The Rise of the Super Solar Customer

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Solar has come a long way in the past several years, and these days larger and larger installations are becoming commonplace for commercial and government solar projects. With prices continuing to drop, solar has become a smart business move for companies looking to save money on their energy bill and invest in sustainable energy. With this in mind, a panel was convened at this year’s Solar Power International with representatives from Google, the Department of the Navy, and George Washington University

The purpose of the talk was to find out both what these organizations are currently doing with solar, as well as how these huge customers can help the solar industry.

One interesting note right off the bat is that Google does not currently have any large-scale solar farms, as it gets all of its renewable energy from wind. This will not be the case for long, as Google is currently in the process of developing solar farms for several of its data centers on the east coast. The farms are not being built because Google believes in solar over wind, though. The company actually opened up the bidding to any renewable energy source, and wind provided the majority of the bids. The few bids that came in from solar, however, ended up being more affordable and won the job.

The Department of the Navy currently has the goal to add 1 GW of renewable electricity to their energy portfolio. The specific type of renewable energy was, again, not specified, but due to the location of available land as well as the cost, solar is expected to make up approximately 70% of the production. Additionally, the Army and Air Force also have 1 GW goals and will be closely following the Navy’s progress.

Finally, George Washington University had the goal to add solar to its campus. The university is located in a dense urban area, where a large solar installation would not normally be feasible. To make it happen, the university looked at producing power off-site. The university partnered with with American University and the George Washington University Hospital, which increased the size of the array and therefore increased affordability. Due to the market being unregulated, they were easily able to set up a power purchase agreement (PPA) to purchase power as well as receive renewable energy certificates (RECs) for the power being generated.

These are just three examples of what large organizations are able to do because of their buying power. A question and answer session followed this overview, and a few key points came out of this.

The first was learning what motivated each of these organizations. They were each quite different. Google sees solar as a method of cost savings, as well as it being an upcoming technology that it hopes to help move forward. The navy is investing in solar for energy security reasons, in regards to both cost and generation. The university is using it as an educational effort, showing how organizations in dense urban areas can make solar feasible. The cost savings was an added benefit as well. Each response helped to show how solar can benefit different users in different ways.

Another point discussed what needs to happen to bring more truly huge customers into the solar market. Several of the expected answers came up, such as lower cost and stable policy. There were others, however, that I had not thought of. Google believes that transactions need to be made simpler and faster, as getting these set up internally is already a long, drawn-out process. Also, more solutions that involve utilities are wanted. Particularly, less regulated markets are needed that will allow solutions like PPAs and RECs. The last big point was that because these are large companies, they are physically located throughout the country, and the world, and the lack of consistent policy among states can prove very challenging.

The final topic was how these large companies and organizations can help to push for a new market dynamic for solar. With the Navy it has been about creating their own energy generation, independent of utilities if necessary. They are so large that their generation already happens on the utility scale. Google has started to tie requests for effective solar policy to their business needs. One example of this was that they would not expand their data center at a specific location unless companies (not just Google) were given a pathway to access renewable energy. The university tied up the topic well by showing how going solar, even in a dense area, is made simpler by being located in an unregulated market.

Though each of these large solar customers has a unique story, they are all working to expand solar’s use in the market. As they, and other large customers like Walmart and Ikea, continue to adopt solar, others will take note, adopting solar themselves and helping to further expand the industry.