SunShare has crossed the 100 megawatt mark for community solar projects it has developed, providing it with the largest active residential subscriber base among all developers in the country. While many community solar developers focus on one or more commercial anchor tenants and backfill demand with resident subscribers, SunShare finances, develops, and operates primarily all-residential community solar systems within its portfolio.
“Over the past year, we signed up close to 10,000 residential customers. After seven years in the business, now we are starting to see more states create programs that permit residential community solar, and many are beginning to support it,” says SunShare CEO David Amster-Olszewski, in Denver. While some states subsidize community solar development costs, others rely on lowest-cost Requests for Proposals, which make it difficult to economically develop community solar projects, he notes.
The sky is the limit for this type of solar development. “The potential for more community solar is greater than the potential for residential solar plus commercial solar together,” reckons Amster-Olszewski. “About 80% of all residential roofs in the country are not suitable for rooftop solar because of factors like shading or orientation. Similarly, most commercial roofs have air conditioning and other obstructions that shade or interfere with a solar installation,” he says.
Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables estimates that the addressable market for community solar projects is more than seven times larger than that of rooftop solar.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), 1,226 MW of community solar had been installed across the United States through the second quarter of 2018, with 42 states having at least one community solar project online. Competitive community solar programs are now the fastest growing sector of the solar industry according to a 2018 report by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI).
“When I started SunShare in 2011 and helped develop the nation’s first competitive community solar program in Colorado Springs, the goal was to bring the benefits of solar power to as many people as possible,” says Amster-Olszewski. “Surpassing 100 megawatts of community solar projects is an important milestone in achieving that goal. I look forward to achieving the next 100 megawatts and delivering the power to choose clean energy to thousands more subscribers across the country,” he vows.
With the recent completion of the SaintSun project in St. Michael, Minnesota, SunShare has now completed development on 105 MW of solar across 77 community solar gardens and has signed up over 8,300 commercial and residential subscribers in Colorado and Minnesota.
SunShare customers are billed by the company for the electricity they use, and they pay a fee to the company for the surplus electricity the community array exports to the local utility. The customers rate plan is a basic Net Energy Metering arrangement, where the customer’s account is balanced out at the end of the year.
Low-income participants are not often included in community solar programs, for lack of program definition, Amster-Olszewski says. “Generally, low income residents are not included in a community solar project. It costs more more to build for low income because banks ask what risk there is for payment among that demographic, where moves are more frequent, requiring customer replacement,” he says. “But some of the more progressive state or city programs are designed to cover that replacement cost,” he adds.
The cost of community solar is low. “The cost of a community solar system depends on what the enabling state legislation says and what rooftop incentive programs are. In general, though, community solar costs less than an equal sized pool of individual residential installs, because you are building at a significant scale and reduce costs across the board,” Amster-Olszewski says.
The size of the project depends on state legislation, typically. “The average size for our community solar projects is 5 MW in states like Minnesota, where that is the upper size limit. But in other states, like Colorado, there is a 2 MW limit. In a 5 MW project, there are about 1,200 residential subscribers but customers also include city or county facilities, schools, farms and businesses. We have a wide customer reach and base,” Amster-Olszewski says.
Siting a community garden is no easy feat. “We have been trying to collaborate with utilities for years, but they don’t like sharing information about where they need or might want a project. For investor-owned utilities, their incentives for allowing community solar are not necessarily aligned with reducing costs, because they get a high rate of return from the utilities commissions for their investments,” says Amster-Olszewski. “Luckily, its very different for community-owned utilities,” he adds.