Technology advances, price retreats spur new solar ventures

Technology advances and falling prices for solar technology have opened the gates for solar installations by businesses with no background in electricity generation.

Real estate managers, developers, hotels, supermarkets and others are tapping solar power alongside electric utilities and getting paid for it.

Energy generation "is not our primary business, but it's in our best interest," said Mike Defferding, executive vice president of Forest City Military Communities, a developer. "There's an economic incentive to make the jump to become an energy company."

Forest City has installed more than 100 kilowatts of solar-generating capacity at housing it manages on a marine base in Hawaii, Defferding said. And it is planning to build a 3.6-megawatt solar farm on Hawaii's Big Island to power affordable housing the company manages there.

"As an owner of real estate, you understand that you've already done all the ... green projects -- the right building practices, the right lighting, the right air ventilation," Deffering told a recent energy conference in Washington, D.C. "You've done all the things you could have done, the low-hanging fruit. The conclusion is: You need to be in the energy business. And you can be an energy company in today's market."


Other companies are getting involved with solar to gain some control over unpredictable energy prices.

"It's not just an issue of energy pricing. It's an issue of energy-pricing volatility," said Will Sarni, CEO of environmental consulting firm Domani. "There's a predictability built in if you've got on-site renewable [generation] as opposed to buying off the grid. It's attractive for a reliability issue as much as anything else."

BPR Properties, a Northern California hotel proprietor, has installed solar generating capacity on seven hotel rooftops, arrays that offset 35 percent of the hotels' energy use.

The 61-kilowatt array on the roof of BPR's Best Western All Suites in Santa Cruz, Calif., produces 6,683 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month. That is not enough to completely offset the hotel's energy consumption, but it is enough to create a unique arrangement with the local utility.

The hotel's solar array generates power during the day, when guests are away and air-conditioning needs are low. So the hotel gets credits for power at peak daytime rates and pays significantly lower off-peak rates for power it consumes on nights and weekends.

In the two years the system has been up and running, the hotel has saved more than $30,000 in energy costs, according to Borrego Solar, which installed the system.

"We looked at a lot of hotels and found that solar is a good fit for hotels for a number of reasons," said Brian von Moos, director of business development at Borrego. "Hotels have high energy usage, so it helps them save on utility bills. And there are PR benefits."

Selling power at peak prices

Other companies have also learned to capitalize on selling back to the grid.

Maryland-based SunEdison, for example, is a self-proclaimed solar services provider that aims to "simplify solar" for its customers, which include Kohl's, Staples and Whole Foods.

"We allow our customers to buy solar energy the same way they buy any other source of electricity or energy," said Martha Duggan, vice president of regulatory affairs and new markets at SunEdison.

SunEdison is a kind of hybrid, something that falls between utilities and private owners of solar panels.

The company owns and operates solar installations at 213 sites, producing 63 megawatts of electricity. Those installations are located on the roofs of SunEdison's customers instead of in the large desert arrays installed by utilities in the desert Southwest.

"The solar business really grew up thinking that solar panels were something they sold to customers, but really, a solar panel is a generating plant," Duggan said. "We thought, why would a customer want to buy a generating plant? So we own and repair the panels, and the customer buys the electricity."

SunEdison is selling excess solar power produced during peak daytime hours to utilities.

"There are times when the sun is so intense, the grid needs it, so we inject out on the grid," Duggan said. "We help the utility meet peak demand."

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