Designing PV Incentive Programs to Promote Performance: A Review of Current Practice

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Case Study

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Some stakeholders continue to voice concerns about the performance of customer-sited photovoltaic (PV) systems, particularly because these systems typically receive financial support through ratepayer- or publicly-funded programs. Although much remains to be understood about the extent and specific causes of poor PV system performance, several studies of the larger programs and markets have shed some light on the issue. An evaluation of the California Energy Commission (CEC)'s Emerging Renewables Program, for example, found that 7% of systems, in a sample of 95, had lower-than-expected power output due to shading or soiling (KEMA 2005). About 3% of a larger sample of 140 systems were not operating at all or were operating well below expected output, due to failed equipment, faulty installation workmanship, and/or a lack of basic maintenance. In a recent evaluation of the other statewide PV incentive program in California, the Self-Generation Incentive Program, 9 of 52 projects sampled were found to have annual capacity factors less than 14.5%, although reasons for these low capacity factors generally were not identified (Itron 2005). Studies of PV systems in Germany and Japan, the two largest PV markets worldwide, have also revealed some performance problems associated with issues such as shading, equipment and installation defects, inverter failure, and deviations from module manufacturers' specifications (Otani et al. 2004, Jahn & Nasse 2004). Although owners of PV systems have an inherent incentive to ensure that their systems perform well, many homeowners and building operators may lack the necessary information and expertise to carry out this task effectively. Given this barrier, and the responsibility of PV incentive programs to ensure that public funds are prudently spent, these programs should (and often do) play a critical role in promoting PV system performance. Performance-based incentives (PBIs), which are based on actual energy production rather than the rated capacity of the modules or system, are often suggested as one possible strategy. Somewhat less recognized are the many other program design options also available, each with its particular advantages and disadvantages. To provide a point of reference for assessing the current state of the art, and to inform program design efforts going forward, we examine the approaches to encouraging PV system performance – including, but not limited to, PBIs – used by 32 prominent PV incentive programs in the U.S. (see Table 1).1 We focus specifically on programs that offer an explicit subsidy payment for customer-sited PV installations. PV support programs that offer other forms of financial support or that function primarily as a mechanism for purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs) through energy production-based payments are outside the scope of our review.2 The information presented herein is derived primarily from publicly available sources, including program websites and guidebooks, programs evaluations, and conference papers, as well as from a limited number of personal communications with program staff. The remainder of this report is organized as follows. The next section presents a simple conceptual framework for understanding the issues that affect PV system performance and provides an overview of the eight general strategies to encourage performance used among the programs reviewed in this report. The subsequent eight sections discuss in greater detail each of these program design strategies and describe how they have been implemented among the programs surveyed. Based on this review, we then offer a series of recommendations for how PV incentive programs can effectively promote PV system performance.

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Case Studies of State Support for Renewable Energy

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