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THE MOTLEY FOOL: How Utilities Are Profiting From Solar Energy

For years, the solar industry has been creeping up behind the electric utility industry. At first, it was a small nuisance that utilities had to deal with but rapid cost cuts and growth made it a threat many utilities could no longer ignore.

Most solar installed in the U.S. is utility-scale solar, which can lead to headaches for utilities balancing the supply of electricity. But they generally know how much electricity those plants are going to supply and have mandates from states around the country to support such projects, so they haven’t been all that combative with large solar projects. Residential and commercial solar, on the other hand, is a major threat because it allows customers to become generators of electricity and net metering means they can send electricity back to the grid. Many utilities didn’t know how to handle this threat besides fighting customers and making it more expensive for them to go solar.

But some utilities are finding ways to profit off solar. The ones that do will pave a path to long-term profit and lower the risk in their business model. Here are the models utilities are trying and what you should watch for in the future.

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EDMONTON JOURNAL: Opinion: Cost of wind and solar energy dropping

The Alberta government has made it clear that its new climate change strategy will accelerate the phase-out of coal-fired electricity generation and increase renewable energy in the province’s electricity supply. Alberta is not alone. Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecasts that by 2040, the world’s power generation mix will transpose from a system where two-thirds of power plants generate electricity by burning fossil fuels to one with 60-per-cent zero-emission energy sources.

What’s driving this transformation? Climate change is one key reason, and an important one for Alberta. The province is responsible for more than 50 per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector and coal-fired electricity generation is responsible for 85 per cent of those emissions. Maximizing the use of renewable energies like wind and solar as part of a mix of energy sources to replace coal is essential to ensure that greenhouse gas emission reductions are not only immediate, but also sustainable over the long term. It also builds a foundation upon which Alberta can achieve even greater greenhouse gas emission reductions over time through the use of non-emitting electricity to electrify transportation, space heating and some industrial processes.

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TECH CRUNCH: Apple Reveals Solar Energy Programs To Clean Up Its Manufacturing Partners In China

Apple has plunged billions of dollars into making its global operations more efficient with renewable energy. The bulk of that push, which has won praise from Greenpeace, has come in the U.S. and Europe, but today Apple unveiled a suite of initiatives designed to make its business in China — the country where its revenue is positively booming — greener, too.

Timed in conjunction with CEO Tim Cook’s visit to the country, the U.S. company revealed that it will work with its manufacturing partners in China to help them “become more energy efficient and to use clean energy for their manufacturing operations.” Apple further explained that it is working with said suppliers, which include Foxconn, to add more than two gigawatts of ‘clean’ energy to those operations in the next few years.

That move alone is notable, since Apple’s China-based manufacturers have long been accused of polluting the environment. Back in 2011, iPhone supplier Pegatron was reprimanded over environmental concerns, while Apple reportedly clamped down on Foxconn and UniMicron in 2013 following accusations that they released water tainted by toxic metals into rivers.

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FORBES: Solar: A Look At How The Sun Affects The Land

Like the gunslinger of old whose card read “Have gun. Will travel.” our current attitude towards building solar facilities can be largely summed up with the card, “Have land. Build facility.” There is no doubt we have made tremendous strides in generating solar energy. There is also no doubt that we have given little to no thought as to how we have gone about expanding our generation of solar energy.

The time has come to change that mentality. A new study by Carnegie Science has uncovered an irony of being “green”. Almost 30% of all utility-scale solar installations are on lands that once were croplands and pastures. The farmers have gone from harvesting food to “harvesting” the sun. The drought of southern California, it seems, has given us a perfect example of the law of unintended consequences.

To be clear, the study is not about trading food for energy; it is a study on the impact of solar energy on land use. It is the first such study. It’s an obvious study to be done when you read it, but this one is the first to raise the issue of the way we are using the land to capture solar and then to challenge us to get innovative about our land use.

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Derick Lila
Derick is a Clark University graduate—and Fulbright alumni with a Master's Degree in Environmental Science, and Policy. He has over a decade of solar industry research, marketing, and content strategy experience.

Question Period: What is stopping us from harvesting 80-90-100% of solar energy from available photovoltaic technology?

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