaining five years of principal and interest payments. Interest rates and terms on PACE loans are about the same as standard bank loans. Since the loan is secured, interest payments (and sometimes principal) are tax deductible. What’s the hitch? PACE loans are not yet available everywhere. But as they proliferate, PACE loans will become another popular way to finance rooftop solar.
My guest this week is Cisco DeVries, CEO of Renewable Funding. Cisco pioneered the use of PACE financing for rooftop systems in Berkeley in 2007, and is now working to roll out PACE for both residential and commercial installations all over the U.S. Please Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show for more details on how a PACE loan could work on your own home – or your next solar project.
Apr 14 2015
Rank #17: Understanding A Home Solar Sales Pitch
Apr 14 2015
Rank #18: How Many Solar Panels Do I Need?
The number of panels you need is based on two factors: the available space on your roof and the size of your electric bill. A good installer will not take advantage of you by installing modules where there is a lot of shade or a poor north-facing orientation on a steep roof. Along the same lines, your installer should analyze your current electric bill and recommend the number of solar panels that will get you close to a zero bill.
Once you know these two boundary conditions – the number of panels that fit on your roof and the number of panels that you need to zero out your bill – you can see what size system fits in with your budget and method of financing. At the same time your installer should step you through the options for different levels of solar panel efficiency, module electronics (optimizers or microinverters), and changes in your future use of electricity (such as an EV or energy conservation measures). For more about determining the optimum size of your solar power system, Listen Up to this week’s episode of The Energy Show on Renewable Energy World.
Apr 01 2017
Rank #19: When Should I Clean My Solar Panels
When a business or homeowner gets a new rooftop solar installation, the second question they always ask is “how often do I need to clean my solar panels.” We’ll answer that question on this week’s show — taking into account the different effects of rain, dust and electric rates. BTW, the first question people always ask is “how do I read my electric bill;” but that’s a topic for another show.
Rooftop solar panels get dirty primarily from wind-blown dust and pollen. Birds are usually not a problem unless your last name is Hitchcock and you live in Bodega Bay. As panels get dirtier, their output declines. A small amount of soiling — say a light dusty film — may only cause a 5 percent output decline. However, when panels get very dirty — perhaps in an agricultural area or location that does not get regular rainfall — the output decline can be greater than 20 percent. A good heavy rainstorm will usually wash away most of the accumulated soiling.
I use the term “usually” because on panels that are tilted at about 5 degrees or less, the rain may leave a puddle of muddy debris along the lower edge of the panel. When this puddle dries, sometimes a thick layer of dirt accumulates along the lower row of cells (sometimes moss and weeds may even grow in these areas). Depending on the design of the system, this small accumulation of dirt can cause a very significant decrease in output.
So the answer to the question: “how often should I clean my solar panels” really depends on five factors: your location (does it rain regularly or only during certain months), the tilt angle of your panels (steeply tilted panels tend to stay much cleaner than panels that are close to horizontal), the amount of wind blown dust, your electric rate (if your electric rate is high then it is more worthwhile to clean your panels), and the cost to clean your panels.
If you have a large solar array at a low tilt angle in a dry climate with high electricity costs, our basic advice is to clean your panels once a year. Under these circumstances the additional electricity output from clean panels will be much greater than the cleaning costs. On the other hand, if you have a small array in an area that rains regularly, then it may only make sense to clean your panels every five years or so. Here in California it generally does not make a lot of sense to clean your panels in the late fall or winter during the rainy season.
Regardless of your circumstances, please make sure you clean your panels with soapy or treated water to prevent damage from mineral deposits. Contact your solar contractor or maintenance company if you would like your system cleaned professionally. For more about keeping your solar system operating at top efficiency, please Listen Up to this week’s edition of the Energy Show.
Sep 27 2018
Rank #20: Public Safety Power Shutoffs
California utility companies recently announced their Public Safety Power Shutoff programs across the state. Bloomberg News said “California May Go Dark This Summer and Most People Aren’t Ready” California’s Governor Gavin Newsom was quoted as saying “I’m worried. We are all worried about it for the elderly. We are worried about it because we can see people’s power turned off for not just for a day or two but potentially for a week."
These public safety power shutoff events are already happening around the state. Utilities turn off the power if there is the possibility of danger imposed by things such as high winds or wildfire, dry vegetation, low humidity, observations of dangerous conditions by field personnel and red flag warnings from the National Weather Service. The Paradise fire in 2018 was started when PG&E decided NOT to shut power off in a fire prone area. Now all utilities are erring on the side of caution, shutting off power when there may only be a remote chance of a fire - certainly better than burning down a town.
Unfortunately, looking back over the past fifty years, the reliability of our power grid is not getting better. The weather is getting hotter, there is more housing in forested areas, we need electricity more than ever, and some utilities have been skimping on maintenance to maximize their profits. Electricity has become the most important fuel for our society. So when the lights go out, our 21st century lifestyle reverts to the 19th century.
To learn more about these Public Safety Power Shutoff programs, what the utility companies suggest (buy a gas generator!), plus better solutions (hint: solar with battery backup), Listen Up to this week’s Energy Show.
Jul 18 2019