From the Washington City Paper
by Lydia DePillis

Solar is still a fraction of a percent of D.C.’s total energy consumption. The District’s renewable portfolio standard, which dictates how many SRECs electricity suppliers must buy, makes solar energy commercially viable. D.C.’s renewable portfolio standard increases every year until 2020, when it will require renewable energy to make up 20 percent of the power used here. But only 0.4 percent of the total has to be solar—which may not be fast enough to keep solar growing as quickly as it could, nor fast enough to make a dent in fossil fuel consumption and become a serious job creator.

“If they really want solar to be big, they’ve got to change those requirements,” says Yuri Horwitz, who runs the solar energy finance firm and SREC aggregator Sol Systems. (Before the company started in 2008, actually getting any profit from SRECs was a complicated and difficult proposition for a small-scale generator.)

In that structurally confined and increasingly competitive market, companies are amping up their public relations efforts, hoping to stand out. To celebrate its latest project, on top of a 40-unit apartment building at 3501 13th St. NW, Skyline Innovations alerted the media and brought Cheh and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham out for a press conference. (Mayor Adrian Fenty declined an invitation to attend.) A few weeks ago, Astrum Solar trumpeted its installation of what it called the city’s largest single-family residential system on Reno Road NW with a cocktail party and speakers including Christophe Tulou, newly appointed director of the District Department of the Environment (even though, in fact, it wasn’t the largest: Standard Solar holds that honor, with a 15.8 kilowatt system in Cleveland Park).

Despite the generous array of subsidies and tax credits available for solar installations, up-front costs can still be considerable. To help get customers over the hump, sophisticated solar companies have developed “turnkey” operations: They’ll do everything from the paperwork for government assistance to bundling SRECs to maintaining the systems years after they’ve been installed. There’s even a whole secondary industry of companies that help consumers sift through their options, including Greenavise, the consulting group that brought owner Crosstown Properties together with Skyline for the 13th Street project.

While suppliers proliferate, co-ops have been driving demand. In 2008, the Mount Pleasant co-op considered contracting with one company for its members, but ultimately decided to let households make their own choices, leaving the market more open to competition. On Capitol Hill, three companies serve the neighborhood co-op. The co-op movement is getting its own publicity, too; a recent Discovery Channel special featured Mount Pleasant houses. In September, the first “Solar Congress” will try to forge a city-wide superstructure with the goal of spreading solar co-ops to every ward, while increasing their political clout.

The co-ops have fought hard to make D.C. solar-friendly. In 2008, the city set aside $2 million per year in grants for renewable energy projects, or enough to subsidize about 200 home installations per year. But because one Department of the Environment staff member was managing the program part-time, only about a quarter of that actually got dispersed. It took some wrangling for Cheh and solar advocates to get the remaining $1.5 million rolled over for 2010 rather than absorbed into the city’s general fund. Then, Fenty’s 2011 budget dramatically slashed funding for the planned Sustainable Energy Utility, and cut the solar rebate fund in half. After co-op members swarmed council hearings to protest the cuts, the funding was restored.

See the full article on the Washington City Paper