Corporations driving US solar, but mainly in states with rebates and tax breaks

GRN Reports

US corporations are helping drive the growth of solar power by putting up rooftop arrays on their stores and offices in the retail, auto, health and tech industries, according to a solar power report released this week.

Solar Means companies
The companies with the most solar installations. (SEIA)

The annual report found that the top 25 companies with the most solar capacity – Walmart, Kohls, Costco, Apple and IKEA top that list – now have 1,110 photovoltaic or PV systems generating 569 megawatts of power. That's enough to power about 115,000 houses.

Of course this power is not powering houses, but the stores themselves and their corporate headquarters, as major US companies realize that solar power is a good buy, according to the report "Solar Means Business 2014" by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

The positive report paints a sunny picture for solar, noting that the amount of business-owned solar has experienced phenomenal growth, doubling just since 2012. This rapid adoption of on-site solar power has been partly fueled by a significant drop in PV prices over that two-year period.

But the growth of corporate solar has been uneven, with most installations clustered in California or the Northeast.

The growth has been greatest in California, which is the national solar power leader overall with 672 megawatts of installed solar power, counting residential, non-residential (businesses) and utility-scale projects.

Looking at just business-owned solar and not utility-scale projects, the three states have captured the lion's share of solar are: Massachusetts, California and New Jersey. Businesses have gravitated to these states to take advantage of lucrative incentives.

All three states provide or have provided direct rebates, based on the amount of power generated by solar systems, to those who install them. These rebates, stacked with a federal rebate of 30 percent for new solar, lower the upfront costs of putting in solar arrays considerably.

In addition, these states offer other tax incentives, such as financing assistance and net metering, which allows solar owners to sell back excess power to the grid, essentially helping them earn back some of the costs of installing solar panels.

In California, companies sometimes find a triple layer of rebates and incentives because several local municipalities offer breaks for solar or wind projects.

These policies, put in place to encourage green power and cut back on pollution, have  hastened the development of on-site solar for big and small businesses.

Map shows the clustering of solar projects in the Northeast and California. (Graphic: SEIA)

The only dark patch in the story is that big business is taking up the solar mantle predominately where the return on investment is sweetened by state incentives.

Kohls, for instance, has installed 73 of its 158 solar total rooftops in California. Walmart, which has stores everywhere, but solar installations in just 12 states, also has clearly made certain calculations about where the bottom-line is best served.

This is not to blame businesses for going where costs are lower. Statistics show that homeowners do the same.

But it does mean that many states, notably in the middle of the country and in the South, have been left out of the solar retail/office boom, apparently because they lack the rebates and tax abatements that invite corporations to invest. For those who want to see solar spread as a way to mitigate carbon pollution and power from fossil fuels, this black hole of non-participation is a wall to future expansion. And the disconnect may only worsen as states such as Arizona and Oklahoma dismantle green power policies. (Within the past year those states have placed fees on solar rooftop owners, setting up a deterrent that  mainly affects small residential solar.)

Texas is one of the apparent solar losers in the business category. The nation's second most populous state, which has been identified as having terrific sun resources, has just 10 commercial businesses with solar rooftop installations listed in the SEIA report (which doesn't count smaller mom-and-pop installations).

Three of those Texas installations are on stores owned by IKEA, which has pledged to up solar no matter what.

Nat Kreamer, the CEO of Clean Power Finance and SEIA Board Chairman, acknowledged the imbalance in solar development, if only obliquely, in his statement accompanying the release of the "Solar Means Business" report.

"Going solar is a smart way for these blue chip companies to increase value for their shareholders,"  Kreamer said.

"Businesses are dealing with higher and more volatile electric rates. At the same time, price declines and financing innovations have reduced the upfront cost of solar. These and other factors make solar a sound business decision today, and consistent policies at the state and federal levels will make solar a top three energy source for the U.S. in the future."

By referencing the need for “consistent policies”, Kreamer apparently was referencing the vast inconsistency of state policies.

The SEIA report also acknowledged the disparity in how solar is dispersed, saying that some corporations are venturing out into wider territory.

"The Top 25 companies completed solar installations in three new states over the past year. While IKEA continues to have solar installations in the most states, there are a number of new entrants to this ranking, including Anheuser-Busch and Verizon, while Whole Foods also expanded its solar use into new states."

IKEA, of all the corporations, has gone the furthest toward converting to solar power. Vowing to power all of its stores with the sun, the Swedish retailer now gets 87 percent of its energy from solar arrays.

General Motors is second in the rankings for percentage use of solar, getting 43 percent of its energy from the sun.

Solar Means Business Solar by percentage
Companies with the highest percentage of solar rooftops. Note that Kohls and Costco lead Walmart in this category, even though Walmart has the greatest number of solar roofs in total. (Source: SEIA)

Experts in renewable energy say the business case for solar and wind has improved, especially for companies like Big Box retailers such as Walmart or tech firms like Google with its huge data centers. These companies use copious amounts of electricity and shaving back costs even a little at each location can scale up to make a big difference.
"This is about pure economics," explained Gabriel Alonso, CEO of EDP Renewables North America, at a recent energy conference in Addison, Texas.

"They want cheap electricity and they want that electricity (price) flat and fixed long-term for 20 or 25 years. And there are only two sources of electricity that can provide that. Wind and solar. Why? Because our fuel is free. We do not depend on prices of gas or coal or uranium going up or down."

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