First Solar Supports Utility Company War on Rooftop Solar

First Solar, the company destroying several square miles of desert habitat to build solar facilities on pristine desert wildlands,  sided with utilities companies seeking to limit the expansion of rooftop solar in a regulatory filing this month.  First Solar's move is not surprising because the panels it manufactures and uses at its large solar facilities are not very efficient, and typically are not used in rooftop solar installations.  The company depends on monopolistic utility companies to buy energy from its projects, funds anti-environment politicians, and has insisted on building a large project that biologists have warned will degrade habitat connectivity for the threatened desert tortoise.

First Solar's Silver State North solar project in the foreground, and BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project in the background.  These large projects have destroyed several square miles of intact desert habitat, and required millions of dollars in transmission line upgrades. Both projects received tax incentives from
 But First Solar's move is bold - the company complains that rooftop solar installations place an unfair burden on other ratepayers, ignoring the fact that First Solar executives' pay checks are subsidized by taxpayers; the company's large projects are supported by Federal loan guarantees backed by the taxpayer.   First Solar CEO James Hughes received nearly 11.8 million dollars in salary and stock awards in one year, reaping a substantial profit from the utility companies that he defended in an editorial against rooftop solar.   Nearly every First Solar project requires expensive upgrades to the transmission system that also add to ratepayers' costs.   The company has built its projects on wildlands treasured by the public - including a project near Joshua Tree National Park - a cost that is difficult to quantify.

First Solar's argument against rooftop solar is misleading.  The Arizona Public Service utility company currently credits rooftop customers for energy they feed into the grid at a rate comparable to some utility-scale solar projects. The net metering credit for rooftop solar generators in Arizona is 15.5 cents per kilowatt hour, according to an Arizona newspaper, which is comparable or cheaper than the 15 to 18 cents per kilowatt hour that a California utility is paying for electricity from NRG's large California Valley Solar Ranch, according to the New York Times.  Unfortunately we do not know how much money First Solar receives for each  kilowatt hour of energy its projects produce because the rates are considered confidential business secrets.  What First Solar ignores in its attack on rooftop solar is the fact that rooftop solar add electricity to the grid without destroying open wildlands and alleviate the need for expensive new transmission lines.  When these benefits are factored in, rooftop solar is more economical than large-scale projects, according to a study supported by Vote Solar.

The First Solar filing with the Arizona Corporation Commission also unfairly compares rooftop solar and large-scale solar on a cost per watt basis.  The net metering credit to rooftop solar generators is calculated on a kilowatt-hour basis, not a cost per watt basis; the rooftop solar panel owners only receive a credit for the energy they send to the grid and share with other ratepayers.  Cost per watt, on the other hand, is the amount it costs to install the system - this is not as relevant to the net metering debate.  But even so, the costs to install rooftop solar systems will fall as local permitting costs also fall.  In Germany, which generates thousands of megawatts of clean energy with rooftop solar panels, the cost of a rooftop solar installation is $2.24 per watt - nearly as low as the cost per watt of utility-scale projects cited in First Solar's regulatory filing.

Distributed solar generation systems, like this one at Victor Valley College in California, benefit the customer because they send clean electricity into the grid without requiring ratepayers to pay for large and destructive power plants and transmission lines.
The First Solar filing also argues that utility-scale projects are more efficient because they provide energy that is easier to forecast for utility companies.  The company ignores the fact that rooftop solar makes the grid more resilient by distributing the energy generation across a broad geographic area, decreasing the impact of weather and other environmental factors on overall generation.  First Solar's projects, on the other hand, concentrate panels on a specific swath of land and can experience a significant drop in power production when a cloud hangs overhead.

If First Solar were genuinely concerned about the environment and costs to the community, its actions would match its words.  Instead, First Solar attacks a program that fairly credits rooftop solar generators, builds projects that destroy wildlife habitat, and makes the 1% even richer.

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