Issues of electricity regulation typically play out in drab government hearing rooms. That has not been the case this summer in Arizona, where a noisy argument—featuring TV attack ads and dueling websites—has broken out between regulated utilities and the rooftop solar industry.
An internet web video attacks the California start-up companies that sell rooftop solar systems as the “new Solyndras,” which are spending “hard-earned tax dollars to subsidize their wealthy customers.” Meantime,solar companies accuse Arizona Public Service, the state’s biggest utility, of wanting to “extinguish the independent rooftop solar market in Arizona to protect its monopoly.”
Similar battles about how rooftop solar should be regulated have flared in California, Colorado, Idaho and Louisiana. And the outcome of these power struggles could have a major impact on the future of solar in the U.S.
Today’s solar industry is puny—it supplies less than one percent of the electricity in the U.S.—but its advocates say that solar is, at long last, ready to move from the fringe of the energy economy to the mainstream. Photovoltaic panel prices are falling. Low-cost financing for installing rooftop solar is available. Federal and state government incentives remain generous.
Yet opposition from regulated utilities, which burn fossil fuels to produce most of their electricity, could stop a solar boom before it gets started.
The U.S. military has quietly become one of the biggest investors in green energy over the past five years, and it's taking steps to put even more money behind the sun. Last year, the Obama administration set a Department of Defense goal of deploying 3 GW of renewable energy by 2025 in an effort to reach President Bush's goal of getting 25% of its energy from renewable sources by the same date.
The reason for the push is about more than politics; it's about economics and national security. Over the past year, the Department of Defense has spent more than $20 billion on energy and consumed more than 5 billion gallons of oil. In war zones, oil can be one of the most dangerous things to move because of roadside mines targeting transport corridors. Renewable energy sources like solar can reduce the need for oil and take some risk away from troops.
$7 billion in investment upfront
The latest move by the military was an announcement of $7 billion in power purchase agreements for solar energy installations. SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR) and NRG Energy (NYSE: NRG) were among the winners in "multiple-vendor, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity, firm-fixed-price, non-option, non-multi-year" solar contracts, or the chance to win contracts. What's important to note for the solar energy industry is that 58% of the new renewable-energy capacity planned by 2017 is solar.
The projects will be built, financed, and constructed using private money on private land, so companies will be bidding for the energy orders until projects are built. The big carrot is the $7 billion in potential contracts.
The emergence of a green military
It's not only large solar installations powering bases that the military is using. Forward units are using solar power to power small bases and to charge equipment used in the field. Take a look at a Zero Base Solar Power Generating module being tested in the field:
Troops are also using solar backpacks to charge field gear. As solar technology becomes cheaper, lighter, and more efficient, we'll see more and more of these products on military bases and in the field.