May 17, 2023

The Solar Heist, or How I Got into the Solar Business, Parts 1, 2, & 3

In preparation for launching Season 2 of Probably True Solar Stories, we've combined all three parts of "The Solar Heist, or How I Got Into the Solar Business" into a single 53-minute episode.

Two neighbors meet unexpectedly at an Oakland, California coffee shop that specializes in dark, rich coffee. Mazz owns a trucking business by day and is a thief at night. Charlie is a solar project developer by day and a guy with an international solar problem that can only be solved by Mazz.

After a somewhat successful solar panel heist, the two neighbors become friends. Inspired by Charlie, Mazz opens a legitimate residential solar business while Charlie builds his large-scale solar project. But when Mazz unexpectedly sees that Charlie is working for an underworld acquaintance, Mazz realizes that Charlie may be more of a threat than a friend.

True solar takeaways

  • The solar installation industry is made up of residential, commercial, and utility-scale installers. 
  • There's a U.S. law against importing solar panels made with forced labor.
  • Some solar developers hire quality assurance companies to monitor the supply chains and factories.
  • All solar installations, regardless of size, can now receive a  U.S. 30% tax credit. Big developers can also receive other tax incentives.
  • Chinese solar panels still have import tariffs, as of 2022.
  • "Procurement" means sourcing, purchasing, and delivering equipment.
  • Generally, large solar asset owners hire an experienced solar developer to take care of building the product. The solar developer may in turn hire an "EPC," which stands for engineering, procurement, and construction.
  • After the writing of this story, it was reported that the U.S. government has confiscated gigawatts (GWs) of solar panel shipments. 
  • Large-scale developers typically only buy solar panels that are on a "Tier 1" list that's sold by Bloomberg. Even if the Tier 1 solar manufacturer is financially sound and honors the warranty, if you have a huge project, the replacement time and cost will be huge. 
  • With the passage of the IRA (Inflation Reduction Act of 2022), all solar projects, regardless of size, receive a 30% Investment Tax Credit (ITC).
  • Solar projects that are built on landfills, brownfields, and EPA superfund sites receive a bonus 10%  Investment Tax Credit (ITC). There are other ITC bonuses that could net the solar owner as much as 70%. 
  • The solar industry is filled with acronyms and jargon. 
  • AHJ (Authorities Having Jurisdiction) are the permitting authorities that review and approve the building of solar projects
  • PTO (Permission to Operate) is the official utility permission to start generating solar power on the utility's grid. 
  • PUC (or in California, the CPUC) stands for Public Utility Commission. The PUC regulates utilities and approves or modifies utility rates and sets policies for a state's public utilities.
  • Single Axis Trackers (SATs) are used in most large solar projects today. 
  • Solar project owners are paid by utilities for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) generated by the solar farm. 
  •  Solar project owners don't always own the land. Landowners often lease their land and receive a steady and predictable revenue stream for 30 years.
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