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Coming on the heels of the celebration–inducing 5-year extension of the solar investment tax credit (ITC), today jobs numbers were released by non-profit organization, The Solar Foundation (TSF).

The six annual National Solar Jobs Census shows that the U.S. solar industry today employs 208,859 people, having added 35,052 in 2015 alone. This is a 20 percent increase in job growth compared to the overall national employment growth of 1.7 percent.

“Employment in solar has grown an extraordinary 123 percent since 2010, adding approximately 115,000 well-paying jobs. Our Census findings show that one out of every 83 new jobs created in the U.S. over the last 12 months was in the solar industry – 1.2 percent of all new jobs,” said Andrea Luecke, President and Executive Director of TSF in a statement.

Tuesday December 15 was a good day for U.S. renewable energy companies. In a landmark deal that could mark the first time the Senate and House democrats and republicans were able to compromise on anything at all, the two parties released an omnibus spending bill that lifts the 40-year U.S. oil export ban and gives a five-year extension of renewable energy tax credits for wind and solar.

Solar Industry Exuberant

The bill extends the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar until 2021. It was originally expected to sunset at the end of 2016, which was forcing developers to rush to finish projects. In a session last week during Renewable Energy World Conference and Expo, Julie Ungerleider of Coronal Group explained that because of the hard stop that the ITC created, solar projects that were not already “fully baked” were unlikely to be able to be built by 2016.  She said material shortages were rampant with the rush to build now.  This extension should relieve some of that pressure.

The ITC will be extended until December 31, 2019 in its current form. After that projects that start construction in 2020 and 2021 will receive 26 percent and 22 percent, respectively. All projects must be completed by 2024 to obtain these elevated ITC rates. For residential solar, a similar tax credit phase-out applies until December 31, 2021, after which the tax credit scheme ends.

Tuesday December 15 was a good day for U.S. renewable energy companies. In a landmark deal that could mark the first time the Senate and House democrats and republicans were able to compromise on anything at all, the two parties released an omnibus spending bill that lifts the 40-year U.S. oil export ban and gives a five-year extension of renewable energy tax credits for wind and solar.

Solar Industry Exuberant

The bill extends the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar until 2021. It was originally expected to sunset at the end of 2016, which was forcing developers to rush to finish projects. In a session last week during Renewable Energy World Conference and Expo, Julie Ungerleider of Coronal Group explained that because of the hard stop that the ITC created, solar projects that were not already “fully baked” were unlikely to be able to be built by 2016.  She said material shortages were rampant with the rush to build now.  This extension should relieve some of that pressure.

The ITC will be extended until December 31, 2019 in its current form. After that projects that start construction in 2020 and 2021 will receive 26 percent and 22 percent, respectively. All projects must be completed by 2024 to obtain these elevated ITC rates. For residential solar, a similar tax credit phase-out applies until December 31, 2021, after which the tax credit scheme ends.

At last night’s PennWell Awards Ceremony, Kim Greene, a 24-year veteran of the power industry, was named the POWER-GEN 2015 Woman of the Year.

Greene began her career as an engineer with Southern Company in 1991 and ascended to leadership roles at Mirant and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), before returning to Southern Company Services in 2013 to become President and CEO. She was a keynote speaker at POWER-GEN International in 2014.

Today, she serves as chief operating officer of Southern Company and is responsible for overseeing system operations, which include generation, transmission, engineering and construction services, system planning, and research and environmental affairs, as well as the company’s competitive wholesale generation businesses.

On a warm November morning about 200 people gathered in the small town of Peterborough, NH to officially inaugurate the state’s largest PV solar array.  The almost 1-MW project (942kW) was initiated by Borrego Solar, approved by the town by unanimous vote in July 2014, and completed by SunEdison, which purchased the project in 2015.

The energy generated by the array will meet 100 percent of the electricity needs of the town wastewater treatment plant with more to spare. The excess energy will be used to power the town house, the fire department and the library through a group net-metering arrangement recently approved by the New Hampshire public utility commission (PUC).

On a warm November morning about 200 people gathered in the small town of Peterborough, NH to officially inaugurate the state’s largest PV solar array.  The almost 1-MW project (942kW) was initiated by Borrego Solar, approved by the town by unanimous vote in July 2014, and completed by SunEdison, which purchased the project in 2015.

The energy generated by the array will meet 100 percent of the electricity needs of the town wastewater treatment plant with more to spare. The excess energy will be used to power the town house, the fire department and the library through a group net-metering arrangement recently approved by the New Hampshire public utility commission (PUC).

Earlier this month Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) announced findings that the LCOE for wind and solar is now cheaper than coal and gas in Europe. Further the organization said that it is actually the renewables that are pushing up the LCOE of gas and coal. Because the BNEF analysis is so deep and complex — it uses thousands of data points the company says — the press release that it issued was hard to understand. Here we take a deeper look at the process involved in comparing energy generation technologies to determine exactly why renewables will continue to push out fossils for the foreseeable future.

First, what is LCOE? Short for levelized cost of electricity, LCOE takes all of the factors into producing a megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity into play. This includes everything from the cost of equipment, labor, permits, etc. to build the plants; the cost of fuel to run them; the cost of operations and maintenance over the lifetime of the plant; and the cost of capital to pay for everything mentioned above. All of these costs, which BNEF derived based on actual deals and projects around the world, were tallied and then divided by the by the amount of energy the plants will produce (which depends very much on capacity factor) over their lifetime to arrive at a final cost for each and every MWh of electricity that will be produced by the power plant.

It’s a very useful metric for comparing generation technologies in an apple-to-apples format. But what will be most fascinating to energy stakeholders is that renewables are now inching out fossils in some regions of the world.

Why different regions? The cost of building, operating, maintaining and fueling a coal plant in China will not be the same as building, operating, maintaining and fueling one in, for example, Europe. Similarly, the output of an onshore wind farm in a location where the wind never stops blowing will be different that the output of a wind farm in a location where the wind picks up and then dies down frequently over the course of a year.

This is why LCOE is useful – because while in a wind farm, the fuel is free, the output is much less than a coal plant, which could theoretically run 90 percent of the time (this is called its capacity factor or utilization rate). But what happens to that coal plant’s capacity factor is greatly affected by the amount of other generation available to send power to the grid. So, as more wind energy is available because there are more wind farms built, the capacity factor of that coal plant goes down: now instead of running 90 percent of the time, it runs maybe 75 percent of the time, which then pushes up its LCOE.

While we were not able to get our hands on a publishable chart before press time, a deeper look at the BNEF analysis shows not only that the LCOE for wind and solar is beating coal and natural gas in some regions of the world, but that other renewable technologies such as geothermal, biomass incineration and small hydro also have very low LCOEs and in many regions are cost competitive or cheaper than fossil or nuclear energy.

More Numbers

To get down to the nitty-gritty, specifically, the global average LCOE for onshore wind dropped from $85 per megawatt-hour in the first half of the year, to $83 in H2, while that for crystalline silicon PV solar fell from $129 to $122.

In the same period, the LCOE for coal-fired generation increased from $66 per MWh to $75 in the Americas, from $68 to $73 in Asia-Pacific, and from $82 to $105 in Europe. The LCOE for combined-cycle gas turbine generation rose from $76 to $82 in the Americas, from $85 to $93 in Asia-Pacific and from $103 to $118 in EMEA.

Seb Henbest, head of Europe, Middle East and Africa at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, commented: “Our report shows wind and solar power continuing to get cheaper in 2015, helped by cheaper technology but also by lower finance costs. Meanwhile, coal and gas have got more expensive on the back of lower utilization rates, and in Europe, higher carbon price assumptions following passage of the Market Stability Reserve reform.”

Among other low-carbon energy technologies, offshore wind reduced its global average LCOE from $176 per MWh, to $174, but still remains significantly more expensive than wind, solar PV, coal or gas, while biomass incineration saw its levelized cost stay steady at $134 per MWh. Nuclear, like coal and gas, has very different LCOE levels from one region of the world to another, but both the Americas and the Europe, Middle East and Africa region saw increases in levelized costs, to $261 and $158 per MWh respectively.

Among the country-level findings of the BNEF study are that onshore wind is now fully cost-competitive with both gas-fired and coal-fired generation, once carbon costs are taken into account, in the UK and Germany. In the UK, onshore wind comes in on average at $85 per MWh in the second half of 2015, compared to $115 for combined-cycle gas and $115 for coal-fired power; in Germany, onshore wind is at $80, compared to $118 for gas and $106 for coal.

In China, onshore wind is cheaper than gas-fired power, at $77 per MWh versus $113, but it is much more expensive still than coal-generated electricity, at $44, while solar PV power is at $109. In the US, coal and gas are still cheaper, at $65 per MWh, against onshore wind at $80 and PV at $107.

Luke Mills, analyst, energy economics at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said: “Generating costs continue to vary greatly from region to region, reflecting influences such as the shale gas boom in the U.S., changing utilization rates in areas of high renewables penetration, the shortage of local gas production in East Asia, carbon prices in Europe, differing regulations on nuclear power across the world, and contrasting resources for solar generation.

“But onshore wind and solar PV are both now much more competitive against the established generation technologies than would have seemed possible only five or 10 years ago.”

Lead image: The Green Evolution. Credit: Shutterstock.

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