In 1992, a new organization was formed to accelerate the use of photovoltaic (PV) solar power. The founders of SEPA, which was then called the Utility PhotoVoltaic Group (UPVG), consisted of 13 electric utilities, the Edison Electric Institute, the American Public Power Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the Electric Power Research Institute.
From the onset, SEPA recognized that many utilities and their customers lacked knowledge and were skeptical about the potential of solar energy. In response, in 1994, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), SEPA initiated the Technology Experience to Accelerate Markets in Utility Photovoltaics (TEAM-UP) program. DOE funding for the program totaled almost $15 million and was matched by industry cost-share of more than $60 million. Through the program, between 1995 and 2000 many of the first grid-connected PV systems were installed in the U.S.
According to SEPA President and CEO Julia Hamm, “Twenty years ago, solar electricity was viewed as a thing of the future. While utilities were interested in investigating its potential, few expected it to have any near- or mid-term impact on their business. But over the past decade, solar energy has gained traction towards becoming a mainstream energy option as costs declined and awareness increased. From the onset, SEPA recognized that many utilities, and their customers, lacked knowledge or were skeptical about the potential of PV, concentrating solar power, and solar water heating. Today, the solar train is moving full steam ahead, and most utilities recognize it’s time to get on board.”
"In the early days of SEPA, much of the focus was working with the Department of Energy to get funding for initiatives such as TEAM-UP and the Million Solar Roofs Initiative,” said David Spradlin, General Manager, Springer Electric Cooperative and SEPA board member for more than 15 years. “Most of the utilities involved at the time considered the solar industry at large to be at best fringe actors, and certainly not partners as they are viewed today. As the solar industry has grown, SEPA developed the trusted status it holds today as the best source for unbiased information on how to integrate solar into the utility energy portfolio.”
The solar landscape has dramatically changed over the past 20 years. In 1992, the total installed solar capacity was a mere 358 MW, of which 354 MW was the SEGS Concentrated Solar Power plants in the Mohave Desert. As of the end of 2011, that number rose to 4,120 MW-AC. Today, there are also more than 200,000 installed solar energy systems, up from less than 250 in 1992. Costs and prices have also declined significantly. In 1992, PV module costs were $9 per Watt. In 2012, module costs have dropped to less than $1.15 per Watt.
The dramatic increase of solar energy integrated into the overall U.S. energy portfolio can be largely attributed to innovations in the solar industry — a key demographic of the SEPA membership. According to SunPower President, Regions, Howard Wenger, “Solar power plants can be constructed quickly and cost-efficiently today, delivering reliable, renewable electricity and augmenting America’s energy independence. SEPA has played a key role in bringing together electric utilities and solar companies to meet the challenges of launching our clean energy future.”
SEPA provides its more than 1000 utility and solar industry members with various forums for learning, research and analysis, and opportunities for peer interaction. More than 90 percent of the country’s grid-connected solar power is within the service territories of SEPA’s 440 utility members.
David Hutchens, President of Tucson Electric Power and its parent company, UniSource Energy Corporation stated, “We appreciate the role SEPA has played over the past 20 years in fostering the growth of solar power in this country. SEPA has been a valuable source of unbiased information, market intelligence and professional networking for us.”
In addition to SEPA’s work helping utilities integrate solar power, the organization is the co-presenter of Solar Power International (SPI), the premier U.S. solar industry conference and trade show since 2004. In 2011, SPI drew more than 21,000 industry professionals and 1,200 exhibitors.
According to Hamm, “We have come a long way in the past 20 years. Utilities’ understanding and use of solar power has dramatically increased, but we still have work to do before solar energy is considered a core part of the utility business nationwide. We are proud to have been a part of solar’s growth over the past two decades and look forward to working with the utility and solar industries as solar enters its next phase.”
The Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) is an educational non-profit dedicated to helping utilities integrate solar power into their energy portfolios. With more than 1,000 utility and solar industry members, SEPA provides unbiased utility solar market intelligence, up-to-date information about technologies and business models, and peer-to-peer interaction. From hosting national events to one-on-one counseling, SEPA helps utilities make smart solar decisions.