A few weeks ago I ran into David Weinberg, President of Apogee Solar, a solar energy developer in Connecticut and Massachusetts. I was intrigued by his company’s business pitch: to provide solar installations at no up-front cost to customers and then enter a long-term agreement to sell power to the customer at a heavily discounted price. In Massachusetts we are paying around 18c/kWh for retail electricity, the highest rate in the country outside Hawaii, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston, my employer, is in the process of planning and constructing a series of new buildings which we hope to make as green as possible. This could be a highly attractive model for commercial customers who don’t want to divert scarce capital away from their core business, and are happy to transfer the headaches and business risk of solar generation to a third party. Because solar power is distributed, it only needs to compete with the “behind the meter” retail electricity price, not the wholesale price of power of about 5-7 cents/kWh in this region.
Yet I was skeptical regarding the business model. I know that intense competition and large scale production have been driving down solar prices in the last couple of years, but I’ve still been reading total installation costs of about $6-8 per peak watt (pW). Yet it seems that prices are now even lower than that. Solarbuzz, a solar consultancy, reports that average retail module prices in May 2010 have fallen to around $4/pW, but that the lowest cost multi-crystalline modules are now $1.74/pW retail, while mono-crystalline is $2.07/pW. Inverters, balance of system, and installation add another $2.50 to $3/pW. Installation on parking canopies rather than rooftops adds another $1/pW or so.
Even with total installed costs as low as $4.50 to $5, and a 30% credit on capital costs thanks to the generosity of US taxpayers, the numbers still didn’t add up. What makes Apogee’s business model possible is the value of solar renewable energy credits (SRECs). US states that enact renewable portfolio standards (RPS) have created local markets for renewable energy credits, allowing utilities to meet their requirements by buying RECs. In order to stimulate solar, a number of states have created “solar carve outs”, i.e. a separate standard for solar energy with its own SRECs, which have initial market prices in the 30-60c/kWh range – Massachusetts has set a floor price of 30c/kWh (astute readers will observe that SREC is an anagram of SERC, our very own center for Center for Sustainable Enterprise and Regional Competitiveness here at UMass-Boston).
This is a massive subsidy indeed, and raises significant policy issues. Even for those who are fervent advocates of renewable energy, does it make sense to provide such huge subsidies to solar, when modest subsidies for land-based wind power of around 2-3c/kWh serve to make it grid competitive in many regions? Would the money be better spent on research and development, and the development of local workforce skills and business clusters? Subsidizing installation at the retail level will generate a few local jobs for developers, electricians and installers, but the panels will mostly be imported. There is a serious risk of consumer backlash when people realize the extent of the subsidies and the impact on their utility bills – just as the proposed cost of offshore wind power from Cape Wind has shocked even some of its supporters. Perhaps these subsidies are needed to jump start commercial scale installations and overcome industry inertia and perceived risks, but in themselves they also constitute a barrier to scaling up new renewables beyond a few percent of grid supply.
In return for discussing the business and economics of SRECs, I promised to give David Weinberg a chance to explain Apogee’s business pitch, so here it is:
Imagine that you’re a business owner or a University president in the Northeastern United States. Over the past 10 years you’ve watched your cost of electricity soar 69%, and it could double in the next ten years. Compete with China? You can’t even compete with most states here at home. Those high prices will crimp your growth and extinguish your profits. In fact, if you stay in the northeast, you probably won’t survive another 10 years.
What if you could use solar energy to cut your energy bill 30-40%? “No way”, you’d respond. “Not enough sun” or “too expensive to install upfront”. New England averages 4.3 hours of sun per day, almost double that of Germany, the world leader in solar power. As to the upfront cost, what if it didn’t exist? If there is no upfront cost and the solar power costs 30-40% less than what you are currently paying, would that be attractive?
Apogee Solar is a solar energy developer in New Jersey, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, who harnesses the power of Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs) to lower your energy bill. An SREC is an energy tariff that is amortized over everyone’s bill, so it is a tiny part of the rate base. Every megawatt of energy that your installed system produces earns me one credit. I can then take that credit and sell it into the marketplace. The sale of the credit is what allows me to finance your system with no upfront costs.
How much are SRECs worth? That depends on where you are located. New Jersey has a current price of around $650 per credit. Massachusetts has set a yearly floor of $300 per credit. Energy systems are designed so the credits depreciate over time. A system that is 10 years old will generate SRECs that are less valuable than a system that is two years old. What does that mean to energy prices? In Massachusetts and New Jersey I can negotiate a starting electricity price of 9 cents/kWh, and in 15 years your price will still be below 13c/kWh. At the end of 15 years you own the system, so for the next 15 years your cost of power is free.
Solar installations are financed with what are called ‘Power Purchase Agreements’ (PPAs). I like to call them solar mortgages, except that your property and assets remain free and clear. The collateral for the financing are the generated SRECS. Like any mortgage, only businesses or universities that are in good health will qualify. You might be wondering if you can finance an installation on your own to save even more money. That depends on how much time and effort you want to spend. Because of the variability of SREC prices, most commercial banks won’t finance them. Assuming that you could find financing, you would then have to identify the right solar modules, the right inverters, hire the right design firm, hire a really good union electrical installation firm, and then take your system through the local planning and zoning board for approval. After you have your system installed, you’d have to maintain it. Apogee brings together the whole package: finance, design, installation and maintenance. We save you money and help the planet.