Scores of community solar programs are already up and running in the US, but until recently subscribers typically had to pay a premium over the regular utility rate to get their hands on all those clean electrons. The good news is that clean power rates don’t necessarily have to go up. In today’s energy landscape, rates could very well go down — if the program is designed and marketed properly.
So, how do you tell a good community solar plan from a bad one?
What Is Community Solar?
Getting a low cost community solar plan up and running isn’t rocket science, but it does require some planning.
First off, it requires an understanding of what community solar is, and why it is popular.
Community solar addresses a renewable energy demand bottleneck. Many electricity consumers want to claim ownership of clean electrons, but they don’t have access to roof or ground space to put solar panels on the property they occupy, or they don’t have the opportunity (or the inclination) to do so.
That covers a lot of ratepayers if you consider how many people, businesses, nonprofits and other entities occupy multi-tenant buildings, rented properties, shaded properties, and the like.
In any case, many PV-friendly properties can only fill part of their energy needs with on-site solar panels. Big corporate buyers are beginning to find that out. Early corporate adopters started out with rooftop PV and now they are engaging with developers to bring utility scale, grid connected projects into their renewable energy profiles.
Most individual consumers don’t have that option, and that’s where community solar comes in.
Keeping all that in mind, the Solar Energy Industries Association defines community solar as “local solar facilities shared by multiple community subscribers who receive credit on their electricity bills for their share of the power produced.”
That’s consistent with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s enthusiastic embrace of the community solar model:
…the on-site solar market comprises only one part of the total market for solar energy…Clearly, community options are needed to expand access to solar power for renters, those with shaded roofs, and those who choose not to install a residential system on their home for financial or other reasons.
NREL also note that there is a social equity aspect to community solar:
…As a group, ratepayers and/ or taxpayers fund solar incentive programs. Accordingly, as a matter of equity, solar energy programs should be designed in a manner that allows all contributors to participate.
That aspect is seconded by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC). The organization notes that consumer demand is just one factor driving policy makers. Providing affordable electricity rates for low income ratepayers is another important motivation, and diversifying the energy mix is another.
How To Prep For Community Solar
Community solar programs are already up and running in 36 states, and those early adopters provide a pool of best practices and success stories.
The real problem for policy makers is how to judge if their utility (or their consultant) is bringing a plan to the table that has a good chance of success.
A number of guides are already available, including the newly launched “Community Solar Checklist” from the IREC and VoteSolar.
The full checklist is available for free download if you want to see what a successful program looks like. For those of you on the go, here’s a quick rundown of the critical planning areas:
1. Does the program expand solar access? There should be enough PV capacity to satisfy the anticipated demand, with a special focus on ensuring that low and moderate income customers get an equitable share. Incentives, market research, and outreach all come into play in this area.
2. Do rates go down? The best practice for community solar programs is a credit on the ratepayer’s bill, not a premium. Financing the system should be pay-as-you-go, so there are no upfront costs or non-refundable deposits.
3. Is the solar array economical? Utility-led programs should seek economies of scale and land acquisition strategies that minimize development costs.
4. What is the consumer experience? Consumer protections should be built into the plan, and billings should reflect best practices for transparency and ease of payment. The checklist also recommends that subscriptions should be portable within the service territory.
5. Was the program developed competitively? Competition can drive down ratepayer costs and result in a more consumer-friendly program. That being said, communities seeking a solar program should ensure that the developer uses local labor and pays prevailing wages.
6. Can the program be optimized for maximum benefit? By placing PV projects at strategic locations, community solar projects can become key factors in grid resiliency and community development. For example, a PV array located at or near a hospital could be paired with a microgrid, enabling the hospital to island itself in case of a widespread power outage.
7. How does the project complement existing programs? Aside from bringing additional renewable electrons into the grid, community solar projects can pair with other programs like energy efficiency, workforce development, STEM education, and grant programs aimed at helping low income households pay their rates.
Onward And Upward For US Solar Power
Look for more community solar programs to get up and running as more cities hop aboard the 100% renewable energy train. If all goes according to plan, that will have a significant impact on the US energy landscape.
According to IREC, the installed capacity of community solar adds up to just 1 gigawatt at this time, and it could ramp up to the 50-80 gigawatt range within the next 10 years or so.
That’s just community solar. Another pathway for accelerating the solar revolution is community choice aggregation. This platform enables local governments to negotiate large scale renewable energy buys through their utility. It’s only available in a handful of states so far, but the potential for acquiring more clean energy while lowering utility rates is beginning to attract attention among other states.
As for a national policy promoting the solar industry, there’s plenty of that, too (despite you-know-who and his pro-coal rhetoric). Among the many (many) solar initiatives in the works backed by US taxpayer dollars, earlier the year the US Department of Energy launched the SolSmart program with the aim of helping communities accelerate solar adoption.
Administered by the Solar Foundation, the program helps local governments streamline their solar permitting processes and foster competition in the local marketplace.
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Photo (cropped): via IREC.
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