Clean Energy Storage and Virtual Power Plants

At the 2023 Solar Summit, held October 20, 2023, at South Seattle College, Nora Hawkins, Senior Energy Policy Specialist Washington State Department of Commerce, and a Solar Washington Board Member, invited and moderated a panel on Strategies for Clean Energy Storage. The panel generated a lot of interest and many questions, so we decided to provide a summary of it, based on the transcript of the presentations.

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Alternatives to Desert and Cropland offer Promising Solar Farm Sites

Development of solar power in Washington state continues to grow, bolstered by 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act (CETA) that commits Washington to have electricity free of greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. While the biggest need for electricity is in the more populous western half of the state, much of the development is on large solar farms in the sunnier eastern half. In February 2023, for example, AVANGRID announced that it had started operating its 150-Megawatt (MW) Lund Hill solar farm in Klickitat County, the state’s largest photovoltaic plant. The Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) told the Seattle Times that more than 40 proposed solar projects would collectively lease more than 80,000 acres.

Solar farms are becoming increasingly difficult to site. Highly attractive locations can be home to endangered species and critical habitat, or they can be very attractive for farming, residential development or recreation. Directed by a budget proviso passed by the Washington State Legislature, the Washington State University (WSU) Energy Program carried out a Least-Conflict Solar Siting study on the Columbia Plateau as a pilot project. The Columbia Plateau region is about 14,242,020 acres, not including Tribal reservations. While over 6,777,000 acres could be considered highly suitable for solar development, just under 212,000 acres were deemed low conflict for environmental conservation, farmland, and ranchland, and ranked “very high,” “high” or “moderately high” for solar development suitability after maps were reviewed by stakeholders, including ranchers, farmers and environmentalists.

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Initiatives Underway to Help with Hiring Solar Energy Workers

The good news for anyone who wants to work in the solar energy industry is that workers are in demand. It’s a different story for employers who need staff, though, as many face a shortage. Creativity will be needed to find enough people to support growth within the industry.

The Solar Industry needs More Installers - and Electricians

U.S. solar energy installations soared 47 percent in the first quarter of 2023, according to research by Wood Mackenzie, as easing panel supplies alleviated industry gridlock and allowed stalled projects to be completed. Wood Mackenzie expects the solar market to triple to 378 GW by 2028.

That growth as well as the Inflation Reduction Action (IRA) will help create hundreds of thousands more jobs, according to the National Solar Jobs Census, with solar employment nationwide forecast to rise from 255,037 in 2021 to 538,000 by 2032.

Many of those jobs are going unfilled, however, with recent data showing growth in demand for green skills that exceeds supply. Washington State Governor Inslee told Politico that “having the technicians and the engineers and skilled mechanics, that is going to be a challenge in the United States.” That shortage exists even though the IRA includes strong incentives for employers to pay good wages and benefits, with tax credits for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects up to five times higher if contractors and subcontractors use registered apprentices and journeymen workers and pay prevailing wage rates.

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Solar Power Transmission in Washington

While Washington State has some of the most aggressive climate goals in the United States, the inadequacy of the current electricity transmission infrastructure and slow permitting processes threaten the state’s ability to achieve its objectives.

Electricity Transmission Bottlenecks Threaten Climate and Resiliency Goals

Requirements for electric utilities to shift to solar and wind for their power generation are key parts of what gives Oregon and Washington some of the best climate plans in the country, Sightline Institute observed (Northwest States Need to Build New Power Lines, Fast - Sightline Institute). Indeed, the goal for the state of Washington is to use only clean energy by 2045. Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC) concurred (Transmission | Northwest Power and Conservation Council (, saying the Northwest is blessed with such abundant and inexpensive hydropower, solar and wind power that they are beating the price of practically every other type of power.

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Net Energy Metering in Washington

Net energy metering (NEM) is largely being used in Washington for behind the meter or customer-sited solar energy generation, but it can compensate various types of distributed, energy generation. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), net energy metering can be defined as “a metering and billing arrangement designed to compensate distributed energy generation system owners for any generation that's exported to the grid.”

When solar energy is produced by solar panels, some or all of it is consumed on site. Unless the solar project is quite small compared to the amount of electricity consumed on site, some power will be exported to the grid and other customers, and the solar-equipped customer gets credit for the excess production. On a cloudy, rainy day, when panels aren't producing enough energy, the utility grid will feed your home energy and count that energy against the credits you've banked overtime.

This article summarizes the presentations made by Washington Department of Commerce's Nora Hawkins, and Shane Frye, with SnoPUD, both Solar Washington Board Members, at a May 10 Solar Washington Webinar. The full webinar, titled Net Energy Metering in Washington, is available online.

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As Microgrids Proliferate, Technology is Catching Up

When we look at who supplies our electricity, we think of local utilities. Puget Sound Energy, Avista, Pacific Power and a host of other companies and PUDs supply power to consumers and companies around Washington state.

However, factors such as more frequent power outages and a desire for energy independence and community resilience are causing a desire for more reliability. The US Department of Energy (DoE) said natural disasters and physical or cyber-attacks threaten the grid’s ability to provide power, which inconveniences customers in some cases and can cut people off from critical services. For example, attention-grabbing headlines in several newspapers last week (e.g., NY Times) warned that, according to a recent study, 800,000 Phoenix residents could require emergency care and 12,000 could die in the event that an extended power failure happened during a heat wave. Throughout the country, the grid is being challenged by ever rising energy consumption and ageing infrastructure. Moreover, some remote rural communities do not have ready access to electricity from utilities or want an alternative.

Communities, companies and government agencies are increasingly looking at installing microgrids to achieve their goals.

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The Future is Bright: How Solar Panels Will Generate Far More Power

While solar panels today provide many benefits, they are barely more than 20 percent efficient. New materials and even artificial intelligence may soon increase output tremendously.

Solar Panel Background

The process for converting sunlight into electrical current was discovered way back in 1839 by French physicist Edmond Becquerel. In 1883, New York inventor Charles Fritts created the first solar cell by coating selenium with a thin layer of gold, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that Bell Labs demonstrated the first modern silicon-based solar cells. (A Brief History of Solar Panels in Smithsonian Magazine

Ever since that demonstration, progress to increase solar panel efficiency has been slow.

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Investing in Solar for Impact and Income

While putting solar panels on your house is one of the best and most direct ways to invest in solar power and reap the benefits, there are other, or additional, options for investors to support clean energy. Opportunities include equities, investments in startups, investments in community projects and more.

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Olympia Community Solar purchasing program in Skagit County, Thurston and Mason counties !

Olympia Community Solar, a non-profit that works to make solar energy equitable and accessible to everyone, is excited to announce their third annual solar energy group purchase program, Solarize, happening from now until July 4th. This year, the Skagit Valley Clean Energy Cooperative is working in partnership with Olympia Community Solar to facilitate the program in Skagit County. The campaign also continues to include Thurston and Mason counties.

Solarize is a solar group purchasing campaign. It makes the process of installing solar power simple, affordable, and secure. By purchasing solar equipment in bulk and partnering with well-qualified installers, Olympia Community Solar helps communities to save money on solar power by leveraging their cumulative purchasing power for better prices. The last two years of Solarize have solidified this program as a regional success which has resulted in over 200 installations, totaling approximately 3.5 million dollars in investment.

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A Recycling Option for Solar Panels

We have written previously about the urgent need to find sustainable ways to manage solar panels when they reach the end of their useful life because of the glut of solar panels expected to be decommissioned by the early to mid-2030s.  

A recent paper by Jon Hurdle in YaleEnvironment360 raises some hope of a viable recycling option.  According to Hurdle, roughly 90 percent of panels decommissioned today in the U.S. end up in landfills because, at$2 to $5 per panel, it is the lower cost option.  

In Texas, a startup called SolarCycle offers, per their website, solar asset owners a low-cost and eco-friendly advanced technology platform for retiring solar panels and repurposing them for new uses.  They currently employ about 30 people and began operations last December.

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