Episode 1: Tackling the Hidden Costs of Rooftop Solar

May 2, 2016

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Energy.gov Digital Team
Transcript: 

ALLISON LANTERO: Hi, Matt.

MATT DOZIER: Hey, Allison.

LANTERO: And hello, listeners.  

DOZIER: And welcome to the podcast. First things first, some of you may be wondering why the Department of Energy is doing a podcast.

LANTERO: And who better to answer that question than our boss, Marissa?

MARISSA NEWHALL: I am Marissa Newhall, I'm the director of digital strategy and communications at the U.S. Department of Energy.

LANTERO: Why are we making a podcast?

NEWHALL: So ultimately, you guys are here to tell compelling stories about how we're spending tax dollars, and how the work that we're doing here is making the country and our economy stronger. The way I see it, if we're doing that on social media, and we're doing that on our blog, why not long-form audio?

DOZIER: I feel like government agencies aren't really known for their creativity.

NEWHALL: Sure, but just because we work at a government agency doesn't mean that we cannot be creative. I mean, our agency in particular is centered on innovation. You know, we've got programs that are looking for the game-changing technologies that are going to revolutionize our energy economy. So, why shouldn't our communications approach align with that? I actually think this makes a lot of sense because it's above and beyond what people would expect. Plus people keep telling me podcasts are cool again.

DOZIER: Yeah.

LANTERO: They're totally cool again.

DOZIER: Thanks, Marissa.

NEWHALL: No problem.

LANTERO: All right, let's get started!

(INTRO THEME PLAYS, LAYERED MIX OF MUSIC & PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT ENERGY)

DOZIER: I'm Matt Dozier.

LANTERO: And I'm Allison Lantero.

DOZIER: And you're listening to the very first episode of Direct Current - An Energy.gov Podcast.

LANTERO: So, what is this show about? Well, it's about energy. The kind that lights our homes, powers our lives and shapes our world. But it's also about people.

DOZIER: That's right. People like the scientists doing amazing research at our National Labs, world leaders in energy policy, or families just looking to save money at home.

LANTERO: In each episode, we'll bring you stories from across the Energy Department about the ways our work affects you and everyone you know, from microgrids to super-sized wind turbines. Today, we're starting at the very beginning with the tale of how the Energy Department came into being.

DOZIER: And later in the show, we'll take you inside the fight against the sneaky costs driving up the price of rooftop solar power.

LANTERO: All right, let's get going.

DAN WOOD: Ah, do you mind if I interrupt real quick?

LANTERO: It's our producer, Dan Wood.

WOOD: I know that you kind of settled on the name "Direct Current," but I have some ideas I think are really good. Can I share them with you?

DOZIER: Uh, okay, let's hear them.

WOOD: (SINGS) I've got the power.

WOOD: I think that would be great, but can't clear it -- copyrights, whatever. The first one I have goes a little something like this.

(PIANO MUSIC PLAYS)

WOOD: (IMITATING RADIO HOST IRA GLASS) Each week on our program we choose a theme. This week's theme: "You Light up My Life," stories about the spark that created some of the best energy innovations we've ever seen. As a child, Thomas didn't know that he'd be a big deal. Nothing, not his humble beginnings, or his hearing loss, would lead you to believe that he'd really one day be a household name. But all that changed when he had a light bulb moment.

You know that scene in the cartoons when that big idea comes along and a light bulb pops up above the character's head? I'm telling you, this was perhaps the light bulb moment. That man was Thomas Edison. And that idea was -- you guessed it -- the invention of the light bulb. From WNRG in Washington, it's This American Light Bulb, distributed by the American public. I'm Ira Fiberglass, stay with us.

WOOD: (SPEAKING NORMALLY) So, what do you think?

DOZIER: We'll think about it. But for now, on with the show.

(MUSIC PLAYS, SOUNDBITE OF SWIRLING WINDS)

LANTERO: January 20th, 1977. Snow is falling in Miami. Cincinnati hits a record low of negative 25 degrees Fahrenheit. New England's natural gas supply is so short that businesses close and cut work hours, while children enjoy extended winter vacations, blissfully unaware.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

LANTERO: Meanwhile, President Jimmy Carter takes his oath of office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I, Jimmy Carter, do solemnly swear to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. (APPLAUSE, FANFARE)

LANTERO: During this period of instability, America's energy system, nuclear security and science programs are overseen by a maze of smaller agencies, field offices and research centers. But President Carter has other ideas.

(BASS GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS)

LANTERO: On the campaign trail, Carter promises a new cabinet agency that would bring together all federal energy activities. And as Americans wait in longer and longer lines for gasoline and fall deeper and deeper into the oil crisis, the country is ready for a change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

VARIOUS NEWS ANCHORS: This is NBC Nightly News... The oil-producing countries of the Arab world... This particularly station is down 50,000 gallons... By next summer, the summer will be far more serious... Will probably result in rationing of gasoline and fuel oil in this country.

LANTERO: Carter recruits a former CIA director and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission James Schlesinger to lead the reorganization of the tangled maze of agencies. Within the first 90 days of the administration, Schlesinger formulates Carter's National Energy Plan to submit to Congress with a somber note from President Carter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRES. CARTER: Good evening. Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you. Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the president and Congress to govern this nation. This difficult effort will be the moral equivalent of war -- except that we will be uniting our efforts to build, and not to destroy. Thank you very much.

(MUSIC PLAYS)

LANTERO: In just four months, Congress approves the plan, and on October 1st, 1977...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRES. CARTER: Working with Congress, we've now formed a new Department of Energy headed by Secretary James Schlesinger. We have the ability to administer the new energy legislation.

LANTERO: Today, 12 secretaries later, the Energy Department is the country's top sponsor of research on promising new technologies, having won more research and development awards than an private-sector organization and twice as many as all the other federal agencies combined.

WOOD: Wow. That was quite an inspiring story. Really great stuff. Well, this is segment producer Dan Wood, and I have a great story, too.

WOOD: (IMITATING PODCAST HOST ROMAN MARS) This is 99 Percent Renewable. I'm Roman Charge. It's the year 1600, and Hidalgo Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza are on a quest to revive chivalry, riding through the Spanish countryside. Don Quixote comes across an enormous windmill and, overtaken by his delusions, mistakes it for a giant. And people have been mistaking windmills and wind turbines for giants ever since. It is a huge design problem.

LANTERO: Thanks, Dan. I thought that was really interesting, but not sure that it's going to be usable.

WOOD: Really? Oh. Well, I thought those were great, and frankly, we can just let the public be the judge.

LANTERO: How about you keep brainstorming.

WOOD: I understand. I'll get back to the drawing board and see what I can come up with.

LANTERO: Great, and while you're doing that, we'll get on to our main story about solar power.

MATT DOZIER: Let’s talk about solar panels. They're pretty great. They take energy from the sun and turn it into usable electricity -- electricity that you'd otherwise have to pay for. They don’t need water or give off pollution, so they’re also good for the environment. And here’s another great thing about solar panels: they’ve gotten a lot cheaper in recent years -- as much as 70 percent cheaper since 2010.

So naturally, lots of people want to put solar panels on the roof of their home, or business, or school. Last year, rooftop solar in America grew faster than ever before. Which brings us to our story today.

(MUSIC PLAYS)

DOZIER: We’re diving into the hidden costs of rooftop solar -- that is, basically everything else besides the solar panels -- from getting permits, to having the panels installed, to connecting them to the electric grid. We’ll look at how these costs get in the way of going solar -- and the work happening across the country to fix them!  

DOZIER: Just want to first have you introduce yourself.

AMANDA HUROWITZ: Sounds good. My name’s Amanda Hurowitz… that’s a good question, how do I introduce myself? (LAUGHS)

DOZIER: I chatted with Amanda in the kitchen of her three-story townhouse in Washington DC’s Woodley Park neighborhood, where she and her husband live with their six-month-old daughter and Calliope, the family’s very old and very needy golden retriever mix. You can probably hear her chewing on an enormous bison bone in the background of some of these clips.

When Amanda and her husband moved from their tiny Georgetown apartment to a three-story townhouse in Washington DC’s Woodley Park neighborhood in 2014, they realized right away that their new home was going to use a lot more electricity.

HUROWITZ: I was shocked when I found out what the previous people had been paying. We definitely were looking to save money, but we care about global warming, we care about the environment, so we were trying to figure out what we could do to make our house be more environmentally friendly.

DOZIER: So they replaced their light bulbs with LEDs, then they thought, what about solar panels? Some friends had them, at least one other house in the neighborhood had them, and  Amanda even had previous experience getting solar installed at the high school where she teaches.

HUROWITZ: I teach at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia.

DOZIER: Back in 2009, she worked with students to raise more than $50,000 to put solar panels on the roof of the school. But that turned out the be the easy part. The hard part, Amanda said, came when they ran up against the cold, harsh reality of local bureaucracy. They needed permits and approvals from certain county officials, who Amanda said weren’t too keen on the project.

HUROWITZ: I distinctively remember sitting in a meeting -- there was a student there -- not one of them said, “Wow, that’s so impressive that you guys raised all this money,” or, “Wow, I’m really impressed by your initiative.” There was none of that. They just saw it as more work for themselves.

DOZIER: Eventually, they found an ally who helped move the project forward, and the panels were installed in June 2009, but Amanda said it left an impression on everyone involved.

HUROWITZ: That experience was both wonderful and horrible at the same time. It was an eye-opening experience for both me and my students about how difficult it can be to navigate bureaucracy.

(MUSIC PLAYS)

DOZIER: Fast-forward five years, to 2014, and Amanda once again finds herself diving into the tricky waters of rooftop solar. But this time, she figures, it’ll be different.

HUROWITZ: I thought, you know, come on, so many people have solar panels on top of their roofs. This is a house. This is not a school district. This should be really easy.

DOZIER: So, they talk to a friend who works in the solar industry, get a quote from a local installer…

HUROWITZ: Their proposal seemed good, we had him vet it, and we were like “Great! Let’s do it.” By now it’s probably winter, but still winter 2014 -- I’m pretty sure in January 2015 they came out and it took them less than half a day to put the solar panels on. I think it was snowing, or there was some snow and they still came out and did it. I was like, this is awesome! We’re going to go solar so quickly. But that’s not quite what happened.

DOZIER: What happened was, well, nothing at first. A month passed, and then another, and another. Winter turned into spring, and still no word from the utility company.

HUROWITZ: And then we got a bill for $190. So I was like this, this does not make sense. This seems crazy.

DOZIER: To recap: they get solar panels installed in January, four months later, their electric bill goes up to 10 times what they had expected. So they look into it. It turns out the solar panels are working fine, but their meter isn’t talking to the utility company. Basically, they’re getting charged for using the same amount of power that the previous owners had in the past without solar.

Now, you might be saying to yourself, that doesn’t sound like such a difficult problem to solve. You might be thinking, couldn’t they just call the utility and have them fix the meter? That’s exactly what Amanda thought at first -- after all, isn’t the installation the most complicated part? Instead, she finds herself on a wild goose chase involving countless calls, full voice mail inboxes and circular email chains. The Public Service Commission gets involved -- it's a mess. And the whole time, there’s this maddening sense of déjà vu.

HUROWITZ: I mean, I was just pissed. We spent a lot of money up front for these solar panels. We had them installed in January, and now it must have been May, and nothing seemed to be happening. I look back on my emails to my husband and to my solar company, and I think there’s a lot of exclamation points. (LAUGHS)

DOZIER: Finally, after months of back-and-forth, they get the right meter installed. Their electricity bill goes way down, and stays there. But even today, two years later, Amanda can’t shake the feeling that if the installation was so easy, why isn’t the connection part simpler?

(MUSIC PLAYS)

ELAINE ULRICH: I think when people talk about soft costs, what they don’t realize is even if your solar equipment was entirely free -- if someone just came in and gave you a bunch of solar panels and all the equipment you needed, you would still need to pay thousands of dollars to get solar installed.

DOZIER: That’s Elaine Ulrich. Elaine knows a LOT about the reasons “going solar” can be so frustrating for some homeowners.

ULRICH: So, I lead the soft costs team here in the SunShot Initiative at the U.S. Department of Energy.

DOZIER: Elaine’s team is one piece of a bigger effort by the agency to make solar power as cheap as traditional sources of energy -- like coal, natural gas or nuclear -- by the end of the decade. She works to reduce those pesky "soft costs" -- like installation, permits and connection fees -- which can now make almost two-thirds of what you'll pay for rooftop solar.

Think about it like a computer. What good is the hardware if you don't have the software to make it work? The same goes for solar panels -- without everything you need to get them hooked up properly, they aren't much more than a pile of aluminum and silicon. And as it turns out, one of the biggest reasons those costs have stayed high while solar hardware got so much cheaper is that many places just aren't comfortable with solar yet. For example: shopping for solar can be overwhelming. Elaine gets questions from friends about it all the time.

ULRICH: They’ll say to me, “OK, Elaine, I got three or four bids, and I’m looking at these, and I can’t tell the difference between them. I don’t know which equipment is better.

DOZIER: The harder it is for homeowners to choose the best option, the more difficult it is for solar companies to find new customers. So companies have to spend more on things like research and advertising, all of which get factored into their prices. That, my friends, is a soft cost.

Here’s another: There are more than 18,000 local jurisdictions across the U.S. -- and very little consistency when it comes to getting permits for rooftop solar. Some places may not even have a permit process at all! That kind of confusion can make it really difficult and frustrating for people to navigate the solar market. And many of them, Elaine says, just give up.

ULRICH: We took a look at data to see how solar was being installed across the U.S. and how long it was taking, and there were all these people who had signed up, who had submitted an application for a permit but never gotten interconnected.

Basically, that means that they were sort of waiting for a really long time, or the system never got installed. That’s terrible, when somebody makes a decision, they’ve gone far enough to say, “Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and apply for a permit,” but then it doesn’t really happen for them.

DOZIER: Even after a customer has successfully secured their permits and gotten their panels installed, problems can still arise. As Amanda discovered, utility companies may struggle to deal with an influx of new solar connections, leading to long delays. And that’s an important thing to remember about soft costs: they’re a drain on time, as well as money. Removing uncertainty and confusion speeds up the process and makes solar power more affordable for everyone.

ULRICH: Really what we’re trying to drive at here is to make it faster, cheaper and easier for people to go solar. You want it to be accessible to as many people as possible. You don’t want people who basically have the capacity, the interest to go solar to not be able to do it.

DOZIER: One way to do that is through policies that reduce red tape and make it simpler for people to navigate. Some places, Elaine says, are doing that really well -- and it's not necessarily where you might think.

ULRICH: Where are some of the lowest solar costs in the United States if you’re going to buy a system? Massachusetts. And it’s not like everybody thinks, “Oh wow, that’s where all the sunshine is,” but it’s because they have the experience.

DOZIER: New York is another -- they recently ranked seventh on a national solar report. So to find out what they’re doing right, I called Chris Carrick.

CHRIS CARRICK: My name’s Chris Carrick, and I manage the energy program at the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board.

DOZIER: That’s CNYRPDB, if you’re keeping score at home.

CARRICK: We’re a public agency based in Syracuse, New York.

DOZIER: Chris works with communities across central New York to help them be more energy efficient, reduce their carbon footprint and generally be more sustainable. And promoting solar energy is a big part of those efforts.

CARRICK: Contrary to popular opinion, upstate New York actually is a good market for solar. We may not have the same solar resource as states like California or Arizona, but we have very good state policy to support solar, and our solar market has grown tremendously. In the last three years, we’ve grown almost 600 percent. We actually rank fourth in the whole country in terms of the number of solar jobs.

DOZIER: Most of that growth is in residential solar, as opposed to the large-scale solar farms that are common in some of the other leading solar states. So clearly, New Yorkers seem to be embracing rooftop solar at a surprising clip. And Chris credits much of that success to his secret weapon: the Solarize campaign.

CARRICK: The way that it works is that a group of volunteers, typically, will get together and competitively select an installer to work with, and that installer agrees to offer a discount price to customers that come into the program.

DOZIER: OK, so it’s not exactly a secret -- in fact, it’s completely the opposite. Solarize campaigns operate on the basic idea that Elaine Ulrich talked about earlier -- the more people know about solar; the more open and transparent the process is; the faster and cheaper it will be for everyone involved. So, they have these workshops at libraries, and school gymnasiums, where people can come and ask questions, learn about the whole process, and get connected with a trusted solar provider.

CARRICK: A lot of folks that we’ve worked with through our Solarize campaign have told us that they’ve thought about going solar for years, or even decades. But the fact that we provided a qualified installer to them, educated them about the process, offered them a discount and put some time pressure on them got them off the fence and got them to finally make that decision.

DOZIER: And you can't discount the power of good old-fashioned peer pressure.

CARRICK: The other thing about a Solarize campaign is that folks can see their neighbors going solar. And there’s been interesting research that has come out to show that when customers hear from folks in their community, folks that they know and respect, and see that they’re going solar -- or simply see that solar panels are being installed in their neighborhood -- it makes them much more likely, and much more willing to make that decision themselves.

DOZIER: So it’s kind of contagious, in a way.

CARRICK: That’s right, social scientists call it the contagion effect.

(MUSIC PLAYS)

DOZIER: Chris said about one in three homes that have installed solar panels in upstate NY in the past four years have signed up through a Solarize campaign. His agency has also made it easier for solar companies to find customers, streamlined the permit process, and cut the average time it takes to go solar to six weeks -- down from the three or four months it would have taken in 2012. That’s pretty good, but most people -- Chris included -- would agree that it could be even faster. Which brings us back to the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative.

AMMAR QUSAIBATY: My name is Ammar Qusaibaty and I work with Elaine on the soft costs team at SunShot, I specialize in prizes and competitions.

DOZIER: Ammar is one of the organizers of the SunShot Prize, AKA the “Race to Seven-Day Solar” -- which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s this big, national contest hosted by the Energy Department that’s offering $10 million in prize money to teams that prove they can consistently deliver rooftop solar, from start to finish, in under a week.

QUSAIBATY: The goal is to reduce it from months into weeks. And we sort of set seven days as sort of a target, “Can we get to seven-day?” from permitting to interconnection. But we set this high goal to create a sense of urgency, number one, but also a sense of excitement. And we have actually in the SunShot Prize teams that are trying to do next-day solar. So they’re pushing the envelope beyond the threshold that we set.

DOZIER: The teams bring together major players from every step of the process, from the local agencies that handle solar permits to the utility companies that make the final connection to the grid, along with some tech startups to mix things up. The mantra is simple: get everyone on the same page.

QUSAIBATY: That’s the whole objective behind the prize is to create an opportunity for teams that normally would not necessarily team up together, under normal circumstances, but this gives them the opportunity to team together because there is a goal that benefits all of them.

DOZIER: The SunShot Prize wraps up in March 2017. And the hope is that gradually, getting rooftop solar will become just another routine piece of home maintenance -- like installing a water heater. But what about right now? I asked Amanda if she had any regrets after her frustrating experience going solar.

DOZIER: It sounds like it was a bit of a rough process -- was it all worth it?

HUROWITZ: Oh, of course. It’s totally worth it to see your electricity bill be so low, to know that you’re making an impact on trying to limit the effects of global warming. It just should be easier.

(MUSIC PLAYS, FADES OUT)

WOOD: OK, I did some brainstorming and I've got a couple ideas. Here they are, rapid-fire: "Planet Moniz."

LANTERO: No.

WOOD: "Electric Car Talk."

DOZIER: No.

WOOD: "Wait, Wait, Don't Accelerate Me."

LANTERO & DOZIER: NO.

WOOD: It's like- it's like a particle accelerator.

DOZIER: We get it.

LANTERO: I think we're done here.

WOOD: K. I love you guys.

DOZIER: Love you too, Dan.

(SOFT ELECTRONIC MUSIC PLAYS)

DOZIER: And that's our show. You can find graphics, pictures and more information relating to this episode on our website, Energy.gov/podcast.

LANTERO: And we've also got some people to thank.

DOZIER: Special thanks goes out to Amanda Hurowitz, Elaine Ulrich, Ammar Qusaibaty and Chris Carrick.

LANTERO: Direct Current is produced by Matt Dozier, Simon Edelman and me, Allison Lantero, with break producer Daniel Wood. Art and design by Carly Wilkins. With support from Pat Adams, Paul Lester, Atiq Warraich and Ernie Ambrose.

DOZIER: Thanks to Maura Long, John LaRue, the Energy Public Affairs Team and the DOE Media Team. And an extra-special thank you to our boss, Marissa Newhall.

LANTERO: You know what you did.

DOZIER: We are a production of the Department of Energy and published from our nation's capital in Washington, D.C.

LANTERO: And, while we know you'll be waiting for our next episode, you can find us on social media and Energy.gov, as well as subscribe to our weekly newsletter at Energy.gov/subscribe. Thanks for listening!

DOZIER: See you next time.