8387707Earlier this week at the Solar Austin Happy Hour, UT-Austin Assistant Professor of Public Affairs, Dr. Varun Rai, shared opportunities and uncertainties in the arena of distributed solar or solar photovoltaic (PV) systems on home and business rooftops. Here are a few insights I took away from his presentation.


  1. Strategies for Deployment: The number of homes in a given neighborhood with solar panels isn’t just tied to income and education levels. Peer influence is a big factor. Buyers of PV systems choose to sign installation contracts much more quickly, if they talk with other PV owners (e.g. neighbors). The average buyer takes about nine months to sign an installation contract after they initially inquire into it. Their decision time can be reduced by about half if they confer with other people who already have a system on their roof. In contrast, those who lease a PV system typically take a lot less time than buyers to sign on the dotted line, usually a few months. This is because the overall cost of the system to the leaser is generally less. PV owners sharing their experience plus encouraging the lease of PV systems seem to be excellent ways to spread the sunshine of solar energy.
  2. Opportunities for Innovation: The cost of solar rooftop systems is coming down. The biggest opportunities for innovation and cost savings lie in the cost of everything else, but the panels themselves. The PV panels only account for about 20-40% of the total system cost. Research and development should focus on things like the panel racks/mounting methods, inverters (equipment that converts DC to AC electricity for grid) and design/installation approaches.
  3. Uncertainty for Utilities: Clouds of uncertainty seem yet to hang over distributed solar for the major U.S. electric utilities surveyed. They seem to be either view distributed solar as a cost rather than a benefit to their business, or were neutral on the subject. Dr. Rai also noted that the discussion on rates paid to utility customers with PV on their roofs is only “going to get more technical.” Some electric utilities – including Austin Energy – are now going to a complex formula to calculate the amount paid to PV customer/generators called the “value of solar tariff” (VOST). There is debate on how to do VOST and how it compares to a simpler approach called net metering. Net metering usually involves paying PV-owning customers a standard residential or commercial rate per kilowatt-hour for the excess electricity they produce.

We shall see what the New Year brings for solar. I’d say the future is mostly sunny.