Nominate an expert to the TVA board — Are you kidding?

A cub reporter is usually an impressionable young pup, and so I was 30-some years ago when I got the assignment to drive up to a central Idaho ranch to interview the brand new U.S. Ambassador to Finland.

Our intrepid blogger heads up another tough climb today.

Never having met an ambassador to anything, I was impressed by this one. An unassuming cattle rancher with more acres and beef than Tennessee has solar panels (there’s a connection – bear with me), he seemed like, and I’m sure he was, a genuinely nice guy.

He also spoke a little Finnish and had a Finnish wife to go with his Finnish last name, Nyorgard, or some such Scandinavian thing. (It was a long time ago and I never finished Finnish 101.) So I wrote a glowing article about how President Reagan had come up with the perfect man for the job.

My editor was less impressed. He hadn’t met the man, of course, so couldn’t have shared my astute insight into the perfection of the nomination. But he did have something else – the educated cynicism of someone who’d watched political processes for several decades of his own.

“He didn’t get that job because he has a name you can’t spell and speaks a language you can’t speak,” he pointed out. “He got it because he gave beaucoups bucks to the party and bought himself something to do in retirement.”

My exalted view of international diplomacy was dealt a blow. And, for that matter, my optimistic view of who gets what in the world of political appointments. Merit, it turns out, doesn’t have to do with what you know.

Dr. Marilyn Brown
To learn more about Dr. Brown’s background, visit: http://www.spp.gatech.edu/faculty/marilynbrown/biography.

So it’s not surprising – but still disappointing – that our Tennessee senators, both Republican, don’t like whom our Democratic president is trying to reappoint to the Tennessee Valley Authority board of directors: an expert on energy issues.

Heaven forbid that someone who actually knows something about what TVA does, or should be doing, gets a piece of the leadership action. Dr. Marilyn Brown, a Georgia Tech professor and former research administrator at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory with a long list of work and research mostly ending in “energy efficiency,” has been re-nominated by President Obama to a term on the TVA board after she’d been vetoed here at home back in January.

How was it that our senior senator, Lamar Alexander, phrased his thinking for the morning papers?

“This is another case of the Obama White House not listening,” his statement stated. “I told the White House… .”

Ah, there’s the crux of the problem. Our senators already rejected the expert, and are pissed the president didn’t bow down to their local authority.

What the senators apparently want is more appointments of rich people who’ve done lots for The Party. And, to be honest, have served in positions of government responsibility on the side. But how they got there too often has less to do with what they knew.

For starters, take a look at the TVA board chair, a prominent Republican friend of Alexander who has run companies and now sits on boards of directors for a living. What he knows about energy and the real utility needs of The Valley might be scratched from beneath Dr. Brown’s fingernails. What he does know about these subjects he learned from the ex-CEO of TVA, who got the utility into its enormous debt problems by resisting the retirement of coal and the promotion of energy efficiency, and by the relentless pursuit of dangerous, expensive nuclear power, contrary to the wishes of ratepayers.

Not that TVA’s current board members can’t bring good judgment to the job. Alongside the beer distributor and requisite lawyers, for instance, sits Dr. Barbara Haskew, whom I knew slightly when she was provost at a local university where I was a lowly professor. I don’t know that we agree on energy policy, but I do appreciate the fact that she put her economics training to good use as head of the TVA rate staff for eight years before being named to the TVA board of directors.

But if Dr. Brown’s case has a lesson, it’s that Sen. Alexander and junior cohort Bob Corker see her nomination as a conspiracy to do something other than what they want. Even more flabbergastory, they claim Dr. Brown is against the TVA mission of “low electricity rates and better jobs in the Tennessee Valley.”

It would be hard to argue that energy efficiency would push electricity rates up because fewer power plants would have to be built, or that legions of today’s unemployed would be better off staying at home rather than retrofitting inefficient houses to reduce demand for electricity. So our senators don’t really argue the point. They just state their misguided opinion as fact and move on, expecting the world to fall in line.

Instead of explaining themselves, they just block a nomination that might lead to conservation instead of unwarranted construction. They veto and filibuster and play politics – business as usual in the U.S. Senate, though disappointing from our two senators, who’ve been known to tiptoe into the bipartisan minority in search of the greater good.

Why we do what we do
This Sundog Solar installation produces affordable clean energy in the shadow of TVA’s largest coal-fired power plant.

Our senator pair is also unanimous in their opposition to the renewable energy future of the 21st century, stuck as they are in the coal past of the 19th century and the nuclear fantasy of the 20th.

Conventional misperceptions aside, the solar systems Sundog Solar is installing today will produce kilowatt-hours averaging $0.10 or so over the next 30 years. TVA rates, given their recent historical and expected future rise of something like 5% annually, will average twice that over the next 30 years.

In 2043, our solar customers will have electricity from their rooftops at one-fourth the prevailing price of $0.40/kWh, which is what TVA electricity will cost in 30 years if it keeps going up 5 percent per year.

Despite what they say, our senators would rather throw roadblocks in the way of the affordable clean energy future – and current employment growth in The Valley. Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy, adding jobs at a much faster rate than any traditional industry, including the utilities of the past. But not in Tennessee, where graduates of our solar training programs are un- or under-employed.

That’s not all our senators’ fault, of course. The Tennessee legislature still seems fixated on making solar more expensive, not less, since that was the position of the former – Democratic – governor. Far be it from our elected officials to promote the opposition’s policies, even if they were successful.

That’s politics. And that’s how political appointments are made.

And that ends today’s tour of the sausage factory. So spit out that perfect candidate for the TVA board. Our senators obviously know better and deserve our ignorant followership.

(Gary Wolf, a member of the board of directors of the Tennessee Solar Energy Association, is owner/lead installer of Sundog Solar Energy and writes The Sundog Blog.)

TVA’s timid “support” for solar stifles clean energy growth

Former TVA CEO Tom Kilgore (left) participates in a solar photo op, published in a 2011 cover story by Photon: The Photovoltaic Magazine about solar in Tennessee titled “Something’s Wrong Here.” Kilgore retired last fall at a TVA board meeting in Knoxville, where Sundog Blog writer Gary Wolf and other RE/EE supporters chided the TVA board for the agency’s pedestrian approach to The Valley’s energy future — and its headlong rush into nuclear power.

My first solar co-worker was even more political than I am. A native Tennessean who grew up in Georgia and came back to Tennessee for his adult life, he had no reservations about running down the state he really loves deep down.

“We’re always at the bottom of the lists,” he’d say, “always bringing up the rear.”

You know the kind of lists: college graduation rates, education spending per capita, infant mortality – and rooftop solar, too.

“Thank God for Mississippi and Alabama,” he’d joke in all seriousness. “Without them we’d be dead last.”

His lament came to mind last Friday when Georgia Power started its new Advanced Solar Initiative. Compared to what’s happening in the Tennessee Valley, “advanced” is the right word.

What’s the right word to characterize TVA’s support for solar?

The GPASI aims to add 210 megawatts of solar in the next three years. In each of the next two years, they’ll accept a total of up to 45 MW of small solar projects (up to 100 kilowatts) and medium-size solar projects (100 kW to 1MW).

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which runs the Green Power Providers (GPP) program in Tennessee and parts of six other states for small renewable energy projects (up to 50 kW), has a cap of 7.5 megawatts for 2013. Its Renewable Standard Offer-Solar Solutions Initiative (RSO-SSI) for projects up to 1MW has a cap of 10 MW.

“Timid” comes to mind. Or “stifling,” which is the effect of TVA’s timid solar program.

To be fair – fairer than TVA is willing to be, in Sundog’s humble rooftop opinion – the RSO cap is actually 100 MW. But the price they’re offering is $0.04/kWh, which is not something any solar investor is going to plunk down millions of dollars to get (so “miserly”?). The RSO-SSI component – their bone thrown to The Valley’s solar industry – adds another $0.08/kWh if the project developer uses a local installer.

So for all practical purposes, TVA will allow a maximum of 17.5 MW of solar to be built this year in Tennessee and parts of six other states (so “meager”?). Our Georgia neighbors (at least those in the smaller Georgia Power service area) will be looking at 45 MW.  And that fairly glaring difference will be magnified in the next few years as the Tennessee Valley falls farther behind its neighbor.

Golly, even tiny, cloudy Massachusetts installed 150 MW of solar last year alone and will hit its current cap of 400 soon. Tinier Maryland is aiming for 1.5 gigawatts of solar, as in BILLIONwatts, and New Jersey has a 4 GW program (though, yeah, I know, we don’t like being compared to those Yankee liberals).

So how about “meager,” “miserly,” or “begrudging” – all words used to define the word I’d really like to use but have been advised by wiser heads not to out of political correctness sensitivity, even though my word is merely an innocent homonym of the verboten one.

This is an historic occasion. I don’t mean for the states and utilities involved, though that’s true, too. I mean for us Sundoggers. This is the first time we have ever uttered a critical word about TVA other than directly to TVA’s face.

When people ask me about solar in The Valley, I have long touted TVA’s support for solar. Its production-based GPP incentive (currently $0.09/kWh above retail rates) is a great thing for homeowners and small business owners wanting to install solar (under 50 kW and limited to the site’s annual energy consumption) as a long-term investment. It’s a great way to make solar cheaper in these early days of being a little too expensive to match dirty coal, harmful big hydro and dangerous nuclear.

When I read about feed-in-tariffs as the sliced bread of solar energy markets, I always wonder why TVA’s program is never mentioned. The 10-year pilot program that led to the Green Power Providers launch last fall was one of the boosts that got solar going in The Valley, and about the only one left. Meanwhile, for instance, the only solar conversation in the Tennessee Legislature is how to make solar more expensive by boosting its property tax valuation.

Of course, TVA’s first act upon turning its long-running pilot into a permanent program was to cut its premium payment by $0.03, or 25 percent. The unofficial plan is to cut it another 3 cents next year, or 33%, and another 3 cents the following year, or 50%, and finally by 2016 it will cut its last 3 cents to nothing – a 100% elimination of any incentive to go solar, just as the 30% federal income tax credit for solar investment also expires.

That’s what I’d call TVA’s “backward” support of solar – a retreat, really. They took an early leadership role with their pilot renewable energy program a decade ago and apparently decided solar was worth nothing more than window dressing and photo opportunities while they went on with their true business of trying to build more nuclear power plants instead.

That’s not, as we like to say at Sundog, “Barking up the right tree.”

TVA’s tight, tiny caps are keeping the lid on solar in The Valley. Instead of leading its ratepayers into the future of clean energy, it assumes solar is a problem. Instead of recognizing the added value of solar energy — that its peak production comes at peak demand times, and that its distributed generation contributes to lower line losses — it considers its premium payment for solar a mere subsidy.

Notice they’re not paying for nuclear with their Green Power Switch program, which asks ratepayers to voluntarily tax themselves above usual kWh rates to donate cash so TVA can buy clean energy.

Here’s meager and miserly: Get homeowners to pay the capital cost of building generating capacity and then take their renewable energy credits – not just for the 10 years of premium payments for the solar but for another 10 years after that, when according to TVA a solar kWh has no value beyond a dirty coal or dangerous nuclear kWh – and adding insult to injury by stating in their contract that the person who paid for the solar installation also has to give up their right to brag about it, which TVA also acquires.

Georgia Power, on the other hand, lets the solar owner retain the renewable energy credits they’ve earned. That is helpful, not meager, miserly or begrudging.

Here’s one more among many differences between the Tennessee Valley Approach and Georgia’s: The latter has a Public Service Commission looking out for the public interest. TVA is accountable to no one except the hands-off, do-little Congress that created this quasi-public/private behemoth.

If we want TVA to lead us into a sunnier clean energy future, we’ll have to say so ourselves.

Gary Wolf is co-owner of and lead installer for Sundog Solar Energy LLC in Nashville, Tennessee, and writes The Sundog Blog.

 

Announcing the TSEA-Nashville Solar Tour – er, Event

The national solar homes tour this Saturday, Oct. 6, is another chance to get excited about solar energy – and that’s another thing that makes solar power different.

Tennessee’s largest coal-fired power plant isn’t far from a residence that needs a bit less of it.

When was the last time you saw the kids get excited about a coal-fired power plant?

Not that a field trip to one of those mammoths wouldn’t be interesting. Anything that big and powerful is worth standing in awe of. The sheer size, the huge furnaces, the enormous heat, the belching smoke – it’s a dinosaur worth visiting before it goes extinct.

Okay, okay, coal-fired power plants aren’t going extinct in my lifetime, maybe not in yours. But the chances of their being gone by the time the grandkids are my age is a definite possibility. At the very least and with a high degree of certainty, there will be fewer of them someday soon than there are today, replaced by solar, wind and forms of energy production we may not even know of just yet.

Seeing solar in action is a science class waiting to happen. In fact, I’ll be at a local high school later today doing exactly that. Science teachers are incorporating solar energy into their curricula, and the Tennessee Solar Energy Association is starting to help with that. Today’s lesson will be on Ohm’s Law, though we may leave the title at home. The solar panel, the solar simulator, and the voltmeter and ammeter will do just fine by themselves – along with the old comparison to water pressure (voltage) and the flow (amperage) that happens when you turn on the tap. Kids love that.

I’ve taken my little solar demonstration and solar PowerPoint to a number of schools, and I can report that youthful curiosity is high and knowledge is right behind.

Reminds me a little bit of the second Earth Day, 1990. If you were around to recall, that’s when we all learned to reduce, reuse and recycle. My small role in that play was playing the Shawnee Earth Day Trashman. I’d go to schools dressed up in my overalls with all kinds of offal hanging out the pockets and disembowel a trash bag filled with the correct proportions of materials trashed by the average American household, according to scientists who’d researched such things. Then I’d hold stuff up and let the kids tell me what could be recycled and what couldn’t, and what we should do with it all.

“Recycle!” they’d scream. “Reduce! Reuse!”

I think it was kids who got the recycling revolution going by going home and nagging their parents, though like a lot of revolutions, it got off to a great start and still has a ways to go a generation later.

Solar’s slow start is really picking up speed in this generation. It’s been almost two centuries since a teenager, Edmond Becquerel, first described the photoelectric effect of sunlight. Quite a few scientists later, it was still more than a century ago that Albert Einstein used mathematics to suggest there was such a thing as a photon, a little energy packet riding on sunbeams, that caused the photoelectric effect. Earned him a Nobel prize a few years later.

And it’s been more than a half century since NASA started using what we now consider antiques to power spacecraft up where electrical outlets have not yet been installed. Now here we are on the cusp of the 21st century, and by golly the thing really works. People are even doing it in their houses.

Take a look!

Beth and Eric Lewis are the hosts of the TSEA-Nashville solar tour, which only has the one stop, so it’s really more of an event. Much more convenient that getting out of your car every few miles, we think.

The Lewis household has a 4.2 kilowatt solar array in their front yard instead of on their roof, so that makes it easy to see up close. You can actually touch a solar panel there, no harm, no foul. They also have a solar thermal panel on their house to heat their water, and Eric recently built a portable solar generator so he can have power on construction sites for his contractor business.

Come see – 7978 Highway 100 in Bellevue – all day Saturday.

Sundog Solar will be there with a boothful of information, a variety of solar panels and solar installation paraphernalia for your inspection, our solar simulator and classroom science experiment, and even a renewable energy science kit that might be a good item for any curious kid’s Christmas list, ages 8-108 according to the box.

The sun has been here longer than any of us, and will probably stick around for a while. Solar energy has arrived, just in time for the future. Make your date with it this Saturday.

(Gary Wolf, a solar installer and board member of the Tennessee Solar Energy Association, will be happy to talk solar at Nashville’s stop on the national solar homes tour this Saturday.)

What Do We Do When It’s All Done?

There’s something sad about seeing the booths come down.

The displays disassembled, wires spilling onto the floor, all the things so many have been so eager to see all week being packed up and hidden away for another time. People rushing to get out the door.

The conference crowd thinning all day Thursday, too, and smaller to start with than the day before. No multitudes at Solar Power International once Bill Clinton gave the keynote address and the masses poured off to their respective happy hours and a final reception, leaving just us solar addicts and the general public to prowl the floor on Thursday and linger for the last workshops.

There’s a letdown after it’s all done. We’ve heard the speeches, traded business cards hundreds of times, shaken hands and promised to get in touch, get information to each other. Now we’re on the road, in the air, negotiating airports, highways, strange exits and a last motel room or two on the way home. Relaxing for the first time in days, just sitting, closing our eyes and letting go a little bit.

What do we do when it’s all done?

Oh, sure, we’ll get that information to and from each other. I’ll start chasing down that special jumper cable we need to finish that job off West End, and refresh my memory on the array layout for the job in Old Hickory so we can get the rails up on Tuesday. There will be conference calls and meetings, the ASES solar tour, the TSEA workshops, the TEC Sustainable Summit. And more installations in between.

We’ve all got our own work details to tend to, to slide back into. But what about SPI?

We all came to Solar Power International for myriad reasons, but the big one we all share was to double down on this young solar industry, to gather up a little more inspiration to lean into the sunshine and pull that heavy load of the past along behind us. We’ll especially need that extra strength in the next couple of months as the election season heats up and threatens to singe our young industry.

Will we have stored enough energy from a few days at Solar Power Inspirational? Will we remember the pride Bill Clinton gave us when he reminded us we’re in the future business, that he saw the future in us? Will these “best of times” Rhone Resch sketched for us float us through the “worst of times” he also described? Do we have the energy to boost our young industry to the exponential growth scenario Julia Hamm put out there, just beyond our grasp so we’d have to reach for it?

I’m feeling the post-conference letdown Friday morning. Seeing the booths in the exhibition hall being torn apart yesterday afternoon, I felt a moment of panic – wait, I’ve got more questions to get answered by this wonderful collection of experts, more new products to see, not yet found that big deal to close, that insight that makes it all make sense.

Some of those booths we saw this year won’t be there next year. We already saw fewer panel manufacturers this year, and even though I saw some new brands this week I’d never heard of before, I bet we see fewer next year, that we’ll never hear from again.

And I bet many of us will be in different jobs when SPI 2013 rolls around. It amazed me this year, just in the last few months but again in the last few days, to witness the musical chairs game my solar distributor reps have been playing. A few have disappeared altogether but quite a few more have been changing hats and brands. Michael was here but now he’s there, like Kyle and Doug, too, though I don’t know where he is now, or Carlos, or Hans, or Dan, and Marty’s been several places. And that’s just the reps – the tech support guys have been moving around, too. I imagine I’d be saying the same thing about upper management if I traveled in their circles.

That could represent opportunity knocking, or a lack of sales, corporate restructuring, maybe all three. It’s certainly the uncertainty of an industry still bubbling in the cauldron and occasionally in turmoil. Maybe that’s where this sense of dread comes from.

Or maybe it’s because we turned on the television last night, and saw the Middle East melting before our eyes again. That alone can bring a sense of dread, multiplied in the thought that so many external factors determine our success in the solar business, too, regardless of how hard we work, how good our plan is.

Large corporations like those with the big booths at SPI, the young hopefuls with the small booths and a new idea or a new version of old products, even tiny little mom&pop installers like our Sundog padding the aisles, we all have not only our own struggles but the large and multiple forces of the outside world to contend with. Can we?

The Middle East has been a sore spot for so long, it’s hard to remember that Muslims, Jews and Christians have lived there peacefully for most of history, negotiating community in so many ways but mostly between individuals, within the confines of a larger box that also defines the playing field. That’s the way we’ll have to do it, too.

Go through that stack of business cards, get that information, remake that contact into future business. Leave behind, climb beyond that sense of dread, and press on.

Everyone I talked to at SPI was in a good mood. Sure, some were being friendly because they’re paid to, because it helps with selling. But it helps with explaining and persuading, too. And I think most of us were in a good mood because we like what we’re doing, want to do more of it, and want other people to do it, too.

The future is inevitable, but not its details. That’s what we make. We have a weekend to enjoy, and then, come Monday morning, we start making the future again. If it ain’t pretty today, we’ll just have to make it that way.

So let’s have some fun, then get back to work and have some more.

(Follow the progress of Sundog Solar Energy on The Sundog Blog as it returns from Solar Power International 2012 to its workaday world in Nashville, Tennessee, to see how its little company’s growth reflects the rest of the solar industry.)

Our Past President Puts Us in the Future Business

We came to SPI to see if solar power could give us inspiration, and we got a good bit from Bill Clinton.

His voice is a little thinner now, his face not as robust as it once was. His hand, his little finger, trembled a bit between gestures. He’s a well-worn traveler, and shows the wear of eight years of weight on his shoulders, still showing 12 years later. But it’s not hard to recall why America liked him so much and forgave him so much.

“You’re going to win this battle, you know,” our former president told us in his keynote address at Solar Power International Wednesday. “The only question is when and where and how.”

Yes, solar power is in a battle to prove itself, a battle to build “creative cooperation” in an era of “constant conflict,” as he put it. We know solar works, we know it’s clean and the fuel is free, boundless and endless – no leaks, no spills, no kills – and we know the price is coming down even faster than Congress’ approval ratings.

What’s missing?

“The American people need to know more than they know,” Clinton suggested, and then went through the lessons.

They need to know more than 100,000 Americans have jobs in the solar industry – more employment than the coal industry provides. They need to know that the solar industry is expanding, more than doubling every year, while the rest of the economy limps along.

And they need to know public support for solar shouldn’t be limited to opinion polls, which say the overwhelming majority of Americans support solar. Public support, Clinton suggests, should translate into government support.

“No country is developing renewable energy without government support,” he said, just as no country has developed any form of energy without government support. The American people need to know the public subsidy for coal and nuclear is 22 times our subsidy of clean energy, that the subsidy of fossil fuels goes back more than a century and will continue well into the future while clean energy looks forward to paying its own way in the next generation.

Clinton pointed to a study coming out of Sundog’s home state of Tennessee. The Baker Center, part of the legacy of Sen. Howard Baker, a Republican, says current support for renewable energy is in line with the government support given all forms of energy in their development stages.

It’s something all developed nations are now doing: “Those countries coming out of economic problems all have a strong clean energy policy,” Clinton said. “Government support and a vibrant private sector have catapulted renewable energy to the forefront.”

In Germany, he noted – a country that has the solar resource of foggy London town – solar energy provides as much electricity as 12 nuclear power plants. No wonder it has such broad support. Even Deutsche Bank, no liberal giveaway proponent, reports that 300,000 Germans have jobs in the solar industry – three times as many as in America even though their population is a fourth of ours.

Even such a non-liberal bunch as the insurance industry gets what some of our politicians refuse to admit: Climate change is real. The re-insurance companies, Clinton pointed out, have seen their exposure double twice in the last two decades because of it. In some Atlantic coastal states, a political hotbed of climate change denial, politicians are nonetheless trying to figure out how to protect homes and an eroding shoreline from rising sea levels.

Clinton has experience with solar power. The Clinton Presidential Library, he pointed out with pride, was the first federal building to get a platinum LEED rating. Now that’s putting the Leadership in LEED.

But he has plans for more. The price of solar has come down so drastically, he noted, that he’s embarrassed how little electricity comes from the library’s solar array. So he joked, apparently seriously, that he’s taking bids to expand the array. Sundog’s mind leapt to where a good portion of the room was heading at that moment. Now we just need to get the rest of the country there.

Clinton is elsewhere. His efforts in Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere and still recovering from a devastating earthquake almost three years ago, have helped that country start down the solar energy path. Thanks to all those diesel generators that dot the islands, the Caribbean has the highest electricity rates in the world, and Haiti the highest in the Caribbean.

The poorest people and the highest electricity rates – no wonder 80 percent of the population has no electricity at all, he noted. But the region also has some of the best sun and wind resources in the world. And now, thanks to government policy, new homes need to have two things: a hygienic water system and a design that would accommodate solar panels. That’s thinking ahead, planning ahead to a better day.

America, on the other hand, is still struggling to get out of the past, and some of its politicians would like to take us back to the 19th century heyday of coal and oil. The United States, Clinton said, has the best combined wind and solar resource in the world, and yet current projections for 2030 put us well down the list of nations employing renewable energy.

“If we aren’t number one in renewable energy by then, shame on us.

“People who are thinking about the future are going there,” Clinton told us at SPI 2012, reminding us that we were a roomful of entrepreneurs and innovators. “You represent to me the possibility of putting America in the future business.”

Thank you, Mr. President. Now let’s get on with it.

(Follow Sundog Solar Energy’s development as a solar design and installation entrepreneur – and renewable energy advocate – as mom&pop owners Jane and Gary go home to Nashville after a week in Orlando at Solar Power International.)

Like a Puppy in a Toy Store

All the new toys!

Beware, readers: If you’re here for entertainment or grand thoughts, go back to previous Sundog blogs. This one is for people who aren’t bored reading about equipment.

Owners of solar systems only see the parts they have installed on their home or business, and even we solar installers only see what we routinely install. At a trade show – like Solar Power International in Orlando, where The Sundog Blog is visiting (and launching) this week – we get to see a ton of stuff, including some we didn’t know about and others we’ve read about but hadn’t had our paws on yet.

I guess that goes for solar panels. They are, after all, what it’s all about, and still the biggest chunk of the price of a solar system. But for the most part, it’s hard to see what’s new in a panel. That would be its efficiency, the total number of watts, which keeps going up. Look at a label and you see that.

Fewer panel manufacturers are at SPI this year, and that’s probably the big news. Consolidation is shaking out this market. Some companies are just plain out of business, as none are making money during this time of oversupply and falling prices.

SunPower, one of the leading U.S. panel manufacturers, didn’t even have a booth, although its CEO was on a panel discussion the opening night of SPI and no one expects the company to disappear any time soon. Pulled out of the other big solar trade show in San Francisco earlier this year, too. Probably more to do with their unique marketing strategy (through authorized dealers only), and maybe cutting costs, than a sign they’ll be closing the doors soon.

SolarWorld, whose unpopular (in some installer circles) Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing includes our tiny little Sundog, is showing off its new Sunmodules at SPI — standard 60-cell modules that raise the standard to 265 and 270 watts.

When I started carrying solar panels up to roofs six years ago, they were typically 170 watts. That shows you how things have changed in the solar business.

A new entrant, Solopower, was there with a new panel for the U.S. market – a CIGS thin film panel, a flexible, lightweight monster that will try to capture a slice of the large commercial rooftop market. The c-Si/thin film conversation is still viable.

Thanks to the trade complaint and tariff on Chinese panels, a trend towards other Asian manufacturers could be seen, including consumer brands like Samsung and LG, though there were quite a few Chinese companies in the hall, too, most prominently Suntech, the world’s leading supplier in sheer volume, which has an assembly plant in Arizona for one of its models.

Sharp, the former world leader from Japan with an assembly plant in Sundog’s home state of Tennessee, appears to be making a push to come back, judging from its spacious booth. Samsung, a Korean manufacturer, had a big presence. And it was nice to see our new friends from Taiwan, Renogy, who have a plant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and visited with us in Nashville.

Had to visit with folks at Mage Solar, a German company that has a Georgia facility, where one of my former solar school students now heads their Solar Academy to provide installer training. Mage’s big welcoming booth let me see another new trend – their ac panel. Several companies have these now, and you’ll be seeing more, I bet, though installers are still wary of putting so much electronics in the heat of a roof.

Mage’s ac panel comes with a 30-year warranty on both the panel and the inverter, so that will likely be attractive in the marketplace and could be the next trend, the way SolarWorld set the bar with the linear warranty others have adopted.

Like many ac panels, Mage’s uses a Solarbridge microinverter, the only way Solarbridge micros are used. The ac panels themselves are a newer trend and independent micros is still a growing trend, so there were several opportunities to have “the capacitor conversation,” juggling longer-life claims among eletrolytic, thin film and porcelain.

We met at least two relatively new U.S. manufacturers. Advanced Solar Photonics is a local host of sorts, providing a tour of its nearby production facility and its 1.8 megawatt rooftop array. And 1SolTech, a Texas company, had an impressive lineup of modules, including a bifacial panel that shows — as did many other brands — that they’re willing to play with design and see what the market will respond to. Saw several concentrating modules, too. Future stuff, efforts to innovate right before our eyes.

Market response is a big question in the solar panel business, which highlights the global part of the “global marketplace.” It was hard not to notice the international flavor of the SPI crowd, both in the booths and on the floor.

Saw more designs for carports than I knew existed. Some are just for large parking lots, but a number seemed ideally suited for electrical vehicle charging stations – a sign of bigger things to come, I’d say. There’s no technical reason solar should be wedded to car charging; the grid is the natural spouse of both. But as a marketing, infrastructure trend, look for solar and EVs to hook up.

Especially liked one new solar carport for its looks but also that it changes the whole form — the WATTLOTS “Solar Media Station.”

Its elegant design puts specially made (sized and shaped) Soltech solar panels on a series of arms that extend from a central post over several parking spaces, providing shade on hot sunny days as well as electricity, and also shedding snow and ice in winter. This lets the panels be tilted optimally instead of flat or nearly so like on many carports, with no inter-row shading. A tracking unit in the base turns the panels throughout the day to boost production further.

Racking showed as much new stuff as anyone — so many ways of doing essentially the same thing, or at least two or three things. Several tracker designs. Heyco was there with more samples of their wire management tricks, and Mudge Fasteners showed off the variety of what’s available in stainless hardware and pipe flashings.

Lots of inverters to look at, starting at Schneider Electric’s booth. The electric parts powerhouse recently bought Xantrex, one of the older names in the solar world. The lineup has gotten a makeover and the nameplate is definitely new. Forget Xantrex (they’d probably like you to), and think Schneider. The lineup still features off-grid inverters, with a bigger range and more features than their competitors offer.

A big star of the day was the new single-panel microinverter from SMA. We’d gotten a glimpse of it at a regional training forum at home in Nashville a couple of months ago, but we got a much better look yesterday at SPI, where SMA, the market leader in residential and small commercial inverters, is the biggest single sponsor of this international trade show.

It’s a pretty little thing. “Sweet,” as the young folks say nowadays. (Or am I so old that I’m already behind the times on current slang?)

The new wrinkle is that SMA doesn’t recommend you use their microinverter for an entire array. Instead, they’re pitching it as a piece of a puzzle built around the traditional Sunny Boy inverter. Use microinverters to get a few extra panels up that wouldn’t make a whole string, they suggest, or in those spots that get occasional shade, or on a roof orientation or tilt that’s different from the bulk of the array.

Microinverters in any of those spots will boost production, and using a traditional string inverter for most of the array will boost return on investment. In other words, the cost-per-watt of a microinverter is still higher than it is for a string inverter. But an array full of microinverters alone is still possible, of course.

SMA had its whole lineup on display in its “booth” (more floor space than the entire Sundog “home office,” bedrooms included). Especially helpful is an ac combiner box that brings the output of those microinverters and Sunny Boys together.

The Sunny Boy paired with the micros display is also a new wrinkle. First, it’s one of the transformerless variety that have started showing up increasingly in the last year or so, but this one had a new feature: It powers an ac plug in the event of a power outage.

Normally, grid-tied solar owners lose all power when the grid goes down – a safety feature for utility workers. But this new inverter lets the array keep producing, and lets a homeowner plug in a computer, radio, or phone chargers, delivering up to 12 amps of 120-volt power – enough for an emergency outage. No batteries, though, so it’s a daytime power only.

I’m told this is a very popular inverter in Japan, where they have some experience with emergency power outages in the daytime. We’ll see if the U.S. market responds similarly, considering that most outages are from trees downed by overnight storms. At least there’d be some household power the next day while utility crews scramble to get lines back online.

When the big tornado came through Nashville 15 years ago, wife Jane (single then, and not yet Sundog’s Cheap Financial Officer) was out of power for a month. I bet she would have loved to have had SMA’s new wrinkle back then.

Of course, way back then no one had solar PV in Nashville. My, how times change.

(Keep up with solar industry trends as The Sundog Blog visits Solar Power International in Orlando, Florida. Next up: Bill Clinton’s keynote speech. To get warmed up, read Sundog’s second blog, “The Last Time I Heard Bill Clinton Speak.”)

Cheer and Trembling at SPI’s Opening

 

               “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity… .”

Charles Dickens summed it up best, and Rhone Resch made sense of it for us.

The president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, one of the organizations sponsoring the Solar Power International trade show Sundog is visiting this week, Resch thought the book his daughter brought home from school as a reading assignment had lessons for those of us in the solar industry. He spoke last night at SPI’s opening session.

Our young businesses, small and large, are growing by leaps and bounds but few are turning a profit; some are being bought up and others are going out of business. Brave souls and great minds see the wisdom of going solar, but small, reactionary minds want to march us backward. Some accept that solar must be a significant part of our energy future but others disparage what is clean, abundant and free (fuel from the sun).

Solar Power International is kicking off just the way The Sundog Blog has this past week – full of optimism and obvious reasons to keep at it, but fully recognizing the realities, constraints and lingering issues to be dealt with.

But first, the good news, which contains similar strains. Sundog’s milestone came and went without a hitch yesterday. A few wrinkles, maybe, but nothing the guys couldn’t handle.

Makes a papa proud.

Co-geezer and Master Scaffolder Rob shares the following proof – early in the afternoon, by the way – of a successful Sundog workday.  Our milestone, you may recall, was that this is the first day a Sundog crew has been on the job without the boss in tow. His absence doesn’t seem to have hindered them. He may just play hooky again today, when the SPI exhibition hall opens.

But let me linger awhile. This small array was no easy feat, and there was a smaller sub-array on an adjacent roof. The roof was high and steep, the racking (not our design) primitive and inconvenient at best. Rob and Robert worked the ropes, getting panels, parts and tools up to the roof, where Jeremy, Jason and Justin got the array (removed for re-roofing after hail damage, but notice: not to the panels) re-placed and re-working after some tricky rewiring.

Ah, the boss is happy.

But back at the SPI Ranch, the critters are restless. Resch is worried that the coming presidential election – mean, superficial and dispiriting as it already is – will only get worse, inflicting serious collateral damage to the solar industry.

If you’re in one of the swing states, you’ve already seen the ads. By one count, 4 out of 5 are aimed at making clean energy the latest national tar baby. Resch reported that conservative PACs and oil business interests have already spent $24 million telling Americans solar doesn’t work and renewable energy investment is a waste of money. The Koch brothers, financiers of the “Let’s go back to the 19th century” crowd, have pledged $100 million to turn the clock back.

It’s not just ideology. The right wing is scared. The phenomenal growth of the renewable energy industry is not what the dirty power folks want to see, and they’re willing – nay, anxious – to turn one of the bright spots in the economy into yesterday’s fad.

It is the best of times for solar. Total installed capacity more than doubled last year. We went over the 1 gigawatt mark for the first time ever and almost lapped ourselves, actually installing 1.8 gigawatts in 2011. That’s giga, as in billions of watts of power.

In just the second quarter of 2012, 742 megawatts of capacity were installed, according to SEIA’s latest figures, 45% more than in the first three months of the year. And because this huge jump was mostly utility scale and large commercial solar systems, the average price of solar came down by 22 percent.

What other segment of the economy that’s growing like that and getting a fifth cheaper would the reactionaries want to brake back to the past?

As inevitable as solar’s growth seems to anyone peering into the future, Resch worries that the political season will be more than ads. For instance:

  • Two bills in Congress, including one co-sponsored by the Republican candidate for vice president, would eliminate the investment tax credit for solar now instead of waiting for it to expire in 2016.
  • The Koch brothers’ front group has organized a campaign in Colorado to challenge that state’s renewable portfolio standard, the goal or requirement that’s driving the growth of renewable energy in more than three dozen states that have adopted an RPS. If they’re successful in Colorado, the effort will spread.

Julia Hamm, president of the Solar Electric Power Association and founder of SPI, suggested three scenarios for where the solar industry might be in 20 years:

  1. Solar continues to grow exponentially, and by 2030 reaches its potential of powering 30 percent of the nation’s energy needs.
  2. Solar’s growth is merely stable, and represents 5-10 percent of the U.S. energy portfolio.
  3. Growth stalls, solar remains a fringe player, and we’ve all found other lines of work.

You can guess which door Sundog wants to open. This old dog probably won’t be getting on any roofs 20 years from now, but he’d sure like to see that young crew live out its hopes.  What would it take?

Hamm suggested cooperation and collaboration, interests coming together instead of splintering. Given where the country is today, that seems a tall order.

But a panel discussion of CEOs that followed Hamm and Resch’s talks at SPI last night was more optimistic. More grounded and less starry-eyed than I, the energy corporate bigwigs nonetheless discounted the season’s discontent. They see the inevitability of solar’s growth, a boom in green investment, an explosion of green jobs – not easily done, but done nonetheless, sort of like getting an array onto a difficult roof.

Can you see this dog’s tongue hanging out? I’ll be there in the morning when the SPI exhibition hall opens, panting with anticipation to see all the new toys. Throw me a bone, guys!

(Keep up with The Sundog Blog’s visit to Solar Power International in Orlando this week at SundogBlog.SundogSolarEnergy.com.)

Bumps, Bruises and Better Days

I’m not sure people realize how hard going solar is, or I should say “doing solar.”

Going solar – what homeowners, businesses buying solar systems and our nation as a whole are doing – ain’t no piece of cake. Our young industry “doing solar” has been proving it on a regular basis: investment way ahead of return, technology still chasing grid parity, subsidy sins, price battles and now this nasty little trade war.

Our customers who ultimately pay for it all know the cost of going solar from the bottom line they sign, since it’s their considerable up-front investment that pays our big bills. But while their solar systems are going up, they sometimes see how hard doing solar can be. The installation business, and maybe the work of the entire industry, should come with the same basic instruction I gave my media writing students a couple of decades ago: Caution – some heavy lifting may be required.

And I don’t just mean getting those 50-pound chunks of glass on the roof. It starts with that act of courage and leap of faith into the solar business, but this morning I’m thinking about the many details that go into an installation. Or I should say, our current installation, the kind of thing you wake up at 4:00 in the morning thinking about. That’s not easy to live with, much less sleep with.

Yesterday we were on a pretty steep roof. Last week I was on a low, not-so-steep roof doing a site survey when the client looked up and said, “Oh, I couldn’t do your job.” If she thought that looked hard, she should have been on yesterday’s roof.

The day before that we were in the attic running conduit. It was even hotter than the roof was steep. When Robert, one of the young solar school graduates, and I came out, it looked like we’d gone swimming, not solaring.

Have I said this yet? Doing solar is hard work.

Talking to the 20 tire-kickers to find the authentic solar pioneer, sorting through hundreds of module brands at thousands of prices to find the best buy for the client, working out the myriad details of what goes where in an installation and on an electrical schematic, manning the booth at trade shows and visiting school classes to show off the marvel of solar energy – all the planning, procuring and promoting that goes into building a business that’s part of birthing an industry.

Then there are the skinned knuckles scraped across asphalt shingles, the sore spot where I hit the soft spot in my hand with the screw gun, the 60-something joints that unbend a lot slower than they bend into those pretzel shapes putting up solar often requires.

It’s a good thing doing solar is so much fun.

We were having so much fun last week that Sundog has reached a new milestone. Monday morning will be the first day the crew has been to work without the boss, because he has somewhere else to be with the initials S-P-I.

Co-geezer and Master Scaffolder Rob (also Robert, but not to be confused with young Robert – see how easy it is for this business to get complicated?) will be in charge of the young solar school graduates, so I’m confident wisdom will prevail and all will be well.  But at 4:15 on Sunday morning I worry that our departure for SPI, delayed by an extra day on the job, should have been delayed several more days.

That’s difficult. Almost as difficult as another consequence: Proving the spouse right. Again.

Wife Jane, our pro bono Cheap Financial Officer (atty. ret.), has promulgated what is known around the home office as “Janie’s Law: It’s going to take longer than you think, cost more than you think, and you’re going to make less than you think.”

Doesn’t take being on a roof to see that, but getting up and down quite a few times sure brings Janie’s legal lesson home. I imagine it’s a law others in the solar business have been learning, too, even if they’re on the factory floor or sales floor or convention floor instead of “doing solar” on a rooftop.

Fortunately for me, the current client is a patient, kind man, a solar pioneer who’s more interested in the long legacy his solar system will leave his family than the extra few days it will take to get the details right. Our growing pains learning to do things right are a pain to him, but merely a pain. That scaffolding on his back patio will be gone in a few days and he’ll be able to enjoy free fuel from the sun (no leaks, no spills, no kills) at his leisure. And he knows it.

And appreciates it. So our growing pains are worth it. Maybe the general public does indeed know how hard going solar is. And I think those who want to do it don’t mind.

Whether it’s a module manufacturer boasting that less money was lost last quarter than expected, or a young solar worker still fretting about the NABCEP entry-level exam he took last month, a young industry will have its ups and downs. We’re starting down low because we’re starting at ground zero, but our long-range forecast is up, up, putting solar up and climbing to scalability and profitability, one phone call and turn of a wrench at a time.

So Janie and I will get in the car early this morning for that 12-hour drive to Orlando, looking for our next upper at Solar Power Inspirational. See you there.

(Follow the travails of Sundog Solar Energy and the travels of its co-owners on the Sundog Blog at the Solar Power International trade show in Orlando this coming week.)

The Last Time I Heard Bill Clinton Speak

Solar guy that I am, I’m looking forward to all the nerdy, technical workshops at Solar Power International this coming week. But a highlight is going to be the keynote speech Wednesday afternoon by a certain former politician – Bill Clinton.

After all, he’s warmed up for it, having just given the keynote speech at the Democratic national convention Wednesday night. Did you hear it? Did you hear him mention green jobs? We did.

He raised some headlines with a speech last month at the National Clean Energy Summit. He spoke then about what could, should be an explosion of green jobs (as I’m sure he’ll tell us at SPI), but the sound bite that got some play followed his observation about something he saw on a tour of a huge solar farm –  workers with tattoos.

“The more people with visible tattoos who advocate for clean energy,” he said, “the more success it will have in Washington. …You win the tattooed vote and we’ll have the damnedest environmental policy anybody ever saw.”

He’d like my wife, Sundog’s Cheap Financial Officer. She’s got five tattoos of her own. Real pretty ones. “I may not be an artist,” she likes to say, “but I am a gallery.”

No trendy latecomer to body art, she brags that she got her first one at Mardi Gras in 1972, about the time Bill met Hillary. “Why, I’ve got body jewelry older than you are,” Janie brags to young kids who’ll listen.

They don’t, of course, but my how time flies. Hard to remember B.C. – before Clinton. 1992 seems like a long time ago. I guess it was – 20 years. A lot has happened since then.

For one thing, Bill Clinton got to be a little more famous in the meantime. Not content with being just a Former Leader of the Free World, he continues to make news. The Clinton Global Initiative and his work helping Haiti are pretty big stuff, but here we are at the country’s largest solar conference waiting to hear his keynote thoughts on our young industry. Janie and I are looking forward to it.

The last time I heard Bill Clinton speak he wasn’t so famous. It was the fall before his 1992 election, late October 1991. He was merely the governor of Arkansas then, and not yet a household name. That fact would come back to haunt me a couple of hours later.

He came through Southern Illinois on a fundraising trip for his budding presidential campaign. I’d left the local regional newspaper the year before to study up on my profession, journalism, and had a weekly public affairs program on the university PBS affiliate. Snagging an interview with a presidential candidate seemed like a good idea.

“His people” were friendly and encouraging to “my people” (me), but decidedly undecided about scheduling an interview. So I went to the speech, found it insightful despite my reporter’s cynicism, and then hightailed it for the local airport with my camera crew. It was one of those little two-seater airports where you get your luggage at a door. Not hard to find someone there.

Figured that’s where he’d be headed, and figured he wouldn’t be able to resist our little spotlight. Right on both counts.

It was a little before midnight when he finally arrived. “His people” tried to usher him on through to the waiting plane, but a pair of chairs set up for a two-camera shoot can be enticing to an ambitious politician. He excused himself for a minute to call Hillary and say he’d be late. It was her birthday, he explained, and the party at the governor’s mansion was already in progress.

I’d done a little research so I could give him a nice, detailed introduction for our live-to-tape format, and then lobbed him a softball opener straight from his earlier speech, in which he’d given an excellent analysis of the breakup of the Soviet Union. The guy was a policy wonk in homecoming king clothing.

But his answer on camera was lame by comparison. It threw me. Only after the interview did I guess why, when my producer told me I had inadvertently introduced him as Gov. Bob Clinton. I knew his name was Bill, but muscle memory just hadn’t settled in yet, I guess.

So I’m sure that threw him. He was probably wondering why he’d sat down with this Podunk yo-yo.  I’m sure he was really wondering when we got to my final question.

It was probably a William Greider article in Rolling Stone that I’d read, something about how state troopers had helped the governor with his female friends. It wasn’t part of the national conversation yet, but remembering the Monkey Business from a previous affair, I figured it was worth asking: “Are you ready for the kind of scrutiny that, say, Gary Hart got four years ago?”

Funny, he seemed better prepared this time. And several months later, after Gennifer Flowers had become part of the national conversation, Clinton repeated the answer he gave me pretty much word for word as his wife sat next to him before a 60 Minutes three-camera shoot. Except she added her own few cents worth, something about cookies and Tammy Wynette.

As prepared as he was, my 20 minutes with Bill Clinton must surely have spooked him. He had to be thinking, “Wow, this guy doesn’t even know my first name but he knows things he shouldn’t.” He had to have seen all that coming in the days, months and years ahead.

And we’ve seen so much come along since – global warming, the gusher in the gulf, Fukushima, fracking, mountaintop removal, several coal mine disasters that have killed hundreds, the coal ash spill that is Tennessee’s worst environmental disaster ever. And through it all, Bill Clinton has kept his wandering eye focused on the important stuff.

He’s helped Haiti get solar power as a small step toward recovering from its own unnatural disaster. When he visits Ethiopia, he shares the spotlight with the Solar Energy Foundation’s work there. He’s taken a look at global energy policies and recognized that if Germany can go solar with a solar resource equal to Alaska’s, the rest of us probably can, too.

And when Jon Stewart gets him on the Daily Show, Clinton turns the talk to energy policy instead of the things late night comics prefer to talk about. Wish I’d done that.

So keep talking, Mr. President. We’re all ears.

 

 

The Inaugural Sundog Blog

Labor Day, September 2012

Out to Launch — and Launching for SPI

Starting any new business is an act of courage. Starting a solar business is a leap of faith.

Oh, that might not be so true in California, New Jersey or Louisiana, where even Republican governors support solar. But in Tennessee these days, going solar is still a calling more than a smart career choice.

That’s especially true for Janie and me. Entering our graying years as we are, we should be planning our retirement instead of shaping a new career – our new career in a young industry still struggling to get off the ground here in the Volunteer State.

And that’s with our former governor (Democrat) and some of his former cabinet now in the solar business (Silicon Ranch) and our current governor (Republican) the former mayor of a federally designated Solar City (Knoxville).

And now we’re in a presidential election season, featuring the solar industry as one of its punching bag issues. Step right up, invest in a solar startup, be first in line to be punched in the face.

If you’re trying to see the state of the solar industry nationally, look up its tail end at us.

Tennessee began to think of itself as a “solar state” a few years ago. We already had a brand-name module manufacturer when two major silicon refiners started spending millions on new plants here, a glass plant was retooled to produce the weightier part of solar panels, and an electrical parts manufacturer became a combiner box powerhouse. But those are manufacturing jobs. The former governor’s policy was a jobs policy, not an energy policy or a solar policy.

Tennessee has actually gotten its share of large solar farms, but the Tennesseans getting solar training at local vocational schools are still lining up at the unemployment office. Out-of-state, even out-of-the-country solar companies are getting those projects, though they sometimes brag about how they’re recruiting at local temp agencies.

Not that our mom and pop operation would have been in line for those multi-acre engineering feats. So I guess we’re talking about what economists call “competing business models” and “market segmentation.” Yup, looks like bits and pieces from down here on the ground-floor level all right.

Some recent crumbs have come our way from other solar companies – companies going out of business. Two so far this summer got in touch with us about taking over their jobs as they turned out the lights.

When Photon magazine profiled the Tennessee solar industry last year, the cover story posed a pertinent question: “What’s missing?” And followed up with another: “Can Tennessee keep its solar installers working?”

Nope, not the State of Tennessee. That would require an energy policy, a solar program. Some reason to go solar other than the leap of faith we’re taking. The only solar discussion our legislature has had (this is going to be hard to believe, so slow down and read it twice) was about how to make solar more expensive than it already is.

The state had a solar program, using pollution fines and then Obama stimulus money. Gone. The Tennessee Solar Institute kaput with it.

Luckily, there are some brave souls living in Tennessee, these Volunteers, willing to muster a little courage and go solar on their own. And not all of them are misty-eyed treehuggers. Our very first customer was a helicopter pilot retired from all three branches of the military who preferred Glenn Beck to Barack Obama. Homeowners, people in business for themselves, a few local governments, a kid’s camp, a certain former vice president. Tennessee has its solar pioneers.

Of course, they’re not going solar entirely on their own. The Tennessee Valley Authority has one of those feed-in-tariffs you read about, though you’ve probably not read about this one. Not sure why it comes up so rarely, but it does – or doesn’t.

Regardless, TVA buys solar kilowatt-hours at 12 cents above retail. That lets owners of small solar installations double their money when they buy their solar production back from the local distributor. It’s a pretty good incentive to go solar, although TVA is planning – in its first major action after making a 12-year pilot program permanent this fall – to start scaling it back in January.

Just in time for us to scale up our little solar installation business. We’ve been growing it for two years now, and I’ve been in the solar business for six years – one of the original employees of the original solar installation company in the state.

There’s a reality check: One of the most experienced solar installers in the state is an old English major and self-taught electrician who’s been in the business all of six years. As much as anything, that shows how young our industry is, even if I am getting old just in time for a fresh start.

So the van is tooled up, I’ve got a crew of young hopefuls fresh out of solar school and another geezer like me with even more relevant life experience. It’s a little before dawn on Labor Day as I write this, and we’re supposed to be on a roof in a few hours. Rain will probably prevent that, but not our attitudes.

After all, Tennessee is the Volunteer State. TVA is retiring coal-fired power by the barge-load, retiring its solar-begrudging CEO (who, just by coincidence, just happens to be on the policy-setting executive committee of the nuclear industry’s business/lobbying association), and trying to figure out how to pay for the big coal ash spill that is the state’s worst environmental disaster ever.

So we’re ready in our tiny little way to start powering the future with free fuel from the sun – no leaks, no spills, no kills.

Yes, it takes a little faith to face the sun and head up a steep incline. So warm up the engine, sweetheart, we’re heading to SPI — Solar Power Inspirational. Nothing like a fresh charge and a pretty sunrise to get a trip going!

(Follow the progress of Sundog Solar Energy LLC and its visit next week to Solar Power International, sponsored by the Solar Energy Industries Association in Orlando, Florida, on The Sundog Blog: SundogBlog.SundogSolarEnergy.com.)