by Stephen Lacey
June 06, 2017

If you were watching NBC Nightly News last Friday night, you may have noticed a bearded editor who looked or sounded vaguely familiar.

If you blinked, you might have missed him.

In a story on the economic impact of pulling out of the Paris climate deal, NBC snuck in this 7-second quote from me: “The world is moving forward on the development of renewables no matter what. And in this country, we’re seeing a pretty miraculous transition.” 

Not exactly news, if you read GTM regularly. But the context was important.

The reporter, Anne Thompson, then pointed out that there are three times more solar and wind jobs than coal jobs in America. That stat is suddenly getting plastered everywhere -- and it has a renewed sense of urgency.

After Trump turned his back on the Paris climate deal, every major news outlet is asking whether the president can bring back coal jobs. Nearly everyone is responding with the same answer: Nope.

Even Fox News, a longtime skeptic of solar, is grappling with this new reality. Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday, grilled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt over the weekend, suggesting that he was missing the greatest economic transition in history.

Wallace put the solar jobs numbers up on the screen: "Mr. Pruitt, aren’t you focusing on the wrong thing? I want to put up some, I’m going to say, surprising statistics. Take a look at this -- the U.S. now employs more than double the number of people in the solar industry than it does in coal. Aren’t you and the president talking about protecting the horse and buggy business just as cars come on-line?" 

Take a second to let that soak in. Fox News: Aren’t you and the president talking about protecting the horse and buggy business?

If there's anything positive about this Paris debacle, it's that news outlets are talking incessantly about renewable energy jobs. The press has collectively awoken to the new reality of energy employment in this country -- and it's thrusting the issue front and center. 

This is a turning point in the jobs conversation. People are paying attention. 

Notes from Solar Summit

I will never forget the sea of astonished faces in the audience at last month's Solar Summit when Shayle Kann interviewed John Stanton about Suniva's Section 201 trade case. I don't think I've ever seen a room so captivated.

It was clear that a large portion of the attendees hadn't yet grappled with the political and economic implications of Suniva's trade complaint. Depending on how trade officials rule, the fate of downstream solar could be in Trump's hands.

After Shayle's talk with Stanton and my discussion with SEIA President Abby Hopper, I spoke with a few folks in the hallways who expressed angst, confusion and bewilderment. Could we really be going back to 2012 pricing? Is the industry really being held hostage by a single debtor? Yes and yes.

We've covered the news extensively in the Solar Lead. If you want to go deep, Shayle and I deliver a comprehensive account of what may happen on last week's Interchange podcast.

What else were people talking about? Here are some choice quotes from experts.

  • SunPower Founder Dick Swanson on areas of innovation: "If you're interested in something that's commercially viable in the near term, you should dig into this need to have system costs at 50 cents a watt. If you want to work on something that's longer-term, I think one of the most exciting areas is renewable fuels. The need to develop seasonal storage capability, the need to convert solar and wind into fuels that can be used -- whether it's hydrogen, methane ammonia, methanol."
  • SunShot's Charlie Gay on temporal value: "We've talked about how to get to 3 cents a kilowatt-hour as a generator. But there's a time value of energy and a location value of energy. And where solar goes -- and the time value -- that's the kind of thing that we're working on [at SunShot]. Being able to work with variability is increasingly possible because of the communications capability that we have."
  • First Solar CEO Mark Widmar on restructuring: "As I walked into the role [as CEO], one of the first things I wanted to do was simplify and focus the business on our core competencies. We rationalized some of the product offering, we rationalized the markets we were participating in, and then we've also just recently made a decision to leap-frog our transitionary product straight from our historical legacy product, which was a smaller form-factor product, into a much larger form-factor product."
  • GTM's Cory Honeyman on slowing 2016 residential growth: "The magnitude of the slowdown in California was so much more stark than, say, the major state markets of the Northeast or in a lot of the more emerging states that are really picking up steam. California is experiencing a different level of growing pain that the rest of residential solar is not quite experiencing at this point. So residential solar in the rest of the U.S. is still growing 30 percent year-over-year, compared to California, which is experiencing flat demand."

Watch Honeyman's full presentation on the state of U.S. solar here.

Deals to watch

Nevada's net metering reboot: Nevada legislators voted this week to bring back a tiered version of net metering. After regulators dismantled net metering in 2015, the state's residential solar market collapsed. This new version could put Nevada back in the top of the rankings, and bring national installers back to the state. What sign does this send to other states considering sweeping changes to policy?

Tucson Electric Power's solar-plus-storage PPA: The Arizona utility signed a contract for electricity from a solar-plus-storage project (100 megawatts of PV and 120 megawatt-hours of storage) for 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to Utility Dive. That's an astonishing drop compared with the last major contract for solar and batteries, which came in at 11 cents in Hawaii. The solar alone for TEP was priced at 3 cents per kilowatt-hour -- "less than half as much as it agreed to pay under similar contracts in recent years," said the utility. Is this a sign for future pricing?

Engie acquires Sungevity's European operations: After Sungevity fell apart in March, the pieces are getting picked up. The residential solar firm's 90-person European business just got acquired by Engie, the French multinational utility. Engie has been on a spending spree lately, acquiring an 80 percent stake in Green Charge Networks, buying up EV-Box, and investing in a multitude of energy management companies. Last year, top utilities spent more than $1 billion on distributed energy acquisitions or equity stakes, according to GTM Research. Activity is strong in 2017 so far.

NRG's uncertain solar future: A committee within NRG is reportedly considering selling off the company's renewable energy business in order to cut costs. The company's non-residential business is doing well, but shareholder activists led by Paul Sanger are reportedly pressuring the company to ditch solar and other renewables. Meanwhile, in just the last couple of weeks, NRG has completed 3.6 megawatts of projects at Tufts University and 32 megawatts of community projects in Minnesota. Will shareholders stall momentum, just as it's picking up?

Vivint's partnership with Mercedes-Benz: Vivint joined the ranks of top solar installers that are offering batteries to customers signing an exclusive agreement with Mercedes-Benz. The market for residential batteries is still exceedingly small (1,000 systems sold in 2016), but the major players are all hearing customers ask for storage. Are we finally at the start of a real market, or are these purely speculative moves? Sunrun offers the best data point: The residential installer has delivered 1,000 systems since launching its BrightBox last December.