Apr 14, 2015

Getting to 16 Megawatts

On a recent Friday I stood in a second floor conference room behind a glass wall, watching seven individuals manage the flow of electricity across New England. A screen big enough for a blockbuster premier loomed in front of them. Neon orange lines connected boxes labeled with New England towns—Lexington, Salem, Conway, Mystic. Tiny colored circles with numbers and letters appeared below some of these rectangles, like New York City subway signs. Red orbs occasionally glowed behind the town names and, every so often, neon orange lines became lime green. Glancing intermittently at this screen, each operator simultaneously managed eight monitors detailing weather patterns, security threats, electricity prices and the various energy needs of people across New England.

ISO New England is the regional organization responsible for managing energy generation and transmission across Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Maintaining seamless operation of the region’s electric grid requires constant monitoring and, at times, swift and deliberate actions to avert crisis. The web of cities on the big screen represented New England’s transmission system, lines between power plants and substations working to keep the lights on across the northeast. ISO-NE oversees 31,000 megawatts (MW) of generation capacity, mostly from gas, coal and nuclear power plants, as well as wind and hydro resources.

Notably absent from the list: solar. Our hosts explained that projects under 5 MW don’t register in the system and larger solar production facilities are so sparse in New England that they don’t contribute a significant percentage of total generation. The largest utility-scale solar plant in New England produces 14 MW of electricity. This number caught my attention. In the past three years, Connecticut’s rooftop residential solar program, Solarize CT, has brought 16 MW of solar capacity to the region in the form of solar arrays distributed atop more than 2,000 homes. This is the story behind how we reached those numbers.

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I started working on Solarize CT and the Solar Energy Evolution and Diffusion Study (SEEDS) during my first week of graduate school, in the fall of 2013. As part of the Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative, SEEDS examines how to expand residential solar adoption in the US, with the goal of developing marketing strategies for the masses. Our team, comprised of the Connecticut Green Bank, SmartPower, Duke, and Yale, conducts research focused specifically on how social and behavioral factors—things like the influence of social networks and peer groups—underpin community solar adoption. Behavioral economists have long observed that people do what their friends do. SEEDS is studying how homeowners who see solar PV systems cropping up in their communities reach out to friends and neighbors to learn more.

The fact is, we trust our neighbors. If our neighbors love a new technology, we become curious; we seek information and advice, and open up to the possibility of enjoying the new technology ourselves. By association, we begin to trust the technology. These interactions make the prospect of renewable electricity visible and the decision to install solar feasible. They prepare us to exercise our values, whether on the environment, finances, security or resilience, by absorbing the experiences of others before taking the leap on our own.

My work with SEEDS has brought me to countless living rooms and kitchen tables, tomato patches and patios across the state. We’re trying to figure out why people are drawn to Solarize CT: why have town leaders and community volunteers devoted their time and attention to this program? And, why are residents more likely to install solar PV when Solarize comes to town? Each family, town official and volunteer shared a unique solar PV story. For a pair of teachers, the opportunity to show their students that generating clean electricity was possible in Connecticut was their primary motivation to volunteer with Solarize and to install a solar array on their property. A retired electrician had dreamt of owning a solar PV system since the 1980s, and this was the first time it became affordable. One community organizer was passionate about bringing green jobs and a clean energy economy to the state. A mother of two toddlers wanted to stabilize her household’s electricity costs into the future. And a farmer wanted to achieve greater energy security and to show his neighbors that is was possible for them to do the same. Through parades, solar home tours, and cakes decorated with miniature PV systems, community leaders, solar installers and volunteer “solar ambassadors” rallied their communities around the Solarize CT program, soliciting one household after another to join.

Utility-scale and distributed rooftop solar PV systems fill different roles in our society, but they are both essential to meeting our energy and climate challenges. Utility-scale solar helps sustain base-load electricity requirements. These systems can replace polluting power plants and provide electricity to the region’s grid. Rooftop solar PV systems manage base-load requirements too, but in a more dispersed way. They provide the essential benefit of helping people see the source of their electricity nearby, giving them the chance to manage it directly and nudging friends, neighbors, and colleagues to talk about electricity.

And this is the intangible value of the Solarize program. It raises the profile of clean technology across communities and among people who may never have otherwise interacted with it. For those who don’t end up installing during the Solarize campaign, they will have learned something new and may reconsider down the road. It plants a seed. For those who do install rooftop solar PV, they may be more inclined to explore other clean technologies, such as energy efficient appliances, electric vehicles, and smart thermostats, in the future. Thus, a virtuous cycle develops.

Even if those 2,000 Solarize homes across Connecticut don’t appear in the neon ISO network, together they generate more electricity than the largest utility-scale solar PV system in the region. They are surreptitiously shedding dirty load and spreading the clean energy gospel, one household at a time.