After the Nevada Public Utility Commission’s controversial December 2015 decision to slash net energy metering, many residential solar installation companies halted operations in Nevada, with giants like SolarCity and Sunrun exiting the state. Similarly, Michigan’s legislature is considering a change to its solar policy that will reimburse generators at wholesale rather than retail rate, making the state’s thriving solar industry nervous. In February, Massachusetts reached its net metering and REC caps, halting operations of solar developers and installers in a state that has more solar jobs than any other state except California. And North Carolina’s lucrative solar tax credit is set to expire at the end of this year, creating uncertainty and concern among local industry players in one of the nation's largest solar markets.
Policy uncertainty is never a good thing. However, what many state-level regulators and legislators tend to forget is that keeping policies unchanged is not enough; to continue to grow, the solar industry needs certainty as much as it needs stability. In a constantly changing regulatory environment, threats are almost as much of a problem as actual changes. Initiatives to review or amend policies, increase rates, or decrease incentives make investors wary of new investments, thereby escalating the cost of raising capital.
Thus, while DC legislators have contributed their share to the national effort to create certainty and stability in the solar market, state legislators are failing to do their part. This is rather sad news for the solar industry that celebrated the ITC extension, but relies on states’ policies to continue driving investments in solar energy. Indeed, renewable portfolio standards account for more than 50% of investments in utility solar, and net energy metering is considered the main driving force behind residential rooftop solar.
However, it is not all grim for the solar industry. Despite the uncertainties from state to state, the industry continues to grow. The quarterly SEIA/GTM Research U.S. Solar Market Insight report for Q4 2015, released in early March, predicts that the solar market will grow 119% in 2016. As in previous years, most of the projected added capacity is attributed to utility scale installations. But if many states are not providing the stable regulatory framework required for a healthy business environment, where is this substantial projected growth in utility scale solar coming from?
Before Congress extended the ITC, the 30% tax benefit for solar installations was set to drop to 10% on January 1, 2017, and to expire in 2018. This tax cliff created an incentive to bring as many projects as possible online before the 2017 drop down, thus driving the unprecedented expected growth in 2016. Utility scale installations require long planning and development, so although the ITC was extended last year, it was too late for players to react to the new tax environment. This is why installations in 2017 are expected to fall significantly, while commercial and residential PV will be less affected. The effect of the ITC extension on the different solar sectors can be seen in the graph below.
Moreover, there is another federal framework that drives investments in utility scale solar. Unbeknownst to many, the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA) is gradually emerging as a useful tool for utility scale developers in a post-RPS world. Enacted in response to the 1973 energy crisis, PURPA imposes a mandatory obligation on utilities to purchase renewable energy from “Qualified Facilities” (QF) at the utility’s avoided cost. To meet the requirements for a QF, an energy-generating facility must not exceed 80 MW and its primary energy source must be biomass, waste, geothermal, or renewable resources. With prices per megawatt-hour in the $40 to $60 range, utility solar is at cost parity with natural gas, making it a strong competitor in PURPA’s avoided cost markets. In 2015 over 500 MW of PURPA-driven projects came online in North Carolina, and states like Texas, South Carolina, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho are also leading the way in utilizing PURPA for utility scale solar.
As a federally mandated purchase, PURPA solar projects are not subject to state solar caps. Moreover, FERC regulations define “avoided cost” as the incremental costs to an electric utility of electric energy, capacity, and environmental externalities fees which the utility will incur if not purchasing electricity from the QF. The broad definition of “avoided cost” allows more facilities to enjoy QF status. However, despite the seemingly positive outlook for PURPA’s potential for solar developers, one must remember that it is very hard to enforce a PPA on a utility that does not want to enter one. One way of deterring QF developers from engaging with uninterested utilities is to propose terms and conditions that are more onerous to the QF than to non-PURPA counterparties. While FERC has succeeded at curtailing such practices, bad faith negotiation tactics are hard to prove and only few developers are willing to pursue costly litigation in an effort to obtain a PPA with an obstinate utility.
To reduce transaction costs and assist smaller developers in negotiating with utilities, certain states have adopted standard contract rates for QFs of up to 10 MW (California up to 20). The standard contract makes it nearly impossible for utilities to avoid purchasing electricity from QFs. It is therefore not surprising that utilities in leading solar PURPA states are requesting utility commissions to reduce standard rates contracts caps. Late in March, the Oregon PUC approved Pacific Power’s request to reduce the eligibility cap for solar generation at QFs to three from ten MW, and a similar motion by Duke Energy was rejected by the North Carolina PUC late last year.
As the price for solar generation continues to drop, we are expecting to see more PURPA driven PPAs across the nation. Whether PURPA PPAs will provide the necessary certainty and stability the market is currently lacking depends on FERC’s willingness to enforce its rules on avoided cost mandatory purchases, and Public Utility Commissions’ ability to withstand utility pressure to reduce standard contracts rates caps.