Building a better solar energy framework.

Author:Weismantle, Kyle
 
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  1. Introduction II. An Introduction to the Nature of Solar Production A. Infrastructure Requirements B. Solar Policy Framework III. Future Viability of Solar Energy IV. Analysis of Successful European Solar Frameworks V. The U.S. Solar Framework A. Federal Policies and Incentives B. Limitations of Federal Solar Policies C. Important Issues at the State and Local Level i. State and Local Level Incentive Programs ii. Land Use and Solar Access Laws iii. Renewable Portfolio Standards iv. Interconnection Standards v. Net Metering vi. Administrative and Permitting Procedures vii. Additional Support Mechanisms and Recommendations VI. Conclusion I. INTRODUCTION

    The global threats of fossil fuel depletion and carbon dioxide emissions have led to a worldwide effort to combat these challenges through utilization of alternative sources of energy. Renewable energy technology, in particular, has experienced growth in several areas including biofuel, wind power, solar photovoltaic, and concentrating solar thermal power. (1) No renewable energy source is a perfect solution to the world's climate challenge. Biofuels could become a substitute to fossil fuels, but the resources needed to fully replace fossil resources are lacking. (2) Wind power is intermittent and lacking in energy potential. (3) Solar energy, though also a victim of intermittency due to inevitable setting of the sun and shading during cloudy weather, has immense energy potential and has benefitted from significant cost reductions. (4)

    Solar technologies fall into four main categories: photovoltaic ("PV"), concentrating solar power ("CSP"), solar water heating, and solar space heating and cooling. This article will focus on the existing solar PV policies and frameworks of the United States and certain countries within Europe. Solar PV systems employ panels made of solar cells that capture sunlight and convert it into electricity. (5) Solar PV panels, otherwise known as solar PV modules, are "typically made from solar cells combined into modules that hold about 40 cells" and can be combined together to form a solar array, which can be further interconnected to form large utility-scale PV systems. (6) These systems easily represent the largest solar energy market in the world and can be installed across all market segments: residential, non-residential (commercial, non-profit, and government), and utility-scale. (7) Continued growth of solar PV technologies in the United States and Europe is dependent upon the regulatory, policy, and incentive frameworks present in states, communities, and municipalities.

    Similar to countries in the Europe, the United States encounters barriers such as "complex solar installation permitting procedures [and] a lack of financing mechanisms for solar projects...," but additionally suffers from restrictions on solar access, inadequate interconnection standards and net metering policies, shortage of a trained workforce, and a lack of support mechanisms for utility-scale projects. (8) While the federal government has enacted several policies and incentives to support the growth of solar technologies, (9) it lacks the ability to sufficiently combat some of these issues. Energy law in the United States is also primarily regulated at the state level or lower, which effectively makes each state a separate solar market (10) and affords state and local levels of government the responsibility of instituting policies and incentives that help eliminate barriers.

    State and local governments can provide further incentive mechanisms than those already offered by the federal government in the form of tax rebates and feed-in tariffs, (11) among others. Advancement of solar technology can also be encouraged through solar access and solar rights laws, which ensure the availability of solar energy resources to individuals and companies and are important issues for state and local governments, where many different mechanisms are used to address solar access such as solar easements, ordinances, land use restrictions, homeowners' association rules, and permit requirements. (12) Additionally, solar PV technology can be encouraged at the state and local level through the comprehensive enactment of renewable portfolio standards ("RPSs"), interconnection standards, and net metering policies. (13) RPSs generally require utility companies to produce a certain amount of their electricity from renewable energy sources, (14) interconnection standards specify requirements for connecting solar technology systems to the grid, (15) and net metering allows individuals and companies to send extra electricity generated by solar technologies back to the utility network and receive credit for doing so. (16) State and local governments can also encourage solar technologies by streamlining the permitting process for the installation of solar technologies and doing more to support utility-scale projects.

    In Part II, this article introduces the nature of solar energy production with an emphasis on the policy framework and infrastructure needed for solar production in the United States and Europe. (17) Part III discusses the viability of solar energy in the renewable energy sector and as a source of electricity. (18) Part IV examines foreign strategies, particularly those used in Germany and other countries within Europe that boast successful solar markets, to support the production of solar technology within the country. (19) This examination will include suggestions as to why Germany and other European markets have decreased certain solar incentives and how we can learn from their experience. (20) Part V will address the United States solar framework. Presented within this section will be examples of towns and municipalities with model solar access laws and other forms of support and recommendations for federal, state and local governments derived from our own experience and the experience of European countries. (21) The author argues that solar energy can be the most viable future source of renewable energy in the United States, Europe, and even abroad if other countries try to emulate these recommended practices. However, in the United States, this is dependent upon state and local governments being more proactive in enacting policies and incentives that increase the availability of solar technologies to residents and businesses. Doing so would eliminate various barriers to the continued growth of solar PV energy production. If these commitments are made, the United States can make a more concerted effort towards replacing fuel and coal with solar and other renewables as main sources of electricity, which will be a necessary step toward a climate change solution.

  2. AN INTRODUCTION TO THE NATURE OF SOLAR PRODUCTION

    1. INFRASTRUCTURE REQUIREMENTS

      Solar PV panels are made up of PV cells that are created by placing a positively charged semiconductor against a negatively charged semiconductor to create an electrical field. (22) The created PV cell from this "silicon sandwich" reacts to solar energy and produces an electrical charge. (23) These cells are made usable through PV panels that can be used alone or in groups depending on the desired system size. (24) Proper installation infrastructure is crucial to the long-term stability of solar PV production systems. Outside of large utility-scale systems, panels are mainly installed on rooftops in order to avoid possible shading from trees or other structures that would reduce the system's efficiency. (25) The systems are typically installed to maximize efficiency at all times of the year by being placed "at an angle that accommodates both the high summer sun and the low winter sun ...," (26) The installation site needs to be of sufficient size and structural integrity to support the system being installed and provide access for component installation and maintenance. It is also increasingly becoming practical for solar PV panel sites to be grid-connected--having the ability to send solar power via transmission lines to a utility company. When solar PV systems are connected to a local utility, it allows buildings and residences to gain credit for excess electricity produced by the system to be fed to the utility. (27)

      Finally, systems must be built to withstand the "harshest real-world conditions" and be rigorously tested or they will not last. (28) There was no standard governing the materials used to support PV panels until October 2010 when the International Code Council's Evaluation Service ("ICCES") adopted ICC-ES Acceptance Criteria AC 428--Acceptance Criteria for Modular Framing Systems Used to Support Solar Photovoltaic ("PV") Modules. (29) The purpose of AC 428 was to "establish requirements for modular framing systems used to support photovoltaic ("PV") modules. (30) AC 428 defines "how to comply with the International Building Code (IBC) for flush roof and ground mount applications ... [and] sets the requirements for material, component and connection testing, strength and reporting." (31)

    2. SOLAR POLICY FRAMEWORK

      The policy framework present in an area is also crucial for solar PV installation because the technology is still not price competitive with conventional sources of electric power generation. (32) Laws can provide subsidies and tax incentives to help close this price gap and can require electric utilities to obtain a certain percentage of their energy supply from renewable energy sources. There are a mixture of policies used in the United States and Europe to close the price gap, some better suited for small-scale development and some that favor utility-scale projects. For example, at the residential and small-scale commercial level, U.S. citizens often run into zoning ordinances and restrictive covenants that may limit siting options or ban the use of solar PV all together, (33) thus creating the need for laws allowing residents and businesses to have access to sunlight or laws that preclude...

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